Archive: Pagodas of Yangon (and the odd plastic stool)

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The next day, after sitting at a dusty junction for several hours entertaining a small gaggle of ladies by standing up every five minutes trying to get on buses that turn out not to be mine, I finally board and wave them goodbye. Although the road is surprisingly good, it’s a long way, and by the time I rock up on the outskirts of Yangon I’ve pretty much lost the ability to think. After ten minutes of tense negotiation without a common language I’m put in a minibus with all the other people I was just in a bus with, and driven into the city centre.

Further discussions ensue once we near the centre, and a small crowd gathers around the Lonely Planet to figure out where I need to be. My destination, fortunately, turns out to be explicable with reference to pagodas, and thus a suitably respectable middle-aged lady is found to get off the bus with me and point me in the right direction. The city is laid out on a grid pattern, so I soon locate my hotel. Which is closed, it being 5am, so I find a plastic stool with my name on it and have some tea. Until 6am. When I check in. And am shouted at by the owner for booking the wrong date. Bemused, I head to my room to discover that my friend has arrived a day early.

Streets of Yangon (By Dudva)

The streets of Yangon, by Dudva (own work). My camera had died…

I like leaving capitals until last, but having adapted to the pace of a town like Kalaw, Yangon is a bit of a shock. Cars! Crowded streets! More than one street! Fortunately I am not the only one acclimatising, and the first day passes at a leisurely pace. Equally leisurely is the evening of my birthday, despite our best efforts to find anywhere that’s open past ten. Still, it does put Hanoi nightlife in a positive light.

The city has a bustle and a purpose to it that’s quite different to the northern cities I’ve been in so far, and a lively tea shop culture that reminds me in many ways of Hanoi, only where Hanoi has herby meaty phở noodles and crusty French baguettes, Yangon has crunchy fishy mohinga noodles and slightly squashed-looking packaged cream cakes. It’s much hotter down south, so I’m grateful for the chance to duck into a tea shop at any given hour.

Distracting as the bustle, the cars, the colonial buildings of the Strand Road may be, you have only to look up to remind yourself that you’re in Burma. As elsewhere, Yangon life clearly revolves around its pagodas, foremost among them being the downtown Sule Paya and the towering Shwedagon Paya high on Singuttara hill, whose 100 metre high golden stupa dominates the Western skyline. Legend has it that both are over 2,500 years old, and while that’s probably optimistic, legends don’t have to be true to inspire belief.

Shwedagon Pagoda by night

Shwedagon Pagoda by night (by Sky89)

Like so many other tourists, we head to Shwedagon to see the sunset, but having no minders to whisk us away we linger for hours. Entering through a quiet, shaded staircase only magnifies the impact on emerging into the light. The central stupa and its myriad smaller temples, shrines and statues burn bright gold in the heat of the day, the tiled floor baking tired feet circling, awestruck. As the sun falls they fade to rusty crimson, before turning greenish gold under the lights. All the while the temple throngs with people: young couples, extended families, pilgrims, visiting monks, photographers, a particularly annoying elderly American tour group in twinset and pearls. We sit and soak up the gentle hum of reverence as darkness falls, confident that my two dollar torch will get us home safe.

From here on September 20th 2011.

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Archive: Dirt roads around Mandalay

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The real reason to stay in Mandalay is not the city itself, but the surrounding area. Here I was faced with a dilemma – what to do? A whistlestop tour of everything by taxi? A share taxi up to Pyin U Lwin, the former British hill station? A stay in Sagaing and a leisurely stroll around its faded but not forgotten glory? Or – and here I had a flash of trademark Caroline brand genius – hire a rickety bicycle with two shopping baskets and no suspension, and do a 20-mile round-trip to Amarapura, a former royal capital comprising temples and an evocative teak bridge. Consider that boneshaker hired.

Elephants near Mandalay

Ah. Hence the traffic jam.

So clatter-clatter off I go southwards on 84th street, after a few false starts and an impromptu visit to a family’s backyard (very friendly chickens). The traffic is easy to deal with, although complicated slightly by the need to reply to everyone shouting “Hello!”, and sometimes also “Good morning!” I pootle happily along for some distance, stopping only to buy more water from a very polite man in a turban, when suddenly I hit mayhem – we’re mired in hazy beeping pick-ups as far as the eye can see. Using my narrow bicycularity to my advantage, I edge forward, and diagnose the cause of the problem: elephants. Donkeys too, and a large procession of people in sparkly clothes and tinsly head-pieces, but there’s no doubt: we’re caught in an elephant jam.

As I’ve very little idea where I am, I decide to follow the elephants as they turn off down a loopy-signposted side road (guy who romanised Vietnamese, thank you, I never realised how much easier you make my life). I double-check directions with a man standing by the side of the road, who confirms that I’m going in the right direction, and tells me that he’s an Arsenal fan for good measure. 


A paya pwe, or pagoda festival

Turns out I’d arrived in the middle of a paya pwe, or pagoda festival. Everyone was very excited.

Shortly, the elephants and I arrive at the temple complex of Somewhere, and I sit in the shade eating banana chips and watching the human participants fussing and faffing, posing for pictures and reapplying makeup in readiness for whatever important thing it is that they’ll be doing. Rested (and trying not to stare too hard), I head inside. It’s a massive complex, and clearly of some importance as there are bus-loads of foreign monks visiting (and me). The devotion is palpable – no snoozing in the pew here – but I do wish I had more idea what everything meant. 

After a suitable wander, I explore the other wonders of the region. I clatter my way down narrow alleys and stumble upon the world’s most languid train station, its sign all askew and showing no signs of life apart from three lads playing with a plastic bag. Then I set off for U-Bein’s bridge, and proceed to get hopelessly lost, ending up halfway towards Sagaing and meeting a fair number of chickens en route. There seems to be absolute consensus that the bridge can be reached by going in all of seventeen different directions. I do catch a glimpse of it, but only from behind a big scary no entry sign. It’s getting dark, and my bottom hurts. Dejected, but pleased to have found what I did find, and to have experienced such warm and friendly misdirection, I creak off home.

A railway station near Mandalay

Turns out I could have gone by train.

From here on June 8th 2011.