Words: Len Rutledge Pictures: Phensri Rutledge
Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, is green and cool with lush tropical trees, shady parks and beautiful lakes. As it rapidly develops it has also acquired traffic problems, poverty and signs of international commerce. On first sight it is a typical Asian city, but you quickly realise that it is less modern than its Asian peers and it has its own calm culture.
The city right now feels like a frontier town in transition. The locals still dress in traditional longyi and only a small percentage own a mobile phone, yet shiny new apartment blocks are springing up between the peeling colonial facades, traffic jams have become common in some areas, and pizza and donut shops are appearing.
Yangon can be enjoyed by just walking its streets. The sights, smells and sounds will be strange to most visitors. You will see women with a yellow-white paste on their faces, vendors selling betel nut, and ancient buses and taxis blowing exhaust fumes over everything. The city, however, does have its ‘not-to-be-missed’ attractions and here are some suggestions.
Few religious monuments in the world are as impressive as Shwedagon Pagoda, with its gigantic 99m golden stupa. The pagoda can be visited at any time during the day but early evening is best, when the sunset light has a transformative effect on the gold-encrusted stupa and the many subsidiary shrines. The pagoda is covered with hundreds of gold plates and the top of the stupa is encrusted with diamonds and rubies and other precious gems, and a 72 carat diamond at the very top. The whole compound is huge and glorious, with an astonishing array of carvings, statues, parks and gardens, ponds and devotional spaces.
Quite a number of old public buildings built in the time of the British occupation still remain although many are presently empty and are rotting away. For many visitors they are one of the major attractions of the city and it is hoped that most or all can be saved and recycled in the near future. The Yangon City Hall, next to Sule Pagoda, is one that is being used and it appears to be in reasonable condition. The old Supreme Court (1910) to the south-east is painted in red and yellow but it is looking rather sad. A short distance to the south is the famous Strand Hotel which was constructed in 1901 and was among the best hotels in Asia when it opened. Perhaps the most impressive building of all is the old Ministers’ office, which occupies a whole city block.
This is a very attractive artificial lake, located east of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is surrounded by the Kandawgyi Nature Park, and the Yangon Zoological Gardens. The lake and the surrounds provide a quiet, quite beautiful environment and great photographic opportunities. There are long wooden walkways built over the lake which provide nice views. There are several lakeside restaurants serving local food at reasonable prices which are very popular with locals.
This is probably the busiest area of Yangon. It is centred on Latha Road in the western part of downtown but it spreads across several blocks in each direction. The shops, with their bright neon lights and garish advertising, are a seething mass of people during both daytime and evening, and restaurants abound. It is an extremely important commercial centre especially for gold, jewellery, electronics, mobile phones, consumer goods and groceries.
19th Street is packed with restaurants and roadside barbeque vendors selling all manner of dishes. Aging buses run on the east-west streets while pedestrians and vendors cram the north-south streets seeking and selling fruit, vegetables, fried snacks and more.
The 72 m reclining Buddha image in the Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda is one of the biggest reclining Buddha images in Myanmar. Originally built in 1907, it was demolished and rebuilt in the 1960s. The Buddha image is wearing a golden robe and has a white face, red lips, blue eye shadow, and red finger nails. The soles of the feet contain 108 segments in red and gold. Buddhist people burn incense sticks and offer flowers to the Buddha then pray to the shrine belonging to the day of their birth.
There is a very slow circle train which travels around Yangon and takes about 2.5 hours to complete the trip. Trains go in both directions approximately every hour. Most have wooden seats and no air-conditioning and visitors are encouraged to use one particular carriage which is slightly more comfortable than the others. Locals are also allowed to use this car provided they have few parcels. The rest of the train becomes very crowded but this can provide an insight into local life.
The city’s street life always makes an impression on me. I find the street-side stalls, where diners tuck into bowls of steaming noodles; the ancient, overloaded, buses jostling for space at junctions with trishaws, trucks and taxis; and the open-air markets, where traders squat beside piles of fresh produce, to be quite fascinating. You can stop for refreshments in a traditional Burmese teahouse before enjoying the priceless treasures at the impressive National Museum and it can be fun to join the crowds milling around Bogyoke Aung San market or the various ferry jetties.
Len Rutledge is the author of Experience Myanmar, available as an e-book at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HPQHC5I
He has worked with Pelican Publishing, Viking Penguin, Berlitz, the Rough Guide, and the Nile Guide amongst others.
Along the way, he has started a newspaper, a travel magazine, a Visitor and TV Guide, and completed a PhD in tourism. His travels have taken him to more than 100 countries and his writings have collected a PATA award, an ASEAN award, an IgoUgo Hall of Fame award, and other recognition.
He is the author of the Experience Guidebook series which currently includes Experience Thailand, Experience Norway, Experience Northern Italy, Experience Myanmar, Experience Istanbul, Experience Singapore, Experience Melbourne, and Experience Ireland. They are available as ebooks or paperbacks from amazon.com