After a sleepless night on a plane you step out of the airport and are hit by a wall of heat and humidity, you jump in your taxi and whizz by buildings with six foot walls topped with reels of razor wire or shards of broken glass, the car fumes and foreign, heady smells invade your nostrils and you wonder “Why am I doing this?”
I find the first few hours in almost any country a little overwhelming, but that initial culture shock gives way to excitement in a very short amount of time. By the time my friend Mark and I had checked into our hotel in Yangon and were out on the streets, map in hand, I was quite keen to get out there and see what the city had to offer.
Downtown Yangon is a very busy place, there are loads of people walking the sidewalks and streets, the sidewalks are also filled with street stalls selling food and drinks, fruit and vegetables, books, clothes and other random items. The streets are jam packed with cars, trucks, buses and bicycles (motorcycles and scooters have been banned the authorities), not to mention the pedestrians dodging and weaving between the traffic in an attempt to cross the road. It is chaotic and fantastic.
An interesting thing to note about traffic in Myanmar, or cars rather is that they drive on the right side of the road. By itself this is not so strange, except the vast majority of the cars are also right hand drive, except for the random smattering of cars which are left hand drive. Perhaps this is why only people with a Myanmar drivers licence are allowed to drive in Myanmar, last I read, no international driving permits are accepted.
The food and drink stalls all looked very interesting, some looking and smelling more enticing than others. There was a special type of barbecue which we saw several times where all the customers sit around a table which has pot of boiling broth in the center and skewers of uncooked meat surrounding it. You could sit, cook and eat the things you wanted. This looked like a fun experience and had it not been exclusively pork offal I might have been keen to try it! So I settled for trying the vegetarian options, like pancakes and samosas. The samosa ‘salad’, Samusa Thoke, was delicious!
We also took the opportunity to enjoy various tropical fruits like Mangosteen, Rambutan and Dragons Eyes (otherwise known an Longan).
Yangon is known for its teahouse culture, so in amongst all these little snack foods I took the time to sit down for a cup of sweet tea, which is crazy strong tea topped up with sweetened condensed milk. The first few times I had it I struggled to drink it, but after a period of adjustment I actually found it rather tasty and began to enjoy our little tea breaks.
A fun quirk about service in Yangon (we noticed it predominantly in Yangon, but it may apply everywhere in Myanmar) was that to get a waiters attention you make a loud, wet kissing noise.
With all this eating and drinking I would like to point out the weather situation in Yangon. It is crazy hot and humid, so you simply can’t race around and see everything, the pace is much slower with frequent rest and recharge stops. While you may not see as many different things with this approach, you do get more opportunity to soak up the culture and notice finer details in your environment. We found that Bank Street, off Lower Pansodan Street was a great spot to do this and the stalls offered a great variety of different food and drinks.
Sitting and observing the environment we noticed that everything was grubby, the buildings had grimy black streaks from the pollution filled water streaming down the sides of the buildings. Everything had a damp look and feel, not a surprise really since we were visiting during the monsoon season. All the damp that had seeped into the buildings allowed many to be growing mini forests. While this is structurally terrible, I found that it looked quite enchanting in a strange kind of way.
We also had time to notice peoples faces, and had an opportunity to ask about it. Many people have their faces painted with circles or stripes of a light brown colour. Thanaka is a traditional ‘paint’ made from grinding sandalwood and mixing it into a paste with water. Many people continue to wear this traditional paint which is seen as beautiful, and indeed it is. I am not sure however, if it is simply for beauty or if it serves other purposes.
The central point of downtown Yangon is Sule Paya, a golden pagoda that essentially functions as the center of a large roundabout intersecting all the main roads. While the peak of Sule Paya looks impressive at a distance, it is surrounded by small shops and has an entry fee. After what we read about it, we decided it wasn’t worth paying the entry fee to go into the complex and explore.
Myanmar seems to be the land of pagoda’s and temples, so while we chose not to visit Sule Paya we did however go to Chauk Htat Gyi Paya, home of a reclining Buddha, Nga Htat Gyi Paya, home of a seated Buddha and Shwedagon Pagoda – essentially the number one thing to see in Yangon. As these pagodas are a bit further out, we caught a taxi to the furthest one, Chauk Htat Gyi and slowly walked back towards the city via the other two.
Chauk Htat Gyi and Nga Htat Gyi are both more chilled than Shwedagon and we found there to be very few people visiting these temples. They were both beautiful in different ways. Chauk Htat Gyi houses a very placid looking reclining Buddha who wears a “crown encrusted with diamonds and other precious stones”. Across the road, Nga Htat Gyi houses a seated Buddha, apparently the one of the most impressive seated Buddha’s in southern Mynamar, though it was under renovation and blocked by bamboo scaffolding when we visited. The intricately carved timberwork backdrop was certainly stunning!
A further 15 minutes walk back towards downtown Yangon is Shwedagon Pagoda, which is actually visible from almost anywhere in Yangon. The hill on which Shwedagon stands in 190 feet above sea level and the pagoda itself is 326 feet high. The complex is accessed by four stairways, one for each point of the compass. As with any temple, at the top of the stairway you are asked to take off your shoes so that you may enter the temple clean. You should also ensure your shoulders and knees are covered and that you take off your hat. While the entire pagoda appears golden, the very top of the pagoda has a genuine golden umbrella with other 4000 golden bells chiming in the breeze, a golden wind vane as well as a diamond orb encrusted with over 4300 diamonds. This is one pagoda that sparkles!
Shwedagon pagoda is the central point of a larger complex with many other temples, shrines and bells. The main pagoda, has smaller shrines circling it, one for each day of the week including two for Wednesday. The Myanmar week has eight days, the two Wednesdays represent the morning and the afternoon, one of which is lucky and the other unlucky. If you were to pray at the temple you would pray at the day on which you were born, each day is also represented by an animal such a dragon, pig, rabbit. When asked by a local which day Mark and I were, neither of us were able to answer as our western culture is more about date than actual day of the week. We spent quite some time at Shwedagon, mostly just sitting in the shade observing the people going about their business, watching the sun sink in the sky and the temple light up. We noticed many monks in their maroon robes and nuns in pink; pink being a colour I had not previously seen in Buddhist robes. By far the thing I appreciated most at Shwedagon was the sense of stillness, with the light breeze was chiming the bells atop each of the temples in the complex. It was just such a beautiful atmosphere and so calming.
In complete contrast to the calm of Shwedagon, we caught the ferry across to the delta region of Dala, across the Yangon River from Yangon. The ferry shuttles back and forth every twenty minutes, with people leaping on and off as soon as it is within jumping distance of the dock. People push and shove to get on and off as quickly as possible, though what that achieves I am not sure. Early in the morning the people of Dala bring their goods to Yangon to sell and they return home later in the day. The most interesting thing on the ferry when we crossed was the bicycle transporting chickens. A bicycle had a large bundle of live chickens on the front of the bike and one on the back. All the chickens were hung upside down and bound together by their feet. Surprisingly they did not flap or make a fuss, just dangled there waiting.
When we got off the ferry we were yelled at from all angles by trishaw-wallahs looking for business. We ended up agreeing on a price with a nice man and his buddy who then took us on a cycle tour of the delta region. We saw local villages, temples and markets. It is such a poor area, people live in bamboo and straw huts, the road are dirt and mud, yet the people are all busily and happily working. As we cycled by, we saw many people catch our attention with a smile and a wave as they called out “Mingalaba”.
At one point we got off the trishaws and wandered around a small village, the poverty extreme but the children were some of the happiest I have ever seen. They ran up to us big grins on their faces and keen for a high five. They joined us for a walk, held our hands and giggled when they saw pictures of themselves. Seeing how people live in such poverty is always an eye-opener, it makes you appreciate the life and opportunities that you have.
After a few days it was time to leave Yangon and head north towards Bagan, the location in Myanmar I was most excited to see. We booked ourselves some seats in the sleeper car of a train headed to Bagan. We were mostly lucky with the weather in Yangon, monsoon season hadn’t seem to hit but as we packed up our things the skies opened up and we experienced a torrential downpour, as our train rattled past villages the houses were knee deep in water and roads were flooded.