Yangon: Myanmar’s Largest City
After the one-hour flight from Bangkok, we arrived in Yangon on a blisteringly hot afternoon. We took a taxi out of the airport (45 minutes, 7,000 kyatts or $7), and things could have not felt more different than Bangkok. Whereas Bangkok is extremely modern, Yangon just feels different. Bangkok’s infrastructure makes automobiles a popular way to travel, as highways quickly keep flow going around the city, as long as it’s not rush hour. Yangon just has normal city roads that wrap around the chaotic city, where a majority of the cars are taxis. The taxi dropped us off right outside of our place to stay, called Cherry Guesthouse.
We chose the Cherry Guesthouse after a decent amount of research; it seemed that hotels in general in Yangon are expensive and lack the quality one would expect, but Cherry Guesthouse got pretty good reviews. For $27 a night between the two of us, we stayed here and were pleased with the cleanliness and quality of the place.
Yangon is the type of place where you can sit down and be entertained by everything going on around you. Men wear the typical dark colored longyi, a long-skirt worn rather than pants which are cooler yet covered their legs. The women wear colorful long skirts with matching tops. Street vendors are everywhere, selling anything from chicken liver with rice to cologne. At least one tea shop is on every block where men pass time sitting on the sidewalk in what I’d call a kid’s table, tiny plastic tables and chairs, sipping black tea. Women carry their baskets of products on their heads, easily balancing with no hands. The mix of noises top it off; between children singing from the school buildings and the honking of passing traffic, I realized that I am far from home.
One thing we did not enjoy was the dirtiness of the city. The air quality was pretty bad with some smog on some days. Many people chew a type of tobacco called kun-ya , which consists of a betel leaf, an areca nut, and tobacco. It produces a dark red/purple color and is spit on the streets and sidewalks. The stains on the street from the tobacco make it look like a paintball match took place. The streets also contain a good amount of trash. Finally, it wasn’t extremely rare to see large rats. In the several days we spent there, I saw two different rats running in between street food vendors. At other times, I almost stepped on roadkill which used to be rats. All of this was kind of a turn off for the city, but it didn’t keep us from enjoying what the city has to offer.
I was surprised by the mix of people in Yangon. When the British ruled the country from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, they brought with them many Indians. Because of this, Yangon has a large Indian population which means a big part of the culture is now also Indian. Indian food can easily be found anywhere in the city. One particular restaurant that we ate at, called New Delhi, was especially good. $2 bought a big plate of rice along with the typical Indian tray containing 7 different types of chicken curries and vegetable curries. It was a fantastic meal, making us feel more like we’re visiting India rather than Myanmar. The Indian influence also means that there are many Hindus and Muslims. It’s something that I had not expected before coming here, and it makes for a great mix of cultures, foods, and customs.
Yangon itself has two main tourist attractions, the Shwedagon Pagoda and the Sule Pagoda, which could be seen in one day if one desired. Many people spend just a few days and then head north to Bagan or Mandalay without giving the city a chance. But really, it’s a fun city just to walk around, people watch, and just enjoy all that is going on. But here are the main sights.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is the pagoda of all pagodas in Myanmar. It’s the most sacred place in the country and supposedly has been for about two thousand years. And it does not disappoint. The Shwedagon Pagoda ($8 entry fee) is about 325 feet high (99m) topped with a crown containing 5,488 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. Inside the Shwedagon are different relics from four different Buddhas, including hairs from the historical Buddha which were brought to Yangon from northern India in 588 BC.
We knew that the pagoda was supposed to be an incredible sight at night, so we arrived at 4pm, in time to see it during the day, during sunset, and also at night. After about an hour of walking around, we hired a guide who took us on an hour and a half tour with his too-fast-and-jumbled-to-understand English and his crude jokes. The good part about the guide is that he showed us the various places where the diamonds and rubies can be seen at night, as the lights reflect different shades of green, red, and blue. We didn’t especially like the guide, but he did give us some good information from the bits we understood.
An interesting part of Buddhism in Myanmar is that the day of the week you were born on, not the year or the month, is especially important. Each day of the week has its own animal, like the tiger for Monday, the Lion for Tuesday, etc. In case you don’t know the day of the week you were born on, many people even have books with calendars dating back years so that they can easily show you which day is yours. They’re quick to say who else was born on your day and if it was a good day or not. Chika was born on a Friday, the guinea pig, which is the same day as Barrack Obama. The Burmese love for Obama quickly shows as they tell Chika that she was born on a good day. I was born on a Wednesday, which happens to be the only day with two different animals based on if one was born in the morning or the evening. I believe I was born in the morning, so I am the elephant with tusks (whereas Wednesday afternoon is the elephant without tusks). Here is what my “Ruling Direction” tells me about my day:
“You are unpredictable and enthusiastic. You have a taste for danger and action that sometimes gets you into trouble. You are spontaneous and people love you for your passion. You are independent and like to be in control of all situations.”
Around the pagoda are different Buddha statues for each day of the week. The statue/fountain consists of 3 parts, Buddha in the middle, your animal to the front, and the spirit behind. The tradition, from what I understand, is to a cup of water on the Buddha, then a cup of water on the spirit, and then a cup of water on the animal in the front. Pour the water on the spirit five times, but continue with the Buddha and the animal for however many times may be your lucky number. Afterwards, light incense and place it in front of the statue. We each did this with our respective days of the week.
At night, the pagoda is brilliantly lit up. Unlike in Granada where the Cathedrals were dark at night, the Burmese know the beauty of something so unique and impressive to be illuminated. It’s the kind of sight that makes it difficult to leave. We sat around, people watched, and admired the incredible pagoda.
A cool thing about the Shwedagon Pagoda and, for that matter, most places in Myanmar, is that there are more Burmese than foreigners at the tourist attractions. Sure, there are still a good amount of tourists at the Shwedagon Pagoda, but the amount of locals who visit the sights is refreshing, especially after many places in Thailand where foreigners outnumbered locals 10 to 1. This gives the country a feel of being relatively undiscovered by outsiders. I have no doubts that this will be very different in 10 years.
The Sule Pagoda ($3 entry fee) is said to have been built even before the Shwedagon Pagoda over 2,500 years ago. It has evolved over time and is now in the roundabout of a busy intersection in downtown Yangon. I can easily say it’s the best traffic circle I’ve ever witnessed. It has been used as the main rallying point in anti-government uprisings in 1988 and 2007. Like the Shwedagon Pagoda, it’s beautiful to see at night, with the gold stupa lit up and almost glowing.
To the southeast of the Sule Pagoda is the Mahandoola Garden, a public park with the Democracy Monument right in the center. In the late afternoon as the sun goes down and the weather is cooler, this park becomes a popular place for friends to hang out, the families to picnic, and for photographers to snap some pictures. We spent a few afternoons here relaxing, reading English newspaper The Myanmar Times, and people watching.
Although the new mix of germs in Yangon gave us both stomach aches at times, we enjoyed the fascinating city. It’s never hard to find a restaurant or a tea shop to sit and watch life pass by, as the colorful people carry on through this interesting city.