Unlike my unfriendly experience upon boarding from Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a flight to Yangon (short story of that here), arriving in Yangon and getting through immigration was a breeze. The immigration officer quickly stamped my passport and gave me a huge smile as she handed me back my passport. I did not expect that the next thing she’ll say would be “Mabuhay! Kamusta?” I smiled back, said “Mingalaba! I’m good!” and thought to myself, “This solo trip is going to be great!”
Yangon, also known as Rangoon, is the former capital of Myanmar and its largest city. It’s a mystery to me why Naypyidaw, the current capital, is not even on top of places to see in Myanmar. While in Bagan, I had a conversation with an American who’d been to Naypyidaw. She described the place as a spacious ghost town. It’s weird that a nation’s capital, declared as such a century ago, is like in isolation now.
Anyway, after breakfast at my hotel (Royal Star Guesthouse) along Mahabandoola Garden Street, I started early with my walking tour of Yangon and reached the Yangon City Hall in a few minutes. The white-painted City Hall reminded me of our Bulacan Provincial Capitol in Malolos, but this one's undoubtedly Myanmar’s due to its tiered roof and spires.
Just across the Yangon City Hall is the Mahabandoola Garden. It’s covered in grass and some trees but offered little shade. In the middle of the park is the Independence Monument, a symbol of Burmese independence from the British.
The Independence Monument
Sule Pagoda, as viewed from Mahabandoola Garden
A good shade within the garden
Between Yangon City Hall and the Mahabandoola Garden is the Sule Pagoda, which sits right at the center of the roundabout at the junction of Mahabandoola Road and Sule Paya Road.
Sule Paya road at the junction, with Bengali Sunni Jamai Mosque at the side street
Novice monks at the roundabout carrying pots for donations
To the east of Mahabandoola Garden is the High Court building, which used to be the seat of Supreme Court of Myanmar. The Supreme Court is now located in the Naypyidaw capital.
High Court building’s clock tower
My feet then led me to the small alleys of Yangon. I just strolled aimlessly and observed locals out on the streets drinking tea in “kiddie” monoblock chairs and stools, women feeding pigeons, monks walking, people on their way to work, rustic buildings, commercial buildings and apartments with flaking paint colors, whispering remnants of the past.
Was I too early for my early morning walk?
Locals having breakfast in monoblock dining sets
Pigeons are everywhere
Typical Yangon apartments
A sign of how Buddhism is a part of everyday life in Myanmar - even tree trunks hold makeshift altars for daily prayers
Yangon is the biggest city in Myanmar but the way of life here is a throwback. The back alleys are quiet and people seem to have a far different meaning of the concept of rush hour. They also have a unique version of a mailbox which comes in the form of a paper clamp attached to a string and left to hang from their windows that extends about one and a half meters from the ground level.
No mail for today
Fusion of old and new
And then the star of Yangon, and probably of Myanmar…the Shwedagon Pagoda. But before reaching the Shwedagon Pagoda, I took the Shwedagon Pagoda Road and passed by smaller pagodas, the Maha Wizaya Pagoda and the Great Arahat Sima Pagoda.
Maha Wizaya Pagoda is rather a newly-constructed pagoda, built in 1980. As with other pagodas in Yangon, Maha Wizaya is sparkling gold in the outside. Surprisingly, however, it’s a forest-feel in the inside.
Maha Wizaya Pagoda
With some googling, I've learned that the dome murals symbolizes Buddhist zodiac while the Bodhi tree is considered a sacred tree by the Buddhists.
Beautiful ceiling paintings inside Maha Wizaya Pagoda
Outside, it has become scorching hot so I momentarily sat at a gazebo-like structure just outside the pagoda and shared the shade with some Burmese kids. At that time, my eyes were drying up but I’m not sure whether it’s because of lack of sleep or too much heat or maybe both.
I wish someone would apply thanaka powder on my skin that time just as these kids have. They say thanaka serves as a sunscreen and has a cooling effect, too.
From the Great Arahat Sima Pagoda, the Shwedagon Pagoda’s south entrance is already visible. According to a small leaflet handed to me at the entrance, the Great Arahat Sima Pagoda is named “Maha Te Gom Ba Dat Khe Na De Thar Maha Thain Kha Sima”. I’d pay honor to someone not Buddhist or Burmese who can memorize this name in 30 seconds and recall the name in that order the day after.
Great Arahat Sima Pagoda’s pillars with mirror mosaic tiles and colorful blinking lights at the altar - my western guesthouse-mates dubbed them as the "Las Vegas" look
Finally, presenting you the Shwedagon Pagoda. From the southern entrance immediately at the end of the Shwedagon Pagoda Road, one has to take a series of stairs leading to the main pagoda. The stairway is lined by vendors selling Buddha images, flower pots, Buddhist charms and souvenir items. At the end of the stairway is a collection booth for foreigners. Entrance fee is 8,000 kyats.
Those interested to know Shwedagon Pagoda's history, please read. 🙂 This is the back page of the entrance ticket
At first, I thought that the Shwedagon Pagoda is a big big pagoda with small stupas surrounding it. I was right but I was also wrong because it did not occur to me how massive the complex is in person. It’s not only the display of vast amount of gold that is special but more importantly the manifestation of devotion the locals have. Shwedagon is packed not only with tourists, but also with locals. The spiritual side of the Burmese people is very much alive in this complex of stupas.
What for is Myanmar called the Golden Land, even coconut offerings are covered in gold! I wonder where the kids are taking these offerings after collecting them. Care for some fruit shake outside?
One of the sacred Bodhi Trees around the stupa complex
Here goes another Las Vegas-y look
The Buddhist tradition is to circumnavigate the stupa in a clockwise direction
A very organized groupie!
Public water stations are common in Myanmar
Around the main stupa are little Buddha statues labeled with Monday to Sunday. Devotees pour water over the Buddhas representing the day of their birth. Worshippers also offer flowers, flags, light candles, pray silently or in chants, as a sign of devotion.
I visited the Shwedagon on two occasions, the first in the afternoon I arrived Yangon just before sunset. Sunset at the Shwedagon is definitely not to be missed. As the golden light makes its appearance, so do the stupas gilded in gold begin to glow. The experience was simply magical.
Synchronized sweeping in the late afternoon
Golden spires silhouetting the golden sunset
The second time I visited was during the mid-day before leaving for an early morning flight to KL-Manila the next day. The Shwedagon complex still awed me on my second visit, but aside from the oohs and ahhs, was the ouch! Walking in the complex barefooted felt like being in a firewalk ritual. Speaking of barefoot, entrance to the Shwedagon Pagoda in bare feet is required, starting from the stairway entrance, so make sure to remember which entrance you left your shoes, or better yet, carry your shoes in a small bag so you won’t be wandering around looking where you left it.
The black crows add a sense of mystery to the meditative atmosphere of Shwedagon Pagoda
East of the Shwedagon Pagoda is the Kandawgyi Lake. A boardwalk runs across the lake, with views of the Shwedagon Pagoda and the Karaweik Royal Barge. The lake is evidently infected with algae, turning the lakewater into green. I’ve heard that projects are underway for the restoration of the lake but I hope that efforts will not just be of bioremediation, but of getting down to the source by preventing untreated wastewater discharges into the lake.
The Karaweik Royal Barge is a golden floating restaurant moored on the eastern shore of the lake. It’s famous for traditional dance shows that come with the dinner buffet.
Karaweik Royal Barge
Other things in Yangon that I would have wanted to experience but didn't have the time to do are:
- Watch traditional dance show
- Ride the Yangon Circular Railway
- Explore (or should I say window-shop) the Bogyoke Aung San Market
Overall, Yangon, compared to other Asian cities is still raw. People are curious of foreigners, but friendly and helpful. It might be crowded and dirty for some but its authenticity made me feel more excited to see more of Myanmar.
--Traveled March 2015