I arrived in Yangon with high hopes and a ponytail but the stifling heat, rising to temperatures in the mid-40’s Celsius, made it difficult to enjoy. We were there in April, just before monsoon season, when a swell of heat had already engulfed the city, and heavy air pollution lurked above the skyline. But I was determined to make the most of our time in Yangon – the former capital city of Myanmar.
We spent the first day just traipsing around town with no fixed agenda – because, of course, those are the best days ever and the best way to get under the skin of any new city! We picked random streets not knowing what to expect at the next traffic light. We walked around blissfully aimless hoping to pass incognito, knowing all too well that was impossible given our features so flagrantly different. I noticed and reveled at how pretty the sidewalks were despite the age-old cracks snaking in every direction. At some time in the past, they were meticulously designed with elaborate mosaics making me feel like some sort of impostor for stepping on them so indiscriminately.
During our urban explorations, we found ourselves in the midst of a mini-rally celebrating Myanmar’s newly-elected president Htin Kyaw. The young hopefuls proudly wore t-shirts printed with the face of their president – a symbol of a better and brighter future for Myanmar. To share their excitement, free glasses of sugar-loaded artificially-flavored orange drinks, way too sweet for my palette, were given to passersby.
In just a few hours, Yangon had successfully planted its seed, firmly rooting itself in my curious mind; I was eager to let it flourish and to see what would blossom in the days to come.
It would be a huge disservice to write about Yangon without mentioning Shwedagon Pagoda – a religious icon among the Buddhist Burmese considered to be the most sacred site in Myanmar. Perched on Singuttara Hill, Shwedagon Pagoda towers above all of Yangon, watching over its myriad of loyal devotees.
The main stupa is covered in sheets of pure gold-leaves complete with a tip encrusted with thousands upon thousands of diamonds and other precious stones shimmering blindingly in the sun light. Once dusk settles over the city, the magnificent stupa is then caressed by the moonlight giving it a magical glow against the azure sky.
The mammoth pagoda is surrounded in perfect geometry by smaller less intricate pagodas and by 8 planetary posts (or corners) each representing a day of the week. The Burmese weekly calendar (in regards to religion not business) has 8 days with Wednesday split into two days namely a.m. and p.m.. Furthermore, each day/post is assigned its own animal according to the Burmese zodiac signs and each has a statue of Buddha (of course!). Devotees pray to Buddha and make wishes at the post representing the day they were born on. Part of the ritual includes kneeling and pouring water over the designated Buddha statue in the hopes he graciously makes their wishes and prayers come true.
WHICH DAY WERE YOU BORN ON?
Sunday = Garuda (bird/human creature)
Monday = Tiger
Tuesday = Lion
Wednesday a.m. = Tusked Elephant
Wednesday p.m. = Tuskless Elephant
Thursday = Mouse
Friday = Guinea Pig
Saturday = Naga (snake/human being)
I spent a few hours at Shwedagon Pagoda taking my time admiring its insanely ornate architecture but mostly eagerly watching all the activity going on. Monks could be seen engaging in conversation with foreigners to practice their English. Young boys dressed in shiny, pastel outfits embroidered in elaborate designs were carried on men’s shoulders to inaugurate the commencement of their time as novice monks. Sending their sons to become monks is highly regarded and is an honor for Burmese families. It’s also a way for impoverished families to offer their children an excellent education through the teachings of the monastery.
The marble floors were kept immaculately clean by young devotees/volunteers. Clusters of young men and women were bent-over sweeping and mopping the floors, their laborious efforts in sync with their joyful chitchat.
And, yes, there was even free WiFi at the pagoda!
I arrived in the late afternoon with the intent on staying until sunset which I highly recommend. The pagoda grounds became so alive and vibrant with people, their excitement permeating the air. Also, seeing the colors of the shiny pagoda change with the varying hues of the sunlight made for a beautiful and inspiring setting (and offered wonderful photo opportunities).
Daily opening hours: 4:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Entrance fee (for foreigners): 8000 kyats
Dress code: Both men and women are expected to cover their knees and shoulders (I wore a loose-fitting sleeveless blouse and it was fine). If your knees are showing, you’ll be asked to purchase an over-priced longyi at the ticket counter. Shoes must be left in a bag at the entrance – you won’t be allowed to carry them with you inside the pagoda.
First of all, let me say how much I love going to local markets, that is, unless they’re more geared towards tourists in which case I have less affinity for them. Enter Bogkyoke Market, the biggest in Myanmar. The day we went to the market, I had a spring in my step the whole way there but as I approached the market, my enthusiasm quickly deflated. Bogyoke Market felt more like a mall than a market.
Some of the shops offering an array of colorful longyis (traditional skirt) were clearly for Burmese shoppers but many of the other shops sold repetitive items aimed at luring tourists (in other words, over-priced souvenirs with questionable quality). There was also an endless choice of jewelry shops selling locally-sourced gems and jade products none of which appealed to me. I know I sound like a snob and, admittedly, I am when it comes to purchasing souvenirs from my travels.
So I was ecstatic (and feared for my kyats) when I found Yo Ya May! This small, air-conditioned shop filled to the brim with utter goodness is owned by the loveliest couple ever. They’re both Chin – a major ethnic population in Myanmar – and only sell handmade items. All their products are commissioned by the couple and made exclusively for them by the women from fellow Chin villages and from other ethnic minorities. Their two daughters run two other shops at the Bogyoke Market and some (but very little) of their items are sold by other vendors.
Naturally, I spent a good portion of my time at Yo Ya May not only choosing my favorite items (it was really hard!) but also chatting with the owners U Kyin Lam Mang (aka Pa Mang) and Daw Khun Shwe (aka Nu Shwe) who both spoke perfect English. If ever you go to Bogyoke Market, I urge you to pass by their shop(s) – you’ll find the most unique items coming from remote regions of Myanmar hardly visited by travelers – and the quality is unbeatable (at very reasonable prices)!
Shop vicariously at: https://www.facebook.com/yoyamayMyanmar/
CIRCLE LINE TRAIN
The Circle Train is a fun way to pass a few hours visiting not only Yangon but also the surrounding towns and countryside. The slow train makes a loop taking about 3 hours from start to finish. Given its obvious lack in velocity, some might not find this train ride stimulating but the interest mostly came from what was going on outside. Impromptu wet markets were set up along the train tracks and the entrepreneurial vendors scurried to the windows to sell their fresh products to passengers; with only a few minutes at each stop, interactions were swift and loud.
I also feasted my eyes on the greenest cultivation fields ever with vegetables I couldn’t recognize from afar. Straw hats bopped in and out of sight amidst the long strands of foliage – a definite contrast from the concrete jungle of Yangon. The train adorned in green stripes chugged its way slowly on the rusty tracks swaying like a drunkard making the journey, in my opinion, that much more fun!
Price: 200 kyats/person
Hectic, chaotic, polluted and crowded – welcome to downtown Yangon! For a true feel of the biggest town in Myanmar simply walk around its center while trying to avoid getting hit by oncoming cars blatantly forgoing traffic lights. The disheveled sidewalks were covered in food stalls and random vendors scattered about like the pieces of an unfinished puzzle.
The architecture in Yangon is unique in that it has a mixture of styles highlighting its history mainly the presence of British rule which ended in 1948. Among the dilapidated buildings streaked with black stains a few colonial-era relics can still be seen. Ironically beautiful in their decay, they’re a testimony of what Yangon once was.
Although Yangon has a serious traffic problem, I noticed there weren’t any motorbikes which is quite unusual in Southeast Asia. We were told motorbikes were strictly forbidden after the car of a high-ranking official was accidentally hit by a distracted motorcyclist back in 2003. It seemed like an odd (drastically dictatorial) reason but there really weren’t any motorbikes whizzing down the streets of Yangon!
Read more on possible reasons why motorbikes are banned in Yangon.
KANDAWGYI LAKE & NATURAL PARK
In the middle of the chaos and hectic traffic of downtown Yangon, a little peace can be had at Kandawgyi Lake & Natural Park. It’s a popular place for families to gather and for lovers to cuddle. Huge blossoming water lilies added a certain fairytale charm to this welcoming haven in the middle of the big, noisy city. On the eastern bank of the reservoir lake, Karaweik Hall, a replica of a royal barge, sits with its two mythological Burmese birds draped in gold seemingly guarding the premises.
After spending 3 days in Yangon, I can’t say I was enamored with its rugged disposition but it’s definitely one of those cities that leaves you longing for more.
Read all about my travels in Myanmar
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Have you been to Yangon? What did you like/dislike about this chaotic city?