Rangoon, Pegu—1980, 1984
Rangoon, Pegu and Mandalay in 1980 and 1984
©SJON HAUSER: text and (most) pictures
The text, including the photo captions, is based on notes from Sjon Hauser’s travel journals and excerpts from: Sjon Hauser, Birma’s mislukte socialisme [Burma’s failing socialism], Intermediair, 14 September 1984 (translated from Dutch).
In 1980, foreigners were allowed to pay a visit to Burma—but for no longer than one week. The only legal way to enter the country was by plane to Rangoon. The strikingly underdeveloped country was a haven for the adventurous tourist, and the visit to the ‘forgotten country’ was often experienced as a journey into the past.
■1. A view of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda from Shwe Dagon Pagoda Road in Rangoon ■2. Detail: Men wearing longyis.
From my journal, March 1980:
Nearly all men in Rangoon and Pegu use (rubber) slippers as their footwear. Instead of a pair of trousers they wear a kind of sarong, which is called longyi in Burman language—the most common pattern is checkered. George Orwell captures this ‘national dress’ for men in numerous episodes in his Burmese Days: ‘He wore one of those vivid Arakanese longyis with green and magenta checks which the Burmese wear on informal occasions.’ (p. 5)
On my first day in Rangoon, I was approached by Htu Htu. The young man liked to buy my pair of (old) jeans. I had to disappointed him, nevertheless he accompanied me to the Open Air Market. There I bought a checkered purple-with-green longyi for 38 Ks. For another kyat both ends of the piece of cloth were sewed together. So the longyi is actually a kind of cylinder of textile. One has to step in, stretch the upper rim of the cloth along one’s middle, bring both ends in front of the belly and swiftly tie them together. Burmese men are often seen rearranging their longyi and complete the operation by making a knew ‘knot’.
■ This picture shows the state of Rangoon’s pavements in 1980. In the darkness after dusk, the holes and loose cement covers of drains were treacherous traps that could make an evening stroll a thrilling experience.
It happened a few times that the knot of my new longyi untied and the cloth was slipping down from my hips. Once, this occurred in the evening when I walked in a dark street. As I shifted all my attention to my exotic dress and tried to tighten the knot, I failed to see one of the many tricky holes in the pavements. I almost disappeared in Rangoon’s underground world, and the shin bone of one of my legs was injured. Too swift an acculturation can be painful.
I was informed that this kind of longyi originated from South India and was introduced by the British in the 19th century. Before, Burmese men wore a simple piece of cloth that was wrapped around the body, with the remaining end draping the shoulder.
■ 1-3. A visit to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, March 1980.
Rewritten from my journal:
The Shwe Dagon Pagoda was built on a hill, a foothill of the Pegu Range. The 116 meter tall sanctuary towers above Rangoon. It has four roofed entrance gates. Most stalls are at the south entrance where the crowds of visitors are largest. More than one hundred steps lead to the sacred gilded stupa.
Historian Donald Lach: ‘In “Degu” (Rangoon) a pagoda stands which is so tall that it can be seen from a large part of the kingdom and people from all over the land make pilgrimages to it on regular feast days.’ Without question this is a reference to the majestic Shwe Dagon Pagode about which Fitch (16th century) admiringly writes: ‘It is the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in the world.’ (Donald F. Lach, 1968. Southeast Asia in the eyes of Europe. The Sixteenth Century. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. p. 555.)
■1. A taxi ticket (March 1980). ■2. A large and remarkable naga image (1984). When I remember well, I came across it in the countryside, a dozen of kilometers north of Rangoon. ■3. A paper bag folded from a Burmese newspaper or manuscript.
■1. Green Burmese cigars for sale. Maybe this picture was not taken in Rangoon, but at the Burmese border in Mae Sai, North Thailand. ■2. My favorite brand of Burmese cigarettes. The empty packet was one of the few souvenirs I took home from Burma. This packet had turned out to be fake. It was stuffed with paper and no cigarettes were inside.
Rewritten notes in my journal: Smoking cigars or cigarettes is very cheap in Burma, e.g. for half a kyat (50 pyas) one gets four cigarettes. My favorite brand, strong cigarettes without a filter, were for sale in red packets. One day I bought a packet from a hawker for two kyat. After making an opening in the paper packing, I was surprised not to find the cigarettes, but another, slightly smaller packet. And when I removed part of the paper again, I struck upon another, even smaller packet, which was stuffed with paper—no cigarettes were inside. It was a wonderful piece of wrapping art. Unfortunately, I had largely demolished the structure by unpacking it hurriedly. I wanted to buy a few more of these fake packets and take them home as souvenirs, but the man who had sold me one had disappeared.
Burma’s green cigars or cheroots are much cheaper than cigarettes. They are for sale at stalls on almost every street corner. Beside the merchandise hangs a piece of rope, smouldering at the end, as a service to the customers to light their cheroot.
In Orwell’s Burmese Days the green cigars are lighted and smoked throughout the unraveling intrigues: ‘… told Ma Kin to fetch him a green Burmese cigar. He never smoked English tobacco, which he declared had no taste in it.’ (Burmese Days, p. 13)
■ The Shwe Talyaung Buddha Image in Pegu, 60 m long and 17 m high, was considered the largest Reclining Buddha in the world.
PEGU: history titbits …
Historian Donald Lach learned me that the Pagan empire had collapsed following the Mongol invasion of 1277. It was only in the 15th century that three states gradually became focal points of political power. One of them was Pegu in the delta of the Sittang River. Pegu is where the Portuguese began their intercourse with Burmese history. Initially, it was a Mon kingdom, which ended with the capture of the capital by the Burmans. Most of the 16th century Portuguese writers begin their discussions of Burma with reference to the conditions in Pegu. Later visitors to Pegu talk about it as such, but after 1540 they are are actually alluding to a relatively united Burmese state under the Toungoos. The war between Burma and Siam, which started in 1548, found Portuguese condotterie fighting on both sides.
■ 1. The Shwe Talyaung Buddha Image in Pegu. The Reclining Buddha represents the Buddha at the age of eighty, just before his death, when on the brink of entering Nirvana. ■ 2. The foot soles of reclining Buddhas show the symbols of the many auspicious signs of an enlightened person.
Before 1540, the Mon kingdom of Pegu (or “Bagou”), was often at war with Arakan to the west, but Pegu could not readily defeat and occupy Arakan because of the high, forested mountains which divided the two states.
I wanted to see the old, historical town of Pegu.
In 1980, the movements of foreign tourists were strictly controlled and regulated by the country’s ‘tourism authority’. Large parts of the country were hardly or not under control of the government and were considered not safe and not appropriate for being visited by tourists. Much of the ‘Mon territory’ around Pegu was off limit. Yet, I was surprised that I could make a reservation for the bus trip to Pegu, about 100 km to the northwest of Rangoon.
■1. The logo of a bus company with services from Rangoon to Pegu consists of two legendary hamsa birds. a kind of goose. It is believed that Pegu was founded on an island so small that the hamsa birds had to sit on each other back. ■2. & ■3. Probably Pegu’s 50 meter high Mahacedi Pagoda, built in the mid-16th century by king Hanthawaddy; and in the 18th century destroyed by King Alaungpaya.
For reasons I do not remember, I missed the bus that had left exactly at 11.00 AM. Fortunately, I could make a reservation for the next one at noon—the fare was only five kyat. Also this bus left on schedule, but it broke down in a suburb, and we had to wait for almost two hours before another bus arrived to pick us up. So when I dropped off in Pegu, it was already 4.00 PM. After sightseeing a number of old temples, just outside the small town, I walked back to the center in order to look for accommodation.
■1. A crowded morning market in Pegu, March 1980. ■2. The entrance to Pegu’s Shwemadaw Pagoda. The pagoda is 125 meter high—higher than the Shwe Dagon. The much revered sanctuary is nicknamed the ‘Great God’. I do not know why I made a picture of the entrance and apparently not of the giant structure itself. The pagoda was destroyed by an earthquake in 1930. Had it never been rebuilt? ■3. A boy is pressing out sugar cane in Pegu or Rangoon. Cane juice was a popular drink in Burma.
There wasn’t any hotel, guesthouse or lodge in town. The policeman whom I approached for help was surprised—foreigners were not supposed to spend the night in Pegu. But he was helpful, and brought me to a local official. That person escorted me to a large, deserted government building. He unlocked the main gate, and entering the wooden building it appeared to me that it had been a school. Beside numerous ‘classrooms’ there was also a hall with a dozen or more beds, where I was permitted to spend the night. The man left me alone in that huge, spooky lodging house.