Mingalabar, Myanmar!

It’s been over a year since I wrote a blog post. In that year, we have been working and having normal day to day adventures. It was a bit of an adjustment after nearly a year of travelling to come back but the busyness of work and home-life took over once again. It was both refreshing and tiring and reminded us of why we need to travel.

We caught the travel bug again and are currently in a country I absolutely never had an inkling to go to: Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). There is a small pocket of places tourists can safely go to which we have privately termed “the golden triangle of Myanmar” after the golden triangle of India, which we did two years ago. (Not to be confused with the actual “golden triangle” of heavy narcotics.) However, it should perhaps be termed the “golden kite” as there are four cities we have visited, and when drawn point to point on the map, form a diamond shape.

The capital is Yangon (Rangoon) and was comfortingly familiar to us despite being our first visit. We have both been to nine Asian countries previously so our first stop of Yangon felt a lot like it’s neighbouring countries of India and Thailand. The way of life difficult, the grimy streets smelly, the colourful clothing worn, the revered holy sites and the cheap local food easily found anywhere we walked. “Ah, yes” I thought to myself “we’re back in Asia”. The bill for our first lunch came to less than $10 and was more than I could eat. The fruit juice was flavourful and only a dollar fifty. You’d seriously pay $8 for the same thing in Perth.

Our first day we just rested and recovered from our long travel experience. We had saved money by booking a flight which left us in Kuala Lumpur (KL) for over 6 hours. We opted to go through immigration and customs and check into the Tune Hotel for a few hours of shut-eye. Definitely a hassle, but definitely worth it to lay our weary heads on an actual bed rather than trying to sleep in a noisy airport. Anyway, once in Yangon we were pretty tired and just walked around the block of our guesthouse and found some lunch.  We also briefly visited the Bogyoke Aung San market, which was a maze of jewellery, jade, gold, fabrics and puppets.

The next day we got up early to visit the all-important pilgrimage destination of the Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2,500 years old 326-foot-tall stupa. We happened to be there on a holy day for Buddhists so the place was crawling with people who were there to worship. There weren’t many gringos around like us, so we got approached to take pictures with people about a dozen times. It’s always sort of funny and flattering the first couple of times. I make a barter out of it by saying yes, but only if they’ll let me take their picture too. After about the fourth or fifth time you do it to be polite, and by the seventh or eighth you want to tell people to buzz off. Everyone becomes suspect…if someone eyes you shyly and then gets out their phone, I assume they want my photograph and purposefully look or walk away.

The pagoda itself was, of course, covered in scaffolding. This was made apparent to us only as we drove up in our taxi. I say “of course” because so many places in the world that Callum and I have been, the main site we want to see is scaffolded. It happened at Angkor Wat for me in 2011, the Taj Mahal in 2016, part of the parliament in Ottawa in 2017, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey in London in 2017, and others which I can’t currently remember. Anywho, though it was scaffolded in weird gold-coloured matts, it still looked impressive. It was interesting to see how locals were reacting to the site as well. Callum explained that it is the final destination of a pilgrimage Buddhists make and that they come from all over the country and the world. Which explained the fascination some people had with our white-ness. We could be the only white people they’ve ever seen in real life.

The most important things to remember when visiting a pagoda is to walk around it clockwise (we stupidly didn’t know this and walked counter-clockwise), to cover your shoulders and knees (I wore a long dress, Callum borrowed a longyyi to cover his knees), not to have shoes on, not to point your feet at Buddha, and to just be respectful in general.

Tourists have to register and pay a fee at a special desk off to the side of the main entrance and that’s where you can rent a longyyi if needed and also where you deposit your shoes. Having visited Buddhist countries before, we knew most of this so it wasn’t an annoyance. There is a long escalator which you can ride up to the top of the complex of temples and pagodas and the main event: the Shwedagon. The escalator is just as much of an attraction for some of the visitors as the actual main pagoda. We witnessed some people experiencing an escalator for the very first time in their life. They didn’t know how to get on and some older ladies fell! It was kind of hilarious and it was hard for me to not laugh out loud. It put into perspective as well how special this place is to the Burmese people.  Surrounding the Pagoda are day of the week “corners” where you find the day on which you were born, and wash the Buddha statue repeatedly in order to receive blessings.  Not wanting to be left out, we found the Saturday corner and each took a turn copycatting what the locals were doing.  I just wanted to be involved but don’t actually believe in Buddha.

After walking around the temple complex for a couple of hours, we decided to take our leave and check out The People’s Garden across the street. Now that was a strange place. It cost us 90 cents to get in and was like a theme park of bizarrely sculpted fruits and blobby characters with googley eyes and creepy smiles littered throughout the greenery. People were excitedly posing with these creatures and taking photographs. We wondered what they do with these pictures? There were different little mazed hedges and plants that offered some private canoodling corners for Burmese couples (making out in public is frowned upon), as well as several benches for people to sit and people watch in the open. After wandering around in a surprised and hungry stupor for less than an hour, we decided to go as there seemed to be some interested people in taking our pictures and by then I was over it. What do they do with these pictures? Why do they want me to hold their baby and smile for a picture? I always try to explain that I’m just a person; not a celebrity.

We found some lunch, had a bit of a rest and then went to a very swanky sort of place: The Strand Hotel. Now that would be a place to stay if your pocketbook could handle it. It’s not terribly expensive; only about $300 a night, but, for our budget, that may as well be $1000. Us travelbugs travel cheaply so we can travel longer, you see. The purpose of our visit was to have a drink or two in the bar, where famous people and authors have drunk before us. George Orwell (Animal Farm) stayed in Burma as it was called at the time, and when he did, he stayed at The Strand. The cocktails were very affordable for these Aussies–generally $7 or $8, (compared to $18 or $20 back home) so we splurged and had two each. It was entertaining to watch the bar staff make the drinks with so much flair and attention to detail. When I was presented with my Christmas cocktail, I gasped and remarked how beautiful it was. The bartender beamed with pride and bowed with thankfulness for my genuine compliment.

After our swanky hour at the Strand, we had a stroll to view the river. It was not much to look at but reminded us of where we met and hung out for the first time: the Mekong in Phnom Penh, also very unremarkable in appearance (and smell) but special to us anyhow. We just people watched and passed the time before heading to the next destination on our busy day of sightseeing: the Karaweik Palace where we took in a buffet dinner and cultural show. I must say I enjoyed the buffet a lot more than the “show” as I’m not so sure I have the ear for Burmese traditional music. The whiny flute and twangy harps are charming for about three minutes before you wish to good God that they could incorporate a melody into the tune, for heaven’s sake. But the costumes we saw and the interesting arrangements of dances was good background entertainment while we ate our meals. We humorously noted the other gringo tourists (Europeans) who were looking around with an air of snobbery, hardly able to mask their disappointment at the kitschiness on display. One middle-aged couple beside us looked so supremely unimpressed at their surroundings, we privately had a giggle about them. Just as funny, though, was the young probably South American couple on the other side who were in awe of everything and were just loving it. Their eyes lit up with naive delight when each new actor came on stage to display his or her intricate costume and dance. We snobbishly giggled at them too. If Myanmar and this cultural show were your first foray into Asian culture, you too would most likely be delighted. I was a bit sad that I wasn’t, but, so glad we went anyway, because I have FOMO and the Lonely Planet book said it was a must-see. I must see all of the must-sees, you see. And it was neat to see the palace itself, the outside of which I found beautiful and worth it.

Other things we did on the following days in the capital included shopping, seeing the Sule Pagoda, having a snack at the Rangoon Teahouse, viewing the colonial architecture and visiting an art gallery I had read about online. On this trip we also had some pretty amazing sushi, which we have auspiciously claimed “the best sushi we’ve ever eaten” but can’t be much of a claim, not being prolific sushi-eaters and never having been to Japan, but very tasty indeed for these novices.

Callum made another bold claim at the start of our journey: “I don’t think I’ll get food poisoning in this country; it’s like Thailand” (a place where we have never had food poisoning). It’s too bad he voiced this prediction as it seemed to have a counter-effect on reality and he suffered some pretty debilitating food poisoning for a few days and has endured the results for longer than necessary, due to not having the required medication. Also he has a weak stomach. I, on the other hand, have an iron stomach and never get sick. Possibly because I choose safe things to eat while Callum is more adventurous. I’m going to let you decide which is better: to be adventurous or sensible. Hmmm.

Yangon was a good first stop on our tour of Myanmar and one we will return to in order to fly out of the country. It’s a shame it’s so far from other points of interest for tourists, and therefore isn’t always on the list of places to go. I would say it’s a “must-see” of Myanmar simply because of the history and the Shwedagon Pagoda alone.


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