Like every other stop in Myanmar so far, I had no idea what to expect of the capital as we rolled into the Yangon bus station, late in the evening. It was dark out, and after alternating days of being sick in bed during our time at Inle Lake, neither Viv or I had much energy for haggling with cab drivers, so we took the first one we could find that would take us downtown.
Unlike many of the more tourist-friendly cities in Southeast Asia, we found it difficult to find a concentrated area of budget hostels, hotels, and guesthouses. There was no block for example, that was lined with accommodation, easily identified and centrally located. After walking up and down a number of streets checking out a handful of places with little luck, we settled on a nicer – if more expensive – hotel, talking them down to $35/night from their starting price of $65. The next day we ran into our friend Joe who told us about the $5/night hostel he was staying at, although it sounded like little more than floor space in a low ceilinged communal room. Nevertheless, deals were there for the taking for the adventurous traveller, which was apparently not us this time...
In the morning we took advantage of the first functioning internet we'd experienced since entering the country more than two and a half weeks prior, applying for our Vietnamese Visas, and booking plane tickets to Hanoi, before heading out to explore the streets of our current city for the first time in the afternoon.
I was struck immediately by the contrasting architectural styles of the city as we stepped into the street in daylight. Aging British colonial architecture melded into crumbling apartments and then again into shiny new office towers and hotels before repeating the cycle again on the next block. At least in the downtown core, at every turn pagodas opposed British style clocktowers, government buildings, and cathedrals that felt reminiscent of those seen at in Europe, or at home in some of the older parts of Canada. Perhaps the most surprising sight was the Maha Bandoola Garden, a large monument in a town square surrounded by verdant, manicured, green grass, something we had seen little of during our stay in Asia so far. The mere presence of the park seemed to lower the scalding temperature by ten degrees, not that 30C felt all that different from 40C, but hey, every little bit counts.
Pop-up markets filled the narrow alleyways seemingly at random, and while we had been hearing great things about the street food in the city, after just getting over sickness in the previous couple of days, neither Viv or I were feeling particularly adventurous in the gastronomic department. Despite this, we had an awesome time exploring the unique experience of the Yangon markets with our eyes and noses.
The city offered up an interesting vibe. On the one hand it seemed incredible raw and visceral. The crumbling architecture lent the streets a feeling of decay, and the sweltering heat only seemed to enhance that feeling. “How could anything thrive and grow in such conditions, what do you expect?” the city seemed to ask. On the other hand Yangon has banned all motorcycles and scooters in the city, and so the streets were strangely orderly and, well, empty. At least when compared to other cities in the region we had been to recently.
In the evening we checked out a Japanese style arcade, Ali Baba, that had been recommended by a friend of ours. Neither Viv nor I are huge arcade nuts but it turned out to be a lot of fun, with a lot of whacky games, many of which with instructions offered only in their native Japanese. The value was phenomenal, and the only downside was the ear-splitting volume of the arcade, leaving us both a little bit shell shocked as we walked out the door and past the animatronic Optimus Prime an hour or two later.
The following morning we accompanied our friends Joe and Jared to punish our ear drums further, this time at a local punk show, definitely something I won't be forgetting for a long time. You can read a more in depth account of the show in my article on Bringing Home With You While Travelling.
This being our final night In Yangon, it was time to make our pilgrimage to the focal point of the city, if not the entire country, Shwedagon Pagoda. This was a temple unlike any I had seen yet in this country or any other. Not that it exceeded the grandeur or scale of the many impressive and even awe-inspiring temples of Thailand, Angkor, Bagan or anywhere else in the world, but the feeling was wholly unique.
Upon entering I was required to purchase a bland Longyi, a traditional lower body “wrap” worn commonly by both women and men in Myanmar. Viv was fine as she had already purchased one from one of the street vendors the day before and had wisely brought it along. As we made our way up the steps to the main level of the complex the first thing that was apparent was the number of people still hanging out, despite it being late in the evening. And when I say “hanging out” I actually mean hanging out. Sure, there were many praying and performing buddhist rites, but many, if not most of the attendees seemed to be simply soaking in the environment with their friends and families. Rather than the somber atmosphere of many religious complexes, Shwedagon was clearly a place of joy and togetherness. Many large groups were spread out across the floor as though they were enjoying a Sunday afternoon picnic in the park, save for the fact that it was now after 9pm.
It was hard not to be enthralled with the place given the atmosphere infused by the locals, but the 2600 year old pagoda itself was not to be outdone. Dozens of smaller golden spires encircled the giant 326 foot high central pagoda who's peak is adorned with 3154 gold bells, 79,569 diamonds (typo in the temple literature perhaps? There are certainly well over 7,000 regardless), and many other precious stones. In addition to the outer adornments, the pagoda is believed to house the relics of four Buddhas, increasing it's significance immeasurably to both local buddhists, as well as those from across the world.
We spent a couple of hours dragging our jaws across the temple floor, uncovering one wonder after another, and revelling in the atmosphere before leaving with huge grins on our faces, incapable of expressing in words the effect of the place on each of us.
Even at the time I was aware that two days in the capital would be far too short a time to do this incredible city justice, and now with distance I feel it all the more. Unfortunately (at least in Yangon's case) we had spent the majority of our time in the north of the country and had one more stop left before heading back to Bangkok and then on to Vietnam.
I look forward to making it back in better health next time (no easy feat when travelling in Myanmar), and allowing myself to be a little more adventurous when it comes to the street vendors. It's also a city that I feel I could spend days just wandering, camera in hand, talking to people on the street, a luxury that could not be afforded during our last stay. Despite the heat and the grittiness, it's easy for me to say that Yangon is not only one of the most fascinating, but also one of my favourite cities that I've had the pleasure of visiting.
If you're interested in learning more about Myanmar, a hugely ignored and misunderstood country, be sure to check back in over the coming weeks as I'll be posting an exclusive interview with photographer and traveller Dustin Main. Dustin has spent the past five years putting together a documentary photography project, This Myanmar Life, on the people of Myanmar which was finally released this week! I'll be digging into photography, travel, and specifically Myanmar with Dustin, so be sure to sign up for my mailing list below to be the first to know when the interview is released. You can find out more about Dustin and This Myanmar Life at his website A Skinny Escape.
I'm also excited to announce that I'm happy to have teamed up with the awesome team at GPS My City to bring you guys a shot at winning a downloadable offline self guided city walking tour of a city of your choice, each valued at $4.99.
If you haven't heard about GPS My City, they offer a free mobile app on both iOS and Android that offers downloadable city maps with directions to various city landmarks, restaurants, attractions and more! So much easier than trying to follow that tiny map hidden in the depths of your thick Lonely Planet guidebook. You can find their app and learn more about them at their website.
To enter for your shot at an offline walking tour for any of the cities they offer tours for, head over to my FACEBOOK PAGE, and share this article! The contest will run for two weeks, after which 20 winners will be drawn at random. Best of luck in the contest, and check out GPS My City for more information on the free app, as well as the cities they offer maps for.
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