Land of white elephants and gold pagodas - Myanmar musings
It's a mix of the old and the new, of wide expanses and quaint tree-lined avenues, of lofty buildings and ancient gold pagodas glinting in the sun
Myanmar's new capital Nay Pyi Taw and its old one Yangon, which Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited this week, are an enchanting study in contrasts. Some vignettes:
Money, money, money
If you are headed to Myanmar, be prepared to be weighed down by wads of Kyat currency notes. The dollar is a welcome currency in the country, but it has to be crisp, unfolded, untorn and new.
The new exchange rate, introduced recently, makes a dollar equivalent to around 820 kyats. This is in sharp contrast to the previous official exchange rate which was just around 6.4 kyat for a dollar.
Nay Pyi Taw and roads
The unusually wide roads are a striking feature of the new capital that came up about seven years back. Traffic is sparse, something that visitors from congested Indian cites can only dream of. While one correspondent, travelling with the prime minister, counted 16 lanes, another saw a 20 lane road.
White elephants - the real ones
Right across the grand Uppatasanti pagoda in Nay Pyi Taw is an enclosure that houses white elephants. There are at least five of them.
Children squealed in delight when they spotted the little white elephant while caretakers hosed down the big ones with streams of water to keep them cool as the mercury climbed during the day.
Travelling to the old capital Yangon, located some 300 km from Nay Pyi Taw, is like being transported back in time. Some of the buildings in the city that was earlier known as Rangoon take one back to the Kolkata of yore. One nearly expected to hear the soulful strains of Rabindra Sangeet, but that did not happen!
Take a narrow road lined with vendors, go up an overbridge with wooden stairs and come down at Yangon's Scott Market, which is a good place to buy knick-knacks and gifts for people back home.
The market is crowded. And energetic buyers can be seen haggling with enthusiastic shopkeepers to reduce prices.
There are a load of options...from jade jewellery and clothes to wall hangings and Buddha statues. In fact, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is said to get material from Scott Market.
You can't miss the majestic pagoda either at Nay Pyi Taw or at Yangon. The one at Yangon, the 321.5-foot- high Shwedagon Pagoda, with its diamonds glittering in the sun, is a sight to behold. The golden stupa is gilded using some 28,000 packets of gold leaf, with the upper section being sheathed by 13,153 pure gold plates.