We had been planning our six months of travel for a long time. It was something we were so excited about! We knew we wanted to go with the flow and not plan the itinerary ahead of time, but we couldn’t help day-dreaming and discussing about which countries we wanted to visit. Burma, the second most isolated country in the world, had both of us intrigued. We didn’t know very much about the country other than the general population wanted democracy and both Obama and Hilary Clinton had visited in 2012 to support this view.
We arrived to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) International Airport, a beautiful open air building of glass. Anjli and I quickly made our way through immigration as we had procured our visas a couple days earlier from a visa service in Bangkok. Just $10 each and it saved us a whole day plus a trip to the Myanmar embassy. We grabbed our bags and after a quick stop at the duty free for a bottle of scotch for me :), we made our way to the exit. Two pretty young Burmese girls were standing near the exit with a sign that said “Downtown Taxi $5”. After a few minutes wait for the taxi and loading our bags, we were on our way to downtown. The streets were nice and broad and there wasn’t very much traffic. There were a couple of tall buildings but the landscape was mostly flat with houses and offices scattered along the sides of the road. I commented on how the city seemed more developed than I had expected and couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. We got dropped off near Bogyoke Aung San Market and ended up at this wonderful guesthouse just outside of downtown near the Ayeyarwady River.
We dropped our bags and immediately went out exploring. Up until a few years ago, people were required to wear the traditional longyi (like a sarong) and pants are apparently a fairly recent phenomenon. We walked through busy markets with lots of street side stalls with people selling all manner of things. There were tons of street side food stalls where people sat in child size plastic chairs and stools around pots full of curries, noodles and vegetable dishes. Other street stalls had tons of interesting looking street meats that the vendors would cook for you on demand. I am a vegetarian and Anjli’s tummy had been upset so we decided not to partake. We did buy interesting looking fruits including bite size oranges and something that looked like small green tomatoes but tasted crispy like an apple but had the flavor of something I’d never tasted before. It was refreshing to see independent restaurants and stores, no McDonalds or KFC, no billboards for Coca-Cola or Pepsi.
After exploring a little bit, we hopped in a cab and made our way to Yangon’s highlight: Shwedagon Paya. I don’t think one can say that they’ve seen Shwedagon Paya. It’s probably more appropriate to say that they’ve experienced it. A 322ft (a little more than half the height of the space needle) tall gold gilded stupa that is surrounded by a compound of temples, Buddha statues, a museum and so much more. We arrived about an hour before sunset and started the hike up the west entrance to the compound. Along the steps, vendors sold bright and beautiful Buddha statues made of bronze, wood and stone. The ceiling above the shops held hundreds of frescoes that displayed images from the life of Buddha. We were overwhelmed by how beautifully constructed the whole place was.
After about a twenty minute hike up the steps, we arrived at the top. Coming over those last steps just as the pagoda came in to view was amazing. The sheer size of it is something that’s difficult to comprehend until you actually stand in front of it and look up at it. Anjli and I just sat at the entrance for a good ten minutes just staring at it…speechless…motionless. We took a few pictures and lingered at the entrance for another ten minutes before moving on. The sun was on its way down and the light was starting to change. The way it reflected off the bright gold pagoda, gave it hues of purple, red, yellow.
We walked around the compound viewing it from different angles while checking out hundreds of smaller stupas and Buddha images around the compound. There was a small museum that had pictures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries along with some history of the pagoda. Anjli and I are not at all religious. In fact we border on atheist/agnostic. The lonely planet guide accurately said that experiencing Shwedagon Paya could make you “question your inner atheist”.
After literally five hours there, we descended down the north entrance and hopped a cab back to our hotel. We finished off the night at an Indian restaurant over some dosas and ice cold Myanmar beers.
Yangon Walking Tour
The next day we decided to follow the self guided walking tour around the city center. We started off at Sule Paya, another beautiful gold stupa that is housed in a traffic circle in the center of the city. From there we made our way to a traditional Burmese Café where we had some tea and snacks.
We walked around for about thirty minutes checking out many impressive buildings including city hall, port authority, the supreme court, etc before walking past The Strand Hotel ($550 per night!), we met two little girls outside that were trying to sell us postcards. Anjli started up a conversation with them and before we knew it we were at a restaurant having lunch with them. Shakuntala and Kara were friends that lived across the river in a small village. Each day they would camp out outside of the Strand Hotel trying to sell postcards to tourists. Both of these girls were smart, bright eyed, with huge smiles and so full of life. We talked with them about Myanmar and the recent changes, what they wanted to do when they grow up, etc. Myanmar has a troubled past where military rule has been the norm for the better part of the last fifty years. Only recently has a semi democratic government been installed and the country has opened its doors to tourism. With a per capita income of a mere $435, the country is in dire need of investment and support. Shakuntala was 14 years old and spoke almost fluent English that she had learnt from her ‘foreigner friend’. She also spoke some German, French and a handful of other languages. She quit school when her father passed away in the 2008 Cyclone Nargis and started selling postcards so that her mother didn’t have to work. She wanted to open up a shop selling jeans – smart girl since the majority of Yangon’s population still wore longyis and a trendy few had started to wear trousers. It just broke our hearts to see such smart kids, clearly with so much potential not being able to realize it. Still, the country is full of hope and after decades of suppression, the people are excited about the future. Tourism and other industries are now booming in Myanmar. Investment from China, India and other surrounding countries should also help to make things better here.
After a fun lunch with the girls, we continued on our tour. After a few more buildings, we walked over to Little India where immigrants from the south of India have a small community. We saw Indians, Burmese, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, sitting in and outside their shops talking, smiling, making transactions and just living together. All of them, men and women wearing the traditional Burmese longyis. It’s quite a sight. Anjli and I sat down outside a lassi shop (yes, you can get lassis in Burma :)) on a pair of child size plastic chairs and enjoyed a couple of cold strawberry lassis just people watching, chatting with locals and hanging out. We had more than a couple people start up conversations with us in Hindi. The first time it happened, we were so surprised. An elderly Muslim man put his hands together and yelled out Namaste to us! The diaspora that Indian immigrants have created while mixing with Chinese and Burmese cultures is truly unique and just delightful to experience.
We finished our lassis and finished our tour back at Bogyok Aung San Market, where hundreds of vendors are selling jade jewelry. We walked in to one shop where stoneworkers were grinding away extracting beautiful jade Buddhas, bracelets, earrings from huge rocks. Anjli and I walked back to our hotel just people watching, enjoying random street snacks, loving the experience of being in Yangon. Our first couple days in Myanmar had been amazing but there was much more of the country to see and we were to be off the next day.