Between books, movies and a letter my brother once wrote to our mother in which he told her the was “on the road to Mandalay”, there awakened in me a romantic, nostalgic ideal of a place so different, magical, golden and so far away I could only dream of seeing it. But with some careful preparation requiring library time, online research, talking to people that have been here, and applying for and being granted a visa, here I am.
Getting here from Bangkok was easy and I had the foresight to ask , My Hotel (that is the actual name) to send a driver to meet me at the airport. Generally pick up service is out of my price range but I thought as a first time traveller to Yangon it would simplify things and it did. But, as I discovered, it is way cheaper and easy enough to take a taxi from the airport to your hotel. My Hotel is lovely and I would recommend it as being in a great location, well priced and right across the street from The People’s Park and the Shwedagon Pagoda, which I could see all lit up as I settled into my room. The staff at the Hotel are friendly and polite and make every effort to make you feel welcome, which I came to discover is a hallmark of Burmese people. The first thing upon arrival you are presented with a cold fruit juice before the business of check-in commences.
Day one I made a list on paper of the places I wanted to visit because I would never remember how to spell never mind pronounce them. Then I made a google map trail with all of the sites and started out the door. My driver that picked me up at the airport had helped me get cash (not available outside of Myanmar) and buy a SIM card with data making google maps and other on the go research possible.
First stop was a travel office where they helped me buy a ticket for the boat between Bagan and Mandalay where I will head after Yangon. All flights and hotels I have booked through Hotels.com and Air Asia or Myanmar airlines, flights being relatively cheap. I find the hotel prices a tad higher than in Thailand, but so far I have not been disappointed. As well I booked a private taxi tour in Bagan for 35USD. Generally making arrangements in a reputable travel agency rather than in your hotel can result in a greater variety and often a better price of options.
Business taken care of I headed to my first stop on the google map trail, the giant sized Reclining Buddha, weighing in at 66m long, 7.3m long face, 2.7 m worth of nose and 50cm high eyes, but who’s measuring? Not really old, built from 1959 to 1974, it is housed in the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda. Maybe the most interesting thing about the place was a giant sized mural depicting the life of Buddha, there were some English explanations and it covered his pre-life existence to his death and of course rebirth. The monks were welcoming and entrance was free/donations welcomed. Both the scale and the colour of the Buddha’s feet were impressive as were the golden robes.
My second stop was the most important spiritual home for the people of Myanmar. The huge golden stupa of the Shwedagon Pagoda is visible from many parts of the city. The shrine is said to have been built during the lifetime of the Buddha and houses eight of his hairs. I was very fortunate to hire a guide at the entrance and he was very informative. I never would have gleaned as much had I attempted it on my own. Si Thu, named for the day of the week he was born on and another word with significance to his parents, explained that everyone born on the same day off the week has the same first name or version thereof. Unlike us they do not have surnames and in business and relationships it is thought that some days are more suited than others to a positive interaction.
The most notable thing, even at the airport, were the Burmese people, they are calm, elegant and well-dressed. For the most part they still wear the long beautiful skirts and long-sleeved blouse/shirts that reflect their modest natures. They walk tall in these skirts and even though the men in particular, often wear a western style dress shirt they pair it the “longyi.” I was so lucky when visiting Yangon that it was Independence Day, a holiday where people travel and gather with family for outings and devotions in the temples. We saw many university graduates being photographed by family and friends with the stupa in the background demonstrating the importance of the shrine to the people. Another notable group were novitiates who, carrying golden umbrellas, gathered with their sponsors, on their last days before entering a monastery. The sponsors support them financially while in the service of Buddha which can be for a short time or a life time of service, but something that is undertaken by all men.
Archeologists have dated Shwedagon as having been started somewhere between the 6th and 14th century, but it withstood the tests of time, neglect, government, earthquakes and stands as a testament to Buddhist devotion. The Pagoda, complicated layers of internal bricks and mortar is covered with gold plate near the top, gold leaf in the lower areas and is encrusted with jewels and a huge diamond is the icing on the cake.
A busy day even by Shwedagon standards, I found the people were polite, curious and many wanted to practice their English and they didn’t mind having there pictures taken, in fact they seemed quite happy to oblige. The children I encountered were particularly endearing and well behaved, and obviously treasured by their families. Of course when visiting the temples one must leave ones shoes at the door, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that those same slippers, sandals, runners and flip flops find their way back to the right pair of feet. In order to avoid being offensive, Western guests are given a longyi to wear in exchange for a refundable cash deposit.
My guide had a couple of interesting stories involving the British regime, the fervor of which may have been influenced by the fact that it was Independence Day. The first story concerned a golden Buddha, returned to Myanmar by Queen Victoria following a dream that schooled her in the error of having removed it from it’s rightful home. The second involved a huge bell weighting many tons that the British army attempted to make off with but somehow let it slip into the river where it languished until rescued by the ingenuity of Burmese who managed to float it using bamboo pools and ferrying it back to the shore.
The rubies, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires (to name a few types of stones) encrusted in gold are most impressive. Although you can’t climb up to see them, there is a photo display of the different sections of the pagoda and the gemstones that adorn them. Devotees are able to purchase a gold plate and they have their names engraved. Rings and other forms of personal jewelry are donated and hung in different sections as offerings to the Buddha. Of course the biggest and most impressive stone of all is the diamond that tops the spire. Clearly an important place, the Shwedagon crowds were thick, I was glad I went (unwittingly) on a national holiday, giving me so much access to people watching.
Leaving the Pagoda behind I made my way to downtown Yangon. A densely populated area, you can really see the impact of urbanization as people from the countryside seek their fortunes in the city. The best time to just wander and watch is in the heart of a city and generally there is something interesting happening at the turn of every corner.
Like all colonial cities the influence of the colonizer, in this case the English, is everywhere in the core of Yangon. Some of the buildings built during the British era when Yangon was the capital, have been maintained but others are in disrepair. I happened upon the Independence Day celebration with live music and throngs of people visiting the main square with the tall Independence monument in the middle of the park. In addition to music there were food vendors, ballon sellers, entertainers and picnickers sitting on the grass enjoying the festive atmosphere.
When the British designed Yangon, they put the Sule Pagoda front and centre in the heart of the city directly in front of the Manabandoola Park , ironically the future home of the Independence Monument. There are some obvious signs of economic success in Yangon including business towers, glitzy hotels and a huge mall with every designer label store imaginable. A stark contrast to its next door neighbour the Bogyoe Aung San Market, built during colonial times it sells the signature treasures of Myanmar to tourists including jewellery, paintings, puppets, lacquerware and jade. An even greater contrast is the Theingyi Zedi fruit and vegetable market with hundreds of ramshackle stalls, narrow aisles, and hoards of people elbowing their way through the chaos.
Yangon was more than a surprise to me. I expected something more dismal or downhearted about the place given recent history but it was surprisingly calm in it’s busyness, peaceful in it’s industry and beautiful in its hodgepodge of then and now. My admiration for the city is directly attributable to the welcome given by the friendly, warm people I met on my Yangon wandering.