Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mesmerizing Myanmar Part 1 - Yangon

Yangon International Airport

Shwe Dagon Pagoda

Wanderlust beckoned and the author decided to combine a business trip to China with a visit to Myanmar, a country he had last visited about 40 years ago, and, was very curious about. Accordingly, Gurmeet, her sister and brother in law met up with yours truly, the traveler, in Bangkok and we all flew onwards to Yangon, the former capital city of ‘Mesmerizing Myanmar’, which is truly one of the few comparatively unspoiled countries in Southeast Asia. The country has immense tourism potential which is only now starting to be realized, infrastructural problems notwithstanding.

Yangon Port

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

Myanmar is a culturally rich nation and a diverse range of indigenous cultures coexist. The country’s culture is primarily influenced by Buddhism, the majority religion; and, Bamar, its culture has also been subject to influence from neighbouring countries. 

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. 

Buddhist Monk

Burmese Dance

Around early 1600, the British East India Company, Dutch, and Portuguese traders sent agents to Burma to establish posts along the Bay of Bengal. This effort, however, met with little success as the Burmese were not receptive. In the time honoured tradition of colonization, the East India Company fought skirmishes and wars and after the Anglo-Burmese War in 1824–1826 and two subsequent wars, the British East India Company controlled the whole of Burma. In 1886, Burma was annexed to British India.

St. Mary's - Diverse Cultures

In 1937, the British delinked Burma from India and designated it a separate colony.

 Traditional Palaces - Buddhist Influence

Burma gained independence in 1948. It was initially a democratic nation and then, following a coup in 1962, a military dictatorship. 

The dictatorship formally ended in 2011 when elections were held, but the Army continues to wield great influence and control.

Bago - Soaring Stupas 

Moreover, as most resources and industry are controlled by a few influential people, many erstwhile members of the Military Junta, despite good economic growth,  Burma's true economic potential has not been achieved and a distinct lack of development is apparent. 
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.


A 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

Having heard horror tales of how only crisp, uncreased and unmarked dollar notes were accepted in Myanmar, and how even any slightly used currency was declined with disdain; we made a beeline to the money exchange counters, tendering our pristine dollar notes. We discovered that while many shops and money changers will not accept heavily used or marked currency, it is not such a problem as it used to be. Normal notes are easily accepted, with US dollars being the preferred currency. 

Old Colonial Railway Building

Most travel website had advised one that cellphone connections were very difficult and extremely expensive in Myanmar. The reality is again somewhat different. While GSM cellphone connections are still in comparatively short supply and difficult to get, things have improved and tourist can get a 30 day SIM with about 300 minutes talk time at the Airport itself. Travelers are strongly advised to get the connection at the counters just outside customs as the SIM cards are not as easy to get in the city.

Taxis in Yangon

We took an air conditioned large taxi to our hotel beside the river, a pleasant 15 km drive past some lovely colonial buildings, lakes, gardens and pagodas. We were very pleasantly surprised that the fare was under 10 US dollars. Throughout our stay in Yangon we found that the taxi drivers generally charged fair prices and there was very little attempt to overcharge tourists and take them ‘For a Ride’, both literally and figuratively.

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

It only goes to show that guide books and internet forums are not updated regularly. The tourism boom has let to construction of good ‘value for money’ 3-4 star, 40-100 room business and tourist hotels in most cities and tourist centers. 

Our Boutique Hotel

The mid-market traveler should have no problem in getting very decent hotels at US dollars 75-125 a day, inclusive of breakfast and taxes.

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

That being said, the author would not recommend that you visit it under the ‘Blazing Sun’, it is just too hot and it is difficult to walk barefoot on the scorched stone floors. Wait for the comparative cool of the evening, as we did, and you would have a more comfortable and enjoyable experience.
It is arguably the most venerated pagoda in Southeast Asia.

Devout Worshippers - Shwe Dagon

We paid our US$ 8 per head entry fee for foreigners, checked in our shoes and entered the complex, at dusk. The mass of humanity in this sprawling, massive, glittering, gold-plated conglomeration of stunning temples, stupas, and statues has to be seen to be believed, it has the appearance of an anthill that has been kicked over, an absolutely sensory overload. 
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

Then there are the monks, moving around calmly or sitting engrossed in prayers, others listening to discourses by senior abbots. Many tech savvy monks, obviously visitors to Shwedagon, were taking photographs using smart phones and even Ipads. The contrast between the simple traditional robes worn by the monks and the modernity of the hi-tech toys they were handling was a little incongruous. The 21st century had truly arrived, even in this hallowed portal of orthodox religion. 

People Praying , Meditating and Relaxing

Amidst this hustle and bustle, there are islands of calm where people sit in the shade of trees and enjoy the city view.

The Teeming Crowds

Our Meal at Min Lan Seafood Restaurant

Chilli Crab At Min Lan Seafood

In all this activity, camera toting tourists move around, clicking away frantically and often missing the view for the look in the view finder. There is great acceptance of every individual’s actions and no one seems annoyed at the invasion of their privacy by the ‘Sharp Shooters’ with Canons. We spent a good 3 hours admiring and taking in the atmosphere at the Shwedagon Pagoda. The author, too, is an avid photographer, but interspaced his ‘Photo Frenzy’ with periods of observation and introspection. It was truly a magical experience. 

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

reverence to the Buddha, and, wended our way out in search of sustenance.

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 

Unfortunately, they were sold out and we could not get reservations at short notice, so we had a drink there but missed out on what surely would have been a great gastronomic experience.

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.

As the ladies had called the tune, specifying shopping therapy this day; very early in the morning, the author slipped out and crossed the road to visit the nearby Botataung Pagoda. The Pagoda’s name literally means 1000 soldiers and derives from the legendary guard of honour that welcomed the Budhha’s relics to the site of the pagoda, over 2000 years ago.

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.

Bogyoke Aung San (Scotts) Market

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

Housed in a lovely old colonial building, this covered market place is probably every visitor’s number one shopping destination in Yangon. Many tourists and locals visit Scotts Market to shop for gold, gems, all sorts of jewelry, clothing material, handicrafts, ceramic, paintings, souvenirs, food, daily requirements and local delicacies, etc.

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

While the ladies browsed through, the author passed a good hour watching groups of Indian and Bangladeshi ladies buying Gems and Jewelry, in bulk, as if a Gem and Jewelry famine was in the offing.

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

Burmese Lacquer-Work 

Other good buys are Burmese fabrics, both cotton and silks, which are excellent. Art and lacquer work, too, make for good buys. 
The tradition of good lacquer work is common throughout Southeast Asia and in the author’s opinion; the best Vietnamese lacquer work from Hanoi has an edge over the Burmese version. Paintings and art work, too, are quite good, but again Vietnam has an edge.
The Largest Cathedral in Burma, St. Mary's, is just across the road from Scotts Market. 

St. Mary's Cathedral

While the ladies were shopping, one took the opportunity to photograph the impressive, well maintained Church.

Bahadur Shah Zafar's Grave and Shrine,Yangon

Bitoo, Gurmeet, Dicky at Monsoon Restaurant

Monsoon  - Bar

Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

Nearby, too, is the simple Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor of India, who was exiled to Rangoon by the British. 
Locals consider this simple building a shrine.

Lunch was at the famous Monsoon Restaurant, on the Strand. This old world restaurant is German owned and is located in an old colonial house. Locals insist that it is here one would find the most delectable Southeast Asian cuisine offerings.

In the afternoon, the eatery was full of people enjoying a lazy lunches. This is always an indicator of a good restaurant.

Pennywort Herb Salad

The 1st floor is an atmospheric bar, and the 2nd floor is an arts and crafts store named Pomelo which stocks the work of disadvantaged and handicapped local artists. 

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.

108 'Lakshanas' 

This serene pose of the Buddha exudes a sense of calmness.

Reclining Buddha Chaukhtatgyi, Yangon

This statue is 65 mtr long and 16 high, and is second in size only to the reclining Buddha statue, at the Shwethalyaung Buddha temple in the old capital city of Bago, one hour’s drive North of 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

There is a viewing platform which allows the devout to view and photographers like me to snap pictures of the Buddha’s feet.

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

There is a replica of Karaweik, the royal barge, built on the lake. This currently houses a restaurant. Legend has it that this ornate building will last for 500 years. It’s a good way to spend an hour, relaxing.

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

A nice, trendy place to enjoy drinks and dinner, it was crowded with expatriates and locals. The Ambiance, European style décor, music and service were of a high standard.

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. 

Track-side Panoramas 

The best place to get on is the Central station, though tourists staying in other areas could enquire about stops nearer to their areas, which are a part of the 39 station loop.

Local Interaction. Trains that pass in the Day

The Author, armed with his trusty Canon, bottled water and sandwiches, got in and occupied a window seat and sat enthralled as the train traveled at a snail’s pace through various stations. Vendors hopped on and off between stops, selling boiled peanuts, fruits and Myanmar traditional food. A lady selling chickens got on and travelled a few stations down the line to a market. Students smiled, tried their English skills and posed for photographs. Monks handed out benedictions and accepted small gifts of food and alms. The outside panorama was also interesting.

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

The 200 - 220 Kyat ticket is valid for the whole day and is probably the ‘Best Value’, ‘Not to be Missed’ tour in Myanmar. That is, if you really are interested and can stomach large portions of humanity, at close quarters. Give it a try, if you find it too hot and claustrophobic, or are short of time and have to move on, you can always leave the train at any stop and grab a taxi back.
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

The Food was well presented, but was variable, with some dishes tasting great while others were below par. Myanmar Beer of course helped to elevate even the mediocre dishes. The Service was laid back but acceptable.

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

Bago Town

We took a short halt at the Taukkyan war cemetery en-route. This well maintained cemetery pays homage to the thousands of allied soldiers, killed fighting the Japanese in WWII, who lie buried here.

Shwe Mawdaw Pagoda

We drove around Bago, quickly taking in the main sights like The Golden, 375 Ft, high Shwe Mawdaw Pagoda, the highest in Myanmar.

The Reclining Buddha

The Shwethar lyaung Pagoda, home to a 55 Mt. long, 16 Mt. high, reclining Buddha, the world’s second largest reclining Buddha. It is said to have been sculpted in 994, during the reign of Mon King Migadepa.

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

The Kanbawzathadi Palace ,The original palace, built for King Bayinnaung in 1556, had 76 apartments and halls. It was burned down in 1599. It was reconstructed in 1990 and finished in 1992. Its Lavishly decorated and worth seeing from the outside.

Kha Khat Wain Monastery

Kha Khat Wain Monks

We visited the Kha Khat Wain Monastery for a short while to interact with young monk acolytes. It’s worth a visit as it is a nice place to socialize with monks who are more than happy to show you around and also practice their spoken English skills.

The Monastery Kitchen

Leaving Bago for Yangon

It had been a long day and as we had an early morning flight next morning, we decided to stay put and eat in our hotel. The Rooftop Restaurant was perfectly adequate, with good food and reasonably priced drinks. 

River and Pagoda from Our Hotel, at Dusk

The Views over the Yangon River and the nearby Botataung pagoda added to the enjoyment. We lingered awhile, discussing our experiences in Yangon.
Replete and satisfied, we retired to our rooms. 
Bagan Beckoned but that is another Blog…..

Shwedagon Pagoda Complex at Night