Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, wasn’t high on my list of places to go to. I had little interest because of its obvious similarities with other Asian territories, my hometown (Manila, Philippines) included. It was only when I was searching for a new place to visit in Asia for a quick holiday that isn’t expensive in spring season (ehem, Japan and South Korea) that I even considered looking into Myanmar.
I saw the sea of temples spread all over the misty landscape, mountains in the background and hot air balloons floating from the distance. The stunning view that looks like it was weaved out of a dream – BAGAN! Right then and there, I knew where to go for our Easter trip!
With a few google searches, I found discounted flights to Myanmar. There is no direct international flight to Bagan, though. You can either fly to Mandalay or Yangon, Myanmar’s two main international airports.
Mandalay is closer to Bagan but it’s cheaper to fly to Yangon. I’m frugal; of course I chose the latter.
I booked us an early flight to Yangon even though the bus that will take us to Bagan is scheduled to leave at night. That gave us the rest of the day to explore downtown, the city’s bustling district without the skyscrapers.
From the airport, we took a taxi and asked the driver to bring us to Shwedagon Pagoda – a golden Buddhist temple that is the most recommended and #1 “Thing to Do” in Yangon.
After around 30 or 40 minutes’ drive in mild traffic, we have arrived. Our taxi stopped in front of a humble entrance, with gates colored with dirt and rust. The stairway is dotted with bird poop that seemed to have dried as days have passed. There were a number of vendors trying to call our attention in language I don’t understand.
To say I was disappointed is an understatement. In fact, I didn’t want to go inside the temple anymore. I walked a bit to see if there’s any interesting place to go nearby. But it was scorching hot. It was only around 10AM then but it feels like our energy for the day has already been expelled out of our body.
We decided to go inside Shwedagon Pagoda for shelter while we figure out what to do next.
This is the part where I take back what I said earlier —
Shwedagon Pagoda isn’t just one temple, but a huge complex of several temples, pagoda and religious relics where locals make their daily rituals. The outside of the centre may not be attractive but its interior is grand! The edifices are adorned with gold leaf that glitters under the sun.
Note to Self: Do not make generalizations based on first impression. :)
We continued to explore inside as we endured the heat of the marble floor under our bare feet. When it has become too hot, we found shelter in one of the temples and observed people come and go.
Before long, a young couple came and sat beside us. They were carrying with them two big plastic bags filled with energy drinks. She opened one drink and offered it to Buddha. At the same time, he took out two bottles and gave it to us.
Surprised, we quickly said “Thank you”. He returned a shy smile.
Hubby and I exchanged confused looks. “Can we drink it?” or “Are we supposed to offer it to Buddha as well?” We waited. The lady came back from her prayer and together, they distributed the rest of the bottles to monks and locals resting nearby. Aah, good Samaritans.
I opened my bottle and felt relieved as the sweetened liquid touched my thirsty throat.
We stayed and rested for a good two hours. I’m not usually to sit still for long without fiddling my phone or reading a good book. You know, that habit of needing to do something (even while waiting in line) or else you’re going to miss out. It’s a lifestyle of the fast paced world.
In Yangon, or Myanmar in general, there is no technology to distract you. Even radios are still analog (de-pihit as we call it back home). At any time of the day, locals just frequently pray and pour water over Buddha’s head. Some take a nap inside the temples. Others spend time and chat with family and friends. There is no rush or pressure to keep up.
We hailed another taxi going to Sule Road. The driver initially offered it for 6000 kyat but I bargained and got the ride for 3500 kyat (US$ 3). There are public buses for cheaper option, but since we’re still carrying our bags, it was more convenient for us to take a cab.
Like other third world countries, some sellers or drivers will try to overcharge you. Always try to negotiate. Burmese are willing to compromise as long as the price is right or they are not on the losing end.
This is what I love about them. Unlike their aggressive counterparts in Vietnam or Thailand, if the locals offer something and you say, “No, thank you”, they will most likely listen and stop pestering you. They won’t try to follow (which always makes me uncomfortable) and force you.
The downtown feels a lot like Quiapo in the Philippines – vendors in the sidewalk selling cold drinks, snacks, clothes, fruits, even textbooks. Creaky public buses and old vehicle models stuck in traffic. Crumbling old apartment buildings in washed out pastel colours. Laundry clothes hanging by the windows. Messy layers of electric wires suspended in the air. Locals wearing vibrant longyi (aka sarong) skirts.
It feels familiar but it’s not the same.
Though I always keep my valuables in sight, I didn’t feel the need to do it. There was no feeling of threat as we walked along the tiny lanes. Burmese people only look at us with curiosity as we try to point our cameras on subjects ordinary to them. It’s all good.
I recall, this is how Quiapo looked like in the 90’s. The streets I used to walk alone and still feel safe. The time where it isn’t as noisy and rowdy. Quiapo wasn’t perfectly clean then, but it’s not as nearly polluted as it is now.
Being the largest city of a developing country, Yangon is already considered as most urbanized compared to other towns in Myanmar. It still has a long way to go and I would very much love to see this country flourish. But I have witnessed how the culture, safety and way of life of some emerging cities changed for the worst because of ungoverned progression. Manila is one example. I don’t wish Myanmar the same.
What do you think of Yangon? Have you been to a place that looks and feels familiar to you?