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Published: September 6th 2017
Monk at one of the shrines within the pagoda.
When I left off on my last entry, I was feeling fatigued and unsure if I could sustain this travel. After Australia, I went to Singapore for four days. Family, friends, and food helped lift my spirits. A painful but much needed massage helped relax my weary muscles and joints. And, I had an unexpected boost to my post-travel job prospects. With all this happening, I got my spring back and I felt ready to tackle Myanmar!
First Impressions of Yangon
I landed in Yangon mid-afternoon on Monday September 4th. After stepping into an airport taxi, I realized something didn't feel right. It took me about ten minutes before I figured out what was wrong: almost all the steering wheels I saw were on the right... and the cars drive on the right. I asked the taxi driver about this and he said that they switched from driving on the left to driving on the right a few years back, but most cars still have their steering wheels on the right. I then recalled a conversation I had in Singapore with a friend in the car business, who said that a lot of used cars from Singapore and Japan
Busy street where May Shan Hotel is located.
end up in Myanmar. That explains all the right hand drive vehicles.
En route, I noticed that the sky was overcast. I was aware that this was the tail end of the rainy season. True enough, the skies opened up not long after I checked in while I was having an early dinner at Black Hat restaurant. Returning to the hotel, I opened my Netflix app and it worked! Yes! If I was going to be marooned by rain this was the best possible outcome.
I booked two nights at the May Shan Hotel, which I selected primarily for its central location. The room cost US$30 per night through Agoda. The guide books weren't joking when they said that rooms in Myanmar were expensive relative to other places in Southeast Asia... and this was the low season with discounts of up to 50 pecent. I wouldn't have paid anywhere near $30 for this room in Indonesia or Thailand, let alone $60. Don't get me wrong, though. The rooms were clean, the staff were friendly, and I knew I was paying a premium for location.
A fellow UCLA MBA alumnus suggested I contact an alumnus he
Empty colonial building. I can't help but wonder what happened within those walls during its heyday.
knew residing in Yangon. I made contact with him, and he in turn connected me with another alum traveling in Myanmar. This alum was going to be in Bagan the next day, and so I decided to fly to Bagan and possibly hang out with him there. I will have to return to Yangon to fly back to Singapore in about two weeks, and I also hadn't seen all of Yangon that I wanted to see, so I will be back. Hence, this entry is titled Part I.
My One Day of Sightseeing and Wandering
For my one full day in Yangon, I decided to wander around downtown. After breakfast at May Shan, I wandered out into the street with a vague plan to walk around the old town, make my way to Botahtaung Pagoda, wander around some more, and then finish my day at Sule Pagoda before the inevitable late afternoon downpour.
Leaving the May Shan, I wandered around Sule Pagoda. Not many cities can boast having a 2,000 year old golden pagoda in a roundabout as their main downtown landmark. Next to Sule Pagoda was Maha Bandoola Park, with the Independence Monument as its centerpiece.
What other city can boast a 2,000 year old pagoda in a roundabout as its main landmark? Too bad the exterior is marred by businesses.
Around the park were all manner of colonial buildings, and they were in varying stages of upkeep, from abandoned and decaying to beautifully restored and maintained. From the park, I set off east in the vague general direction of Botahtaung Pagoda, taking in the sights and smells of the morning markets, watching morning commuters, and getting a general feel for the city. Walking in Yangon is less hazardous than Bangkok or Bali; there are fewer street vendors blocking your way than in Bangkok, and the sidewalks are much more contiguous and better maintained than in Bali. Crossing streets is hazardous, though; motorists don't necessarily observe pedestrian crossings. The best way to cross a street is to follow the locals and cross with them.
En route to Botahtaung Pagoda, I wandered towards the Ayeyarwaddy River, saw more colonial buildings, peeked at street food stalls (the food smelled good but I was wary about eating at these stalls). I finally reached Botahtaung Pagoda after lots of wandering. I was a sweaty mess but I was loving it. Botahtaung Pagoda houses hair relics from the Buddha and it is a very holy site for Buddhists. The main highlight of this site was
Devotees praying in the zig zag hallway of the stupa. This made me think of growing up and being made to stand in the corner when I was naughty.
walking zig zag through the interior of the stupa where the hair relic is housed. All the walls were golden. The rest of the temple grounds housed various additional shrines and a terrapin pond. I saw no western tourists at this site, only Thais.
After Botahtaung, I wandered back towards the Sule Pagoda area where I had lunch and sorted out my travel to Bagan. After my travel plans had been settled, I went to Sule Pagoda. There, a guy claiming to be a student latched on to me and started explaining things. I groaned inwardly... this was probably an unofficial tour guide who will ask for money after showing me around, and he won't be upfront about it. Oh well, what the heck. I could learn something useful from him. As it turned out, I did learn a few things. In Buddhist temples in Thailand, I had always wondered about Buddhas labeled with the day of the week. I found out from my "guide" that there is a special shrine for the day of the week that you are born. He even had an app that told you which day of the week you were born
A fellow Wednesday baby paying her respects. Note the paste on her face. Many women wear it for sun protection and other reasons.
Disclosure: I received the girl's mother's permission to take this photograph.
on - mine turned out to be Wednesday. He then showed me how to pay respects to my Wednesday Buddha. He also showed me other parts of the pagoda and explained their history and significance. At the end of our 15 minutes, he asked a gratuity. I proferred 5,000 kyat (about $3.50) and he accepted. After we parted ways, I did another round in the pagoda and then returned to Maha Bandoola Park where I enjoyed observing the late afternoon crowds. Many people were glued to a soccer match being broadcast on a huge screen mounted on the nearby government building. At the park, one guy approached me to practice his English and I had a fine time learning about him and life in his village across the river. I headed back to the May Shan when raindrops began to fall, and I waited out the afternoon storm there.
In the evening, I wandered out to find a vegetarian restaurant I saw earlier in the day. I noticed that the crowd at the park had grown and moved to the grounds in front of the government office, and that they were still glued to a soccer game (not sure
Maha Bandoola Park in the late afternoon. Note the jumbotron mounted on the building in front. A soccer match was being broadcast and crowds started to gather to watch it.
if it was the same game). I tried to stay and see their reaction if a goal was scored, but no such luck. They remained quite sedate the entire time, compared to the crowds I saw in Colombia two years ago. I also wandered around the night markets before heading back to May Shan.
• Consider utilizing travel agents to book domestic flights. I booked my flight to Bagan through a travel agent who secured a ticket costing about $10 less than the cheapest one-way flight I could find online.
• Some US card issuers seem to think that the US' sanctions against Myanmar are ongoing. When I called them before departing on my trip, Barclays card advised me that my card cannot be used in Myanmar due to sanctions. True enough, my card was declined when I tried to use it to pay for my flight. I did not have the same issue with my ATM card. Most places will tack on a 3 percent charge for credit card transactions.
• Most restaurant meals can be had for under US$10 per person. My meal at Black Hat restaurant was a slight splurge but the river prawns were so good.
The block where May Shan Hotel is located. May Shan is at the red signboard in the middle of the photo.
My vegetarian set lunch at Shan Yoe Yar was also really good.
• I was surprised when I wasn't asked to cover my knees at either pagoda, but I wore a sarong out of respect. They do make you remove your shoes, though, so carry a backpack and place your shoes in there if you don't want too risk leaving them at a shoe deposit counter. Also, bring wet wipes to clean your feet after visiting.
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