So my Myanmar trip was finally about to start. An adventure which I actually planned to do right at the beginning of my trip and which I then postponed due to a lot of uncertainties. Uncertainties in terms of planning, necessary budget and availability of accommodation due to high season. All the greater was my excitement about finally getting there – I had already heard so many good reports about it. I couldn’t wait to finally explore this supposedly still raw gem of South East Asia.
I had booked a cheap flight from Kuala Lumpur from where I had also lined up my visa. This was actually done within only one day via the local Myanmar Embassy and cost only 150 Ringgit or 35 Euros. Very easy and convenient. The flight was short and I was picked up by an employee of the hotel I had reserved for the first couple of nights. Good service and the hotel itself was alright as well. However, for 22 Dollars a night for a fan room it wasn’t cheap in terms of Asian standards. I conveniently arrived at around midday which allowed me to venture out right away and explore the city.
It was already during the first few minutes that I realized that this place is special. It seemed raw, a little rough and unspoiled. A little bit dirty but charming. And what struck me right away was the local fashion – the Longyi. A traditional wraparound skirt worn by both men and women. It was so unique and great to see, that a tradition like that is still being kept alive. I can say, that it was love at first sight, both with Yangon and Myanmar as a country. Another thing that was interesting was the availability of ATMs. What seems normal to most travelers is a very new feature of this country. Until just a few months, ATMs were basically non existent and travelers had to bring in their entire budget in crisp and clean Dollar bills. No need for that anymore…. Myanmar is changing rapidly, not only in terms of technology.
Unique Yangon and a rainy start
The rest of the day, I just strolled around the streets and back-alleys of Yangon. It is a vibrant city with a lot of energy. People are out on the streets, selling food, merchandise and the ever present beetle nut mix chewed by almost everyone. The back alleys instead were quiet and it sometimes seemed as time had stopped there. Buildings were rustic, showing their age but still having that special, raw charm that the entire city exudes.
A very distinct feature is Yangon’s very own mailbox system as I call it. The people have long pieces of string attached to their balconies or windows with a clamp tied at the end. This end is dangling just about a meter above street level. Every sort of delivery, from regular mail to the daily grocery shopping, will be attached to the clamp and then pulled up to the apartment. As locals told me, this is very unique to Yangon and can only be found there.
The night ended with a heavy downpour which got me stranded underneath a big hotel canopy. In the end, it was still rainy season and it was that moment that I got doubts if it really was a good idea to travel during this time of the year. A worry that turned out to be absolutely unjustified. To the contrary, it was probably the best decision to pick that season for traveling the country. More on that a little later in one of the following reports. I relaxed again and took some time to observe the street scenes and how normally the locals handled the heavy rain. They seemed to just accept it, live with it and go on. A mentality that the Burmese seem to have adapted to life and whatever life throws at them in general.
Magical Shwedagon Pagoda by day and night
The next day I met Miro from Manila in the Philippines who had also just arrived. We had breakfast together and decided to go explore the city together. We headed out and it was a beautiful day with a bright blue sky, the sun out and fresh air after another short downpour. We made it to the Sule Pagoda, a huge golden Pagoda which is the center of the city’s biggest roundabout and one of the city’s main sights. We went inside and strolled around along the local worshipers for a while. After a while we got approached by a friendly old man who offered us his services for touring the city and its major attractions. He wasn’t pushy, seemed very friendly and spoke some good English. Usually very skeptical of approaches like that, this seemed like a legit deal and we decided to tag along. We didn’t waste time and our guide took us to the local bus station to catch a ride to the city’s highlight – the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. According to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda has existed for more than 2,600 years, making it the oldest historical pagoda in Myanmar / Burma and the world. It is the most sacred site for Burmese Buddhists and everyone of them is supposed to make the pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime. We entered the pagoda via one of the two elevators leading up to the terraces. The whole complex is made up not only of the pagoda itself but by many smaller stupas and temples creating an incredible setup. I have seen a lot of temples until that point but this was special. I wasn’t only the sheer size and the amounts of gold displayed but also this very atmosphere. Busy but yet very humble and almost meditative. Worshipers walking around the stupa devoutly or pouring water over the little Buddhas and statues representing their day of birth. In other corners groups of monks and regular Buddhists were praying, others just chanting away monotonously. All of this combined with the amazing architecture and the intricate designs made this place truly breathtaking.
Our guide afterwards took us to a few other places of interest. Among those a temple with a huge reclining Buddha reminding me of the one in Bangkok and another temple which had been built to keep a strand of hair of Buddha. Well visited and just stuffed with mass amounts of gold. We finished off with a traditional meal in a local restaurant our guide had picked out. It was a great tour and the info we got from our friendly guide was priceless.
Miro had to leave that afternoon but my plan was to return to Shwedagon Pagoda in the evening to see how the atmosphere would be like at dusk and night. As I had learnt, the ticket for the pagoda purchased earlier was valid the whole day – including multiple visits.Usually these places unfold a certain type of magic during that time of the day and it wasn’t any different here. It was even more striking than I could have imagined. All of the temples and stupas were warmly illuminated and a row of candles and inscents circling the main stupa were lit. The light dimmed the golden stupa and its mysterious statues in a warm and magical light. The people around were sitting down, either alone or in groups, paying respect. Others were again walking around it saying silent prayers. It was great to just remain a little bit off, watching the many different scenes. It is hard to find the right words for that warm night in Yangon, but without wanting to inflationary use the word- it was truly magical. I just could not get enough of it and it was probably three hours before left again. It was this point at the latest when I realized that this trip would be a very special one and different from everything else I have experienced.
Riding the Circular Line in and around Yangon
I wanted to spend my last day in Yangon on the train. That is the so called Circular Line to be exact, a train that goes around the whole city and its suburbs for three hours. And the best thing, this authentic tour only costs one Dollar. Yes, one Dollar for a three hour ride. The government officials sell you the first class which is mandatory I suppose. First class is not what you would expect though. Just regular seats and not a whole lot of comfort. The second class consists of wooden benches on both sides of the wagon but that is where it gets really interesting. At every stop, more and more locals entered the train carrying their freshly harvested produce to go to the biggest market in the area. Riding in those compartments was way more fun and the best was, that you could even lean outside the doors. The wind in my face, those new and distinct smells in my nose, I enjoyed the views which changed from rural countryside to urban suburbs. It was a great ride and a good chance to get a glimpse of local life and a feel for the rhythm of this city.
Last thoughts …
Yangon as the start of my Myanmar trip was a revelation. The city is unspoilt, rough, rugged and still so raw. A lot of people I have talked to didn’t like it. Too dirty, too busy and too loud. But it all makes for a great atmosphere and a very unique setting. I always imagined Bangkok being like this maybe 20 years ago. The city features so many contrasts. It is spiritual with the Shwedagon Pagoda and the countless other religious sites scattered all over, it is dynamic with people living their lives on the streets and an ever present spirit of new optimism. At the same time it was almost surprising how friendly people are. Helpful, curious and very concerned for your well being as a tourist and all that without second thoughts. I guess I was already corrupted by all of the other countries I have visited. This was really different and very refreshing. Yangon was a perfect start of an adventure that had just begun. I couldn’t wait to see more of this country ….
A little advertisement or better a recommendation for the restaurant of a local friend of mine. Mads is a friendly and outgoing Burmese girl who had the guts to just recently open her own restaurant in Yangon at a young age. She serves delicious food at her joint “Green Gallery”, will give you good advice about Yangon and is always open for a good chat about her country and the world. Try it and get in touch with the locals. You can find Green Gallery on the Lower Block of 52nd Street. Support her and hit her up on Facebook if you want to know more.