- Travel Topics
What was this vibrant and mysterious city? So far we had been traveling for 5 months and I can’t say culture shock had hit yet, until this moment. This city is bustling and alive, with bright colors – red, orange, yellow and loud vendors screaming in Burmese phrases in cadence. A sort of organized chaos. A fully functioning city amongst the dishevelment. I was overwhelmed. My senses were over-stimulated and not always in a good way mind you – sometimes the city smelled like rotten eggs. I didn’t know where to look, whose voice to tune in to, or what scent to follow. It was exciting.
Slowly, we made our way around the city center, jumping over huge potholes and cracks in the pavement, and dodging spits of dark red betel nut juice. The center is wall to wall people; vendors, buyers and mere pedestrians all crammed into a few small blocks. We each took a few elbows as we made our way but were too awe-struck to notice.
Men and women alike are dressed in logyis, the traditional Burmese wear, and the men’s teeth and lips are stained blood red from the betel chewing. Their faces are marked with a beige-brown paste – more formally known as Thanaka, a tree bark mixed with water and applied as a form of sunscreen and makeup. The footwear of choice, when they were wearing any, seems to be flip flops. Women can be seen carrying baskets of goods on their heads, displaying an incredible amount of grace and balance.
Perhaps here more than anywhere else we’ve been in Asia was a large melting pot of various ethnicities, which resulted from Burma being crammed between the titan countries of China, India, and Thailand. Stand two Burmese next two each other and they look like they’re from completely different countries.
The old colonial style buildings are in a state of disrepair however, if you can look past the dirt, litter, and dilapidation, they appear somewhat charming. It’s almost as if they’ve been purposely stripped of their paint and darkened, to create a more exotic, albeit poorer, look.
The streets are lined back to back with vendors selling anything you could ever want; hardware tools, clothes, dvds, toys, etc. Strangely, however, these side by side vendors often sell identical goods as if they are openly boycotting any sort of product diversification. This, I’ll never understand.
Little street side stalls are set up with trays of noodles and toppings, all things fried you can imagine. Still, we rarely found it to be an appetizing site, very much unlike the street food we grew accustomed to in Thailand.
As we walk around, eyes wide with curiosity, jaws dropping in awe, the locals wave and smile at us, exhibiting their friendliness, or perhaps just their own curiosity with seeing tourists.
So after months of dreaming about traveling through Myanmar, one of the few countries on our trail not yet fully exploited by tourism, we were finally here, and it felt just as real and raw as I had hoped for.
The city itself dates back to the 6th century AD, though at that time it was nothing more than a Mon village named Dagon. By 1755 it had been captured from the Mon rebels and renamed Yangon, and it was after this that the city began to flourish. In 1852, during the Second Burmese War, the British occupied the city and turned it into the capital of British Burma. The city remained the capital even after Burmese independence in 1948, until 2005, when the capital was moved to Naypayidaw. It remains the largest city and main economic hub of the country, with a population of over 5 million people.
Unlike Bangkok, Hanoi, and Beijing, there is not a ton to do in the city. Still, we kept ourselves busy.
This is by far the most popular attraction in the city and is most definitely worth a visit. This pagoda is the most religious site in the country and legend has it that the spot has been sacred since the beginning of time. The story goes that five lotus buds appeared on the hill, with each bud representing the five Buddhas, who would appear in the world and guide it to Nirvana. Two brothers brought eight hairs of the Buddha to be enshrined at this site, where the pagoda was then built. Historical records show that the pagoda has been here since at least the 6th century AD, and since then has gone through various repairs and natural disasters. It is the landmark of the city and a night is lit up and can be seen from many parts of the city.
Instead of taking a 3000 kyat ($4) taxi from the center we opted for the local bus, which was an experience in and of itself. Though a short (4 stop) ride the bus is packed in so full, passengers are hanging out the doors, and with a ceiling cutting off at 5’10 it’s not a comfortable ride for Western males.
Upon arrival at the pagoda, we made our way up the stairs. The pagoda complex is built in the shape of a cross, with 4 covered stairway walkways leading up to the top. At the ticket booth you’ll find local guides coming up to you to offer a tour of the complex for $10. We normally guide ourselves but this time chose to go with the guide and had a nice older woman show us around. This is the most important attraction in the city and we thought it best to get the full experience.
In Burma it is important to know the day of the week you were born, and there are 8 days, with a separate Wednesday morning for when the Buddha was born. At the pagoda, around the perimeter there are statues of animals, one for each day of the week. We were both born on Wednesday, and our animal is the elephant. Our guide explained to us the ritual of pouring cupfuls of water on to the animal as well as the figure behind for good luck. It was interesting to participate in this ritual as well as watch the locals do so as well.
Once while walking around, a group of young Burmese from the countryside asked us if they could take a series of individual pictures with us. Since they happened to be a large group of 20 or so girls and boys, this took quite awhile. I tried not to cry from having to stare into the sun for such a long time.
The Sule pagoda is much smaller than the Shwedagon and is located at the heart of the city center. The pagoda literally serves as a traffic round about so the atmosphere just outside it is quite hectic, though it is quite peaceful once you enter. Legend has it that the pagoda was built 2000 years ago to house a strand of the Buddha’s hair.
From the Shwedagon pagoda the lake is a short walk away and is a peaceful getaway from the busy city. There is a wooden boardwalk surrounding the lake which makes for a nice mid-afternoon stroll. From there you can see the famed Karaweik – replica of a traditional Burmese royal boat.
The Strand Hotel
For drinks on our last night we decided to visit the luxurious Strand Hotel. Dating back to 1901 this is the oldest and most famous hotel in Myanmar. Though not so impressive on the outside (compared to some of the other colonial buildings in the city) the inside is truly spectacular. After reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days which is set during the early 1920s I was interested in getting a glimpse of the British luxuries and splurges of that time. The cocktails go for $7 each, but a draft beer is only $3. If you’re in town on a Friday night stop by for their 5-11pm happy hour where all drinks are half price!
Walking Tour Around the City
With how vibrant and bustling Yangon is, the best way to experience it and take it all in is by walking tour. We followed the walking tour outlined in Lonely Planet as well as just aimlessly wandering around on our own. A good starting point is Sule Pagoda and from there making your way to the market, then to Chinatown (around 19th street) and down to the water (by the Stand Hotel). You’ll walk through various neighborhoods and districts and get a great feel for the local life.