Discovering Myanmar – Yangon

On Friday 11th May 2018 we got on a flight from Vientiane to Bangkok at 1:30pm. That morning we had been pretty chilled as the only thing we had to do was change our remaining Laos money to US dollars as you can’t exchange Laos kip outside of the country. After our one hour flight to Bangkok we had a three hour wait and then a 50 minute flight to Yangon in Myanmar (Burma). It was around 9:30pm when we arrived at our hostel in Yangon after an alright journey although our second flight was delayed and we had some issues with a taxi company we were using so it took us a while to get a taxi to the hostel. In the end we had managed to negotiate a taxi for 7000 kyat (£3.80) which wasn’t a bad price but we were worn out by the time we reached the hostel. We were staying at Shwe Yo Vintage Hostel which was a nice hostel and seemed to be quite new. The staff were all very friendly, the beds were big and comfy, the WiFi was good and there was a free breakfast so it ticked all the boxes for us.Laos had been great and we had heard good things about Myanmar too so we were looking forward to our time here. Myanmar has had a troubled past and spent a large amount of time under military rule. The country has been fraught with civil war which has severely stumped its development rate and its still having some serious issues today with many areas still being unsafe to travel and many people dying. We knew we had to be careful but were still hopeful that it would be a great trip.

After falling asleep to the sounds of a storm that had some of the loudest thunder we’ve ever heard, we woke up early from the sounds of the city as well as some people in our room being loud. Breakfast was local food of a shredded paratha (like in India) with a Burmese tomato soup. The soup didn’t taste of tomato in any way though and I’d have thought it was made of pumpkin instead with potatoes in it, ether way it tasted good and we liked our breakfast. We also got a half of mango each too which was very tasty.After breakfast, at around 9am, a string of young monks in dark red robes walked along the street accepting food from locals and tourists (such as some people in our hostel) as they made their alms rounds which is a tradition in Buddhism like the alms ceremony we witnessed in Luang Prabang. This ceremony was a lot more informal and we saw it throughout the day in Yangon with young monks and nuns approaching street vendors, hostels and shops, offering a chant and then taking a donation of food or goods. I was still in my pyjamas which are shorts so stayed out of the way so as not to cause any disrespect during the alms but it was still good to see the difference to alms ceremonies we have seen elsewhere (we had also witnessed alms in Bangkok). A big difference to the Buddhist monks we have seen elsewhere such as in Laos and Thailand is the colour of the robes are darker in Myanmar and there also seems to be an infinitely larger number of monks and nuns that anywhere else we had been to.

A short while later there was an enormous storm that lasted for around an hour. As this had us stuck in the hostel, we used the time to work out our route for our time in Myanmar with the help of the great hostel owner who came and sat with us to answer any questions we had about traveling around the country. It turns out Myanmar only has one highway which runs from Yangon to Mandalay. Any destinations that aren’t directly on this highway will involve a bus using the highway until they reach the necessary turnoff and then going along smaller roads. Once we knew this we just had to pick whether to go to Bagan or Inle Lake first as one would mean the bus going right and the other meaning the bus would go left. We decided to go to Inle Lake first and bought a night bus ticket for just under £15 that would take us the following night. This meant a slight change of our plans and our hostel was even good enough to rearrange the nights we had booked for when we returned to Yangon at the end of our trip so that we could get a night bus and not lose nights we had paid for. We had expected Myanmar to be a very hard country to travel around and maybe it is if you’re going to more out of the way, less touristy places (not that it would be too wise to do that at the moment) but for us it was very easy. At around 11am the weather cleared up and we were able to get out and explore. Our first stop of the day was to the Sule Pagoda. This is a 2000 year old golden temple that has had one of the main traffic routes in Yangon built around it. We had heard that it was best to just see the temple from the outside as the main feature is of a 46m high golden stupa that can be seen from the street at a distance. Despite this, we decided to see for ourselves if it was worth it and so paid the entry of 3000 kyat (£1.60) each to enter the Pagoda. You get to see the stupa in more detail and in full from the inside which, to me, makes it worth the money. There is a lot of gold inside and shrines line the stupa at different intervals on the inside of the temple. The Sule Pagoda was really pretty and wasn’t as loud as I expected considering it was in the middle of a roundabout.

Each shrine that was around the foot of the stupa had a different number, day of the week and statue of an animal. A monk in training came to speak to me about the significance of the statues and walked me through the ritual linked to it. The shrines are linked to the day that you were born. I am born on a Wednesday morning and so I was taken to the shrine that said Wednesday. The shrine had an elephant statue which represented the ‘zodiac animal’ for that particular day. The shrine also had the number 17 on it which is seen to be people with my day of birth’s lucky number and the elephant also had tusks which was very significant as that linked to me being born in the morning. We were told that in Buddhism there are eight days of the week instead of seven as Wednesday is split into morning and afternoon. From googling this it seems to be linked to ancient Burmese astrology known as Mahabote that revolves around the number eight and this goes beyond the days of the week but also covers their zodiac signs and planetary energies. To receive my good karma I had to go to my specific shrine and pour water over the head of the buddha five times and then the head of the elephant eight timesp. It was nice to learn about this ritual as we saw similar shrines at many of the other temples we visited in Yangon and saw many other people performing the ritual. We later worked out Niall was born on a Monday and so his animal is a tiger.

Just across the road from the pagoda is Magabandoola Gardens which is a small green space with the Independence Monument in the centre. This is a 165 ft white stone pillar which replaced a statue of Queen Victoria when the country received its independence. Burma became independent in January 1947 after General Aung San (father of current leader Aung San Suu Kyi) negotiated an agreement with the British. He was then assassinated by his rivals in July of that year and on 4th January 1948 Myanmar became an independent nation with a president and prime minister from the opposition who assassinated him.Across from the monument and the Pagoda is the City Hall which is a huge, grand building which is a light purple and looks like a colonial town hall with a Burmese twist. The town hall would look at home in the UK aside from its roof which is decorated with peacocks, serpents and three-tiered turrets. It’s really nice and I enjoyed the mix of colonial meets Burmese from its architecture.

After some lunch at a restaurant called Lucky Star by the town hall where Niall had a good BBQ pork and rice, we headed to the Strand Hotel. This is a famous hotel that opened in 1901 and is run by the Sarkies brothers who owns other famous hotels in South East Asia like the Raffles Hotel that we visited in Singapore (home of the Singapore sling cocktail). The Strand hotel has an interesting history of changing ownership and uses through the many wars and troubles Myanmar has faced but you wouldn’t know any of that when you enter the grand reception area. You enter what looks like a very fancy, very nice living room that has doors going off from all sides to the Strand cafe, bar and restaurant. We picked the cafe and treated ourselves to a salted caramel milkshake which came to around £8 total. Compared to what we had expected, the food and drink weren’t a bad price and if we had been on a bigger budget we’d have very likely stopped for a full lunch here. Regardless, it was lovely sitting in the comfy chairs enjoying a milkshake in such nice surroundings and I’m glad we made the stop.After taking shelter in the hostel when we thought a rainstorm was coming, we headed to the Botataung Pagoda. This was 6000 kyat (£3.30) to get in to which was one of the more expensive temples we visited but it was nice with a lot of gold and statues of the Buddha. The complex is quite big and has a tall stupa in the middle of it but this was covered in bamboo scaffolding so it didn’t look like much. The main reason people come to this pagoda is because it is said to house a strand of the Buddha’s hair and so it has become a prominent pilgrimage site for Buddhists in Myanmar. The temple is named after a troop of 1000 soldiers who transported hair relics of the Buddha from India to Myanmar more than 2000 years ago. Your first stop when you enter the pagoda is of a room that’s completely covered in gold and is only the width of a couple of people to walk around it. The room is quite spectacular really and I think it’s in here that the vault is where the hair of the Buddha is kept.

The sun was setting by the time we left the temple so we headed to Chinatown which is near our hostel and takes over a number of streets in Yangon. It’s a recommendation to visit here in the Lonely Planet guide book as it is known to be good for picking out different skewers of food to be barbecued. This wasn’t really in our budget but we did manage to find a cheap restaurant and got a huge plate of noodles which were tasty which also allowed us to watch people with bigger budgets than us weigh lobsters for their tea and pick baskets of skewers to have barbecued.

One thing I have noticed about restaurants in Yangon is that the wait staff are very young. In the restaurant we were at that afternoon for lunch, nobody seemed to be older than twenty and I would have bet the majority of them were younger than 16. I don’t know if this is the norm throughout Myanmar but it was a bit odd for us to have some people so young serving us and we think it may be to do with them likely knowing more English than the elder population. Saying that though, many of these places were frequented by locals so it’s hard to say if that’s the motivation behind it or just how it’s done there.

The next morning we checked out of our hostel as we would be getting a night bus that evening. The weather was much nicer with sun and blue skies scattered with white, fluffy clouds (as opposed to dark, grey ones). We got a taxi to Chaukhtatgyi Paya which houses a 65m long reclining buddha. Apparently there used to be a tall standing Buddha at this spot but it toppled over and so was replaced by a reclining Buddha in the early 1900s. The reclining Buddha is at the end of a long passageway that’s flanked by two large statues of what look a little bit like a cross between a dragon and a dog. You then enter a large tin shed that houses the enormous structure. The Buddha is really detailed with glassy eyes and folds moulded into the clothing of the Buddha which is really clever. You can walk all the way around the statue to get a good look at the details on every bit of it and as well as the clothing, I particularly liked the feet as they were covered in lots of markings and pictures. There was an information board that told us the markings covering the feet of the Buddha had been there since his birth and this was what made the prophecy that he would become the Buddha true as it showed him to be all knowing of the world.

Slightly across the road from the reclining Buddha is Ngathatgyi Pagoda which has a seated Buddha that’s 14m tall. This buddha would have looked very nice had it not been covered in bamboo scaffolding so that was a bit of a shame. We had a walk around it and saw similar shrines for the days of the week like we had seen at the Sule Pagoda. This statue wasn’t as busy but still had people coming in and out to worship, most likely doing as we did and visiting both Buddha statues in one trip. It was also a Sunday and so we think this explained why everywhere we visited that day was busier than we expected with locals either worshipping in the pagodas or relaxing in the parks

Our next stop was our favourite of the day and also one of the most famous and sacred Buddhist sites in Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda. This cost us 10,000 kyat (£5.50) each to get into. It was truly magnificent with an enormous 99m golden stupa in the centre and then loads of other pagodas surrounding it as well as shrines, statues of the Buddha and beautifully decorated temples. The giant stupa is covered with 27000kg of gold leaf which I just can’t even comprehend! There were loads of people there and the sun was beating down on us hard so we were very hot but we managed to find spots of shade to sit and enjoy the stupa. We also had a few people stop us for photos too and we had noticed whilst being in Myanmar that we got stared at a lot in a similar way to India. Niall googled about this and found out that the people in Yangon were still getting used to seeing tourists and we speculated that the number of European tourists here is still probably quite low compared to Asian tourists from countries like China and Japan.

From here we walked to People’s Park which cost us 300 kyat (16p) each and had different walkways, a few large ponds and lots of green spaces to relax. The park was very busy as we were there around lunchtime and the roadside by the park was full of street vendors selling fried rice in takeaway cartons which loads of people were then taking into the park to eat with their friends. This park also gave you a great view of Shwedagon Pagoda from the outside. We found a large concrete walkway that had a few fountains on it and gave you the best views of the pagoda in all its glory. The giant gold stupa dominated the skyline and was flanked by bushy jungle-like trees and gold and white stupas in the lower levels. It looked so grand and you could almost imagine away the development of the park and see it stuck up alone amongst a sea of jungle and small villages thousands of years ago.Our final stop before we got back to the hostel to go and get our night bus was to Kandawgyi Park which was on the opposite side of the Shwedagon Pagoda nearer to the city centre. The park had a giant lake in the middle of it which had loads of flowering lily pads and a long wooden boulevard that ran over the lake which was partially closed when we were there due to it needing some serious maintenance. We walked along one section of the boulevard that was made of wood and we didn’t feel very safe on it in all honesty as there were broken pieces of wood, some missing and other planks moved precariously when you stepped on them. We then went onto another section of walkway that was made of metal, stone and newly laid planks which was secure and safe and it looked like this design was the plan for the rest of the wooden boulevard eventually (thank goodness really)! We managed to get a taxi back for 2000 kyat (£1.10) which we think is a good price but still aren’t 100% sure when it comes to the taxis, either way it saved us a lot of walking particularly as we had to get back and get ready for getting the night bus at 6pm that evening.The weather had really made our second day a lot better particularly for seeing the Shwedagon Pagoda as it’s meant to look particularly stunning when it’s sunny. Having nice weather also meant we could enjoy the parks Yangon had and it was nice to not have our plans altered by a sudden heavy downpour. Yangon had some nice pagodas and parks and it was full of people (particularly as we were there over a weekend) so the energy about the place was really good. What I think surprised me most was how developed the city was and I think there has been pretty rapid development over the last few years. Every street you look down had tall terraced buildings all with lots of satellite dishes sticking out of them and I also loved the old style and colours of the buildings. Parts of the city looked a bit like it had been abandoned for years and then was suddenly being lived in and developed in the 21st century. It would be interesting to come back again in the future to see how different it would be as development continued.As well as the buildings, we noticed customs in Myanmar that we hadn’t seen elsewhere in Asia. Instead of trousers, the majority of people in Yangon and throughout Myanmar wear a tube of material like a sarong called a longyi. This is worn by men and women with the men’s design being checked or plain and then women’s designs varying from plain to very detailed and patterned. This is a huge part of the fashion here and although we had seen some men in similar attire in India it was not to the same level. Another custom that’s impossible to miss is the use of a natural cosmetic called Thanaka which is made of tree root and spread over men and women’s cheeks, forehead and noses in a similar way to us wearing makeup. This has been a custom for thousands of years and is believed to act as a cooling aid as well as prevent sun burn and acne. You start to get used to seeing people with their faces covered in the different patterns and we had seen this to a lesser extent in Thailand but it does take some getting used to. The final custom we noticed is people having red teeth or constantly chewing a red substance. On little stands you’s see people covering a leaf in a white substance that we later found out was lime, then crushing up a betel nut and adding tobacco and more lime before someone will then buy it and chew it. I read up on this and it’s a massive cause of oral cancer in Myanmar and caused many of the population of Myanmar to have red stained teeth. It is highly addictive due to the nicotine and has effects similar to smoking or drinking caffeine if alertness, increases stamina and a sense of euphoria. It’s been interesting to see and learn about the customs here that are so commonplace and so different to what we are used to even having travelled a lot of South East Asia already. I think i’ve actually learned more about the local customs in Myanmar than anywhere else we visited but I’m unsure if that’s just because it’s been less diluted by western culture.

We would be returning to Yangon before flying out on 25th May but in the meantime we headed to the bus station which was around an hour away (can be double this if the traffic is worse on a week day) to get on a night bus to Inle Lake where we’d be spending the next few days of our trip – it was going to be a long night!

Sending love x

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