Wednesday 17th April 2013

Myanmar or Burma to rest of the world sits between Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. To many people, this is simply a place known through the news of Aung San Suu Kyi, or through the poems of Rudyard Kipling most notably ‘Mandalay.’

A map showing where Myanmar (Burma) is in relation to Thailand

I had decided to venture out here for a holiday mainly because of the history of the place and the fact I’d been intrigued by the notion that very few people had been out here since the military took over back in 1962 and I presumed nothing much would have changed since then. But there was something much more compelling about Myanmar and that was Bagan. Yes, Began had captured my senses and the fact that many of my students came from this country and they told me lots of stories and even harrowing accounts concerning British rule, although in reality there was a lot of respect for the British too, especially for Field Marshal William Slim, who commanded Britain’s ‘Forgotten Army in the World War II, came across as being their hero of the day.’

Yangon International Airport 

Pinky, one of our graduate students had agreed to meet me on my arrival. She came with her mother and they offered me a quick guided tour of Yangon. I can’t tell you how honoured and privileged I was of this, to kick-start my vacation in this wonderful mysterious country, they now called Myanmar.

Pinky and her mother, a diligent student and a wonderful mother

Pinkey’s mother helped to organise my accommodation. She knew the area well, but when we saw my guest house she stated, ‘You’re not staying there.’ It looked like a cross between a brothel and a hovel and situated in a quite rundown neighbourhood. She and the driver discussed possible options for me, bearing in mind what my budget was. We tried another place, but they charged $50 US dollars per night, which was well above my limit and anyway they were full.

The second place was the Nagon Hotel, meaning Red Lion, so I was informed. It was positioned across from the harbour area and some nearby old warehouse. The hotel looked onto the Yangon River and by the look of things, it was a busy waterway with many boats docked up, with some being under repair. The road in front of my hotel was equally busy, but certainly not as busy as the roads in Bangkok and my hotel seemed well organised.

Pinky and her mother then decided to take me around the sights of the town. First, they took me to see the huge golden Shwedagon Pagoda. I’d seen this as a child in my parent’s atlas, although the black and white photograph didn’t really do it justice. Plus, I believe either my sister or I had scribbled grey and pink felt-tip pen coming out of the top as if to represent smoke coming out of a fancy looking chimney.

Shwedagon Pagoda, looking as magnificent as ever

Seeing was believing, there was an impressive 2,500-year-old religious site at Singuttara Hill. It is by far the most sacred and magnificent looking Buddhist site in Myanmar. To say that this started as nothing more than an 8.2-metre high structure and today stands this monumental pagoda at 110 metres. It is claimed to be covered with hundreds of gold plates and that the top stupa is encrusted with 4531 diamonds, the largest of which is 72 carat.

Inside the ground of the Shwedagon Pagoda

The complex is huge with temples surrounding the pagoda or paya. In respect of Buddhism, we walked around the tiled and stone slabbed grounds barefooted that had been baking in the sun all day. Pinky and I attempted to tolerate the heat beneath by walking on the lateral parts of our feet, but it was far too intense for her mother, she ran to take cover in the shade as quick as she could, just to get out of the inferno heat of the temple grounds.

The walking area was scorching underfoot

‘I’m going to end up having blisters upon blisters if I’m not careful. It was like walking on sheet metal that had been in the sun all day.

Forgetting about the heat the surrounding temples were stunningly beautiful, elaborated decorated in gold they stood glistening, exquisitely beautiful; impressive in every sense of the word. I was mesmerised by them as I gazed in admiration and awe of these wonderfully designed and respected temples.

What I thought were sarongs were in fact longies. These were part of the national dress for both males and females. Because western culture had not really caught on yet, trousers were rarely seen. Although Pinky was an exception to this rule and preferred to wear jeans than longies.

This is by far one of the main tourist attractions in Yangon

After having our feet fried on the temple grounds, Pinki and her mum took me to more peaceful surroundings out of the town centre. The town centre’s traffic was not as frenzied as that of Bangkok and neither was there the lingering smell of burn carbons in the air. They took me to the Kandaawgyi Lake, in fact, this was wonderfully peaceful. It is also known as the Royal Park, originally built by the British as a reservoir. The park now hosts a Karawelk, a large impressive royal barge, which looks like a large temple.

Kandaawgyi lake and the Karawelk (Royal Barge)
A view of the Shwedagon Pagoda next to the Karawelk at the Kandaawgyi Lake

I really wanted to explore this park to its fullest, but never got the chance, plus I don’t think my hosts were really inclined to walk.

In the late afternoon, once  I was on my own, I decided to go out exploring my neighbourhood. Hoping that I’d not get lost in the process. I made a mental note of where my hotel was and then off I went.

My journey into this strange environment was going to be interesting. I ventured into the local town, trying to spot the old colonial buildings to which there were many. The town had the characteristics of any other towns that I’d stumbled across here in South-East Asia. I saw an abundance of Buddhist monks giving services or teachings in the middle of the occasional small adjoining roads. They wore a deep burgundy coloured kasaya coloured robes. The Buddhist the nuns tended to wear pink.

British colonial buildings
An old colonial building being renovated

Later, I wandered down to the dock area, there was nothing really to see there apart from the industrial spoil of yesterday. The streets down there were similar to those in Bangkok with the broken causeway and having an abundance of what seemed like poor neighbourhoods, every city has them.

A typical back street, this one looks very good.

I liked Yangon, there was something mystical about the place, possibly the novelty of being somewhere that I had never ventured to before. Pinky and her mother took great care of me and organised my transfer to Bagan. This is a place that I am sure will attract tourists by the millions in years to come. It has literally so much to offer and the people here are so wonderful and hospitable. I was sad to leave Yangon and move on, but now Bagan awaited me with all that it had to offer me.