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: Two planes to nowhere (and a fistful of kyat)

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Air Mandalay check-in desk

The hi-tech Air Mandalay check-in desk, complete with big red weighing scales.

Work backwards from a 7am flight. And the time taken to check in and… and the journey to the airport… Ow.

By the time my brain engages, we’ve flown the 50 minutes to Yangon, at which point we turn around and fly right back to Bangkok, land, hang around for another 2 hours, and then fly to Yangon again. This time we land. And disembark. Baby steps.

I race off to check in for my onward flight to Mandalay, only to discover that a) it’s also been delayed, and b) they have no record of me booking. I rebook, and find a woman to squat behind a pot plant with exchanging money illegally. The official rate of 6.5 kyat to the dollar turns out to be a complete fiction; I get 840. This rate makes Myanmar slightly more expensive than Vietnam, at least as a traveller. Replete with kyat, I eat a long overdue lunch, relieved that it doesn’t, in fact, cost $140.

My flight with Air Mandalay is endearingly low-tech. My bag is weighed on a big red standalone scale, before being taken away for loading by A Man. Flights are announced by – well, you can hear them land. The staff, however, are charm itself, and are quite happy to keep pumping me full of coffee. 


After the plane has flown to all the major tourist destinations that have an airport, we arrive in Mandalay to be met by a scrum of, well, nobody. It’s completely deserted. I get in even more of a lather when I discover that something soapy has exploded in my bag, but fortunately there are about 8 people on hand to help mop up the mess. Afterwards one of them apologises, although I’m not quite sure what for. All very civilised.

Back to the non-existent taxi scrum (of nobody). Normally this would be a relief, but it’s dark and we appear to have landed in a ricefield. Bothering a few people, it turns out that there’s a free bus being laid on, possibly, although nobody knows where and when until it drives past and I have to run after it yelling. Safely on board, we bump off down a dirt road composed mostly of potholes, scattering small children on bicycles into the fields as we go. I’m starting to worry that I’ve nowhere booked and no idea where I’m going, so I bother some random people until I at least have a direction in mind. We share a tuk-tuk there and I succeed in finding myself a place to sleep. All that remains is to have a chicken curry in the only place open this ‘late’ (9pm), a bones-on-the-floor, dog’ll-eat-’em kind of whiskey joint, before crashing. Zzzzz.

From here on June 5th 2011

Archive: An unnamed land

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Bagan; around every corner a temple.

Around every corner a temple.

It’s hard to know where to start when talking about a country that you don’t know what to call. In February 2011, during the Vietnamese Tet holiday, I visited the country known to some as Burma and to others as Myanmar. 

While both names refer to the majority Bamar ethnic group, “Burma” remains associated with the British colonial era, a troubled era and one that I, a thoroughly reconstructed sort of Brit, have no great desire to associate myself with. Burma was something of a sideshow to the British; governed as a province of India, its civil service was largely drawn from India and from other non-Burmese, preventing local people from benefitting from the country’s prosperity. The country never seized the British imagination in the way India did, and there was little attempt to conform to its customs. A particular sticking point was the “Shoe Question”, the refusal of the interlopers to take their shoes off when entering Buddhist temples and other holy sites. Spotless as the colonial socks may have remained, this had the side-effect of focussing nascent Burmese nationalism on Buddhism, a focus that remains today.


So what of Myanmar? The country’s name was officially changed in 1989 by the reassuringly-named
SLORC (State Law and Order Committee), the ruling military junta perhaps best known for keeping opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and overturning her party’s election victory in 1990. Despite a move from Soviet-style central planning in the ’60s and ’70s to a capitalist model, the junta has been in place since 1962 and shows little sign of going away. It is considered to be one of the world’s most repressive and abusive regimes, and its mismanagement has seen the country become one of the poorest and most corrupt in the region. Despite continued unrest, the junta rolls on, its access to natural resources and the willingness of neighbours to buy them allowing a ‘select’ few to line their pockets as the poor become poorer.


“Perhaps a million dead, millions more displaced, an economy in ruins, and a robust military machine designed to fight the enemy within have been the main stuff of Burma’s postindependence history”
Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps


Eating lunch in Bangkok airport before the flight to Yangon, a man asked me where I was flying on to. Hearing the answer, he asked, shocked, “Why on earth would you want to go there?” It is true that there are challenges to travelling in such a place – no ATMs, no official currency exchange, creaking (if any) infrastructure, limited press and internet, and the difficulties of travelling ethically and giving money where it is most needed and most deserved (which is to say, not to the government). But it’s also true that with a people so warm and welcoming, a history so diverse, and a country so breathtakingly beautiful, the current regime is selling its people very, very short indeed.

British surveying pagoda, 1825

The British survey their latest acquisition.

From here on June 2nd 2011.