Day 8-9: Yangon

by - May 04, 2014

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
A mixture of colonial and Burmese at Maha Bandoola Park
Just over a week landing in Yangon at the start of the trip, we returned to the former capital as our final destination.  Known as Rangoon by the British, who made it their capital, it remained so until 2005 when the capital was moved north to Naypyidaw.  Historically, the capital of Myanmar had actually tended to be in the centre of the country at many of the places that we had already visited - from Bagan to Inwa to Mandalay, and the position of a capital in the south of the country (so-called Lower Burma) was actually the exception, rather than the rule.  Regardless, Yangon is still the largest city in the country with a population of nearly five million people - four times larger than Mandalay or Naypyidaw, the second and third largest cities respectively.   The city is arguably the heart of modern Myanmar, but it has only really been so since British rule and there is therefore a clear mix of influences between British and Burmese.

Colonial Architecture

As the last stop on our tour (and as the capital), I wanted to spend a little bit longer in Yangon and we therefore had two full days to explore.  The first thing we noticed upon arrival was the palpable difference in climate compared to all of the other destinations that we had visited - it was not only hotter (in the high 30s), but it was also far more humid.  Anybody who describes Burma as a tropical county is only telling half the story, but Yangon is absolutely a tropical capital.  On our first day we decided to follow the Lonely Planet walking tour of downtown at a very leisurely pace with lots of coffee breaks.  This started by walking through the colonial district where the beautiful buildings built by the British can be found.  It must be said, that for all of its many faults, the Empire did leave a legacy of some absolutely glorious buildings - some of which have been taken over as government departments but many of which stand disused.  Amongst these grand old buildings is a street known locally as the ‘open air library’, which is full of street book sellers.  Apparently the Burmese are massive readers and the titles that were on offer are an indication of how far the country has come - books such as Orwell’s “1984”, or Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Freedom From Fear” can be openly purchased despite being banned as recently as five years ago.  At the end of this street is the famous 'Strand Hotel’, once one of the most luxurious hotels in the British Empire - up there with the Raffles in Singapore and the Peninsular in Hong Kong.  It has been through some bad times, but is now once again back to something like its former glory and has a reasonably priced cafe, where we were able to have a break in the blessed air-conditioning.

The Strand Hotel, Yangon
Our walking tour took us briefly down to the river (though this was admittedly not much to look at), before heading back north along the British grid-system roads until we arrived at the market district.  The markets are where the locals get their food and they are a mix of spices, fruit, veg, meat and fish - with the smell of the latter two totally masking that of the former three foodstuffs… Surrounding the markets are a fascinating mixture of religious buildings - Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques and Hindu and Buddhist temples, which are testament to how (rightly or wrongly) cosmopolitan Yangon became under British occupation.  After entering one of the Hindu temples and poking around the markets we were all flagging a little (the heat in Yangon was notable enough to make it into Noel Cowards “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” song - “the toughest Burmese bandit can never understand it, in Rangoon the heat of noon is just what the natives shun…”

Sunset over one of the city’s many pagodas
Inside the Shwedagon complex
Our last day in Yangon was to be spent visiting a few of the remaining sights while preparing for our various journeys back to Hong Kong (our group of eight would be returning along four different routes – two of the group had left last night).  After an interrupted night’s sleep in the unforgiving tropical heat, we rose late and got taxis north to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda – the most important temple in the country and one of the most impressive religious sights in the world.  I had passed nearby last night to watch the sunset but wanted to return to go inside.  At US$8, the pagoda is probably the most expensive attraction in all of Burma, but once you are inside and you see the sheer quantity of gold that makes up the network of stupas and shrines (not to mention the central pagoda itself), you start to understand why.  Unfortunately, having had to take our shoes off, we spent much of our visit running between shadowy areas as the stone floor must have been reaching temperatures high enough to fry an egg.  Local worshippers and monks were not spared from this either – definitely one of the design flaws in Buddhist temples.

Outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s house
With the Shwedagon seen, we felt we had done a good enough job of Yangon to do a bit more casual wandering before scuttling back to the hotel to make the most of the air conditioning during the unbearable afternoon heat.  By the time late afternoon had come around it was time for myself and Jeremy to say our goodbyes and make our way to the airport.  We had arranged for the company who had provided our driver to give us an airport transfer and were delighted to find that it was Jimmy, our driver for the whole trip, who came to collect us.  We weren’t particularly pushed for time and as we made our way north to the airport we asked Jimmy to briefly stop by at the house of Aung San Suu Kyi – where she was placed under house arrest for all those years.  Situated in a quiet, wealthy area, the house has no particular marking except for a range of flags and banners dedicated to her NDP party.  It was worth stopping by however as it is a place of great importance in Burmese history and something of a pilgrimage for admirers of the Lady herself.  Jimmy was obviously a massive fan – giving us a massive grin and thumbs up when we pulled up outside.  It was a fitting end to our time in Burma and very much felt like we were seeing part of a story that is still in progress.  I hope to be back.

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