Yangon, formerly called Rangoon, is the biggest city of Myanmar and was until recently the capital of the country. In 2005, the military junta unexpectedly moved the capital to the city of Nay Pyi Taw. However, Yangon still remains the undisputed commercial and diplomatic center of Myanmar. The city has a shaken history of destruction due to colonial wars, natural disasters and fire, but always managed to recover from the many perils.
Today, Yangon presents itself with a lively downtown full of colonial buildings with patina, a colorful mix of ethnics and some of the most beautiful pagodas of the whole country.
To get a good impression of the city, we recommend at least 2 full days, one for a relaxed walk, shopping along the streets of downtown, and one for visiting the impressive pagodas and monasteries. You can easily spend another day just visiting the National Museum. Yangon is our transportation hub to southern Myanmar. We take it easy and end up spending 5 days in total in the city. This allows us some downtime in our cozy “home district” called Kyar Kwet Thit Ward.
First impression: Something is missing
We hop off the night bus from Mandalay just to land in the middle of heated taxi price negotiations with very brash taxi drivers. The sun shines much hotter than in the lush and hilly greens of upper Myanmar and we sweat heavily in our long clothes from the 8 hour ride in an admittedly luxurious fridge on wheels.
Finally we settle for a price of 6500 Kyat for a taxi ride to our hotel in Yangon city which is still some kilometers away from the highway bus station. Only when we lean back in the taxi seats, we feel it: Something is missing here, but we just can’t put our fingers on it.
We pass by crowded sidewalks. Women in colorful sarees are walking their children home from school, an elder lady in tight jeans and a modern glitter top is carrying uncountable small shopping bags and a well suited man with a slim briefcase in one hand, having left a modern office building, starts immediate sweating in the midday heat. Small street markets are selling fresh local fruit, snacks or tobacco, and a group of laughing, veiled girls is taking selfies in front of a small statue. Tiled mosques, colonial churches and a huge white Buddhist temple mark our journey to the city center. Diversity is certainly not missing here.
North of downtown the large city lake Kandawgyi gives space for Yangon’s inhabitants to relax from the busy city lives in one of the many small eateries. Some gardens and a local flower market reside here, and youngsters are playing a spirited football match on the meadows near the lake. Yangon is not lacking of greens, either.
The streets are crowded with trucks, buses and cars, traffic is extremely slow, and the taxi’s AC does not work. When the traffic is stuck and there is a sales stand nearby our driver jumps off the car to buy a cigarette or some paan from a small stand on the road side. Sometimes he slows down and opens the door while driving, in order to spit out a great portion of red saliva on the dirty street sides (read here our post on paan chewing).
Did I say dirty? Well, the record keeper for the dirtiest city we have ever seen is still New Delhi, India. Yangon has the luck to be close to the Indian Ocean. The sea breeze carries a lot of the city’s exhausts out of the city. However, stinky garbage, standing wastewater and the desolate condition of pedestrian walkways remind us well of India’s capital in terms of tattiness. Dirt is certainly not what’s missing here.
Wait a moment, what did I just write? The streets are crowded with trucks, buses and cars? And there it is! We see a round sign that clearly pictures: “No motorbikes allowed” And there is none! That’s what I missed.
It is unbelievable that we are still in the middle of Southeast Asia. The streets are still overcrowded and stop-and-go is normality throughout the day, all according to the standards. Everybody without an own car goes for a taxi now. Good for us: Downtown taxi prices are pretty affordable as there is a lot of competition.
Read the full article on the rumors in the Myanmar Times
Having checked in at our hotel, we start walking through heat and traffic towards the first temple.
The Big Reclining Buddha in a Tin Hut
… is officially called the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda. A 65m long and 16m high Buddha statue reclines down to find his last sleep before entering Nirvana. Before he lay down he has fallen into a 16-year old girl’s vanity case resulting in pink toenails, long voluminous eye lashes and sparkling jewels on the head and in the face.
Contrasting the accomplished statue a profane tin roof protects it from the elements.
We take a moment to understand the sheer size of the statue. As we walk around we discover an interesting panel at the feet of the reclining Buddha. It explains the symbolic meaning of the Lord’s golden sole inscriptions.
Must-see: Shwedagon Pagoda
Yangon’s most emblematic landmark is brimming with mirror tiles, blinking LEDs, hundreds of Buddhas, gold-covered stupas… and tourists. Nonetheless you should not pass on stepping up the steep stairs to the Shwedagon Pagoda: Get yourself dosed on gold leaf radiation from the pre-emanent golden stupa in the middle of the temple site!
Legend says that the pagoda is more than 2500 years old. Old handwritings from Buddhist monks prove that the pagoda has already been erected before the death of the historical Buddha Siddartha Gautama in 483BD.
Some hair bushes of Buddha are the reason for building up this magnificent temple site full of diverse Buddha statues and mirror tiled temple interiors. The hair relic has been washed in a special washing tub, also found on site. Then it has been walled in the golden main pagoda.
Because of these relics the temple is a very active religious site. Many monks, nuns and ordinary people worship their “birthday corners” that are erected around the huge golden stupa. They present baskets of incense and coconut to the many Buddha statues.
We pull the cameras out of our pockets and make a challenge out of who takes the best pictures of the site without tourists!
The Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda
Inside the Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda sits a large, white Buddha, surrounded by birthday shrines. In his back are very finely worked wood ornaments. His size is stunning and his statue has a lot of shiny details to discover!
Next to the huge Buddha a row of interesting statues in glass showcases depict several holy “stereotypes”. For example you will find a statue of the “Mother” or the “Student”. Depending on which kind of bless you need, you will address the corresponding figure with a prayer. A pregnant woman will pray to the “Mother” for strength and health, and before writing an exam you might want to ask the “Student” for celestial intervention.
The monasteries around the Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda
A nice man talks us into a tour through the many monasteries in the narrow, hilly alleys around the Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda. For the next one and a half hours he guides us around the area full of monasteries in a mix of newly built houses and very old and beautiful ones from colonial times. Definitely worth seeing!
Our guide explains that in this area about 700 monks keep up 47 monasteries. There are nun’s monasteries, too. About 200 nuns live here.
We are even allowed to enter the praying and living spaces of one monastery!
There are three larger common rooms:
One room is for receiving visitors and the monks also use it as recreational space.
The second room is the meditation room. A small Buddha figure is erected here.
We are surprised to see some sofas and a TV, fully equipped with DVD player and a game console, in the third living room, which is used a study and dining room. Not all modernity can be kept away from a monk’s lifestyle J Two large woodworked chairs are reserved for the monastery’s master and an occasional same or higher ranked guest. This is also the room in which the monastery’s master gives lectures to his monks.
Next to the visitor’s room are smaller sleeping rooms and the facilities. One bedroom is shared by three to four novices. There is only space for a mattress and a small bag of personal things. When you get older you will sleep in a room that is shared with less people or even more spacious. The monastery’s master has an own room, of course.
A monk leads a very modest life – or: “All that brooming”
Early morning at 4.30am a monk’s typical day starts.
After getting up and before sunrise he does his duties according to his responsibilities. Novices broom and clean the house and gardens or help preparing the breakfast tables. The monk goes out into the streets with his brothers in order to beg for food and give blessings to the families offering food.
You can watch this every morning when you get up timely: At 5 o’clock (or short before sunrise) rows of people are waiting in the streets, kneeling down with food in front of them. They wait for the procession of monks walking by in single file and holding their begging bowls towards them. The people then place their food offerings into the monks’ food bowls. Sometimes this row of monks stops and sings a short mantra for the people.
The food the monk has collected at dawn must suffice for the whole day, and the first taste he gets from it is at breakfast at 6 o’clock.
From 7 o’clock starts the prayer hour, followed by Buddhism classes until noon (or state school for the younger ones). The monastery’s master or a guest monk teaches lessons about meditation and interprets the Holy Scriptures about Buddha together with his scholars.
After Midday’s lunch the monk typically attends language classes until 5pm.
From 5 to 6 o’clock he has a full hour for homework and duty.
After another prayer hour at 6pm the monk has leisure time, can read or do some special duty ordered by the master.
At 10pm the lights go out. In the next morning the monk will start his new day in the exact same fashion as the day before.
You may wonder, but there is no dinner time. Why? Buddha found one of his monks getting into a troublesome situation with a party of robbers after dark. He decided it is better for a monk’s safety to be back in the monastery after 5pm (when it’s getting dark). In Buddha’s times it meant that the monk would not beg for dinner and would not get anything to eat after this hour. This tradition is kept alive until today. Well, an ex novice from Kengtung told us he and his young brothers used to hide away some yumyums (presented secretly by their mothers) for a dinner in the dark: “After all that brooming you get really hungry. We were starving.” Sometimes rules are meant to be bent…
It is hot in Yangon. The midday sun burns into the eye. Even sunglasses are of no help at this intense light. We follow the proposed walk in the Lonely Planet and find it very satisfying: We get to see a calmer area full of great colonial buildings and later “Little India”, pretty much contrasting the calm colonial area.
We start at the Sule Pagoda. This pagoda stands in a peculiar place: it is set up as the center of a busy roundabout, surrounded by small shops, dense traffic and thousands of doves. Locals feed them here. Alongside the green meadows of the Maha Bandoola Garden we turn right into the street of the same name. The street is blessed with many large, partly restored 19th century buildings and reminds us a bit of the facades of a large European city like Paris or Budapest. Beautiful!
A short detour takes us to the Strand Hotel, the five-star place in town, where Orwell and Kipling have already stayed. Inside, at the shop section, is a small gallery showing the works of local artists. Worth a visit and entry free!
Other old and run down colonial buildings are beautiful in their shabby state: overgrown with green moss and partly windowless the red brick buildings make a nice backdrop for pictures.
Unfortunately we cannot see much of the Palace of Justice. It is fully covered with construction scaffolding due to restoration. How metaphorical for this country.
We also pay a visit to the Yangon stock market building. The officials put funny “do not spit betel” signs around the purely white building.
We walk back from here and once at the pagoda roundabout, head west towards Little India.
Entering Little India you will notice that the streets are ordered like a comb: many narrow alleys branch off a broad main street. The sidewalks of this colonial part of Yangon are in bad condition and narrow (take care where you put your feet and make sure it is not a deep hole) and stuffed with sales stands that sell everything you can imagine from oranges and betel nut over Chinese lottery tickets to mobile gadgets. The rain washed houses are covered by a layer of satellites. Busy people crowd the passageways between countless sales stands. The dove-covered Khali temple looks very Indian, indeed: Overly colorful figures on the roof depict crazy Hindu monsters and deities. Everything is very busy, narrow, colorful and dirty. It reminds us very well of an Indian city. We like that.
Where there is dove, there is market. And doves are practically everywhere! As we approach the Bogyoke Market our noses are filled with the smell of fried chilies and tasty, slurmy mango lassi, all offered from local salespeople on the street side.
Hungry from all those impressions we won’t regret a stop at the New Delhi Restaurant. Two days later we return for another dose of dosa. At this point of our travels I diagnose our weakness for Indian food.
We pass by a market hall that contains the cloth and blanket department. Making our way through the narrow passages people look at us curiously and smile: we are the only tourists here.
At Yangon’s beautiful Bogyoke Market we see some other tourists, few as there may be. The market houses consist of two stories of cozy colonial shop halls, decorated with green metal elements. Nice souvenir shops present themselves here.
In the streets around the market a lively food court serves the hungry with a variety of snacks and drinks. This is the place where tourists gather to get a culinary impression of the country. Juice makers serve a variety of refreshments to the provided plastic tables in the streets. Sometimes a car squeezes in between visitors and stands. It is crowded and busy, just after our taste!
The National Museum
We have some spare time left on our last day in Yangon and decide to visit the National Museum. The museum’s vast collection spreads over five large floors and is really worth a while! The exhibits are well described in English language.
Amongst the exhibits are beautiful thrones from Royal times and many more Royal household items: Silver beds, tablecloth, brocated clothing and golden betel bowls. On another floor you will find a choice of fossils, mineral stones and meteorite rocks, including Neolithic tools. Wood works and ethnic musical instruments from different parts of the country cover another story. A variety of Buddha statues and paintings from local artists are found. Short: Reserve some time for a visit, there is much to discover.
There is plenty of choice of good value-for-money midrange (20 – 40$ per night per room, including breakfast) hotels. If you like to sleep during the night, better find a hotel out of quirky downtown. We were very happy settling down in a hotel a bit out of the traffic chaos and people crowds in the relatively calm area northeast of the Kandawgi Lake.
A nice tour guide
TUN KYI is a knowledgeable and licensed tour guide with lots of experience. He knows French, German, English, Italian and Spanish, has travelled to other countries and can do translation works, too. Talking to him is very enjoyable and here is his contact data:
Email: email@example.com Tel: 95-1-572184 or 09-254178938
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@Edit: Added missing pictures. 19.08.2016