20-24 February 2013. This is Karaweik Palace, a major Yangon landmark. The design is based on the royal barge. It was built from 1972 to 1974 so it’s not some ancient archaeological wonder, just a modern fantastical wonder. The building contains mainly a buffet restaurant served with traditional dance performances. We wanted to go but were told it was fully booked until after we were to leave Myanmar sometime in March.

After travelling around the country we were back in Yangon with an evening to spare before flying back to Bangkok so we decided to go there anyway in case there was a cancellation. We hung around for an hour or so waiting as all the lucky people with tickets walked in, but we didn’t get in.

The entrance to Karaweik

Greeters on the walkway, dressed in exquisite traditional dress. The one on the right – her hair! Like the enormous wigs worn by the women in the court of Marie-Antoinette, I suppose some royal personage way back when made this particular style all the rage.

Guards at the door. So fierce.

Karaweik is on the edge of a big lake in a beautiful park. So after accepting that they really weren’t going to let us in to see the show we wandered into the park to head back to our hotel. We could hear loud talking and music. Following the noise we came to this:

This was fabulous! Hilarious! We sat enthralled and laughing for about an hour even though we didn’t understand a word they were saying. They are the Burmese Marx Brothers, or the Three Stooges, only there are four of them, and later another woman joined them costumed in traditional court dress. I’m guessing they had the best time making fun of that. The interactions between the four, and then the five of them, were priceless, their comic timing perfect. Pure slapstick. They performed in an open-air makeshift arena before a fairly large, and very appreciative audience. What sweet luck to run into that piece of local culture.

We went to another show – the same set-up as Karaweik – a buffet dinner and a traditional dance performance and puppet show held in a fancy five star hotel situated on the same lake. The food was to die for; one of the best meals we had in Burma. The performance was rich, interesting and captivating. There were perhaps twelve dancers in all. Often there were six or eight dancers performing together weaving in and out in intricate choreography. We saw The Dance of the Princely Archers! Sita’s Rejection of Dasagiri’s Courtship! The Candle Dance!

Dance of the Nat Votaresses!

The Dance of the Three Dynasties!

Kayin New Year Dance!

Make Believe Marionette! Duet Dance!

It was a fabulous evening. Excellent food. Wonderful entertainment . . . . .and the audience consisted of Don, me and one other couple. And this at a time when every hotel in Yangon was full with tourists. So sad. We clapped and cheered the performers on as best we could. We told the owners at our hotel (who’d told us about it in the first place) how good it was in the hope that they will promote it more. Everyone wants to go to Karaweik, probably because the building is so spectacular, but I bet the food and performance we experienced was just as good.

The massive gold stupa of Shwedagon, situated at the top of a hill, dominates the Yangon skyline. The original stupa is probably a couple of thousand years old. Since then both the stupa and surrounds have been expanded, elaborated, decorated, and plundered many times over the centuries. Today the stupa is surrounded by a wide and graceful tiled platform containing many separate places for worship. Today it is a highly revered and much utilized religious centre of great beauty, with an astonishing array of carvings, statues, and covered outdoor devotional spaces, breathtaking in its size, richness, and all its gold gorgeousness.

There are four entrances. The entrance we chose was a broad, roofed, tiled stairway, surrounded at the beginning by an intricately carved pagoda-like structure, and guarded by two enormous lions. Dragons are on guard on the way up. The stairway has clerestory windows, and beneath them beautiful murals. Between the murals are regularly spaced gilded columns, and on each side, small stores selling souvenirs and religious paraphernalia. When you emerge from the stairway you are on the enormous tiled platform that surrounds the stupa. The stupa houses, according to legend, and among other things, four, or eight (depending on whether or not you believe in miracles) strands of hair of Gautama Buddha. The top of the stupa has on it a whole huge collection of diamonds and rubies and other precious gems, and a 72 carat diamond at the very top. Read a little bit of “history” – the legend of the four hairs that became eight. It’s short and very sweet with lovely moving illustrations.

Don’s photo of the entrance

I first heard of, and saw pictures of, Shwedagon Pagoda about thirty-five years ago. My immediate reaction was I want to go there! I want to see that! It was worth the wait. We spent several hours there – walking, looking, listening, photographing, sitting slack-jawed, meditating, and soaking up the devotional energy. There were hundreds of people there but it is so big it never felt crowded. I think it is one of the great wonders of the world. Certainly one of the great religious wonders of the world. I feel very privileged to have been able to see it, and spend some time there.

The following two pictures show the sheer size of the statuary in some of the spaces for worship – see the tiny people down below!

This group of women, visiting Yangon, are of the Pa Oh ethnic minority from Shan State. When we were in the Inle Lake area and went trekking we went to one of their villages and got to briefly attend a local wedding (we always seem to run into weddings!) More about that in a future post.

And a photo from Don

On February 24th we flew to Mandalay. Some notes from Don:
Despite heavy traffic we were at the airport by 1:00 pm for our 3:00 pm flight. As soon as we got out of the taxi someone from Air Mandalay grabbed our bags. He took them straight to the check-in counter but we were so early that we had to wait half an hour before we could check in. The Yangon Domestic Terminal looks about 60 years out of date compared with the fancy new International Terminal building, but it served it’s purpose: to enable us to check in and wait for our flight in relatively cool surroundings. There were no facilities apart from washrooms in the waiting area. On the positive side, there was minimal security and no checking of passports. There were a few people sitting around in the waiting room for an earlier Air Mandalay flight to Heho. There are two large old weigh scales in the middle of the waiting room. Occasionally someone’s extra-large backpack would get weighed, but otherwise the scales seemed to be there solely for the staff and passengers to amuse themselves. Our bags were piled onto an old iron pushcart and wheeled out to the plane by one of the porters. When it was time for people to go to their plane one of the staff would walk around the waiting room holding up a large paddle with the flight number painted on it.

My heart irregularity settled somewhat while we were sitting at the airport, but I continued to feel somewhat unwell there. I could see the humour in having bragged to my naturopath about having had no heart palpitations for the two weeks prior to going to Myanmar. I was happy to be leaving Yangon because of all the anxiety and heart palpitations I’d experienced while we were there. There was an underlying feeling of terror that kept surfacing in me during our time in Yangon. It’s not rational, so I have to consider the possibility of a past life in Burma in which I was tortured or otherwise treated very badly. I have no rational or logical reason to feel such high levels of anxiety – nothing went wrong, and we had a good time in Yangon.

Our flight left less than 30 minutes late. As we cruised along at around 8,000 feet in the air over Myanmar in one of Air Mandalay’s elderly ATR 42 turbo-props I remembered that the sky is always blue above the cloud layer. A good message for me to remember whenever I’m feeling lost in anxiety thoughts.

The seats in the plane were still in good shape but there was no air conditioning to speak of: just before takeoff they set the cabin temperature to “roast” and turned it down to “par-boil” for the remainder of the flight. We were served cold drinks and a yummy cheese-filled croissant with butter or mayo and some kind of soft cheese. Then the flight attendant came around with tea and coffee. We arrived at Mandalay International Airport just a few minutes late.

Alison again: Oh my goodness. I had such romantic notions about Mandalay. All about that in the next post.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.