Once a prosperous port, then a national capital (before the junta decamped to the woods of Nay Pyi Taw), Yangon remains the bustling metropolis of Myanmar. It’s often difficult to get around — our hotel advised taking a taxi to the bus station three hours ahead of departure due to the city’s sometimes horrific traffic. So to get started, we focused on the somewhat walkable city center.
Yangon, formerly Rangoon, was the place where much of Myanmar’s history took place. It was here that political rivals assassinated President Aung Sun, where students rioted over the treatment of the body of former UN Secretary General U Thant, and where Aung Sun Soo Kyi was under house arrest for decades.* I had some understanding of the country’s history (independence, military rule, elections voided by the military, new elections but uncertainty) but not the details. So I ended up seeing the relevant places before I learned more about their significance during our trip.
*As I learned from reading a book on her life while traveling throughout the country, Aung Sun Soo Kyi was always free to leave her house arrest — if she left the country. If she left, she would not be able to return. Many in Myanmar give her great credit for choosing to stay, especially considering that remaining under house arrest meant that she was separated from her husband (who died during her detention) and two children.
We walked past the Sule Paya (paya is the Burmese word for pagoda), a temple in the middle of a traffic circle. Then we made our way past the former government buildings and a plaza with some sort of demonstration underway.
At the Botahtaung Paya, a local man volunteered to give us a tour (i.e., he latched onto us, but was so nice and informative that we didn’t bother trying to shake him off). He talked proudly about Myanmar’s progress toward democracy and that he preferred Clinton to Trump (this was the day before the US election and I told him that I agreed). He also explained the rituals associated with the day of the week of your birth and how that leads you to perform a ceremony at one of eight different corners of a paya (Wednesday is divided into morning and evening to get to 8 “days” in a week). Of course we didn’t know the day of the week of our birthdays in 1984, so he got out his book of old calendars to figure it out. It turns out Elizabeth is a Saturday and I’m a Wednesday p.m. So off we went to pour water on statues of buddha (for both of us), dragons (Elizabeth) and elephants (with no tusk — a fact that he stressed) for me.
Outside of the Botahtaung Paya there were men dressed as a dancing bull. You can watch it over on our Instagram feed (Warning: it will play over and over again if you don’t stop it. Unclear if this is a feature or a bug.).
We also visited the Shwedagon Paya, considered the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar. It is a big shrine area on a hill topped with multiple payas covered in gold. We later learned that U Thant is buried there, but we didn’t know this at the time and didn’t come across his mausoleum (though we did find an ATM in temple complex just in case you wanted to make a nice donation). The temple was beautiful, and it is perched on one of the few hills in Yangon so it has great views. Also, armed with our knowledge of the day of our birth, we each did the water pouring ritual again.
Nearby, we enjoyed a walk in People’s Park (less sketchy than the one in Berkeley) that randomly housed a former commercial airplane that you could walk through. The story we heard was that the plane was in service in Myanmar’s national airline, before they lent it to Indonesia so that their neighbor could get its airline off the ground. In a reversal of fortune, Myanmar is now the struggling country while Indonesia has a more advanced economy and aviation sector. And this plane? Well, the way trees have grown it has been in the park for a few years. [Elizabeth’s note: There is nothing quite like walking through an abandoned airplane in a hot and humid country. It was creepy.]
As usual, we ate and enjoyed the street food in Yangon. It was our first introduction to Shan Noodles, which were tasty and topped with some sort of spicy peanut sauce. We also stopped twice at an enjoyable restaurant called Feel Myanmar Food. They are part of a local chain and had a good selection of Burmese-style dishes with an easy point and eat ordering process.
Our last enjoyable stop in Yangon was a gathering at the Pansodan Gallery. David, who we had met in Mongolia, suggested the weekly Tuesday night meet-up. It was a good chance to chat with travelers, expats, and English-speaking locals. Little did we know at the time, but we’d actually be back at gallery’s Tuesday night event exactly four weeks later as we briefly passed back through Yangon before flying out of the country (we actually selected the location of our hotel to make this more convenient knowing that we wouldn’t have time for any actual sightseeing).
You may notice that I just said “last enjoyable stop.” That’s because the next morning we went to the Golden Butterfly Hotel to watch the U.S. election results (Wednesday morning in Myanmar is Tuesday night in the U.S.A.). While the people we met were nice, the results were not nice. I wrote about it at the time, and I’m not really inclined to add anything other than a couple photos:
We had an evening bus to Bagan booked, so we spent a little bit of the day walking around Kandawgyi Lake, but we honestly weren’t in the best of moods, it was raining off and on, and the condition of the bridge made walking in sandals less fun. I’m sure under different conditions it could have been a nice walk.
We stopped for lunch at Feel Myanmar Food (for the second time), then made it back to our hotel, rested a bit, and got in a cab to the out-of-town bus station. Then we were off to Bagan on our first overnight bus in Myanmar.
[This blog post describes our visit to Yangon, Myanmar, from November 7-9, 2016.]