Saturday, May 2, 2009

Myanmar Dinner Theater

My guidebook described Karaweik palace as a garish tourist attraction, so I didn't plan to visit. Curiously enough, in all my travels I had met no one who had gone. Finding myself hungry one afternoon, I decided to take a chance on the place. The taxi dropped me off at the entrance to the park where the two great golden ducks sat on the lake facing the setting sun. I was stopped at the gate and told that I must pay a nominal fee (about two USD) to enter the park. "But I'm going to the restaurant," I pleaded. I was trying to figure out if this was a tourist tax because I could not imagine the locals strolling through park paying such a hefty sum (yes, two dollars is comparable to ten dollars in Myanmar). The girl got on the radio and spoke with someone. A moment later I was let through but had to wear a colored sticker. I noticed that other people were also wearing them, but theirs had different colors. I could not figure out what the color signified.

I made my way to the duck's butt - yeah, that's the entrance - and was stopped again. I learned that the restaurant didn't open for almost an hour. I was starving by this time, but had no choice but to wait. Of course that gave me an opportunity to wander around the park. The place was chock full of little outdoor restaurants. It was tempting to eat at one of these places because they all looked so inviting. I had to contend myself with a beer while watching the sun drop over the horizon. I did note, however, that there were very few visitors and the restaurants were all but empty. Perhaps more people arrived after sunset? I wasn't sure.

After the sun had set, I made my way back to the restaurant and was greeted by two hostesses dressed in splendid white garb. One took me along the ramp to the entrance proper. The place was as opulent (or garish, if you will) inside as outside. The hall had a royal appearance to it with walls decorated in red and gold and trimmed with elaborate carvings. Careful examination, however, revealed that the facade was somewhat faded. This was, after all, a tourist attraction, not a regal building.

I was seated three tables from the stage. The only other dinners were two couples at a table some distance away. I was a bit worried that I had arrived much too early to see the show, but my gracious host assured me that the performance would soon begin. Within moments the musicians started to appear behind the thin fabric screen on the stage. Meanwhile, I escorted to the buffet table where I choose a number of Asian dishes and a few European choices (I had not had macaroni and cheese in a long, long time). Back at my table, I confirmed that the food was not particularly good, but well worth the price of the show.

I noticed one of the waitresses held something behind he back. I couldn't quite make out what it was and why she was trying to hide it. Then, without warning, she revealed the plastic paddle device by waving it in the air a moment then hiding it again. I was baffled. As I ate, I watched again as she waved what looked like a small tennis
racquet in the air and hid it once more. On the third go, I figured out what was going on. I'd seen that tennis racquet in the street market but didn't make the connection with the mosquito on the package cover. It was a mosquito racquet. As soon as she saw one of the little beasts flying indoors, she smacked the bug with the wire mesh. The electrified mesh zaps the mosquito. Once I was clued in, I started looking for the bugs myself and directing her attention to them. It became a game to see who would spot the mosquito first. She won, of course.

The first performer came on stage. She wore a dress that was entirely too long as it trailed out a good two feet behind her. She stood on a dais and began to dance. The hand and body movements were very similar to the dances I saw in Thailand and Cambodia.

The extra-long dress was a common trait among many of the women on stage that evening. In fact, the dance would often include a back kicking motion to free the long hem from their feet, enabling them to move sideways. Very peculiar.

What Myanmar has that the other countries do not, is puppetry. Thai markets are full of Burmese puppets but you are unlikely to find a puppet show anywhere East of Myanmar. I had tried to attend such a show in Mandalay and in Inle Lake, but couldn't make it. So, I was very pleased to see a marionette theatre being rolled onto the stage.

The fellow did a very good job making the little clown dance. What I found very interesting, however, was the coordinated performance of a girl dressed in a clown costume attempting to mimic the motions of the puppet. She too, did a very good job!

As the show began, a few more people arrived at the restaurant and filled a few more tables. One group appeared to be a contingent of a dozen Japanese and Burmese business people around a few tables pushed together. The two tables in front of me were still empty but had "Reserved" signs on them. The business people tended to ignore the performance as they talked among themselves.

No traditional dance performance is complete without at least one love story. I lost track of how many love story dances there were that night, but there were quite a few - including another puppet plus live dancer performance.

Notice the costume and makeup of the men? Not exactly masculine, is it? This is an interesting characteristic about the culture. In many of the artworks and traditions, men of note seem to be, how do I put this, a bit over done. Thai period movies show the Burmese leaders resplendent in jeweled earrings, gold rings on their fingers and excessive eyeliner. I had suspected that this was a way to belittle the Siamese's ancient nemesis, but it is not so. A good deal of the Burmese art show this very trait. Their religious deities, the Nats, are quite feminine as well. I much preferred the attire of the women. Note the extra long hem on the woman above. The traditional outfits, below, maintain a conservative hemline, but one which is not as restrictive.

Half way through the show, two couples took over the tables in front of mine. I couldn't help wonder where they had been, seeing as how they missed half the acts. One couple were very well dressed and the other appeared as if they had just returned from an elephant safari. The business people, having finished their meal, were now paying attention to the performers on stage. A quick count revealed that there were more people on stage than in the audience. I counted up how much the restaurant would make that evening. It was a wonder they could keep the restaurant afloat ... so to speak. I vowed to leave a generous tip.

There was a bit of commotion at one point. The business people were looking down the great hall. At the entrance was a decoupage elephant. It shambled its way to the stage and climbed up. The two men inside then performed a ritual dance with a spear man battling the great pachyderm. As the elephant left the stage, with a bit of acrobatics, the diners began attaching money to its trunk. Whether this was a tip or just for good luck, I put a few bills in as well.

I finally gave in to the drink waiter and ordered a local whisky. I had to have him repeat the price to me a few times. A shot of whisky cost about fifty cents. It wasn't great whisky, but it was good enough. It's a good thing I didn't visit during my college days. It's hard to imagine going on a bender for ten bucks.

At the end of the show, the diners all filed out. I was expecting the performers to appear one more time on stage for a curtain call, but no such luck. I had wanted to meet some of them, but the curtain was closed tight. I had one of the hostesses give me a tour of the rest of the building. As big as it is on the outside, it's much smaller on the inside. I was hoping there were numerous private rooms for catered parties, but the only such room was little more than a storage space set above the dining halls below. I did get a nice shot of the front of the restaurant, though.

Back in the park, I saw Shwedagon again. That building is magnificent in day or night, but the reflections of the lights on the calm lake made it extra special.

As I was shooting the pagoda, a family passed behind me. It was apparent that they were talking about me. So, I was not surprised when one of the kids came up and said hello. This was the typical English practice conversation I had run into in other countries and I always enjoy the experience. The kids were quite good speakers while the parents obviously struggled to keep up. They left but came back a few minutes later to talk some more. With their parents' urging, they actually invited me to their home. Unfortunately, it was too late to visit that evening and I was leaving the next day. It would have been terrific to have visited with them, but I had to suffice with a group photo.

Larger images from the restaurant can be seen here.

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