Shwe Dagon Pagoda
Myanmar or Burma as it is still popularly called is one of the few lesser known and visited countries in Asia. Shortly after independence, Myanmar came under a military dictatorship and access to the country was difficult as it used to be subject to International economic sanctions and the military Junta, too, did not encourage tourism. It was only after the country opened out in 2011, that tourism took hold and the country now is one of the more popular ones on the ‘Off the Beaten Track’ tourism circuit.
Ancient Land. Ancient Monuments
Modern Myanmar has historically been known as Burma. The Burmese are an admixture of Indo-Aryan tribes, who began settling here around 700 BC and Mongolian invaders under Kublai Khan, who also entered the region around the 13th century. King Anawrahta (1044–1077) was the first great unifier of Myanmar.
In colonial times, Burma’s population was also influenced by migration of labour from India. In recent times a lot of ethnic Chinese have settled in the country and form pockets of Chinese ethnicity.
Many 'Nats' or Gods
This influence is manifested in Myanmar’s language, cuisine, music, dance and theatre. The arts, particularly literature, have historically been influenced by the local form of Theravada Buddhism. Buddhism is practised along with Nat worship, which involves elaborate rituals to propitiate one or the other diety, from a pantheon of 37 Nats or Gods. Buddhist monks are venerated and exercise considerable influence in the nation’s day to day life.
St. Mary's - Diverse Cultures
Traditional Palaces - Buddhist Influence
The dictatorship formally ended in 2011 when elections were held, but the Army continues to wield great influence and control.
Bago - Soaring Stupas
This is the reason that even in 2013, Myanmar’s Human Development Index (HDI) score was one of the lowest in the world.
Myanmar - Timber for Exports
The country is resource rich. Jade and Gems, Oil, Natural Gas, Other Mineral Products, Wood and Forest Products, form its main exports.
Myanmar’s GDP stood at US$53.14 billion in 2011.
YangonA quaint colonial city, Yangon or Rangoon as it was known in the colonial days, has much to offer the tourist and traveler.
A majority of tourists to Myanmar enter through Yangon’s International Airport. We arrived by the Bangkok Air flight. The immigration and customs formalities were efficient and friendly and we were through in about 20 minutes.
Planes at Yangon Airport
Old Colonial Railway Building
Taxis in Yangon
The influx of tourists and business travelers after 2011 created a hotel room shortage situation in Yangon and most of Myanmar. Many guide books and internet forums still hold that in the country, there are either cheap budget and backpacker hotels (US$ 15-30), or so called high end luxury hotels (US$ 220-400), with no options between the two extremes.
The Luxury Strand Hotel
Our Boutique Hotel
With the intent of using small and boutique hotels, we had booked the Millennium Hotel in Yangon. A well-appointed, new 3.5 star property, that’s very well located on the riverside, on the Strand, overlooking the Botataung pagoda.
Millennium Hotel Room
Ensconced in our comfortable rooms, we refreshed ourselves and set out to explore Yangon’s premier tourist attraction, the world famous Shwedagon Pagoda.
Shwedagon, soaring to a height of 326 feet on Theingottara hill, defines and dominates Yangon. This magnificent golden shrine, is visible from miles around.
It holds the Buddha’s holy relics - a lock of his hair, which as per legend, were enshrined here more than 2,500 years ago.
The Golden Shwe Dagon Pagoda
Somerset Maugham, in his ‘Gentleman in the Parlor’, after his first sight of the Pagoda was inspired to write that, “The superb, glistening, golden Shwedagon rising superbly upwards, was like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul”.
Rudyard Kipling, too, in his ‘Letters from the East’, described this most famous of all Myanmar shrines as, “A golden mystery lofty on the horizon, a beautiful wonder that blazed in the sun."
Detail of The Golden Spire
Gurmeet and Bitoo at Shwe Dagon
It is arguably the most venerated pagoda in Southeast Asia.
Devout Worshippers - Shwe Dagon
It is intimate and overpowering in the same breath, an absolute contradiction in terms.
Wide Eyed Visitors
The piety of the visitors is evident. People stand and pray individually or in groups, others offer flowers and wash Buddha’s images. Yet others move around wide eyed taking in the ever changing panorama of glistening golden buildings, gilded Buddhas, colorful spinning wheels, bright marble floors, and light shows; or gaze awe-struck at the soaring temples and the 326 foot high Stupa spire.
Washing Budhha's Images - Shwe Dagon
People Praying , Meditating and Relaxing
The Teeming Crowds
Our Meal at Min Lan Seafood Restaurant
Chilli Crab At Min Lan Seafood
Spirituality has its limits, however, and, one felt that ‘Spirits’ of another hue and style were beckoning strongly. It was the time to raise a glass or two or three and feed the inner being.
Accordingly, we bowed in
Le Planteur's Classic Hindustan Landmaster
We had been advised to try out the Le Planteur Restaurant and Bar, described as Rangoon's premier restaurant. This French restaurant is known in Myanmar as one of the finest places to dine. They have 3 classic cars available for transfer for guests to and from their home or hotel.
Le Planteur Yangon - Garden Seating
On the recommendation of our hotel owner, we made our way to Minn Lan seafood restaurant for a well-earned meal, lubricated by many bottles of the excellent Myanmar beer.
The Remains of our Meal at Minn Lan
It was a fantastic evening overall, combining both elements of the Spiritual and Temporal experiences, to great effect and enjoyment.
Botataung Pagoda from our Hotel Room
The Pagoda was gutted during WWII and during rebuilding in 1948, many exquisite gold and gemstone pieces were discovered in a hidden chamber along with a lock of The Buddha’s hair. The rebuilt pagoda follows the original design and is about 132 ft. high. The stupa is hollow inside and has a mirrored walkway lined with glass showcases containing many ancient relics and artifacts. The view of the Yangon River and Docks, from Botataung is also worth seeing.
Back to the hotel, and, after a nice breakfast at the roof top restaurant of the Millennium Hotel, we took a cab to Yangon’s most famous market, the Scotts Market, now known by its new name Bogyoke Aung San Market.
Gurmeet and Dicky at Scotts Mkt
Jewelry Shop - Aung San Market
The ambiance is great and the best part is that the shopkeepers are friendly without being pushy. It is further evidence that tourism in Myanmar has as yet not affected people’s commercial instincts.
The best high end buys in Scotts Market are Gems, especially Rubies and Sapphires. It is recommended that you buy from a reputed jeweler and obtain a proper certificate of authenticity.
Major Gem Stores - Scotts Market Yangon
That being said, Myanmar being a major producer of Gems and Jade; the rates for Rubies, Sapphires and Jade are probably the lowest in the world. Mandalay, however, is a better market for buying Jade products.
Burmese Fabrics - Scotts Market Yangon
St. Mary's Cathedral
Bahadur Shah Zafar's Grave and Shrine,Yangon
Bitoo, Gurmeet, Dicky at Monsoon Restaurant
Monsoon - Bar
Burmese Tea Leaf Salad
Pennywort Herb Salad
Pai Nung Manao - Whole Steamed Fish
The menu was diverse and featured famous dishes from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and of course some local fare.
The restaurant lived up to its reputation and the food and service were very good. The local dishes, Ngar kyaw hnut (fried freshwater fish with crispy onions) and Pazunhtok sebyan (king prawns in a rich tomato curry sauce), and the Vietmanese dish Pai nung manao' — steamed whole fish with garlic and lime sauce, were excellent, as were the Burmese tea leaf and Pennywort herb salads. The beer of course was as good as ever.
Later we visited the not so well known Chaukhtatgyi Temple in Yangon, which has one of the biggest and most graceful Reclining Buddha statues in South East Asia.
Reclining Buddha Chaukhtatgyi, Yangon
A noteworthy feature of the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha statue is that the soles of the feet show 108 ‘Mandalas’ or segments in red and gold color that represent the 108 ‘Lakshanas’ or auspicious characteristics of the Buddha.
Karaweik - The Royal Barge
We took a short walk around the Kandawgyi Lake, a beautiful body of water surrounded by a lovely nature park. This lake covers an area of about 60 Ha. and along with the 110 Ha. Nature park around it, the area is the green lungs of Yangon.
Mojo Bar and Restaurant
Food at Mojo, Yangon
Grilled Lemon Fish, Mojo
Mojo - Nice Bar and Drinks
At dinner, not wanting to eat local food, by popular choice, we opted for the lively Mojo. A Modern Lounge and Restaurant, near the Strand Hotel.
Yangon Circular Railway Train
The Appetizers were good and the cocktails and drinks decent. Food rated high on presentation but just OK for taste.
Circular Rail Map and Stations
Backpacking Tourists on the Circular Train
Locals Favourite Form of Rail Transport
The Ladies were hell-bent on shopping the next morning, so in the true spirit of travel, one delegated escort duties to the Brother In Law, and, took off at the crack of dawn to travel on the Yangon Circular Railway, alone. The justification being, that no other member of the group would anyway have accompanied the author on a ‘down-market’ crowded excursion.
Live-Stock on The Train, No SPCA
Kids Day Out
The Yangon circle train is probably the local populaces’ favourite way to travel cheaply through major parts of the city. It rattles slowly through a 29 mile loop of poorly maintained track, with about 39 stations, in true old-fashioned train style.
Locals and Hawkers
The Market Train. Hop On - Hop Off
A Stop to See Wood Workers. Life on The Tracks
An average of 125,000 daily commuters, from all, albeit poorer, walks of life, plus their goods, wares, live (and dead) stock and food trays ride the loop through the city, its suburban areas and its satellite towns.
You can meet hawkers, students, shopkeepers, farmers, petty businessmen, monks, and the odd intrepid traveller, like yours truly, during the 3 -5 hour ride. Interaction with local Burmese is unavoidable, friendly and photogenic. Anyway, why would the tourists ride this train if not to meet people and see a slice of the daily life of Myanmar residents’?
The Platform Wait for the 7.15 or the 8.00?..
There are about 15 departures a day going both clockwise and counter-clockwise. The trains start at 06:00 with the last full circle departure at 17:00, the traveler has ample choice, but the best time to ride is as early as you can get going, as Yangon life is most active just after dawn, before the day’s heat sets in.
Local Interaction. Trains that pass in the Day
The 11.15 from Yangon Central
One got off at interesting stations to visit local markets, have milky tea and generally watch people. There was always another train within the next 30 – 40 minutes and my white hair conferred certain respect and benefits in that people would make way for me to squeeze in onto the crowded seats. With some halts, the 3 hour journey took me 5 hours.
Busy Station Masters- The Train Can't Stop!!
The Green Elephant Restaurant, Yangon
Lunch was at the Green Elephant, a popular and highly recommended chain of up-market restaurants in Myanmar. The Restaurant had nice décor and an extensive menu. We ordered a wide variety of popular local dishes.
Our Lunch at The Green Elephant
After Lunch we drove down to the Old Royal Capital of Burma, Bago. Once an important seaport, Bago lost its importance after the Irrawaddy river shifted it’s course in the late 1600.
About 80 Km from Yangon, Bago is connected by a good road and it’s highlights can easily be covered in a half day trip.
Taukkyan War Cemetery and Memorial
Shwe Mawdaw Pagoda
The Reclining Buddha
The Buddha's Serene Face
Kyaik Pun Pagoda, the Four Seated Buddha shrine, a 27 m statue depicting the seated Buddha facing four directions, back to back.
The Four Seated Buddha's
The Kanbawzathadi Palace
Kha Khat Wain Monastery
Kha Khat Wain Monks
The Monastery Kitchen
Leaving Bago for Yangon
River and Pagoda from Our Hotel, at Dusk
Replete and satisfied, we retired to our rooms.
Bagan Beckoned but that is another Blog…..
Shwedagon Pagoda Complex at Night