Literally, a dream come true. I remember, not so long ago – 2008, standing at the Scorpion Temple in Chiang Rai staring across the border to Myanmar, or Burma as it was known for so long when it was a no go zone. Wondering whether I would ever get to see this country that looked so green and lush. Five years later, when wanderlust sunk in, these footsteps started the “Dreams of Burma” odyssey in Yangon, or Rangoon as it has been known for so long.
And – I was not disappointed! What a beautiful country, oozing with charisma and charm. A culture untouched, the innocence in its people not yet corrupted with materialism still evident, and a place not yet consumed with the masses of tourists that can pretty much turn a country into a zoo. Now is the time to experience the real Myanmar, while it is still off the beaten track. Just go. You won’t regret it, I promise you. But for now, live vicariously thorough me!
Burma is the exotic land of the gilded pagodas, thanaka, longyi, the temples of Bagan, the fishermen of Inle, the teak bridge of U-Bein, red robed monks, and much more. The wanderluster in me- truly excited to explore. Arriving in Yangon via Bangkok, quite late at night my hear was a flutter with excitement to explore this country. I had to pinch myself while I sat in our beautiful room at the Traders Hotel, staring out at the brightly lit Shwedagon Pagoda in the distance, savouring the moment, barely believing that we were here!
Yangon is, contrary to popular belief not the current capital of Burma. But, it is home to a number of beautiful sights. We started off the day at the Sule Pagoda, which interestingly also doubles up as a roundabout! A few pictures here and then a quick walk over to the Maha Bandoola Garden which houses the Independence Monument. This is a nice, green park to sit and let your thoughts meander for a while. Maybe in another lifetime for me. Today, was a whistle stop tour.
Every country has its traditions and religions synonymous to it, and Burma is no exception. We got our first sight of the home spirits, or “nats” – at the Boatataung Pagoda, also home to a single hair of the Lord Buddha enshrined in its gilded gold interior. I was curious about these Nats- some of them looked quite unlike the holy images of deities that are usually present in places of worship.
Time for a spot of lunch, and the foodie in me wanted to try some of the Burmese specialties that I had read about before we got here. Our driver, Kyaw takes us to Feel Myanmar, a place crammed with tourists and locals alike and I am so glad that he is there to help order, because the dishes are oh so many and I would have had no clue what to chow down. A few minutes later – steamed vegetables with a spicy and pungent fish sauce that I wasn’t too keen on, chicken curry, mutton curry, squash curry, curry, curry and more curry with rice is placed, bowl after bowl onto the table. Burmese food is interesting – bordered by India, Thailand and China – you can believe there’s a mix of all three cuisines in this place. If you want the real deal – Feel Myanmar is certainly the place to come to – endorsed by Anthony Bourdain, no less!
There are a couple more interesting sights to while away your time such as the Scott Market (don’t bother with bargaining here because it really doesn’t work), the floating duck like restaurant in Inya Lake and the home where Aun Sang Suu Kyi grew up in, but the one other sight I would highly recommend is the Reclining Buddha at the Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, not far from the Shwedagon – a colossal and very colourful 70 metre reclining Buddha – a fantastic place for you to sit and zone or zen out, whichever you choose under the watchful eyes of this large Buddha – the area isn’t that well known save for the locals that come to worship here, making it quite a treasure.
Now, for the show stopper and the one sight I had been waiting to get to all day – Shwedagon. We didn’t climb 100+ steps to the terrace, but took the escalator to the top and bought our tickets, handing out crisp, unfolded USD 8 per person (yes, it is true that the Burmese will only accept brand new, unfolded dollar bills) and 200 kyats for slipper care.
Words escape me. The gilded stupa bathed in the golden rays of the gently setting sun, surrounded by its myriad subsidiary shrines – simply cast a magic spell on me. The terrace is a flurry of activity, but emanates calm and has such a peaceful ambience. I suppose this is what zen is supposed to feel like. Monks meditating, tourists hanging around waiting for the sun to set, locals bustling around in prayer, performing their circumambulation pausing to perform rituals and pray at various smaller temples and other posts . Shwedagon has a long history with its origins shrouded in legend, but I’ll let your guidebooks tell you about those. I’ll stick to my experience, which stands out as one of the best I’ve ever had in a Buddhist temple.
There’s loads to see and do at the Shwedagon. Lots of ancillary temples are dotted around the terrace around the main stupa all with different religious significance attached to them. In our amble around, we come to a corner which is swirling with activity. Known as “the birthday corner” which has the days of the week listed around it, a Buddha image and a tonne of people pouring water all over the various statues, this corner has piqued my curiosity. Not one to be shy – I ask a local lady who speaks English the significance and she tells me that washing the Buddha in your corner is considered lucky and brings good karma. She had me at karma, so off I toodle to Sunday corner – the child born on the sabbath, to wash the Buddha and pray for good karma. Or tonnes of opportunities to travel, in my case. Oh, so much fun, to partake in such tradition. One of the reasons why my soul loves to travel!
We were also really lucky to be at the Shwedagon on the auspicious full moon day on which they place candles around the entire periphery of the stupa, totaling to over 9000, that anyone can light, illuminating the stupa in flickering candlelight. A burning candle, a flickering flame, whispers of silent prayers being sent up to the heavens above, faith in their being answered. I don’t think I have ever been to such a temple with this much positive energy radiating in its every edifice before. This moment – has certainly been engrained in my mind and heart forever.
After steeping my soul in the aura of the Shwedagon, the next thing I wanted was a hot cup of tea, and Lucky Seven Tea House was the obvious choice, sweet milky tea that I sipped while reminiscing on the wonderful moments at the pagoda moments ago. Coupled with some traditonal Mohinga, fish noodle soup – I really enjoyed my snack before we wandered off to 19th street in Chinatown to sample some bar be que- chicken, langoustines, jumbo prawns, beef…cooked up and eaten street style in a narrow alley amidst the cars trying to wangle their way through the meandering pedestrians. The cheapest meal I have ever eaten in my life, and the humility of the owner being such that he didn’t even want a tip! Now, where in the world does that kind of humility exist?
Ahhhhh Myanmar. You’ve waved your Magic wand and captured my heart and besotted me. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this stunning country has to offer. Tomorrow – we fly to the mystical Bagan and I just can’t wait! For now, I leave you with this stunning image captured by my soulmate and favourite photographer – Mahesh Acharya – the Shwedagon at night, bathed in all its glory. Simply stunning.