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Published: December 13th 2009
One of many amazingly decayed colonial buildings in Yangon near the Sule Pagoda.
One of our favorite things to do when we arrive in a new, non-English-speaking country is to learn two things:
- How to say "Hello!"
- How to say "Thank you!"
So here's your lesson for the day in Burmese:
MINGALABAR! (ming ga la bah!) = HELLO! (or, literally, "It's a blessing!")
CEZUBAH! (jez you bah!) = THANK YOU!
It makes people happy.
Today was a wonderful day. We explored Yangon.
Yangon is the largest city in Burma. Burma's population is about 50 million; about 6 million people live in Yangon. Despite being the largest city, it's no longer the capital. In a very weird move, the generals decided to relocate the capital in 2007 to the tiny town of Nay Pyi Taw, located in the middle of the country but not exactly near anything. Why? No one really knows but some speculate that it was out of paranoia of an invasion (Iraq style). Moving it deeper into the interior of the country (vs. close to a coast) probably seemed more secure to them. The sad (or stupid, or both) part is that the move is estimated to have cost $250 million. Pretty ridiculous given the
Gritty colonial building in Yangon.
obvious need for improved healthcare, education and general infrastructure (clean water, roads, better housing, etc).
So here we are in Yangon. Our first order of business was to visit our new friend, William, at the Good News Travel agency. Unlike in the U.S., travel agents in Burma do more than just book package or group tours. They put together extensive itineraries for independent travelers and can get much better rates on hotels and even flights than we would get booking on our own. William owns Good News, which is "highly recommended" by Lonely Planet.
The Good News office is located downtown in the FMI Centre. We took a cab there ($2 USD) around 8:30am. As soon as we exited the cab, three young boys ran up to us. They wanted to shake our hands and tell us about themselves. Two are brothers, the other a friend. Two spoke in broken but understandable English; the third was mute and communicated by hand gestures and squeaking sounds. They asked our names and where we're from. We initially enjoyed chatting with them but it soon became clear that they wanted us to give them money. We continued walking but they trailed
Touch ups at the Port Authority building in Yangon
us to the FMI Centre, trying to walk between us. Ugh. We've decided on this trip not to hand out money or candy to children but instead to help communities by purchasing items made locally and making donations to schools (books, supplies, cash). The boys finally left us when we entered the FMI building.
We liked William immediately. His father and grandfather were both bilingual and spoke only English to him, often correcting his grammar. He speaks excellent English with a British accent. He spread out a map of Burma and we discussed possible itinerary options. In less than an hour, we had our week layed out:
- Today we'll explore Yangon on our own
- Tomorrow, Tuesday and Wednesday we'll visit the ancient temples of Bagan and see a spirit festival on nearby Mt. Popa
- We'll spend Thursday and Friday at Inle Lake, famous for its numerous ethnic groups and floating villages
- We'll fly back to Yangon on Friday night, spend Saturday morning there and leave for Singapore on Saturday afternoon
The entire cost for the next five days and nights is around $1,000. This includes three flights, two "very nice" hotels (after Vietnam, we
Another interesting building we saw during our walking tour of downtown Yangon.
are on our guard and a bit skeptical), a guide and driver/boatman for 2 days in Bagan and 2 days in Inle, all breakfasts and airport transfers. We're responsible for lunches, dinners, tips, and souvenirs. It seems like a good deal to us so we ask William to book it. His staff are ready to get on the phones to check availability (the airlines' offices are only open until 12pm on Sundays) and we promise to return a few hours later to confirm everything.
Some useful information about money in Burma:
- There are no ATMs in the entire country.
- Very, very few places accept credit cards (and those that do charge a 4%-10% fee); VISA and MasterCard both pulled out of the country a while ago so all credit card transactions have to be processed through Thailand.
- Travellers need to bring cash. Only U.S. dollars are accepted. New, clean, crisp dollars (preferrably without serial numbers that start with "CB"). No tears (not even small ones). No marks or writing of any kind. Non-perfect bills are worthless here.
It's very common for people to run out of money (or realize too late that they didn't bring
The Shwedagon Paya right before sunset
the right kind of dollars) and have to make an urgent (and expensive) trip to Thailand to get more. We used information in the Lonely Planet guidebook to develop a budget for our Burma visit so we should be ok unless we go nuts with souvenir shopping.
The local currency is the kyat (pronounced "chat"). The "official" government exchange rate is set at about 6 kyats per dollar. However, the black market rate is in the range of 900-1000 kyats per dollar. Just about all businesses (even taxis) will take U.S. dollars and hotels will break larger bills into smaller ones for you, which is convenient because most taxi drivers generally don't have change for bigger bills. Everyone, except for the official government exchange counters, uses the black market exchange rates.
Leaving the FMI building we headed next door for breakfast at Zawgyi's House, a little cafe with a large patio facing the street (one of the main arteries of the city) which is great for people watching. The boys found us again but hovered at the edge of the patio, asking us repeatedly if they could come and have breakfast with us. Eventually an older woman (one
Some of the amazing temples that surround the zedi/chedi - Shwedagon Paya.
of their mothers?) reprimanded them and told them to leave us alone.
Breakfast was pretty good: iced lattes (whole milk only again but a vast improvement over the condensed milk in Vietnam) and banana crepes. Tasty. After breakfast we followed the Lonely Planet walking tour of downtown. Yet again the boys were on us. They trailed us for several blocks (again asking for money) but gave up when we crossed a major street; we wondered if we had just crossed over into the turf of another gang of kids but luckily we didn't have problems with kids for the rest of the day.
What other city do you know that has a 2,000+ year old temple in the middle of a traffic circle? It's a large golden stupa called Sule Paya. We walked inside the Sule Paya complex and up to the first altar. Sitting in front of us was a Buddha statue all glitzed up with neon lights emanating from its head. Too funny. Compared to the other Buddha statues we have seen on this trip this Buddha felt very Las Vegas. There are several shops in the temple as well (most selling prayer beads and other
More temples - Shwedagon Paya.
religious items) which gives the Sule Paya a distinctly commercial feel - much less austere than the temples we visited in Thailand and Laos.
As we circled the stupa on the marble walkway, an old monk called out to us to come and sit with him. He asked where we were from and then launched into a tirade about how horrible the Burmese government is and how Burma needs a democratic leader. We were shocked. Accordingly to Lonely Planet, spies are everywhere, especially in Yangon and other common tourist areas, and locals are severely punished for even mild criticisms of their government. Maybe things are changing - and we don't mean the government becoming less oppressive. Maybe people are becoming less fearful of rebelling?
A relatively recent clash/rebellion happened in September 2007 when a group of monks and lay people joined forces to protest a huge increase in the price of petroleum. The military responded with gunfire and supposedly beat one monk to death. This sparked widespread protests by monks and lay people throughout the country, especially in the major cities. After several days, the government responded with extreme force (gunfire, more beatings) and then raided monastries and
Sunset at Shwedagon Paya.
arrested 100 monks. The arrests and violence against monks caused a frenzy in the Western media (check YouTube for some of the coverage). The generals responded by cutting off all internet access in the country for several days - only the second time that a government had done so (the first time was in Nepal in 1995).
Given that, we've been wondering just how direct and forthcoming people will be with their thoughts about the government/generals. It's not OK for us to ask people directly about the government in Burma but it will be interesting to see what kinds of opinions people offer up.
We left Sule Paya and headed next to the Yangon river. There aren't many Westerners here and we kept catching people looking at us in a curious, but friendly, way. As in Laos, people are quick to return our smiles and hellos.
Most men in Burma wear traditional dress most of the time unlike other countries in Southeast Asia. The traditional outfit is called a "longyii" and is a long, straight skirt, usually in a plaid or striped pattern. Any kind of shirt will do: dress shirt, T-shirt, etc. The women mostly wear
One of the technicolor Buddha statues at Shwedagon Paya
long straight skirts and tight-fitting silk jackets, similar to those worn in Thailand.
Yangon's city center feels tired, poor and rundown. Once beautiful colonial buildings are now dirty and crumbling; many are now decrepit government offices. The Yangon River, and the large port, are dirty and industrial-looking. Near it (and next to the British Embassy) sits the Strand Hotel. It's a lovely old hotel and is often described as one of the best in Asia. We walked around the lobby and their art gallery. It's definitely nice for Burma but not quite as nice (nor as big) as the Metropole in Hanoi. But the lobby is air-conditioned which is a nice change from the 90+ degree heat this morning.
On our walk back to meet with William, we took some short cuts through a few alleys. The city is built on a wonderfully easy-to-navigate grid system (many thanks to the British for that!). Running north/south between the main avenues are smaller alleys. The larger streets have sidewalks (many with cracked pavement and a lot of large holes) which are often dirty but generally fine for walking (and a huge relief after Hanoi). Commercial buildings line the larger streets.
Elephants at one of the planetary posts that surround the Zedi/Chedi - Shwedagon Paya
The alleys are more residential and they feel very poor and sad. We saw cockroaches, dead rats and lots of garbage. One woman was peeling raw meat off of an animal carcass. Some of the buildings are beautiful in a run down kind of way, all have large satellite dishes on top, and several look like they should be condemned.
By noon William had worked his magic and had all of our flights, hotels and guides confirmed. We collected our vouchers and thanked him. We'll see him again on Saturday morning.
For lunch we decided to try a biryani (Indian rice) place near the FMI Centre. We approached it a little hesitantly. It's an open storefront with large vats of rice and chicken bubbling in full view of the street. The interior is a little grungy and is filled with plastic tables and chairs. Catching our eye, a policeman smiled, gave us a thumbs-up (good place to eat!) and guided us to a table. There seemed to be only one dish: fragrant rice with a drumstick on top, all cooked (and cooked well) with extremely tasty Indian spices. It was wonderful! Adrian tried the Myanmar version of Coke,
Angelique's astrology related planetary post at Shwedagon Paya.
called "MAX" and Angelique had a banana lassi (a typical drink in India made of blended bananas and yogurt). Yum! The total bill was $3.80.
Our final stop downtown was at one of the main markets, the Bogyoke Aung San Market. Most of the stalls are filled with jewelry - gold, silver, jade, gemstones. William had told us to wait until Bagan and Inle to buy souvenirs since we'd get better quality at lower prices there. We took William's advice, and, after a brief visit, took a cab back to the hotel to escape the heat.
At 4:30pm we visited the famous Shwedagon Paya, the #1 tourist attraction in Yangon (and with good reason). It's the most sacred spot in all of Burma and was built sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries by the Mon people (an ethnic group still living in Burma today). Built on top of a hill and visible from most areas of the city (especially at night when it's all lit up), this imposing stupa sits on a platform which raises it even higher, to 322 feet. It's spectacular, covered in gleaming gold leaf and with a spire that it decorated with millions
The zedi at dusk.
of dollars worth of jewels, including 1,100 diamonds totaling 278 carats. Serious bling!
Why is the stupa/zedi so famous and sacred? It supposedly contains 8 hairs from the Buddha. Magical hairs.
The atmosphere at the Shwedagon Paya is like that of an amusement park. Everything is colorful and shiny. The place is packed with people, including a lot of families. Given how grim their lives are, this must be a bright spot (in many ways) for the Burmese.
The entire complex is enormous and beautiful. Take a look through the photos. One aspect that we especially liked is the day-of-the-week astrological statues. There are eight and you relate to the one that corresponds with the day of the week on which you were born (Monday, Tuesday, etc. - there are two for Wednesday, one from 12:10a-12p and the other from 12:01p through 11:59p). Each of the eight are associated with an astrological sign and an animal or mythical creature which acts as a sort of guardian for you. Adrian (Friday) is Venus and the guinea pig; Angelique (Saturday) is Saturn and the naga (mythical snake). You come here to worship both Buddha and your guardian statue. You
Shwedagon Paya at night
can even "bathe" the statue with scoops of water from a nearby fountain and you can also adorn it with beautiful orchid garlands.
Tucked off in one corner of the Shwedagon Paya compound is an altar to the guardian Nats, the animistic spirits that are extremely important to the Burmese. We'll be learning more about them when we visit Mt. Popa near Bagan in two days.
Despite the amusement-park atmosphere, the Shwedagon Paya feels sacred. There's a very positive spiritual energy here. We like it. People are quietly praying, alone and in groups. Others are chanting. Still others are washing their guardian animal statues. And others are taking photos. We watched the sunset, a stunning sight, and then headed back to the hotel.
We kicked off our evening with drinks at the Strand Bar. It was extremely quiet and the drinks were expensive so after one cocktail we headed over to Monsoon again for another excellent dinner (Burmese potato salad, chicken curry and grilled eggplant topped with spiced minced pork - all delicious!). We kept a close eye on the time because our flight for Bagan leaves at 6:15am (!!) and we need to leave at 5:00am for the airport. We're really looking forward to seeing the famous temples of Bagan!
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