Yangon, formerly Rangoon, is the largest city in the country of Myanmar, formerly Burma. Just a 50-minute flight from Bangkok, we spent an enjoyable five nights in Yangon. Embroiled in internal conflict and governed largely by a military government, Myanmar had not been open to tourism until 2011. Tourism is slowly growing but Myanmar is still one of the least visited countries in South East Asia. Many areas of the country are still closed to tourists. We enjoyed our time in Yangon and felt very safe.
We chose to stay in a hotel near the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the main attractions of the city. The word “pagoda” appears to mean something slightly different depending on what country you are in. In China, a pagoda is a multi-storey religious structure with large overhanging eaves. However, in Myanmar, the term pagoda seems to be more generic and can refer to a stupa (a bell shaped structure) or the whole religious complex.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is huge! We were told by our guide that the main stupa is covered with 65 tonnes of gold. The top of the stupa is encrusted with 4531 diamonds and other gems. The centerpiece is a 72-carat diamond.
We are used to removing our shoes when entering a temple building, however, in Myanmar, you must take both your shoes and socks off as soon as you enter the site, not just a building. Also, we are used to the modesty requirements required through South East Asia when entering a religious site: no sleeveless shirts or tops, no low-cut tops, no shorts or short skirts. My wife, Susan, has never had an issue at any place we have visited up until the Shwedagon Pagoda. The people at the entrance judged her skirt reaching a couple of inches below her knees as being “too short” and gave her a wrap to cover up. For the rest of our trip, Susan made sure to wear only full-length skirts.
Maha Wizaya Pagoda
Just down the street is the smaller, Maha Wizaya Pagoda. This pagoda seemed to be where local people come to meditate and worship. There are numerous ceiling paintings depicting various stages and events in Buddha’s life.
This is also the pagoda where a number of people approached us asking if they could take a picture of us. They also tried out their English and were curious as to where we were from, what religion we were, etc.
Often overlooked, the Maha Wizaya Pagoda is worth a visit.
This was probably the highlight of our visit to Yangon. Very simple, very interesting and dirt cheap. The railway is not really a tourist destination, it is just a local railway that serves the people of Yangon. It is interesting to just sit on the train for the three-and-a-half-hour round trip and watch daily life going on. The whole journey cost about the equivalent of fifteen cents USD.
There is a total of 39 stops along the way. The landscape changes from urban to rural quite quickly with buildings giving way to farms and rice paddies. People get on and off the train at each stop. Sometimes they get on with hundreds of pounds of goods – produce, fabric, clothing for sale, etc. At about the middle of the ride is a large open air market with all kinds of produce for sale. A husband and wife got on with a number of large bags of vegetables. They spent the rest of the trip trimming the vegetables and sorting into smaller packets for resale.
Numerous vendors walk up and down the aisle selling all kinds of food and drink. I bought a delicious fresh baked bun that the woman slathered with butter and jam. It cost the equivalent of nine cents.
About midway into the trip, we stopped at a large outdoor market
Peoples Park is a 135 acre (56 hectares ) park near the Shwedagon Pagoda. The park is a great place to walk around, relax, and people watch. Or, you can take in the amusement park and try your luck at the midway games.
The park has a Lover’s Lane that is really used as a Lover’s Lane. We saw many couples snuggled up to one another on the many benches throughout this area of the park. It is a little hard to imagine being snuggled up in 90 degrees F weather in the middle of the afternoon, but I guess that when you are in love, it doesn’t matter.
Myanmar, or Burma at the time, was a British colony from 1824 to 1948. During this time, the British built many buildings in the British Colonial style. Yangon has the highest number of colonial buildings of all cities in Southeast Asia. One of the reasons for this is the isolation of Myanmar over decades and the lack of redevelopment and growth. Many of the buildings are closed and in disrepair.
The day that we planned to take a look at the colonial buildings it was pouring rain, so we didn’t get much further than the Strand Hotel. The Strand Hotel is one of the best-preserved buildings in Yangon. Opened in 1901, it was one of Asia’s most luxurious hotels at the time. We enjoyed a traditional British High Tea at the Strand.
Another huge park in Yangon, Kandawgyi Park surrounds Kandawgyi Lake. There is a wooden walkway around most of the lake. The walkway itself is interesting in that it is quite worn and rickety in most places. The disrepair of the walkway means you have to pay pretty close attention to where you are stepping so as not to trip, so it takes away from being able to enjoy the scenery. Still, a recommended place to visit.
Next to the park is the Yangon Zoological Gardens. The zoo opened in 1906 and has a pretty impressive collection of animals. Interestingly, many of the cages look as I imagine they would have looked in 1906, so, in some ways a little depressing.
Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple
The Chaukhtatgyi Temple houses a 66 meter (217 feet) long reclining Buddha. A reclining Buddha depicts Buddha hours before his passing, just before reaching the state of Nirvana. We have seen many reclining Buddha’s in our time in Southeast Asia, but this is probably the largest we have seen in our travels so far.
So Much More to See
Yangon is a very interesting place and we plan to return to Myanmar to explore the other sights around this mysterious country. Although Yangon is the largest city, Mandalay, Bagan and Mrauk U are all on our list to see in the next year or so.