15 April 2016
It was an early waking up in Saigon, but without the alarm we wouldn’t have managed as it was very quiet in the room. But hot. I tried to switch off the A/C in the night but it was impossible to sleep without it. We got a quick breakfast of eggs and toast and Vietnamese coffee (which happens to be very nice) and off to the airport we went.
The streets were full of life, people breakfasting on noodles and riding their scooters laden with more things than I could fit in the back of my car, and again the flood of commuters in the streets, a sight to behold!
Lunch with Vietnam Airlines was probably one of the best I’ve had in the past few years of flying, and they were less than ½ an hour late departing, which is apparently quite good by local domestic standards. Approaching Rangoon, the main impression was dry, flat and hot. From above, there seemed to be very few paved roads outside the city, but in every larger conglomeration of buildings shone a golden pagoda. The temperature on arrival was “only” 35 degrees, still very hot but dryer than in Saigon. We stopped into the domestic terminal to pay for our booked flights to Mandalay… seated on those same tiny plastic stools at a table covered with paperwork and miscellaneous items, among boxes and crates and pots of food. After a bit of haggling we hopped into a taxi and headed into the city. It’s a bit of way from the airport to the centre, and we got a proper view of the suburbs on our way. I suppose the first impression I had was rubbish. There seems to be a moment in humanity between complete “primitiveness” and complete “modern society”. In the first you don’t generate any garbage, and in the second you generate an awful lot, but you are aware and strive to recycle, reuse, and so on. All the levels of modern being in between seem to be oblivious, resulting atrocious amounts of garbage (mostly plastic) laying around everywhere.
The third-world feeling declines as one reaches the centre of the city… formerly colonial, now largely decayed (that’s an understatement), laid out as a perfect grid from 1st to 50th street, almost like Manhattan.
But forget all the architectural details… we landed smack into the middle of the country’s most important holiday, the Thingyan (Water) Festival. What that means is that the entire population of the country spends 4 days in April, the hottest month of the year, wet both inside and out. The external part signifies the washing away of sins, hurts and other unhappiness, and people partake in a reverent manner. They make some very nice beer to keep you hydrated inside, and from the instant you exit the door of your accommodation, you are guaranteed to be duly hydrated outside as well.
As is everybody else in the city (country). Most people are equipped with buckets, water guns, bottles, jars, and above all, hoses. There are hosing stations on every block (or less) blasting techno with a crew of people spraying water onto passers-by, those being piled onto the back of pickups and queuing to go through the shower. There are people who drive by in taxis or their own cars, windows pulled down, trunk open, getting sprayed inside and out.
And next to the stunning Sule Pagoda in the dead centre of town, a stage featuring dance ensembles and a whole army of people on stands with nothing short of water cannons hosing down the endless line of revelers driving past before crowds of cheering, laughing, singing people.
It is indeed the best way to stay cool in 40°C!We of course got on the back of one of those pickups, much to the delight of the locals, for whom we are still something very exotic. It is, in short, an indescribable experience. Things calm down after dusk, at least as far as the water throwing goes, but the streets are still full of people, sitting down to dinner all over the sidewalks. And always present are the betel stands… that curse of the Burmese that stains their teeth a wicked shade of red and pollutes the sidewalks with spit.
Again, our accommodation is in a very local part of town, and after a change of clothes (which remained dry all of 2 minutes), we ventured out for a bite to eat. Fantastic battered quails eggs, a vast selection of skewers barbecued on the spot, Shan noodles (overpriced, albeit tasty), all for a few dollars here and there, all served with a smile.
Walking home, we opted to stroll a bit off the main road. We crossed a railway track, which I suspect was the famous circular line that leads along the outskirts of the city centre and found ourselves before a beautiful pagoda. Unlike Sule, this one was local and therefore free to access, and truly an oasis of peace.
What strikes me is the completely different relationship people here have to their faith. The pagoda is not a place that instils fear or commands respect, the way Christian churches tend to do. People live in these places. They come to them barefoot and natural. They sleep or lie in front of the many Buddhas. They eat and drink. They come with family or friends or lovers or fellow monks. They chat or sit silent and contemplate. And I sat silent and contemplated. And I felt extremely foreign. Extremely out of place. And envious… envious of their pure, simple faith, which isn’t about being fearful of god, or creating fear in others in the name of god… I can’t speak from any experience, but all who came to pray or play (children) at the temple were relaxed, happy and peaceful. How much we have lost, we “developed advanced” nations of the west. Our only god is money and power, and I felt humble and ashamed. We might feel exotic, but perhaps to the locals, we are more like big, hairy, white oafs stumbling around their world without any concept of what our earthly existence means.