ON THE TAXI RIDE FROM THE AIRPORT, traffic slows down, almost grinding to a halt. Fields punctuated by palm trees are soon replaced by anonymous concrete buildings, between which are houses with corrugated roofs, and with storefronts in a script I don’t understand. There are countless of Buddhist temples as well, their gold spires glistening under the heat of the sun. Myanmar has been the most mysterious among Southeast Asian nations, and seeing the country in person for the first time has some kind of a pull that makes me want to pay attention. It is in Yangon where I’m getting my first glimpse of the once isolated country. It may have lost its capital status more than a decade ago, but it is still (at least to virtually everyone but perhaps government officials) Myanmar’s most important city.
Who takes a holiday in Myanmar? A decade ago, only those defiant enough to ignore a tourism boycott by pro-democracy groups. For most of its post-independence history, the country formerly known – and is still called unofficially – as Burma was ruled by a military junta, whose corruption and abysmal human rights record led to a number of sanctions by the international community. In 1999, opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi discouraged foreigners from visiting the country and contributing to the coffers of the government. “I still think that people should not come to Burma because the bulk of the money from tourism goes straight into the pockets of the generals,” she said. “And not only that, it’s a form of moral support for them because it makes the military authorities think that the international community is not opposed to the human rights violations which they are committing all the time. They seem to look on the influx of tourists as proof that their actions are accepted by the world.”
It’s a different ballgame now. The National League of Democracy softened its stance and lifted the boycott in 2010, though it urged travelers to visit the country responsibly.
After an hour, the taxi arrives at my hostel in Yangon’s downtown, the bustling heart of the city. The area’s main street (a hectic thoroughfare of geriatric buildings, crowded sidewalks, and an incongruous golden temple in the middle of a roundabout) draws flocks of people into the area, providing the vibrant and increasingly multi-ethnic character of the city, but without losing that famed Burmese warmth. For many years, Yangon was simply a transit point – the place to get your bearings and to see the Shwedagon Paya, one of Myanmar’s most iconic sights, before heading to Bagan or Inle Lake. In recent times, though, the city has become a destination in itself. While its tourism infrastructure isn’t as developed as other cities in Southeast Asia, Western corporations have been trickling in since the government made slow steps toward democracy. For the first time, locals have a KFC branch in their city.
Yangon’s appeal is as much backward as it is forward. For many people, there will always be a connection to what the city represented in the past. But to others, Yangon is where the future comes to Myanmar. Suddenly, the country is a hot property. Visitor arrival is slowly but surely growing, and today it delights those who visit it. It’s not Bangkok nor Singapore, but that’s where the charm lies. Yangon is for those who have been to other Southeast Asian cities and hope that a city still exists where traditions still exert a strong pull despite the inevitability of modernization.
I HAVE FEW EXPECTATIONS OF YANGON. But after an initial tour of the downtown, I begin to see the city as more than the sum of its parts, to notice the magic that draws you in. As soon as I finish my breakfast and get settled in my room, which I’m sharing with a fellow solo backpacker (his name is Steve, and he’s from England), I get out of the hostel to get my bearings. As I walk the streets, I take it all in – the retro-ish atmosphere, the cars caught in a gridlock, vendors announcing their wares, people plonked at little tables at streetside to have lunch. There’s chaos all around, but I’m strangely enjoying every minute of it.
I weave my way through the alleys until I emerge at the main road west of Sule Paya, a golden stupa at a roundabout in Mahabandoola Road. Due to its conspicuousness, as well as its historical and religious importance, the Sule Paya has become a focal point in every sense of the word. The pagoda was the venue of many political events, most notably the Saffron Revolution in 2007, when monks led a series of uprisings to protest the government’s decision to remove subsidies on fuel prices. For the traveler, the practical importance of the structure is its location in the center of the city, which makes it an excellent landmark. As I roam around the area near Sule taking pictures of the buildings, I attract the curiosity of a man probably in his 50’s.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“I’m from the Philippines,” I tell him.
“Oh,” he says. Judging from his reaction, I can tell he doesn’t know much about my country. And I don’t blame him. Aside from a few intrepid ones, very Filipinos have thought of spending their vacation in Myanmar.
But the man and I hit it off right away, and soon he’s telling me he wants to show me around the city and help me book my bus tickets for Inle Lake, where I’m supposed to go two days from now. In a different city, this might have triggered warning bells in my head and I would have immediately walked away. But there’s something about the people of Myanmar, something about their warmth, that makes me trust him. Or maybe it’s just the heat making me disoriented and easily swayed. Nevertheless, I let him lead the way. He takes me to a cheap diner for lunch, where I have fish curry and a few side dishes for 3,000 kyat (roughly USD 2.30 or PHP 112). My first real Myanmar meal.
After lunch, we walk to a nearby travel agency to book a bus seat. It turns out to be a bit of a work. All buses are booked on Sunday due to the Thadingyut Festival, a celebration to welcome the Buddha’s return from the celestial sphere. It’s a very popular event in Myanmar and sees many Burmese returning to their home provinces for the holiday. The only remaining seats are for an evening trip the next day, Saturday. Without much choice, I take it.
Bus ticket sorted, the man and I ride a bus north of downtown, where two famous images of Buddha are located. The first one we go to is the Chaukhtatgyi Paya, which houses one of the most popular reclining Buddha images in Myanmar. At 66 meters long, it’s also one of the country’s largest. The other temple is the Ngahtatgyi Paya, located in the Ashay Tawya Monastery across the street from the Chaukhtatgyi. Here, a gigantic seated image of the Buddha greets us when we reach the top of a flight of stairs adorned with murals. The image is seated on a pedestal, and at his back is a large ornately carved wooden screen.
The man and I then ride a taxi to the mother lode of all Myanmar’s Buddhist temples, the Shwedagon Paya. We stop by a stall first to have some coconut juice, before we part ways. I walk to the Shwedagon’s southern entrance, pay the fee, and enter the temple grounds.
Inside, the golden pagoda itself is surrounded by several spires with sophisticated wood-carved embellishments. There’s a lot of visitors, locals and foreigners alike, but the place doesn’t feel crowded. And there’s some sort of spirituality draping the surroundings. A parade slowly marches around the temple. Some are deep in prayer in front of shrines. And some, including me, are just too happy to be there. As the single most important religious site in all of Myanmar, the Shwedagon typifies the bond that links the Burmese with their faith.
THE WALKABILITY OF THE DOWNTOWN AREA means that it’s an excellent place for a morning stroll, especially along the streets where the heritage buildings are clustered. I start with a breakfast at a cheap diner just northwest of the Sule Paya. I order a bowl of mohinga, a quintessential Burmese breakfast dish consisting of rice noodles and fish soup. Then I return to the Sule Paya, walking around it, along with a crowd who came to witness a walkathon for the visually impaired.
To the east is the city hall, a building featuring traditional Burmese architecture and decorations, such as tiered roofs called pyatthat. The area around the building has been the site of a number of political demonstrations and bombings, the most recent of which occurred in 2009. Further east stands the former Immigration Department, which under the early sunlight, evokes a romantic sight. It’s soon going to be the home of a bank, which typifies the slow departure of Yangon, and the country by extension, to its colonial past.
Across the city hall is the sprawling Mahabandoola Garden, named after the general who fought against the British in the First Anglo-Burmese War. At the center of the park is a monument that commemorates Myanmar’s independence from the British in 1948. The calmness of the park draws young people, joggers, and women doing Zumba dances in a rare patch of foliage in the downtown area. At the eastern end of the park, I see the High Court’s elegant red-bricked building.
I exit the park at the Sule Pagoda Road, then walk south. Turning left upon reaching Strand Road, I pass by what used to be the Yangon Region Office Complex, though it’s currently covered in scaffolding, as plans to transform it into an upscale hotel is underway. I enter Pansodan Street a few blocks away to see more towering colonial-era buildings, such as the Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank and the Inland Waterways Department.
Emerging at Mahabandoola Road a few minutes later, I turn right and arrive outside the the former Minister’s Office, which is currently closed to the public. Built between 1889 and 1905, the building housed the British seat of government for Burma. This was also where General Aung San was assassinated in 1947. There are plans to convert the compound into a museum. I peek inside the gates, and see the red-brick building looking forlorn among the overgrown vines and grasses.
Having my fill of Yangon’s colonial charms, I backtrack to the Sule Paya, then to a teahouse near my hostel.
IF YOU WANT TO REALLY EXPERIENCE YANGON, buy a ticket for the Circular Railway. Or so I am told. It’s what I decide to do in the afternoon. I had to choose between the National Museum and the train, because I only have time and budget for one, and eventually thought riding the train was the better choice. Not only is it cheaper (about a dollar, five times less than the museum’s admission fees; and both fees go to the government’s coffers, anyway), it’s also a way to get a glimpse of life along the commuter rail in the city, passing through fields, backwater areas, and dirt roads. Plus, it stops near the Aung Minglar bus station, my ultimate destination for the day. The train sees commuters mingle with vendors and monks while making its way through a 30-mile circumference around Yangon for around three hours.
I take my seat near the back of the train beside a young woman, who turns out to be a fellow solo traveler. We introduce ourselves to each other. I find out her name is Auie, and she’s from Thailand. We’re both on our way to the bus station, where I’m catching my bus to Inle Lake, and she her bus to Bagan. We enjoy our conversation and the view outside so much that we don’t notice our stop. We get down at the next station, where, after a bit of a hard time consulting with locals, we ride a bus to the market, then a pick-up truck to the bus station.
We eat our late lunch at a cheap diner nearby, wait at the air-conditioned office for three hours, then bid our goodbyes when it’s time to leave.