A Few Days In Yangon
It was that time again, time to reset the 90-day in-country period. One of the reasons for moving to Thailand was its proximity to other countries I was interested in visiting. Another reason is there are lots of great locations to photograph, my main hobby since retiring a couple years ago. Cambodia has always been a favourite but Myanmar has been calling. It was time to give it a shot.
Internet checks told me the location of the embassy in Bangkok which wasn’t far from a skytrain station. I also noticed that Myanmar was inaugurating an eVisa system, similar to what Cambodia has been using. Deciding to give that a try, I submitted information for my wife and myself and got our visa papers in a few days.
I booked our flights on Air Asia out of the old Don Meuang Airport. I had flown from here to Cambodia a couple months earlier and the place was dead. Not so this time, the place was packed with people. Among those waiting to fly to were a group of pretty girls, sporting Miss Myanmar contestant sashes. Buses took us out to the plane where I waited to climb the stairs to board as a group of Chinese tourists stopped the flow and took “selfies” with the Miss Myanmar girls, I shamelessly photo-bombed them. A little over an hour later and we landed in Yangon.
The airport was good. We were thermal-scanned before hitting the immigration lines, probably looking for Ebola. It sort of reminded me of living in Singapore during the SARS outbreak. Got to the immigration officer and handed him my documents. He handed back everything except my passport and began thumbing through it. After a couple passes he asked where my visa was and I handed him back the eVisa page. He then scanned the bar code, asked me to look at the camera then laughed and said his machine was broken. I got handed off to the next officer who processed me while another person took up the spot I was just in. My wife passed through before me and had collected our bags by the time I caught up.
There was a taxi vendor just past the baggage area and we secured a cab there. We could have joined the line outside but this seemed quicker and ended up only a couple dollars more. I noticed that our cab driver was driving on the right of the cab but driving on the right side of the road. Watching other cars, I also noticed a few steering wheels on the left. The driver explained that in 1974 they switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. The driving method seems to be centered on the use of the horn. I also noticed no motorcycles at all; apparently they have been banned since 2003 for one reason or another.
As we arrived in the early evening, we checked into the Clover Hotel on Wingabar Road (there are several Clovers around town) and planned to start exploring the next day. The wife was feeling poorly so I fed her at the hotel restaurant which had great food and service. Our room had an excellent view of the Shwedagon Pagoda and was quite comfortable.
The next day we started our walk to the Shwedagon Pagoda. My impressions of the city so far were to be careful of the sidewalks. There were areas of bad surface and holes that could break a leg if stepped into. We wandered about the smaller streets, working our way to the pagoda which dominates the area. An older monk struck up a conversation until the wife stopped to shop. We eventually made our way to one of the pagoda entrances.
We left our shoes (and my socks) at the entrance and paid our entry fees. It was a good climb up the stairs to the level of the pagoda, but well worth it. I got a secret joy over the wife having to pay the same “foreigner” fee. To say it is spectacular is an understatement. Not only is the stupa itself amazing, sheathed in gold, but the surrounding area as well. Buddha images abound and the place is a paradise for the photographer. The “umbrella” structure at the top is covered by about a half ton of gold and has thousands of gems of different varieties. The diamond orb at the top has over 4000 diamonds, totalling 1800 carats. The apex diamond alone is over 70 carats! Maintenance was being done about half way up and the workers were undergoing tight security both going up and coming down.
I am not sure if others agree or not, but I kind of like the “Burma Girl” look. There seems to be less dying of the hair on the girls here which I like.
The wife and I had separated to each enjoy the pagoda in our own way. While I was walking about, an old local man gently took me by the arm and pointed at some younger companions whom I believe were his family, wanting a picture of me with him. I did get more looks than I do in Thailand, little kids wanting to say hello, monks surreptitiously taking my picture, shy girls pointing at me and giggling.
The only thing that bothers me in the pagoda (apparently all of them in Myanmar) is the requirement to be barefoot. I never like leaving my shoes somewhere as I wear a US size 15 shoe and replacing them is real tough in Asia. Another thing is that I have sunburned my feet in the past and that is a painful experience I never want to relive. Fortunately everywhere we went, our footwear was well taken care of and, with a little care when outside, the flesh on my feet survived.
Despite all the Shwedagon Pagoda had to offer, it didn’t have the particular Buddha image my wife wanted to pray to. This image has a pointing finger that you place against your forehead when asking for blessings. For this, we were (incorrectly) directed to the nearby Mahara Wizara Pagoda. While interesting it didn’t have the image my wife was looking for either. Outside many of the pagodas are the opportunities to purchase merit birds to release to gain merit.
As my wife was tired from all the walking, I left her at the hotel and went to the zoo. My father had been curator of mammals at the zoo in Columbus, Ohio, when I was growing up so zoos are a fascination of mine. This one has been around for something like 106 years and parts of it look that old. The enclosure that held white tigers had a sign above that said “King Edward VII 1915 Carnivora House”. While behind the times in zoo technology, it retains one feature that I always liked that most zoos have abandoned, feeding the animals. It is bad for the animals, they tend to live shorter lives on bad diets but it does enable a closer interaction with the animals. Most of the animals hang out near the barriers to get food instead of just sleeping away. I had a bunch of otters scramble out of the pool and fuss at me in an effort to get me to feed them. A group of young elephants lounged around their barrier; one of them stretched its trunk out fully, hoping for a treat. Apparently there aren’t a lot of “bad” encounters happening with this system. Perhaps the animals know not to bite the hand that feeds them. I did notice that the big cats did not have this visitor feeding system in place and that is probably just as well.
I left the zoo and walked across the street to the Kandawgyi Lake Park. I paid my foreigner fee and went in to walk around. The lake is a pretty place with a boardwalk that runs along the south part of the lake. It is wide and in pretty good shape although there are a few boards that stick up and could be a trip hazard. At the end of my walk, I tried to visit the Karaweik Palace, paid the foreigner entrance fee AND a camera fee and found it closed. The walk around the area showed more of a collection of restaurants than anything I was interested in looking at. After a couple pictures of the lake, I took a taxi back to the hotel and beat the rain.
At dinner in the hotel, my wife showed some pictures of her Buddha image to the helpful staff who recognized it and directed us to the Sule Pagoda. The next day we headed downtown. Getting around town was pretty easy with large numbers of taxis available. Negotiate your price beforehand and off you go. I had some things I wanted to see downtown and we started near the river at the Botataung Pagoda.
Bombed by the Allies in World War 2, the pagoda was rebuilt when the country gained its independence. During the excavation, a number of relics were discovered, including a hair believed to be from the Buddha. This pagoda is hollow and you can go inside to see the Buddha hair relic and other relics found during the rebuilding. The walls are of hammered gold, protected by Plexiglas shields. People throw money offerings at the relic through a small opening and hope it lands at the top. My wife made her toss well and was very happy as her offering landed near the relic.
After a walk around the outside of the pagoda, we strolled down to the river and watched a boat being unloaded of its cargo, by human chain.
We went back towards the pagoda and caught a cab for the Sule Pagoda. This pagoda is located in a roundabout and there is an overpass that you can use to cross the street. We just waited on a local to cross and followed her. Again we paid our fee, left our footwear and went inside. Despite the traffic all around, it was pretty quiet once inside. As this was the location of the wife’s Buddha image, that was a priority. The image was found and my wife was happy. The pagoda itself was nice and supposedly built before Shwedagon, during the time of the Buddha
One of the things I had wanted to do was look at some of the old colonial architecture the city has to offer. Having the wife along limited this as she hates walking. We did see some though as I talked her into walking to the Bogyoke Market. The thought of shopping put some spring into her step. My next trip, I’ll do more walking on my own and spend more time in the down town area.
As we walked down Bogyoke Road, the street became more and more choked with street vendors. The wife found some street meat that she declared as delicious. I saw a couple of the book sellers that Yangon is known for as we made our way toward the Bogyoke Market.
The Bogyoke market is a sprawling bunch of shop where you can find clothes, antiques, gems and more. It has a colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. My wife bought some fabric and got it made into a dress in another shop. In fact the entire floor where we found the dressmaker was full of small shops with sewing machines running. I ventured off to another block of the market, still upstairs, and found it packed with gem shops. One I looked at had trays of raw rubies, another lots of amber and jade.
One thing to remember is these little streets are active for traffic. If you get into a cab here they will drive these narrow streets which can be ground to a halt by a shop receiving a delivery. Once we figured this out, we caught all our cabs on the street outside. The market is also well known as a location for black market money exchange. I got hit on several times to change money, but for me the ATMs worked just fine.
We went back to Shwedagon Pagoda at night. It is even more impressive at night with the glow of the gold bathing everything. The stone floor was cool and there were more people than in the day. There are worship alters for each day of the week, two for Wednesday and we located the one my wife want to pray at. We encountered a small knot of people running all kinds of cameras at a couple and their child. I asked a security guard what was up and he conveyed to me that the man was a famous singer.
We hung out at the hotel until checkout at noon. The hotel couldn’t give us a late checkout as they were fully booked but did let us leave our bags until we were ready to head for the airport. The wife wanted to go back to the market, I wanted to hit another couple pagodas, we did both.
The Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda houses a massive reclining Buddha. Originally built in 1907, the original suffered due to climate and was rebuilt in 1966. The new Buddha is 65 meters long and housed under a metal roof to protect it from the elements. Monasteries on the grounds house a number of monks and the entry was free.
Our last pagoda was the Nga Htat Gyi Buddha, a 5-storey high seated Buddha image. Equally amazing is the intricately carved wood panels behind the seat Buddha image. Again, it cost nothing to enter. In the entrance to the structure were some illustrated consequences of different bad actions, called negative effects. One of those was the negative effect of adultery, another negative effect of intoxicant liquors. All made for interesting reading.
We went back to the market for some final shopping then back to the hotel. We had some lunch at the restaurant then headed out to the airport. After a painless check in and through Immigration, we wandered around the airport, looking at the same stuff we saw in the market for three times the price, just like any other airport. There were no beauty queen hopefuls on the return flight to Don Meuang but it was a good flight home.
I look forward to returning to Myanmar, probably next year. The country was inviting, visas easy to get, the ATMs worked and getting around was easy. Flights are cheap from Don Meuang Airport and there are lots more to see in the parts of the country that are open. I’m thinking about Mandalay, Bago and Bagan next time.
Great trip report! You have managed to do something which I don't think anyone else has – you've actually piqued my interest in visiting Yangon.