I followed the barefoot man with the machete as we crunched through the overgrown weeds of the Jewish cemetery in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly known as Rangoon, Burma). It was hot and the insects were loud; I knew my uncle was in there somewhere. He died of a burst appendix in 1935, when he was 10.
This piece of land with its Hebrew and English gravestones and its endless growth of green vegetation sits right in the middle of a city that wants to grow, creating a strange dichotomy between echoes of the past and future plans. The military junta-style dictatorship of Myanmar is tolerant of multi-cultural cemeteries, however it wants to move them out of the center of town. The Chinese, Christian, and Japanese cemeteries have all been uprooted and relocated to the outskirts of the city, making way for condominiums and shops.
When you walk down a street in Yangon, the people all appear to be smiling. Their faces shimmer with the golden hue of Thanaka (a sparkling sunblock cream extracted from Thanaka trees). But the government has not made their lives easy. Yangon residents have access to electricity for only two hours a day. The rest of the day, the energy must come from their own ingenuity─whether from private, sometimes home-built generators, or from their labor. Yet they laugh, they eat, and they joke. Perhaps it is something to do with the Burmese belief system grounded in the Buddhist practice of being in the present moment.
Even with the joviality and hospitality of the Burmese, the press on Myanmar makes most travelers think twice about jumping on a plane and landing in Yangon airport. Myanmar’s government is known for its controlling and sometimes brutal nature, not exactly the fodder of tourism brochures. But this was a trip with a purpose.
My mother last stepped on Burmese soil in 1951. She was born there, as was my grandmother and great grandmother. After spending World War II with relatives in Bombay, India, her family went back to Burma and tried to make a life for themselves after the war. In 1948, Burma gained its independence from the British and, in 1951, her mother and father, with their remaining eight children, decided to move rather than face the political and economic uncertainty that ensued. They made their way to London, England and eventually to the United States.
Fifty-seven years later, Frances Zwenig of the US-ASEAN (United States-Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Business Council contacted us about a fundraising mission to pay for repairs and upkeep for Yangon’s 116-year-old Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, partially destroyed in 2008’s Cyclone Nargis. Also connected to this mission was funding the eventual relocation of the Jewish cemetery out of Yangon’s city center. Thus, it was time to go back and see what was left of my family’s roots in Burma.
Despite the cautionary pleas of worried relatives and friends, I took my mother, Diane Cohen, and my ten-year-old son, Ian, then swung by Hong Kong to pick up my cousin Stuart Spencer, and headed out via Thai Airways into Yangon, Myanmar.
Yangon International Airport was a surprise. Its modern glass interior walls, artwork, and clean, carpeted floors didn’t fit into my vision of this third-world country. Frances (from the US-ASEAN Business Council) waited for us outside of customs along with Maung Maung, our Burmese guide from Myanmar Shalom Travels & Tours. Maung wore a longyi (traditional Burmese sarong) and a Western-style button-down shirt. At first, I thought that this was a tour company uniform, but as I looked around, I realized that most modern Burmese men were dressed this way.
Like Maung Maung’s clothing, the street scene in Yangon is a combination of Eastern and Western influences. Diminutive ladies holding sun umbrellas and monks clad in deep persimmon robes stand in the shadow of large billboards advertising Burmese rock bands and television shows. By far, the most visible influence on the street is that of British colonialism. The elaborate Victorian architecture lining the boulevards testifies to more than a century of British rule.
Our first stop, The Strand Hotel, built in 1896 by famed hoteliers the Sarkies Brothers, exemplifies the by-gone era of the British Raj. The luxury and impeccable service are, well, easy to get used to. Located in the heart of Yangon’s commercial and diplomatic district, The Strand’s lobby, with its ceiling fans, wicker furniture, and Burmese harp music makes you want to sip a gin and tonic and tell a few war stories. Lord Mountbatten and Rudyard Kipling, among many other notables, have stayed here.
Guests can choose from 32 luxury suites with teak floors, high ceilings, and Burmese art. The Strand’s dining options include the chandelier-lit Strand Grill, where upscale international dishes are served to the sound of classical guitar and clinking crystal. You can also enjoy a traditional afternoon tea at the casually elegant Strand Café. And the hotel’s atmospheric Victorian-style bar serves up jazz and a full range of cocktails. All of the dining facilities, including in-room dining, feature both Burmese and Western cuisine. The caring hotel staff went out of their way and off the menu to make a breakfast that my mother remembered from her childhood: Mote Sein Baung─a dish of steamed creamy rice powder with jaggery liquid, coconut, and pounded sesame seeds.
In the center of Yangon sits the Shwedagon Pagoda, a mass of golden buildings culminating in a 321-foot golden stupa. Bring your sunglasses when you visit here, because all that glitters is not just gold. The stupa, built to house eight hairs from the head of the Buddha, is adorned with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. At the very tip of the structure is a 76-carat diamond. Seeing the pagoda at sunrise or sunset heightens the visual effect of this wonder.
Legend has it that the Shwedagon Pagoda was built more than 2500 years ago while Gautama Buddha was still alive. Archeologists, however, believe that the stupa was originally built sometime around the 6th century. Although the construction date is a point of controversy, Burmese Buddhists consider Shwedagon to be their most sacred pagoda.
Pilgrims walk around the stupa clockwise and find their planetary post according to the day of the week on which they were born. Dressed in colorful longyis, they stand next to gleaming gold buildings and offer flowers and prayers while pouring water on the Buddha’s image. My ten-year-old watched, fascinated, as worshipers purchased pieces of gold leaf and sent them as offerings to the top of the stupa via a small, colorful cable car. Watching the ferry float through the air was the highlight of his day in Yangon.
Much of Yangon was built on the trade of gold, silver, and Burma’s famous gemstones. Today you can still purchase rubies, sapphires, jade, and a wide variety of other artifacts at the 83-year-old, colonial-style Bogyoke Aung San Market (formerly Scott Market). Historically, Burma’s richness in these resources has brought a plethora of international traders into Yangon. As a result, ethnic neighborhoods for Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders emerged throughout the city and it’s worth exploring those areas.
The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is located on 26th street, in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood. Historically and currently, the relations between the Jewish and Muslim ethnic groups in Burma have been cooperative and peaceful. The Jewish community, once some 3,000-strong, largely left Burma in the years following World War II; now only a few families remain.
A bittersweet moment occurred when my mother, after some searching, was able to locate what was left of her family’s home on Sandwith Road. She recognized a set of stairs she had fallen down as a child and a fence that she and her brothers would climb over to get to school. The condition of the house, however, had deteriorated significantly from the house that lived in her memory for almost 60 years. This brought my mother, a woman that I have rarely ever seen cry, close to tears.
They say it is hard to go home again because it’s never the same. Ultimately, we weren’t able to find my uncle’s grave amongst the jumble of stones in Yangon’s Jewish cemetery. However, the rest of Burma was waiting for us and we would fly out to see more of her the next morning.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Strand Hotel: Rooms are quoted at rates from US$550 – $1100. However, promotions and special tour rates are often available. Address: 92 Strand Road, Yangon, Myanmar. Tel: +951-243-377;Fax: +951-243-393; Email: email@example.com
Tour information: Myanmar Shalom Travels & Tours uses guides local to each region and has more than fifteen tour packages including specialized itineraries such as a culinary tour and a “Kipling’s Burma” tour. They also arrange for cruises on the Irrawaddy River and can customize tours for individuals. Tel:646-734-8472 (US) or +951-252-814 (International); Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos courtesy of Sammy Samuels and Lynne Friedman.