Before I begin talking about Yangon, I highly recommend reading up a little bit about Myanmar (Burma)’s fascinating history, as there is no way I’m going to summarize that for you here, nor will I get into the politics of calling this country Myanmar vs. Burma. Wikipedia, as always, does a fab job of doing just that for me. Should you, however, be interested in diving in a little bit further into Myanmar’s past, I recommend reading Burmese Days, which details, from George Orwell’s point of view, Burma during its days of British colonialism.
Now back to our travels… We started our Burmese adventures in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar’s former capital. The military government moved the capital to Naypyidaw in 2006. Yangon, however, remains the country’s largest city with a population of SIX MILLION and is the most important commercial center of the country. It is also home to Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest site in all of Myanmar, where we sadly suffered a great loss (detailed later in this post).
As we only had two weeks in Myanmar (we were meeting our friend Ryan in Bangkok on March 12th), we planned out our two weeks day-by-day, with the help of Lauren & Yoav who had spent a month in Myanmar before meeting us in Laos, so that we could have fun while also seeing as much as humanly possible. Sometimes, however, life throws some curveballs at you – good and bad – and plans change, but I won’t detail it all now. Read on to learn all about our Yangon experiences and the amazing people that we met.
Miles walked: 23
Miles transported: ~440
Wandering Around Downtown Yangon
After a 14-hour night train from Vientiane to Bangkok, followed by a 4-hour wait at the airport, a 1.5 hour flight to Yangon, and then an hour drive into the city, we were POOPED. We checked into our guest house (which was run by the nicest people of all time), awarded ourselves a short nap, then took off to explore the city! Started with a walk through one of the city’s many markets, tasting and enjoying many delicious street foods and fruits as we went:
These markets sell a slew of random things, including this Arkia Airline (a cheap and crappy Israeli domestic airline) balloon. What it was doing here and how it got here, I have no clue, but I had to take a picture of it:
Made our way towards Sule Pagoda – a politically, ideologically and geographically important stupa in the heart of the city – that has been the focal point of both Yangon and Burmese politics and served as a rallying point in both the 1988 uprisings and the 2007 Saffron Revolution (pretty much stole that from Wikipedia verbatim):
Walked on over to the nearby Maha Bandula Park, which boasts the beautiful Independence Monument at its center:
The Yangon Region Court to the east:
And various other government and financial institutions to the north, west and south. We walked around the park, noticing a huge crowd gathered by the northern fountain. Apparently, a very famous Burmese rock band was playing and the audience was going wild:
We sat down on the grass and hung out for a bit, listening to the band. After a short while, we were approached by two locals – Johnathan, a 27-year old English teacher and Merry, a 19-year old university student. After chatting with them for a while, we went to get some tea with them at a nearby tea-shop, after which we checked out Johnathan’s church, Immanuel Baptist Church, one of the oldest Baptist churches in Yangon. Though the majority of Myanmar is Buddhist (90%), there is a healthy Christian population (~5.5%) and even a teeeeeeny tinnnny Jewish one, but I’ll get to that later… In the meantime, Johnathan showed us around his church. It was fascinating to see the ongoings inside a Burmese Christian church!
As the following day was a Saturday, Johnathan and Merry offered to show us around some of the famous sites in Yangon! Even though we had plans for that day, we nixed them in favor of hanging out and visiting some other sites with these two cool kids! If there’s anything we’ve learned while traveling, it’s that every experience is infinitely cooler when experienced with a local. So we bid them goodbye for the evening and went back to the guest house to rest up and hang out with the staff in the lobby who were rooting for Arsenal like no other:
Myanmar National Races Village
Met up with Johnathan and Merry bright and early and took off for the National Races Village, a cultural park that exhibits and educates on the similarities and differences of the eight major national ethnic races of Myanmar, in the Thaketa Township of East Yangon. Before taking off, Merry presented me with my very own hand-made longyi (traditional Burmese skirt)!
She spoiled me further by giving me a container of thanaka cream – a cosmetic paste made from ground bark that most women and all children apply to their faces for both cosmetic reasons, as it’s a fashion style, but also for health reasons, as it is said to be good for the skin (pimples, blemishes, etc) and even protect from the sun! She helped me stylishly put some on. I then returned the favor, but apparently did a terrible job.
After a solid hour on the bus (to drive 12 km), we finally arrived!
Approaching the Nan Myint Viewing Tower:
Which we climbed to catch some beautiful views of the park:
A giant turtle!!!! We promised Samsonite we’ll go say hi to it later:
Our only group pic!
We started making our way through the different tribes, checking out their traditional houses, clothes, and cultures. I’m not going to detail and describe each and every one (mostly because it was really hard for us to keep track!), so I’ll just share with you some choice photos from the day:
Samsonite hitting on some cute Burmese girl:
I have no idea what this is, but it’s cool:
A replica of one of the mountain ranges in the north’s colder climate. Quite a few trekkers were out that day:
A replica of the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (Golden Rock), the third most holy site in Myanmar. Legend says that the rock (the real one…) sits on a strand of Buddha’s hair, which is what is preventing it from simply tumbling down the mountain. Unfortunately, we were told that the entire pagoda (the real one…) was under repairs and completely covered up, so we didn’t go visit it in person. Lame, but at least we got to see a replica!
The park also displayed a replica of The Great Bell of Dhammazedi, which was stolen from Shwedagon Pagoda in 1608 and apparently sunk at the confluence of the Bago and Yangon rivers. Many attempts have been made by multiple individuals and agencies from around the world to locate and excavate said bell, but till this day, the bell’s location remains to be a mystery. So, again… yay for replicas!
This place even had a small deer farm where we got to feed the deer:
Always a fan of English signage in Asia:
On to the next tribe:
The master bedroom:
Some more traditional clothing:
Oohh, I wonder what goes on in there…
And in there…
It’s a local tradition to come to this park, dress up and get your make-up done in the traditional style, and then take pictures:
A young couple dressed up in traditional clothing and enjoying their Saturday:
After hours of walking, we decided it was time to leave and grab some lunch, but not before quickly taking a picture of these teeny tiny chicklets!!
And as promised, we took Samsonite to say hi to the giant turtle:
The cool thing about visiting Myanmar, similar to visiting Taiwan, is that there aren’t a lot of western tourists. This is especially true of the “less popular” cities, such as Yangon and Hpa-an, which sadly, often go unvisited. What’s great about this though is that the locals are really excited to see you, meet you, talk to you and are super nice and not yet jaded by over-tourism, such is the case in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. People were regularly asking to take pictures of us and with us, asking us where we were from, hoping to practice their English, etc. A woman sitting next to me on the bus even bought me some quail eggs! I mean, it wasn’t pumpkin soup like on the train in Taiwan, but it was still awesome. Anyway, not only were people getting a kick out of us being white, they were especially getting a kick out of me being white AND wearing a longyi and thanaka cream, pointing, smiling and giving me the thumbs up as they walked by. It was really sweet and encouraging. And if you know me even just a little bit, then you KNOW I was loving the attention. Good thing the thanaka cream held on disturbingly well throughout the day:
Kyauktan Ye Le Pagoda
Made our way down to the Kyauktan Ye Le Pagoda, otherwise known as the Floating Pagoda, ‘cus, you know, it looks like its floating…
Took a boat across the river to check it out:
New paint job:
Went down to the water to hang out for a bit before making the 2 hour journey back to Yangon:
What a way to wrap up the day. Thank you, Johnathan and Merry, for showing us such an amazing time!!!
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue
Though Myanmar used to have a fairly large Jewish population, today only a handful remain, and Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is the last remaining Synagogue and Jewish house of worship in all of Myanmar. Though I’m not at all religious, I thought it’d be a fascinating place to visit nonetheless:
Made our way to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest site in all of Myanmar!!
Started with a visit to the 150 year-old Bodhi Tree:
And the giant Buddha footprint:
Checked out a bunch of little pagodas, temples, and Buddhas:
Channeled the pagoda’s holiness to capture this cool optical illusion:
Some cool shots of THE pagoda:
And this heavenly pagoda:
And more temples:
Shortly after the above photo was taken and Francy was all smiles, he realized his phone was missing. We double checked all bags and pockets – no phone. We ran around all the sites we had visited – no phone. We even tried to talk to security (who barely spoke English) who did their best to help us look for the phone, but to no avail. After 2 hours of searching for it, we were forced to give up. Consider it the sacrifice we made to the holiest site in all of Myanmar. Aside from the fact that it was obviously a bummer to lose the phone, Francy had JUST taken the COOLEST 360 photosphere of the entire pagoda and its surroundings and we were pretty damn stoked to share that on the blog. So yeah, sorry peeps. No photosphere. Instead, you get this:
After the denial, anger, bargaining and depression of losing Francy’s phone (and the Shwedagon photosphere!), we made our way over to Kandawgyi Lake to have lunch and chill out for a bit on the grass in hopes of achieving the 5th stage of grief – acceptance. Got a nice view of Karaweik Palace:
Yangon – it’s been real. Like, bittersweet real. Like, we-loved-you-but-also-felt-a-little-bit-violated real. Damn you, Shwedagon! Said a final goodbye to the pagoda (and Francy’s phone) and took off for the bus station to catch our night-bus to Hpa-An!