Yangon and it’s fabulous streets. They are a mix of colors, temples, people, sometimes overcrowded, sometimes empty, full of beauty, of poverty, yet have these amazing crumbling old colonial buildings and houses, hiding behind courtyards and high gates, which were once rich and grand, where you just want to adventure yourself until you see a dog running up to you, with the housekeeper looking at you from afar thinking “I’m watching you young lady”… And there’s the smell, this smell of Betel that you quickly get used to and that, if ever you were to smell again elsewhere, you would think back to it with tenderness and would always tie you back to your Burmese adventures.
What one doesn’t obviously get used to, and that goes for all of Myanmar, are seeing the Burmese spitting out the Betel and leaving great big red stains on the floor. What’s Betel you’ll ask. It’s the equivalent of the coca leaf for the Bolivians, but even more harmful, or simply, a cigarette. Betel contain areca nuts, wrapped in a betel leaf coated with slaked lime. Some contain tobacco. Spices may be added for taste in different parts of Asia, including cardamom, saffron cloves and sweeteners. Sounds pretty inoffensive and natural, but it’s actually a huge threat to the country. Almost every men, starting when they are very young, chew Betel, which gives for sure a very nice red smile, but more importantly, oral cancer. Read more. Anyhow, it still has that unique smell that embalm the city.
In the streets you’ll also always find hours of traffic jams, lines and lines of cars. The city is always packed with them. There’s a reason to that: unlike the rest Asia, no scooters are allowed in Yangon. There are many urban legends around the why they are banned in the city. The version I heard is that a high General died in a motorbike accident or was killed by one, so bam, they were Prohibited!
4.45 am, alarm clock rings. 5.15 in the taxi. 5.45 at the airport. 7.15, plane takes off. 8 am, with the 30 min times difference, I was in Yangon. I was so excited to finally be here !!!! New country I couldn’t wait to visit.
Really good first impression; I’m really surprised how well the taxi speaks English. First thing I want to do, cause I’m exhausted from getting up at that early, the circle line. It’s a local train that goes around the outskirts of Yangon. Wasn’t as busy as I expected, but the experience is there. Very local. People jumping on and off the train, throwing their bags of fruit, snacks, eggs or bits and pieces of everything, as it was still moving. It was an incredibly organised mess. Everyone is so smiley, but so shy, it’s quite funny. Towards the end of the 2h30 ride, this guy smiles at me, kind of giggling, like a lot of them do… he finally took the courage to come up to me to ask if we could practice his English. Once again, very surprised by the pretty decent level of English.
Went back to the hostel through the Scott market. Not immensely fascinating, but if it’s your last stop in Myanmar, I guess it’s the good place to buy your gifts.
After a little rest, I decided I wanted to get to the Shwedagon Pagoda (which I can finally say straight, after spending months saying Shwebaba, Sudabon or the big pagoda in Yangon… It’s actually not that difficult: SHWE – DA – GON). By the way, it can be useful, Paya is the Burmese word for Pagoda.
Before getting there I stopped to eat Feel Myanmar Food and had my first Tea leaf salad. It’s so good! It’s a mix of tea leafs, peanuts, tomato, garlic, chili and some other things I don’t remember. I loved it! More on where to eat and drink here.
Continued and finally got to the most famous pagoda in Yangon. One thing to know when you visit Myanmar, is that one should always go around with a plastic bag. Obviously I didn’t know that on my first day and I was asked to buy a plastic bag to put my shoes in (no shoes allowed in Pagodas and Buddhist temples). I was probably slightly scammed on that one, because for sure they wouldn’t ask Burmese people to do that…
Once I walked up the couple of 100 steps or so up the pagoda, it was already late and it’s 8$ to get in and I wanted to make that most of it, so I decided just to have a walk around it and I would come back the next day.
On the way back to the hostel, I stopped at the Sule Pagoda, which I didn’t think much of and went to bed !
Wondering around, I bought my first Longyi (women’s traditional Burmese skirt) for 8000 kyats, which is decent!
Walked back in front of Sule Pagoda, still didn’t think much of it. In front, you have something that just looks like a small copy of the Washington Monument, which is funny. As I was observing thing “interesting” copy, a kid dressed as a Monk came up to me asking me for money, which I found rather strange… yet it’s true who could resist any requests from a young monk? Well I was happy I could, because I had learnt my lesson! Indeed, I had been told in Chiang Mai that the monks could never ask for things, whether it’s food or anything else; they give you hints, but, supposedly they never ask. And I was right! Indeed, The Vinaya (the regulatory framework for the monastic community of Buddhism) prohibits monks from asking for money and it’s a common scam, so don’t forget it!
Walking in front of the “Government Telegraph” building was like being in an old colonial city, that had long been deserted by the colons (in this case, they were actually chased out, but that’s a detail).
Just before getting to the Botataung Pagoda, I stopped in one of these tiny street kind of restaurants, so characteristic from Myanmar, to have lunch. A Typical Burmese meal is composed of loads of small plates of meat, corn, cucumber, other vegetables, soup and a big plate of rice. Yummy yummy!
Botataung Pagoda is a famous stop in Yangon because it’s supposed to, or rather sorry, it does, enclose one of Buddha’s tooth or hair. It’s quite unusual. The walls are covered in gold and protected by glass, where people can slip in money.
I was keen on a drink and I had read about Monsoon, which was near by, so stopped there. So funny… It’s say is kind of local… but for the upper class local. It’s a chic bar/restaurant, with a colonial style, relatively expensive, but if you’re fed up with the cheap little local restaurants and want to treat yourslef a bit, it’s a nice place.
Then headed to Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple. It houses one of the biggest Buddhas I have ever seen! It’s huge!! Tall, large, long, enormous! Very impressive, not only by the size, but also by its ornaments. People praying next to it looked so tiny. The surroundings and the view are also pretty impressive, a mix of jungle, city and temples.
The walk to Kandawgyi lake was beautiful. Old narrow back streets, saw these big old houses I was mentioning. I was pushed back 100 years earlier. Not at all city like.
The park around the lake wasn’t anything too special, but it led to the Shwedagon Pagoda. The important thing was to get there not too late, to make the most of seeing it in the sunlight, but not too early to stay there for the sunset and see its face at night time.
There’s a long and busy avenue that runs up to the pagoda. Its full of small shops, street food, other smaller temples and full with people either going to the temple, or busy selling stuff or doing whatever it was they were doing. The one thing that caught my eye even more that all the rest happening, was 2 kids playing a mix of tennis and ping pong on that street, but with stacks of flat wood. Jees one realises how lucky we are, but, even though it didn’t look like it was working too well, they seemed to be having fun.
Finally got up, again to the pagoda, WITH my plastic own plastic bag this time. It’s a truly stunning and fascinating place, not only thanks to the magical glow that, in turns, the day and night light gives on the reflecting gold, but also thanks to the life that #Burmese people bring to it: young in love couples, families bringing their small children, groups of young Buddhist monks hanging around, friends saying their prayers or just farang soaking in the atmosphere…
I sat on the floor for a while, observing that gigantic dome covered with gold, dressed in my new purple Longyi and barefoot, as it is the usage in holly places. It was a hypnotizing setting and I was alleviated by the beauty of the place, where Myanmar’s soul was beating. It isn’t just a temple, it’s all an organization, perched up on a hill, dominating Yangon. It’s a real labyrinth of cupolas, sanctuaries, domes covered with gold, prickling with needles on their top. They say, the Shwedagon encloses within its heart, 800 of Buddha’s hair. Legend wants that when the hair was moved from its sacred tomb, to be buried under this dome, their unveiling gave back sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. The earth trembled and the trees of the Himalayas covered themselves with flowers and fruits.
Went back for diner to the Feel Myanmar Food to have my Tea leaf salad and some dumplings again. So good, again!
As I was heading back to the hostel, I made a detour to go and see the Yangon Strand Hotel. A friend of my father had told me to swing by the hotel, that he had stayed at when he had visited Myanmar 20 years ago. I mean, Myanmar for me was already an adventure, but compared to his 20 year old stories… So jealous! Anyway, why The Strand? The Strand is one of the jems of Yangon, left behind by the Brits back when they controlled the country, and testifies form a glorious and prosperous time. I have to say I was a bit disappointed because it was under renovation when I went, so couldn’t visit it…
⇒ To stay:
Four Rivers Hostal : it’s an alright hostel. Common area is quite small, but people where nice. Good price, clean and well located. .
⇒ Get there and away:
From Yangon, you can go more or less anywhere: Mandalay, Inle Lake, Golden Rock, Ngwe Saung beach, Malawayine, Bago
⇒ More useful links for Yangon: