And so finally after many years of planning, our trip to Myanmar finally came to pass.
We travelled to Yangon on a Thai Airlines from Bangkok on 10th February. Upon arrival at Yangon, we were received by a very friendly driver. Ye, a third-generation Chinese from Myanmar, was very amicable and pleasant person who was willing to share his insights into the local culture, social nuances, etiquettes and traditions.
Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, was the former capital of capital of Myanmar until 2005 when the capital moved to Naypyidaw. With a population of about 5 million people it is the largest city and the main economic hub of Myanmar.
The weather in Yangon mid-February was pleasant. We were informed that it was a good time to visit, the warm weather would set in soon making it sultry and hot. The drive from the airport to the city took about 45 minutes, past the Inya lake and alongside buildings that boasted of an amalgamation of British, Chinese, Indian and Burmese influences. Along the way, we saw temples, churches, mosques and the City Hall with its distinctly British architecture.
While there were some high-rise buildings for the most part, it was a city of single and multi-storied buildings that sprawled over the wide plains. Most people donned the traditional longyi with casual and traditional shirts and slippers.
The atmosphere was relaxed and many people strolled about casually chewing betel nut. Street vendors lined the roads selling a variety of things from food, newspapers, fruits, household items and garments.
People relaxed by the main street in makeshift restaurants that were made of small colorful plastic chairs and tables, sipping Myanmar tea in small earthen cups or eating noodles or tasting meat on sticks from a hotplate.
What impressed us was the simplicity and sincerity of many of the people we interacted with in Myanmar. There appears to be a genuine simplicity and humbleness that seems to be the trait of many of the people we met. Most people were friendly and seem to have retained that innate innocence which was a pleasure to behold.
Myanmar is modernizing quickly and the standard of living of the people is changing. The people are also coming in contact with more foreigners and being exposed to different influences. Through these changes, it is my hope that this innocence and simplicity will not be lost, as it definitely was a part of the experience of Myanmar that gave us a feeling of warmth and wholesomeness.
During our time in Yangon we visited the following places:
- Shwedagon Pagoda
Known as the Great Dragon Pagoda or the Golden Pagoda, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a 99-metre-tall (325 ft) pagoda situated on Singuttara Hill. The gilded stupa is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar and is believed to contain the relics of the four previous Buddhas. The relics include the staff of Kakusandha, the water filer of Konagamana, a piece of roble of Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama Buddha.
Historians and archaeologists state that the pagoda was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries. However, legend has it that the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, which would make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world.
According to tradition, Taphussa and Bhallika - two merchant brothers from the city of Balkh, in what is currently Afghanistan, met Gautama Buddha and received eight of the Buddha's hairs. The brothers traveled to Burma and, with the help of a local ruler, King Okkalapa, found Singuttara Hill, where relics of other Buddhas preceding Gautama Buddha had been enshrined.
The base of the stupa is made of bricks covered with gold plates. Above the base are terraces that only monks and other males can access. At the top is the umbrella crown which is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. The gold seen on the stupa is made of genuine gold plates, covering the brick structure and attached by traditional rivets. People all over the country, as well as monarchs in its history, have donated gold to the pagoda to maintain it. The practice continues to this day after being started in the 15th century by the Queen Shin Sawbu (Binnya Thau), who gave her weight in gold.
2. Sule Pagoda
Located at the centre of downtown Yangon it occupies an important space in the politics, ideology and geography of Yangon. It is believed to have been built before the Shwedagon Pagoda during the time of Buddha making it more than 2,500 years old. It is believed to enshrine a strand of hair of the Buddha which the Buddha is said to have given the merchant brothers. At the centre of Yangon, it is believed that all roads in Yangon ultimately start from or lead to this Pagoda. It has been the focal point of both Yangon and Burmese politics and served as a rallying point in both the 1988 uprising and the 2007 Saffron revolution.
3. Bagyoke Market (formerly known as Scott Market)
It is a major bazaar in central Yangon that is known for its antique, handicraft, art galleries and jewelry shops. It is a popular tourist destination that also has a number of stores for local shoppers. Formerly known as Scott Market, it was built in 1926. After independence in 1948, it was renamed Bogyoke (General) Aung San. It is open on all days except for Monday.
4. Walking about downtown Yangon
Downtown Yangon is bustling with activity. Cars, people and movement everywhere.
There are general stores in which you can find an assortment of things – from mobile phones, to slippers, to batteries to food items.
There is a distinct aroma that fills the air which combines the sultry warmth in the air with the concoction of products that street vendors sell - pancakes, betel nuts, pickles, fruits, coconut juice, noodles and fried meat.
It was interesting to note that to manage the traffic, motorbikes were not permitted in the city. This made it less chaotic and noisy that some of the other Southeast Asian countries where motorbikes seem to dominate the streets.
5. Inya Lake
Formerly known as Lake Victoria, Inya lake is the largest lake in Yangon. It is a popular recreational area which is famous for its relaxing ambience, scenic beauty and romantic sidewalk.
Inya Lake is on the way between the airport and downtown, so this refreshing place was the last stop we made in Yangon before we caught the domestic flight to Bagan.