Myanmar – Yangon

Arriving in Yangon was very easy - taxi to the airport in Bangkok, trouble-free flight, and a surprisingly clean and modern airport at the other end. Daniel and I quickly discovered that the Lonely Planet (which by all appearances has become the de facto travel guide for everyone) was pretty out-of-date - while it advised avoiding the airport bureau de change, the rates were actually reasonable, and there was even an ATM which accepted my card. A good start! We met a lost-looking Chinese girl who we shared a taxi with into the city, and Luxi (who runs a cookery school in China - Rice And Friends) subsequently became the third member of our party for the next few days. After checking in to a hotel with a ridiculous number of stairs, our first day's exploration of the city started at Sule Paya - a temple in the centre of a major roundabout. This temple is a fairly good introduction to Myanmar Buddhist architecture - lots of gold, lots of Buddha images, and lots of worshippers using the temple as a general community space. I was often surprised to see people sat inside the main temple halls having lunch with their families. The central market was a good place to wander for an hour or so, and munching my way through a bag of mangosteens - though the preponderance of jewellery shops did lose my interest after a very short while. The final highlight of the day was the evening visit to a rooftop bar called Zero Zone. The location was pretty good - on top of a 5 storey building, with a pleasant breeze taking the edge off the heat. The 'entertainment' however, was something that really has to be seen to be truly appreciated. Called a 'fashion show', it involved a group of girls forming a line at the back of a stage, and then walking around to music, and wearing different outfits each time - though they were all very conservative by Western standards. It sounds fairly ordinary, but the Burmese music (if it stopped, the girls would also stop until the track was restarted), the utterly disinterested looks on most of the girls' faces, and the general atmosphere all made it quite a surreal experience. I was cynical, and thought it was a front for darker purposes, though Daniel was of the opinion that it was all as innocent as it seemed. A long walk to Shwedagon Paya started the next day - and long walks in blazing hot sunshine would become a key feature of the day. The pagoda itself was enormous, and surrounded by mini-me stupas, Buddha statues, and so much gold paint it hurt the eyes. As grand as it was, it seemed like the worst excesses of religious expenditure - almost a monument to how much money that people can be persuaded to give away. The bulging collection boxes around the site proved testament to the fact that money keeps pouring in. Cynicism aside, it was definitely a sight to behold, even if the requirement to be barefoot on stones which were being baked by strong sunlight often proved painful on the feet.
A veg shop on the street

A veg shop on the street

Sule Pagoda, Yangon

Sule Pagoda, Yangon

We moved on to lunch, then a giant reclining Buddha to the west of the city. This was again enormous - 66m long and 30m high - and while touring it we managed to pick up a guide, a monk on a sabbatical who wanted to practice his English. He showed us around the Buddha explaining various features, including some statues of 'nats', part of a religion which predated Buddhism in Myanmar, and was incorporated into their current beliefs. We also had a chance to watch some novices (eight years old) having theirs heads shaved before they started their (almost compulsory) first stint as monks. Sadly, at this point I started to get stomach cramps, and had to head back to the hotel. I had contracted something nasty, which meant that I had to spend the next week or so in fairly close proximity to a toilet. Not fun at all. Despite this affliction, I still managed to join Daniel and Luxi for a few more trips in the city, but really spent most of the remaining time in Yangon in bed.
The giant reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Temple

The giant reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Temple

Statues at Shwedagon Pagoda

Statues at Shwedagon Pagoda

Overall, the city of Yangon had a very odd feeling. I like to describe it with a fictional story: Between 1800 and 1970, a large city grew in Myanmar. It had temples, old colonial buildings, and newer blocks, and was bustling with life. Then a disaster occured. Plague, famine, civil unrest? Whatever it was, the people abandoned the city, leaving it to decay. Twenty years later, new people discovered the lost city and moved in to it - yet they weren't city people, they were country people used to living outside, and so they lived in the city as they had in the country - outside. Shop space was mere storage, and each day the goods would be moved on to the streets. Food was a shared experience, so impromptu restaurants opened on the streets with low tables and plastic kids chairs. The buildings? Well, they would be useful to sleep in, but the people didn't care to maintain them - they didn't know how - so they would continue to rot and decay, walls grey with mould or black with soot. Ok, it's a terrible story and probably does a great disservice to the people of Yangon, but it's how I felt - so there 😛
A decaying building in Yangon

A decaying building in Yangon

A baby at a ticket office - her mother was very proud

A baby at a ticket office - her mother was very proud

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