Few countries around the world rouse thoughts of spectacular golden temples, ancient cities, and spellbinding people quite like Myanmar. Formerly known as Burma, the Buddhist nation recently opened up after five decades of army-imposed tourism restrictions, alluring adventurous travelers as an off-the-beaten-path destination. Intrigued by exotic Burmese culture, last weekend Michael and I embarked a very short weekend trip to Yangon, the country’s most populous city.
Upon arriving in Yangon, my initial impression of the city was that it’s a fascinating intersection of traditional Burmese culture and modern life, as the country’s commercial and intellectual hub that has still managed to maintain its age-old traditions and charm. The cityscape is scattered with glistening gold pagodas as well as Southeast Asia’s most stunning colonial-era buildings. We stayed at the iconic Strand Hotel, a recently renovated heritage building that has hosted the likes of George Orwell, Somerset Maughan, and Rudyard Kipling. The glamorous hotel is an attraction of Yangon itself, with the world-famous Starkies bar that served as a watering hole for renowned poets and playwrights throughout history. A shining example of “past meets present”, the hotel maintains its original colonial architecture from 1901, updated with only the most luxurious finishings such as chandeliers, high ceilings, and colonial-style oak banisters.
Leaving our plush, air-conditioned room at the Strand was not easy, but we were eager to make the most of our short time in Yangon. The city has a raw energy about it, with crowded streets that teem with food hawkers, vendors selling fake designer sunnies, and kids playing in the alleyways. I was surprised to find that while the drivers’ seat is on the right side of the car like in most countries in Southeast Asia, they actually still drive on the right side of the road. We were also surprised by the lack of motorbikes, but we found out later that they were actually banned in downtown Yangon over a decade ago for safety reasons. This is probably is one the reasons for Yangon’s notoriously bad traffic jams (this seems to be a theme in Southeast Asia).
I probably say this about every country I visit in Asia, but the Burmese are among the nicest people I have ever met. They were so genuinely friendly, with permanent smiles on their faces. One of our cab drivers generously gifted me an extravagant hand fan, and Michael was invited to join a group of guys for a game of handball in the street. It was not uncommon to see Buddhist monks walking around town, and I even saw one taking pics with a selfie stick (something you don’t see everyday!). Even for just a short weekend trip, packing for these kinds of destinations is always a challenge for me, as I have to account for both the sweltering heat and the conservative culture. Despite the heat, you will not find women wearing shorts or mini skirts in Myanmar, and bare shoulders are strictly prohibited at temples, even for men. We found that the local Burmese men all wear a traditional skirt called a longyi, and both genders smear their faces with a mud-looking cosmetic paste called thanakha, which is supposed to protect the skin from sunlight.
Yangon is known for its amazing Burmese cuisine, and we quickly sought out a highly-acclaimed hole-in-the-wall noodle house serving traditional Burmese food. I opted for the “Shan noodles” which was like a cross between ramen and pho. It was absolutely delicious and our whole meal cost less than $4.
Yangon’s most iconic attraction is the Shwedagon Pagoda, known as The Crown of Burma – a glistening stupa plated in hundreds of gold plates and adorned with 4,531 diamonds. Legend has it that the pagoda is over 2,500 years old, dating back to the lifetime of Buddha and making it the oldest pagoda in Burma. We were warned not to visit the pagoda until sunset, but we dismissed these warnings and took a cab there mid-day. As soon as we arrived, the reason for warnings became clear as the complex provides very little shade from the blistering sun and you are required to walk around the hot concrete completely barefoot! We had to essentially sprint between the few shaded areas as to not burn our feet on the baking concrete, but on the plus side, tourists at the pagoda were sparse at this time of day.
I have never witnessed such a awe-inspiring monument as the Shwedagon Pagoda. Michael and I were both completely blown away by its sheer size, which towers 325 feet above the ground (no building in Yangon is allowed to be built taller). Apparently the structure enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics, and it’s customary for Burmese Buddhists to make a pilgrimage to the Shwedagon much like Muslims must visit the Kaaba at Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The complex in which the pagoda sits felt like its own golden city, occupying 114 acres with hundreds of smaller shrines, stupas, and reclining Buddhas, where devote Buddhists monks come to make daily offerings. It took us about an hour to make the rounds through the complex while observing various prayers and rituals. At one point we were invited to partake in the “bathing of the Buddha” ritual, where you pour as many cups of water as your age on a small statue, plus one for good luck.
Our Yangon itinerary also included a visit to Kandawgyi Lake to see a gorgeous palace that resembles a huge, golden barge floating on the water. On our way there, we stumbled upon a lively celebration for the Hindu Holi Festival, known as the “festival of colors” or “festival of love”, with a massive crowd of Indian men throwing brightly colored powders on each other while Indian music blasted on the loudspeakers. A couple of guys ran up to us yelling “Happy Holi” and asked if they could smear the colorful powder on our faces, which we were happy to oblige. When in Rome, right? I later learned that the festival celebrates the arrival of spring, and is a day where Hindus commemorate Krishna’s pranks, allowing each other to drop their inhibitions and simply play and dance. To me the festival felt like a carefree celebration of life and love, and I’m so happy we got the chance to experience it.
The Kandawgyi palace (which is actually a hotel and restaurant) was closed until dinner so we didn’t get a chance to go inside, but we were able to snap some pics from across the lake.
Just as we were leaving the lake, a group of young Burmese guys caught our attention as they were in sitting in a circle singing, playing guitars, and just generally enjoying their day. They invited us to join them and immediately pulled out their phones to snap some pics with us (something we have grown accustomed to living in Asia). Their energy was infectious and spending a few moments with them was a great way to end our short trip to Burma.
We definitely plan on returning for a longer trip to Myanmar later in life, and I especially want to see Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake. Until next time!