Yangon (2 – 4 January 2015)
There was some rain and it got a bit windy that morning. I had come to expect that sort of weather in Mrauk U. It would rain intermittently late at night up to early morning but stop entirely by about 9 am. However this time I was on a boat on the Kaladan River at before 7 am.
I was on my way to Sittwe to catch a flight to Yangon. My adventure in Rakhine State had ended. Unlike a few days ago when I was driven from Sittwe to Mrauk U, my journey back to Sittwe was by boat. An entire boat was chartered just for me and there was a boatman and two assistants on board to operate the boat. A was there as well to ensure that I got to the airport.
There was a bit of worry that the weather would make the river unnavigable. The boatman warned A that if the weather should worsen we might have to leave the boat and continue the journey by car. I was a little disappointed to hear that from A since I was enjoying my boat ride tremendously. I think I had developed a taste for boat rides and river sceneries in the past few days. Fortunately the weather got better and I did not have to hit the road again.
The plane arrived late at the Sittwe Airport but it took me to Yangon in one piece. After collecting my luggage I walked outside the arrival hall to meet my guide C. They had assigned a young lady to show me Yangon. It was a refreshing change.
I sort of felt right at home in Yangon. After so many days in the countryside and seeing only provincial towns, I had returned to a bustling city. Although the government had moved the country’s capital to Naypidaw, Yangon remained the commercial capital. We drove past shiny commercial buildings with big bright signs and it all felt familiar. I am embarrassed to have to say that Yangon looked far more modern than I had expected. The downside of modernity in Southeast Asia of course was that there were just too many people and too many cars on the roads.
We arrived at Shwedagon Pagoda for an evening visit. I would have reached there before sunset but for my delayed flight from Sittwe. In spite of the hour however, the place was crowded. According to C the pagoda was least crowded at perhaps 5 am or so. I guess there was no way I could avoid the crowd without losing sleep.
My Singaporean agent had warned me that they were restoring the pagoda and therefore it would be covered in scaffolding. The restoration works on the pagoda had started in October 2014 and would take about half a year to finish.
Despite the scaffolding the stupa was still amazing because of its sheer size. The grounds of Shwedagon was also much bigger than I had expected and grander and more lavish than any other temple, pagoda or monastery that I had visited in Myanmar. The grounds were also cleaner than any public place I had been to in the country. This was the most important Buddhist site in all of Myanmar and it showed.
I had definitely come a long way from Mandalay.
Dinner was had in Chinatown. The streets were lined with food stalls and it felt as if the whole of Yangon was there. C took me to a noodles stall and ordered a bowl of Shan noodles for me. I was not in Shan State but that bowl of noodles was better than any I had had in Shan State itself. It was drier and for some reason more flavourful. C who was half Shan herself told me that this was one of the best Shan noodles stall in the city.
My last full day in Myanmar started at a market. It appeared to be merely an area where merchants set up makeshift stalls along the street to sell their products. Business in any case seemed to be quite good.
I was quite surprised to see a familiar food being sold at the market. I had thought that you char kuehs were only found in countries with large Chinese populations. I definitely do not remember seeing it anywhere else in Myanmar. C told me that it was a common breakfast item in the city so it seems that the Chinese influence in Yangon was more significant than I had thought.
The same stall however also sold Indian rotis and that reminded me that Yangon was in fact a cosmopolitan city.
I had looked forward to seeing Yangon’s colonial heritage. Yangon was a grand British colonial city and this was still evident from the many colonial era buildings still existing in the city. C led me on a walk from the Sule Pagoda to the Strand Hotel near the Yangon River to look at some of these buildings.
The Yangon City Hall was an interesting mix of European and Burmese architectural styles.
As with many other cities in the world, Yangon is trying to find a balance between development and conservation. Just like their temples and monasteries, there is always that urge to build something newer and bigger in place of the older and smaller. Despite some effort to preserve them, many heritage buildings have already been replaced by ugly modern ones. I noticed that many of the preserved old buildings were used by the government. I cannot imagine what the fate of those in private hands might be in the future.
The Strand Hotel was reminiscent of Singapore’s own Raffles Hotel. Actually they are both part of a chain of luxury hotels built by the Sarkies Brothers in Southeast Asia.
Despite it being a Saturday, people were still hard at work at the harbour area by the Yangon River. There was a group of men unloading sacks of rice from a boat and moving them onto a waiting truck on the river bank.
Near the harbour area was the Botataung Pagoda which I also visited. This monument marks the area where the relics which were later moved to Shwedagon were welcomed on shore. Those sacred relics were apparently housed here before they were moved to Shwedagon.
During the Second World War the original pagoda was completely destroyed. When Myanmar regained its independence, the remains of the pagoda were excavated in preparation for rebuilding. They discovered quite a few treasures in there, including what is believed to be a strand of Buddha’s hair.
Today, the interior of the stupa can be entered for a visit. The interior walls of the stupa are covered in gold and it was quite astonishing when I first laid eyes on them.
The local agent had arranged a visit for me to the Strand Hotel for a glass of lime juice. The interior of the Strand was very new and well-maintained and definitely reminded me of the Raffles at home.
After a relaxing and cool rest at the bar in the Strand Hotel, I had to leave to get to the Central Railway Station. Included in my itinerary was a ride on the circular train of Yangon. This is the city’s rapid transit system and quite unlike the ones I am used to at home and even the cities in the world that have such systems.
We arrived at the ticketing office just before a train was due to leave. I suppose we could have waited for the next one but C quickly bought our tickets before we dashed across the tracks and boarded the train.
The first thing that I saw upon boarding was this tray of local delights. It looked like something made from beancurd. I was however not too keen on trying any.
Going on a ride on the circular train seems to be a popular tourist activity. There are even signs on the train reminding people to avoid public displays of affection. I doubt that those signs were meant for the locals.
For me the ride was interesting for the snippets of everyday life revealed to me and the scenes outside the train.
I finally got to hear a little about the ignored Rohingyas from C during lunch that day. While I enjoyed a nice almost fiery meal of Kachin spicy fish with rice, C shared with me her thoughts on Rakhine State and the general political climate in her country.
C had never been to Rakhine State. Her hometown is in Taunggyi in Shan State, which has its fair share of problems and political clashes. Nevertheless C’s mother would not dream of letting her daughter step foot onto Rakhine soil because it seemed so dangerous to her. There also appears to be an impression among the people in the rest of the country that the Rakhine people were aggressive. I reckon the ethnic clashes in the state only served to galvanise the impression of Rakhine aggressiveness.
C told me that in fact the Rohingyas sounded just like the Burmese when they spoke. They were only different in appearance and religion. Even if the Rohingyas had been descendants of peoples from the Indian subcontinent, they had been in Myanmar for centuries. That is of course not to say that there are no recent illegal migrants from Bangladesh or India, but it is unfair to say that all Rohingyas are illegal migrants because of that. It bears noting that there are in fact people of Burmese origin living on the other side of the border as well.
There is a fear in Myanmar that it would go the way of Thailand. After all the heated clashes between the yellow and red shirts, the Thai military is now in control of their country. This is an example that the people of Myanmar are not keen on following. If the violence in Rakhine State should keep up however, the military junta may very well use that as an excuse to take back full control of the country. Even if the current government is backed by the military junta it is still far better to be governed by the former.
I asked C if she felt much optimism in the political climate of the country. She did not think that there was going to be much change in the government. She recalled that in the last elections there was next to no support among the people for the military-backed party but it won and formed the government anyway. There is no reason the same thing would not happen again in the coming elections.
It was back to sightseeing after the political lesson from C. I was brought to see this massive reclining Buddha statue at the Chaukhtatgyi Temple. I was really quite impressed with this 65 metre long statue. To think that there is another even bigger one just a few hours drive away in Bago.
C asked me to look closely at the eyes of the statue. Apparently the glass eyes were made in China. They did look very life-like.
I was driven back to downtown Yangon after Chaukhtatgyi Temple. After the tranquility of the temple it was quite a big change for me when I stepped out of the car into the madly crowded streets to get to Bogyoke Aung San Market.
The market seemed like a wonderful place to do business. Some nuns looked like they were having a profitable day going from door to door offering prayers and blessings and getting paid in return. It was probably the perfect business with hardly any overheads and assured returns. No one could refuse a nun too.
Sightseeing started even earlier the next day. I was going home that day and we wanted to make sure that I would have enough time to do all the things that I wanted or ought to do before I left.
I had two breakfasts that morning. After breakfast at the hotel, which was a wonderful order from a menu western style breakfast, C took me to a popular eatery near Shwedagon Pagoda for a second breakfast of mohinga. This is a noodle dish that the people of Myanmar frequently have for breakfast. I had always wanted to try it and to think that I only got to on my very last morning in the country. It was good. I will have to look for it when I get home.
It was Independence Day in Myanmar and the area around Shwedagon were full of people. The shops were all opened and as the morning went by more and more stalls were set up along the streets. They mostly sold food and also flowers which were offered to Buddha by devotees going to pray at the pagoda. Visiting a temple was something that the locals did on Independence Day.
C told me that the stalls were there that day only because it was Independence Day and crowds of people were expected in the area.
There were oases of peace in the area though. We hardly saw anyone there despite the crowds in the main streets. These were mainly residential areas but I noticed that there were also monasteries just about everywhere in all shapes and sizes in the neighbourhood.
On our walk we came across some lovely houses that were going to be pulled down. I was quite puzzled at the decision since not only were they pretty but they still looked pretty new. Unfortunately they were just not good enough for the donors who probably wanted something bigger and definitely newer. All that building was apparently for the monks.
For one such building that was going to be demolished there was a picture of the proposed new building placed in front of it complete with a photograph of the donors. What better way is there to promote oneself than to tell the world that you are demolishing a heritage building so close to Shwedagon for some monks? The proposed new building however looked uninspiring as compared to the existing one, which by the way was dated to 1925. The apparent indifference to the country’s heritage is astounding.
After that little bit of unhappiness, C took me to Kyay Thone Pagoda. This pagoda did not appear on my itinerary and I wonder if I was brought there because I had told C that I had an obligation to fulfil. A friend of mine had tasked me to get her some gold leaves. I should of course have bought them in Mandalay but I would not have been me if I did not wait till the last minute to get something done.
The Buddha statue in the main shrine of the pagoda looked something like the Mahamuni image. But I think I had more fun with the fishes and turtles in the pond outside. C bought some bread and we fed the fishes and turtles with them. I am sure many visitors do the same thing and I wonder if any animal has ever died from overeating. The animals did not seem to get enough of the stale bread we fed to them.
We next visited a nearby market. I have to say that the activity in the market made me forget that it was in fact a national holiday that day.
We were supposed to visit the Bogyoke Aung San Museum also but it was closed. As an alternative, C took me to the Kandawgyi Lake for a walk. This is an artificial lake built by the British as a water supply for the city. A grand palatial hotel stands on its shore but the real icon was the concrete replica of a Burmese royal barge built in the 1970s and which houses a restaurant.
I had some time to walk about the city on my own for a while before heading to the airport. The good thing about the hotel I had stayed at, called the Loft, was its location. I could walk out and have something to see almost immediately.
The Indian Quarter was nearby although I only discovered what it was when I realised that the people hanging out in the area mostly looked Indian. C had told me that games were organised for children on Independence Day and I came across two of these going on as I explored a little of the Quarter. These games appear to be organised by the local authorities and were held right on the narrow streets.
I still remember that day in the early 1990s when I stood at the border between Thailand and Myanmar. I was on a tour of Northern Thailand and we were in Mae Sai. We were warned not to cross the border as we did not have the visas to enter Myanmar. I was of course a child then and I remember looking at the town full of activity on the other side of the border and feeling extremely curious about what I was seeing. The locals on both sides crossed the border freely at will and I considered every person who came into Mae Sai to be quite alien.
More than twenty years later, my curiosity about the country has been finally satisfied.
Before 2010 one school of thought had been to boycott the country entirely and it seems that the whole point of doing so was to make a statement to the military junta that the world was not going to fund their oppression. Even though the world now seems to accept the country, my trip has revealed that in fact the situation within Myanmar has not changed very much. The people are probably enjoying more freedom now than ever but the same bunch of soldiers are still hanging on to real power and reaping for themselves the bulk of the nation’s wealth.
I have never been entirely convinced of the efficacy of boycotts or economic sanctions. The people those sanctions are meant to hit at seldom feel the pinch much since they can and will take for themselves whatever there is to maintain their own lifestyles and leave even less for the ordinary people who are already oppressed and suffering. There will also always be sponsors and countries who are willing to deal with the country commercially and the effects of those sanctions on the oppressors are lessened.
Tourists nowadays seem to visit Myanmar to enjoy a quaint country stuck in a bygone era. I wonder how many of them realise that maybe their governments had a part to play in creating that quaintness with economic sanctions. While the military government was able to build a spanking new modern capital city from scratch, farmers were still tilling their land with oxen. Does anyone really believe that the economic sanctions against Myanmar were of any help to the people at all?
The cynical me suspects that the reform instituted in the country is mainly an investment by the soldiers who have become more economically savvy. It may be that the poor management of the country’s resources has caused the soldiers to worry about the sustainability of their bank accounts. At the same time, Myanmar’s sponsors (like China) might finally be feeling some embarrassment because of their charge’s international standing, because of what it did to their own international standings, and they were finally willing to use their influence on the military junta. Not only that, the people are now more ready than before to express their anger and that is creating more work for the soldiers and even more embarrassment for their sponsors. Reform on the soldiers’ own terms on the other hand, as long as it gives the world the impression that full democracy is the ultimate aim, solves those problems somewhat and invites even bigger economic opportunities. For the soldiers there is everything to gain and nothing to lose!
Putting aside all that depressing situation however, Myanmar remains a beautiful country. I do not respect the soldiers but I definitely respect the resilience of the people. Overall I would say that Myanmar was one of the most memorable countries that I had visited.