On a recent visit to Myanmar I was able to spend time in the largest city of Yangon as well as the city of Mandalay and the town of Old Bagan. According to our taxi driver, Myanmar is a country of 60 million people with Yangon (formerly Rangoon) the largest city with a tenth of the overall population. The ride from the airport is a long one, taking about 45 minutes to get downtown to our hotel, The Clover City Centre Plus. The city is quite congested but after coming from Kuala Lumpur you certainly notice the absence of motorbikes in the city. Apparently some time ago a motorcycle was involved in an accident killing or injuring some high-ranking military personnel and the ruling dictator issued a city-wide ban on motorbikes. It seems to me that the degree of Third World-ness can be measured by the amounting of honking of horns and this city ranks quite high in that department. The other bizarre thing you notice about traffic in Myanmar, is that they drive on the right side of the road. Perhaps a snub to British Imperialism which used to rule the land known as Burma. That in itself is not so strange but the fact that 99% of all vehicles are right-hand drive is! I actually saw about a dozen left-hand drive vehicles over our three days in the city. Drivers have told me that left-hand drive cars are very expensive as a way of explaining it. The city has started to embrace tourism, so now ATMs are quite common throughout the downtown area. Still the main currency of trade, at least with higher priced items, is the American dollar and they have to be current and in pristine condition to be accepted. Myanmar bills are also widely accepted but their condition is as filthy as the American money is immaculate. The SEA Games (South East Asia) will be held in at several locations in Myanmar this year.
The Scott Market was across the street from our hotel and was a bustling market with everything from food, fruit, vegetables to jewelery, clothes, art and everything in between. I also found it a great place to photograph the many interesting faces. Well loved and famous daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi is seen on books and t-shirts as well. She may well be the next President of Myanmar in the democratic elections coming up next year.
The majority of girls and women around Myanmar wear a cream on their faces. The cream is ground from small branches of a certain tree and applied to their faces to make them ‘beautiful’. It’s unclear exactly what the purpose of this cream is. Is it used as a sunblock or is it to make the skin soft? It is said they wear it at night but they also wear it throughout the day as they go about their daily activities. So it makes one wonder, when are they beautiful, if they don’t remove the cosmetic?
Myanmar is cluttered with pagodas of the Buddhist faith and Yangon is no exception. The largest one in the country is the Shwedagon Pagoda which is a main attraction in the city. At night it is lit up and it’s gold pinnacle is seen across the city.
Very near to our hotel is the Yangon Rail Station and walking through it you could easily be transported back 100 years. The large halls of the station are full of locals wearing the local clothing – long dresses for women and sarong-like longyis for men. The 3-hour circuit of the Yangon suburbs with it’s 32 stations stops gave us a glimpse of what everyday life is like for many Burmese. Traders and vendors entered the train at stations shouting out the names of their wares and then exiting at the next station for the ride back. Women would carry large baskets balanced on their head which would often include a variety of local food delicacies. They would walk confidently through the bumping and grinding railway cars without faltering.
By taking a domestic Mandalay Air flight to Bagan we avoided the long 12-hr bus ride across bumpy roads. Old Bagan is a rural setting and on approaching the airport one can see the litterly hundreds of stupas across the land. We were prevented from exiting the plane on landing due to the departure on the tarmac of the President of Mongolia. We remained in our seats while his entourage arrived with police escort and typical government fanfare. Foreigners flock to the pagodas each day at sunrise and sunset by bicycle, taxi, horse cart and ox cart for the incredible views at these special times. The tourists look like birds perched high on the stupas awaiting the sunset, and once the sun is down they must find their way down from these precarious positions in the dark. The markets are a happening place with lots of locals and tourists shopping for food, clothing and souvenirs. Since we happened to be there during the full moon which the Buddhists celebrate as a special festive time, the markets, music and chanting went on through the night as well. The sunrises and sunsets can be seen from the air in the hot air balloons but it will cost you $350 US, in a town where a great meal costs $10.
Another 30 minute domestic flight took us north to Mandalay, the last Royal Capital of old Burma. A huge tract of land surrounded by a moat was home to the Imperial Palace but sadly, it was destroyed during world War II. Replicas of the buildings were rebuilt beginning in 1959 and is a popular tourist attraction within the city. According to taxi drivers this was the peak tourist season but there were only a handful of people touring the palace. Great views can be seen from Mandalay Hill just outside the city and if you’re still up to it, more pagodas to enjoy. The only fast food franchise in the country is a humble coffee shop called Donut King in Mandalay, although it’s probably only a matter of time before 7-11, Subway, KFC and the Golden Arches invade.
Nearby is the U Bein pedestrian bridge built over 100 years ago entirely out of teak and still used today mainly by the locals to cross the lake. The bridge is 1.6 kilometres long with no railings most of the way. During the dry period the lake is about 12 feet below the bridge but only 4 feet deep. You can watch fishermen waist-deep in the water with their nets. As the bridge joins the land you can see farmers plowing fields with oxen. If not for the tourist buses parked by the lake you could pretend it was 1900.