Our Trip to Myanmar, Part 2

Okay, so when we left off we had just returned from Kyaiktiyo to Yangon via a bus. From Yangon, we had a flight to Sittwe in Rakhine State, but we had basically two days in the capital before flying off. Actually: Yangon is no longer the capital of Myanmar. The British had moved the capital from Mandalay to Rangoon in the nineteenth century; the capital remained there until 2005, when the military decided that the capital should be more centrally located and made an entirely new capital from scratch between Madalay and Bagan called Nay Pyi Taw. (There is plenty of regional precedence for this: Bangkok was created in much the same way, albeit after the previous Siamese capital had been sacked by the Burmese.) Nay Pyi Taw sounds amazing, but we didn’t go there (no one really does who’s not involved with the government in some way) even though they have 24-hour electricity. Anyway, Yangon is still the major city of the country, even if it isn’t actually the capital anymore.

People seem to say not very nice things about Yangon, but that doesn’t seem particularly fair. It’s true that hotels there are extremely expensive for the region, mostly because there’s a real estate rush going on and the town is full of seedy foreign businessmen trying to buy everything up. The traffic is bad, but not nearly as bad as Bangkok; also most of the traffic is taxis, which are cheap and driven by drivers who seem less lunatic than their Bangkok equivalents. Physically, it’s a lovely old city which seems like it would repay a longer stay if there were a cheaper way to do it. It also does seem like a city undergoing massive transition at the moment – if we were to come back in a year, I suspect parts would look entirely different.

Our first evening back in Yangon, we went to see Shwedagon Pagoda, which is the main thing to see in Yangon and maybe the main thing to see in all of Myanmar. Shwedagon Pagoda is an enormous complex with one main pagoda and hundreds of subsidiary pagodas. In the Burmese flavor of Buddhism, you get merit by building pagodas; so rich people have endowed the construction and rebuilding of pagodas for thousands of years. More about this when we get to Bagan, which is a frenzy of pagoda-building gone mad. Most pagodas are painted gold; some have gold leaf; but the main stupa of the Shwedagon is covered in an immense amount gold plate; at the top of the spire is an enormous diamond, and there are jewels decorating everything. The reason for this is that at the heart of the pagoda are eight of Buddha’s hairs (of which four might be miraculous copies?). The main spire was under reconstruction while we were there, but the complex is still astonishing, in part because it’s so full of stuff, and you can spend a long time wandering around there visiting all of the shrines. Here are a couple of chinthe:


And a bunch of little pagodas in front of the slope of the main pagoda, which you can see is covered with some kind of cloth at the moment:


We were there as the sun was going down, which makes everything more magical:


One thing you can see in this picture is that this is very much a working religious structure, and that many of the shrines are lit up with strands of colorful LED lights, many of which are blinking. Here’s a secondary pagoda, which was also gold plated:


Although this one isn’t nearly as big as the main one, it’s still enormous:


And at the end of the day, the blue and gold became more than my camera could handle:


After that we stumbled around – Yangon does not really have street lights – until we found a place to have dinner, where we had a delicious Burmese dinner. Then we went to bed.

The next morning after a delicious breakfast of congee – Burmese congee is served with fried garlic, scallions, and peanut oil – we went on a walking tour of downtown Yangon, starting at the Sule Pagoda, which is also old and beautiful but not as full of pilgrims as the Shwedagon is.


Some cats live there:


And in addition to the usual profusion of bells to ring, they also had an apparatus that consisted of a boat on a rope that would deliver flowers and incense to one of the higher shrines (the one where the cat was sleeping, actually). Harriet liked this:


(Burmese Buddhism is conservative, and Kim’s dress was scandalously short, so she was given a skirt at the door.) One thing that is nice about many Burmese pagodas is that they are octagonal, and each side is for one of the days of the week: Burmese Buddhism recognizes an eight-day week, with Wednesday being split into Wednesday morning, when the Buddha was born, and Wednesday afternoon, when he was not. But there’s a shrine for every day, and people go to the shrine for the day of the week on which they were born. You see this occasionally in Thai wats, but it’s not nearly as prevalent.

Here’s Sule Pagoda from the south: there’s a park to the south with nice gardens and a playground which Harriet appreciated, of course.


The lower part of Yangon is still laid out on a grid; many of the old British buildings have been decaying for years, though a handful of them are still in use, and some are being renovated. We had lunch at the Strand Hotel on the river, which is as fancy as it ever was and seems determined to keep up the pretense that the Empire never ended. Here, on the other hand, is the old Ministers Office, which is gracefully mouldering while the grounds are being kept up nicely:


At that point, we tried to go to the National Museum, but we’d forgotten that it was Monday and the National Museum was closed. So we went to go see what was happening at the Yangon Zoo, which is pretty splendid:


They have an astonishing number of hippopotamuses. Obviously the Bangkok Zoo has splendid hippopotamuses, but Yangon has them beat on sheer numbers – basically everywhere you look there’s a hippopotamus enclosure with more hippopotamuses in it.


Like the Bangkok Zoo, they seem to have the idea that plaster statues of animals are what distinguishes a really good zoo. Theirs are distinguished by loving attention to detail, like the toothmarks on the fish this crocodile is eating:


South of the zoo is an enormous lake with a weird collection of public and private parks around it. This part of it has an enormous walkway, from which you can see the Shwedagon Pagoda in the distance:


And if you keep going, you eventually see this enormous palace made in the shape of two ducks.


After that we went home. The next morning we went to the National Museum, which is pretty good (better than the Thai one, not as good as the Cambodian) but doesn’t allow any photographs. Then we went to the airport and got on a flight to Sittwe, which is going to be a post all of its own because this is already too long.

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