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Published: April 13th 2017
Yangon's premier sight is mightily impressive.
It has been a rough couple of weeks. First there was the ordeal in the Himalayas
and then more cold weather, squat toilets and bucket showers in Darjeeling
. It's in times like these that you...really want your Mum. Not that I'm really a mama's boy but I haven't seen her in two years and after all this travelling and everything I've been through it would be so nice to see a familiar face again...and they don't come more familiar than that of your own mother! And I will be seeing her; she is currently living in Kuala Lumpur and had a week's holiday in March, so I invited her to come and meet me in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), since it isn't that far away from her and flights were cheap. She had said recently that she wanted to see more of Southeast Asia and not since I travelled with my sister seven years ago
had I shared any of my travel experiences with my family, which has been a regret of mine. The last time I travelled with my parents was right back near when this blog started!
But first, I had to get to Yangon, which involved a jeep down from Darjeeling back to Siliguri and an overnight bus down to Kolkata to catch my flight.
Typical apartment building in Yangon.
Just one last dose of chaos before leaving India; one last dose of ridiculously busy streets, one last dose of hustlers trying to get you onto their bus, one last dose of people climbing over each other to take their seats on the bus.
There was also to be one last dose - hopefully one last dose but probably not - of travel stress before leaving India too. As is my wont, I had really left it to the last minute to apply for my e-visa for Myanmar and when I left Darjeeling, I was still yet to receive it. Seeing that it only took 24 hours to process my Mum's visa, I thought I had a pretty good chance of getting it before my evening flight the next day. If I had received it before leaving, I could then have printed out my approval letter at the hotel and gone straight to the airport once back in Kolkata. As it was, I had to find some place with wifi and a printer and wait there hoping that it would come before having to catch my flight. If it didn't come, would I just catch my flight anyway? What would
Inside of which is this massive 65m x 30m reclining Buddha.
Burmese immigration do with me without a letter?
And I might've gone straight to the airport anyway. I noticed that as the bus came into Kolkata that we were driving by pretty close to it. Then suddenly, the bus stops and lets a whole lot of people off at the airport gate. If I got off here, could I find wifi (yes, but only for an hour) and someone who would kindly print off my letter for me (should it arrive)? I took too long to decide though and the bus took off. I would stick to my original plan of going to an Internet cafe I had looked up in Central Kolkata and sit, wait and pray there. If the letter didn't come, then at least I wouldn't have to come back into the city from the airport. But then if I had got off at the airport and got my letter there, then I would've saved myself a trip to the airport. Gaaahhhhh! Just like me to have a few anxious moments before a flight. Having spent almost a week in Kolkata recently
, it meant that I knew exactly where I was and where I was going once I got off the bus. Arriving
Old High Court
One of the old colonial buildings left behind by the British. This particular building reminded me of the red brick colonial buildings I saw in Bangalore, India.
at the internet cafe and logging on, my heart sunk a little when I realised I still hadn't received my approval letter. It now simply had to arrive within the next four hours or else I was looking at big loss of money on getting a new flight and forfeited accommodations that I had already paid for in Yangon. As it turned out, I only had to sweat for another hour as the letter came through around 12.30pm. My flight was at 6.30pm. Phew. I spent my last little bit of time in the city to have one last Maaza - bottled mango juice that I have lived on in India - and a couple of last kati rolls
. Eating some of the country's best food was the best way to farewell this amazing country.
And then I was there; Myanmar (formerly and still considered Burma by some), country no.83 and the first Southeast Asian country of the trip!
Arriving at Yangon Airport and taking a cab into downtown my first impressions of the place was that it was clean, that it had really wide roads, that there was loads of space around, and that there are loads of
Sule Paya & City Hall From Mahabandoola Gardens
You get a good view of two of Yangon's major landmarks from the pleasant lawn that is Mahabandoola Gardens, as shown. There was a photo exhibition in the gardens at the time (in the foreground).
really flash, modern buildings. Sharing the taxi with me was British girl Lara, who was also on my flight. It felt so refreshing being here, the both of us having just come here from Kolkata.
My first taste of the local food came at breakfast the next morning where I had ordered mohinga
; thin, soft, vermicelli noodles saturated in a light curry and sprinkled with lemon, coriander and chopped-up fried bread; it was delicious! For lunch I had kyat u pin same
which while wasn't as scrumptious as the mohinga
, was still pretty good. Myanmar fare already seems to be much healthier than the heavy, oily food I was eating in India. The food so far has been much lighter.
Noticeably much calmer and cleaner than India, with food so far that has been amazing and locals who have been outstandingly friendly - one of the receptionists at my B&B even accompanied me to see the doctor for translation services - I must say that I was really digging Myanmar so far! It certainly helped that my B&B was so nice; clean and modern with big bunk beds, good wifi, personal charging sockets, privacy curtains and private reading
A coordinated team of sweepers keep the city of golden temples that is Shwedagon Paya, looking fantastic.
And yeah, the wifi was actually decent - better than I was expecting given all the reports that I had heard and it was much better than some places in India. The only things interrupting the connection were the frequent power cuts; annoying, but simply a fact of life here.
Impressed by the food so far, I decided to go on a street food adventure that night. After having thoughts about wanting to end the trip prematurely in Nepal and Darjeeling, I suddenly found my interest in travelling reinvigorated, much like it was after I arrived back in Europe in June
and once I arrived in India
after a three-week hiatus in London
. When you've been travelling for as long as I have, you find that you really do need breaks and/or changes of scenery. As for the street food I sampled, there was bein moun
, a soft, white pancake served with chopped peanuts - very nice; a very oily deep-fried batter that was basically just oil; and a disappointing fried roti parcel with vegetables inside.
After two days on my own resting and blogging, my mum finally arrived at the B&B; the first time I had seen any member of my family for two years. We certainly had a lot
to catch up on and it was great talking about familiar people and familiar things after all the generic backpacker conversations I'd been having up to that point.
After a quick catch up we decided to do a short walking tour of downtown Yangon; well, it was short for me! Mum had had an early flight that morning so for her it was knackering!
We started out passing some beautiful but broken-down colonial buildings to Sule Pagoda, perhaps the world's only roundabout with a golden stupa in the middle of it. We were too cheap however, to pay the K3,000 (3,000 kyats; about £2) to get in. These entry fees add up, especially when most temples look the same. The Bogyoke Market was a little disappointing as there only seemed to be jewellery and sarong shops - most men here wear sarongs - along with food and juice stands which seem to be ubiquitous in Yangon. Down by the river are more grand colonial buildings as well as men playing a game of foot-volleyball in the streets, but with a small ball made of cane. In Malaysia, this sport is known as sepak takraw
but the players here were
Foot-volleyball played with a small ball made of cane which is popular in South East Asia. Check out the acrobatic flying kick!
pretty damn skilful and tremendously acrobatic! Right on the river is the Botahtaung Pagoda which is also gold-plated and which we also declined paying the entry fee for, which this time, was a whopping K6,000 (yeah OK, it's only £3.50 but I'm trying unsuccessfully to stick to a K20,000 daily budget). On the river itself, loads of local couples were sittin' on the dock of the bay, watching the sun set over the Yangon River.
In terms of downtown Yangon in general, it has a grid system, wide roads and tall buildings; and with much less people, was much less chaotic than Indian cities while still being bustling. There are some nice older buildings which are all run-down, some pretty appalling-looking old concrete apartment blocks and more than a few flash buildings and hotels here too with another plush shopping mall on the way. I do wonder who will be buying the designer brands that will be on sale there however, as the locals here all seem relatively poor. There were more than a few people begging on the streets. I also noticed that in the market, vendors were pretty pushy in terms of trying to get you to buy
Wonderfully intricate 45m-high sitting Buddha at Ngahtatgyi Paya.
stuff, at least as pushy as the Indians. There must be some wealth here however, since compared to India and other South East Asian countries, Myanmar has not proven cheap. It reminded me of the prices in Sri Lanka. I must say also, however, that I wasn't expecting Myanmar to be as advanced as it appeared to be in Yangon.
The most interesting aspect of the day was again, all the food we tried; crushed avocado with condensed milk (yum), spicy prawn and papaya salad (average), a cold and sweet tapioca, bread and coconut soup (yum, although potentially stomach-upsetting considering it was probably made with some tap water) and our Myanmar dinner of tea leaf salad, black bean pork belly and village-style chicken (nice but nothing special and perhaps a little salty). It came with things like a mango salad amongst other things which my mum said is done much better by the Thais. I suspect that the Burmese get caught in the shadow of their more-visited neighbour like this pretty often, which must be annoying for them.
On our final day in Yangon, Mum and I took a taxi to Chaukhtatgyi Paya - home of a massive
This lake with park space and boardwalks is a nice place to take a relaxing stroll, even if some of the planks on the boardwalk are a bit dodgy.
statue of a reclining Buddha that is 65m long and 30m high. The temple housing the Buddha is fairly impressive with its intricate gold roof but what you saw underneath the covers made you gawp. It is most definitely the biggest Buddha statue that I have seen so far.
While the reclining Buddha impressed with its size, it was the intricacy of the 46m-high, sitting Buddha's jewel-encrusted headgear and its wooden background that wowed you when you went to visit the Ngahtatgyi Temple across the road. Both sites were free and impressive - a nice change from Hindu temples!
Kandawgyi Lake was a nice stroll through some peaceful greenery before we came to the day's main event; the Shwedagon Pagoda.
We had decided not to go inside the two other main pagodas in Yangon the previous day in order to save our money for Shwedagon, and it was totally the right call. I'm not sure I've ever seen so much gold. It was like a city within a city of amazing temples, pagodas and architecture. The main stupa is majestic, even if it's hard to take a selfie with! The gold of the stupa really does set it apart
The big golden stupa at Shwedagon Paya is surrounded by loads of little ones.
with some bling factor compared to the ones I saw in Kathmandu
. With the different colours and lack of 'bunting', I would say that the Buddhism practiced in Nepal vs Myanmar is different. We took our time looking around inside and the later it got, the busier it got and by dusk, the place was a hive of hubbub and activity. The lights also came on to light up the main stupa and everything combined to create an atmosphere much different to when we walked in. My mood was a little soured however from having to pay an extra K3,000 to cover my knees with a rented sarong - luckily my money only turned out to be a deposit but I wished they had told me. The English of the guards wasn't that great.
We went to Chinatown for dinner but it was a bit disappointing. Every restaurant sold the same food; pick some raw meat or seafood off the trays outside and they'll grill it on the barbie for ya. Looking around, as well as being a BBQ hub, it also seemed to be a centre for backpackers too. Wanting to avoid the BBQ restaurants, we had dinner
Eastern Stairway At Shwedagon Paya
The eastern stairway leading up to Shwedagon Paya is as impressive on the outside as it is inside.
at what my mum described as an "unassuming" Chinese restaurant where I managed to almost understand the entire Mandarin conversation my mum had with the waiter. Just need to learn how to speak now before going to China! The food however - including the falooda I had for dessert which had nothing on the one I had in Pondicherry
- were disappointing.
We then walked past a mind-boggling amount of street peddlers selling everything and anything; this was much more like India.
Yangon is not anything amazing as a city but there are some kickass sights to see, although perhaps you might not be so impressed if you have already seen quite a few pagodas before getting here. I received a warm welcome here though and the ease of settling in here will not be forgotten.
Well, if we thought we had already seen a few pagodas, we were going to see even more now - there are over 2,000 of them in Bagan!
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