Rangoon or Yangon as it is known these days, is the former capital of Myanmar, one of the handful of countries in the World which pays homage to Theravada Buddhism. Yangon is a large city spread out over several kilometres with a population of around Six Million. It was a sophisticated city prior to Myanmar’s independence from the British in 1948, which is still evident today when you walk along the wide tree-lined streets. However, what you read in the newspaper and see on the TV news does not always accurately describe the city and its warm and hospitable people. As I walked along the Strand road flanked by decaying colonial-era buildings, I was pleasantly surprised that the heat was accompanied by a gentle breeze sans much humidity.
A visit to Yangon is not complete unless you spend a couple of hours at its most amazing pagoda the Shwedagon Paya, revered as one of the most sacred Buddhist sites achieving iconic status for Yangon. Under the sweltering mid-day sun, the impressive bell shaped golden pagoda that stands 98 metres tall shimmers its regal brilliance. For a moment, you forget that you are in an impoverished country beset by a series of civil unrest and draconian international sanctions. In that moment of awe you merge into the peaceful tranquility that surrounds the massive pagoda. The barely audible hum of Buddhist priests chanting in the distance and a momentary whiff of Sandalwood joss sticks in the breeze completes the serenity of the experience. A visit to Shwedagon Paya is equal to my visits to the Pyramids in Egypt, the Ruwanwelisaya Chetiya (Stupa) in Sri Lanka and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, as one of the greatest man-made marvels.
There are several pagodas in and around Yangon and another famous, albeit less impressive, pagoda is the Sule Paya, which is situated in the centre of Yangon at a round-about circled by shops and offices. Local myth has it that a strand of Lord Buddha’s hair is enshrined in this stupa and no one is certain of its age.
The local river prawns at the Strand Hotel was a different experience to what I eaten in other countries and the ambiance in this elegant colonial era hotel made up for it! The Strand Hotel which is the Raffles of Myanmar, was far beyond my budget at US600++ per night for a regular room. I opted for the Traders Hotel (part of the Shangri-la Hotel chain) at a respectable US120 for a deluxe double room. Ofcourse, not a shadow of the Strand, but it had decent accommodation and I wasn’t planning on spending much time in the hotel anyway, so it really didn’t matter.
Shopping in Yangon is limited. However, the handicrafts, gems, jewelery and art are of high quality and priced at very reasonable prices. If you are a lover of art, then there are many galleries and markets which will offer beautiful paintings. The Scotts Market (or Bogyoke Aung San Market as it is officially referred to in maps) has quite a good selection, although the prices are more competitive outside on the side roads and alleys where bargaining is acceptable and expected. Some of the smaller boutique shops are frequently run by the artist himself, who is present within the humble store cum abode, and willing to give you an explanation of his works of art. You had better carry lots of US dollars with you and an extra large suitcase because I can assure you that you will be purchasing more than you can carry home!
Although I had a splendid time in Yangon, I must confess that I was more excited about the upcoming journey to Mandalay, Myanmar’s last royal capital, which lies along the Irrawaddy river 700km north of Yangon. More on that later….