Excitement overwhelmed the desire to sleep… Mind fuzzy from the four hours of flitting slumber, I plotted my route and tied the laces of my walking shoes. Yangon awaited me, and I was ready to take in all her glory by foot.
First thing was first… I needed caffeine and plenty of it.
Tea houses Large coffee chains such as the Tea Leaf & Coffee Beanery at the Parkson Mall have already descended in to Myanmar, but with a thirst to sample true Burmese life, I went on the hunt for the quaint tea houses I had read about in the Lonely Planet guide book.
It didn’t take me long to find one of the many dotted around Yangon.
When the British colonised Myanmar in the early 1800s, they brought with them the custom of afternoon tea. To this day they are considered social hubs for friends, socialising over a hot brew and sickly, sweet snack. This particular establishment on the corner of 31st/Bogyoke Aung Sang Road did not reflect the colonial romance of a bygone era drinking out of china cups though… I pulled up a plastic chair, sat myself down at the steel table and browsed the laminated menu.
Oh damn! No pictures and no English; obviously not a place for tourists. I scanned the room for other patrons, all locals, and realised they were all unabashedly staring at me with curiosity.
My waiter was amused at my befuddled expression and in broken English, recommended my breakfast menu for me. God knows what I had agreed to… Bat? Snake? Gall bladder? Fried beetle?
Thankfully there was nothing untoward that tested my taste buds.
Traditional tea was served with a dose of sweet, condensed milk that gave me a sugar-rush, and breakfast came on a tin platter with steamed white fluffy buns filled with pork and a Burmese style sweet pancake, all for a ridiculously low 300 kyat.
‘Where you from?’ a girl at the next table whispered to me.
‘From Singapore,’ I half lied. I do live in Singapore but I’ve learnt through years of travelling, that the concept of being a British born Chinese only confounds.
‘Ah! Singapore!’ her friend gushed, ‘Many people from Myanmar in Singapore.’
‘ Universal Studio! McDonalds!’ their male friend chimed.
Hmmm… It’s a strange reverie… one which highlights the great divide between developing countries and the wealthier nations. We all crave a McDonalds, but we curse ourselves afterwards, promising not to eat the high-cal, processed junk in a hurry. To the Burmese, McDonalds is ‘Cordon Bleu’… an unattainable delicacy that represents an opening door to liberation and change.
The injection of sugar soon livened me up and I was ready to explore Bogyoke Market.
The short walk to the market was interrupted by many street stalls. It was a visual feast exploding in vibrant colour. Women sat on their squats, behind their wares of weird and wonderful… Rambutans, mangosteens and lotus seeds intermingled with a mad jumble of antiquities and second-hand book stalls.
Bogyoke Aung San Market
The market itself is housed in an impressive building with high vaulted ceilings. Unlike other bazaars in Asia like Bangkok’s Chatchuchakt, this was pleasantly subdued. I strolled the organised aisles devouring eclectic local products… Lacquerware, Mother of Pearl trinkets, intricate wood carvings, marionettes and colourful textiles… a display of Burma’s culture of arts and crafts.
Bogyoke has long been a ‘haven’ for selling jade, rubies and other rare gems that come straight out of Myanmar’s controversial mines… Controversial because in recent reports by Amnesty International, they are at the centre of severe acts against humanity. Reports suggest that for the past 50 years, mines have been under the brutal control of the Burmese military junta, where prisoners, including children are subjected to mine in appalling conditions. Following these reports, President Obama recently banned the embargo of Burmese rubies and jade; a similar edict was later adopted by the EU, but countries such as China, Thailand, Russia and the Gulf continue to be one of the biggest traders.
It’s crucial to highlight then, that the rare pigeon-blood ruby you may be eyeing, comes with a history of forced labour, systematic rape of young girls as well as ethnic cleansing.
Unfortunately until trading ceases, slave labour will continue to prosper. It’s a vicious cycle, but you know the saying… ‘Charity starts at home…’ Simply, don’t buy gems while you’re in Burma.
Aside from the gems, there are plenty of stalls selling paintings, lacquerware, wood carvings, shoes and colourful textiles. There are also coffee shops which is all part of experiencing the market. Take a break from the shopping and the haggling, rest your hot sticky self on a plastic chair and cool down on rewarded fresh fruit shake (without ice!) from one of the stalls.
I scoured my map over a light lunch of Mohinga (a fish ball noodle broth) and plotted my walk to Kandawgyi Lake. It was still too early to reach the Shwedagon Paya, best explored towards the late afternoon as the day cools and sunset approaches.
The 2,500-year-old golden Shwedagon Paya can be seen in the distance now, rising high above the lake. A pair of orange robed monks traverse the bridge towards it… I want to follow them, to soak in the awe of this wonderful scene but respite from the relentless sun beckons me to the cool, shaded canopy of a tree.
Besides, sunset is still a few hours away yet and I want to be fully recharged for what I know will be an unforgettable moment… Because as the sun dips below the horizon and darkness falls over the Shwedagon Paya, I know it will be a moment that will stay with me for a long, long time…
The call to the SHWEDAGON PAYA was deafening…Its stupa winked at me as the late afternoon sun set the dome ablaze in gold. ‘Come hither…’ she whispered to me from beneath my tree and I followed, hypnotised…
Quite simply put, this is the single most important religious site in all of Myanmar that should not be missed from your itinerary.
According to legend, the hill on which it stands has been a sacred spot since the beginning of time.
The central zedi is the most prominent feature. At 325ft and applied with 27 metric tons of gold leaf and thousands of diamonds, it is believed to enshrine eight hairs of Gautama Buddha.
Unfortunately the golden stupa I had come to witness was shrouded beneath a blanket of scaffolding and corrugated steel. It was going through its biennial process of being re-gilded. It was difficult not to feel disappointed; after all this was the major highlight of Yangon. Wasn’t I supposed to be feeling an epiphany? Spiritualised maybe? Elated at the very least? It was difficult to feel any of those things as coach loads of Thais and Chinese flooded the grounds for the ensuing sunset.
Around the stupa’s base are 12 planetary posts that relate to the days of the week. Yes, there are only 7 days of the week I know, but interestingly in Burmese Buddhism, there are 8 days of the week; some days are split into two parts – A.M. and P.M. which make up the total 12.
At the base of each post is the image of a guardian angel, and beneath this, an image of an animal representing that particular day. I was a Thursday baby, symbolised by a mouse – this I discovered on the free available wifi!
It is essential to walk clockwise around any Buddhist site and once I found my mouse, it was explained to me by my fellow mouse that 3 cups of water should be poured over the Buddha statuette to encourage good karma. 3 cups of water should then be poured over the mouse while making a wish.
I finally found my epiphany as the magnificent setting sun, sent ablaze the golden stupa and jagged spires in to a kaleidoscope of crimsons and burnt oranges. It was a magnificent sight that even hushed the colour coded coach loads in to a blissful taciturn silence.
Some practical info –
– Hours for tourists are between 6:30 am to 10:00 pm
– Ticket booths are located at each of the four entrances at the North, East, South and west gates. Entrance fee is US$8 or 8,000 kyat.
– Dress conservatively. Ensure your knees and shoulders are covered.
– As with nearly all religious monuments in Myanmar, footwear is not permitted. There are places to leave your shoes at the entrances but if you want to exit through a different gate, bring a plastic shopping bag with you so you can pop your shoes into that bag and carry it around with you.
Chinatown The 45 minute walk to Maha Bandoola Road from the Shwedagon sent a hunger coursing through my weary body. The streets were alive with locals celebrating the end of their working day; with a Myanmar beer in their hands, excited chatter added to the humdrum of the city.
The smell and sound of sizzling meat lured me on to upper 19th Street where a dozen or so barbecue outlets had spilled on to the street.
‘Come, come, come!’ a local man ushered me on to a recently vacated table, large enough to sit six people.
‘You’re alone?’ he asked me like it was an incredulous, preposterous position to be in. I think he almost regretted welcoming me in, sacrificing his table for 6 for this solitary traveller. A hush descended on the restaurant momentarily to take in this rare solo diner and I wanted to retreat back to my hotel for room service. I was tired. I wanted to eat in solitude without being scrutinised under a magnifying glass but I was hungry.
I grabbed a plastic basket and filled it with skewered fish balls, prawns, vegetables and what I hoped was chicken. My own pint of Myanmar beer was already waiting for me at my table for 6; the cool, light beer felt well rewarded as I guzzled it down.
2 beers later, my grilled skewers had still not arrived. The local man on the table next to me looked at me with concern and waved the waiter over. They spoke in Burmese as they watched over me. For a moment I wondered if I was upsetting the locals by eating alone, but in near perfect English he explained that my food was on its way.
This was something I noticed about the Burmese… their warm hospitality and concern that you’re enjoying every moment in their country. Despite a life ruled under an unrelenting military government, they seemed to remain loyal and proud of their country. Yes, it is a country run ragged by fat cat cronies who have no interest in looking out for its people, but as I thanked the local man who introduced himself as Thet, his beaming smile reminded me that ‘Without hope, faith and trust, there is no promise for the future. And without a promising future, life has no direction, no meaning, no justification.’