The first time I heard of the current commercial capital of Myanmar was probably the time I listened to the famous Bollywood song, “Mere piya gaye Rangoon... wahan se kiya hai telephoon”! Rangoon seemed like a fabulous faraway place then, cut off from the rest of the world, a place still remote and off the tourist track. It seemed to be a place that was still firmly anchored to a fading sepia-tinted past.
Myanmar, which was under the rule of the military for three decades, had been isolated from the rest of the world. Though the country had opened certain areas for tourism, many countries boycotted the fascist regime, rooting instead for the opposition leader, Aung San Su Kyi. However, with the victory of her party and the return of democracy to Myanmar, it seemed to be an appropriate time to visit. We went for a family vacation to the country, keeping expectations low, our information limited to what little we read on the internet.
My first impression of Yangon was that of a modern city with a spanking new airport terminal and a smattering of glass and steel office buildings. The broad clean Pyay Road from the airport was flanked by green trees, behind which lay a few sprawling houses, old sooty apartment structures and small shops. There were not too many people on the road but most of the pedestrians wore the traditional attire, the men in checked longyis and the petite women in Thamein, both straight pieces of cloth wrapped around the lower body worn with a shirt or a blouse. The city had a quiet gentle pace, and even the traffic moved slowly, in a silent and sedate manner so different from the chaotic mess of Indian roads.
We first decided to explore the city by foot and see more than just a glimpse of its enigmatic character. We drove to the center of downtown, the older part of Yangon, and started our journey by the Sule Paya. The Sule Paya is one of the oldest temples in Yangon with a 42 ft. high glittering dome and lies at the center of a busy traffic intersection. It is a bustling temple with small modern shops at its base and small whitewashed cubicles under the traditional arches adjoining the golden spire. The Sule Paya, at first glance, is rather like Yangon, a blend of the old and new, each distinct and coexisting peacefully next to each other. The British used Sule Paya as the center of the capital city they were creating in Burma.
A woman was standing in front of the Sule Paya with a basket of sparrows, 12 or 15 birds crammed into a tiny wire structure. She indicated that she would give us one to set free. Setting live birds or fish free is one way for the Buddhists to earn merit though it seems to have become a strange business now with birds perhaps being captured for this very purpose. We paid 5000 Kyat (about 4$) and allowed 3 trembling sparrows to soar into the open skies.
Feeling virtuous, we avoided the many small stalls with astrologers promising to tell our future and walked down past the massive Town Hall towards the Emmanuel Baptist Church. This part of the town was the heart of British Rangoon with several colonial buildings so typical of that era. The Town Hall however combined some Burmese influence in the form of oriental arches and spires similar to those found on pagodas.
We walked further on Mahabandoola Road seeing an ancient post office where people still flocked to buy stamps and send telegrams under the slow hum of creaking ceiling fans that hung from the high ceiling. It was almost noon, with the winter sun hot on our heads, almost burning our arms. The food stalls on the pavement were doing brisk business. Many people sat on plastic stools eating a meal of rice and various condiments and curries. Fruit sellers hawked papayas, grapefruits, gooseberries and small red fruits that looked like jujubes. A woman sold seafood speared on sticks alongside another who fried various items, prawns and aubergines in sizzling oil so that everything emerged with a crisp golden coat.
We walked past the red and ochre High Court Building and in a few minutes came up against the tall tower of the Port Authority Building that looked almost incongruous like a visiting European lady in a crowded bazaar. At the end of the road, towards the left, lay the Victorian style Strand Hotel, an iconic landmark that opened in 1901 and was once known to be the finest hotel in the East. Now, there is a notice at the entrance gently admonishing passing tourists who want to traipse in and gawk at the place, to respect the privacy of the residents.
We went for lunch instead to the Rangoon Tea House on Pansodan Road which was packed with tourists. Rangoon Tea House is modelled on the old English tea houses but is quite modern in terms of its interiors and the menu. We opted for the Tea Leaf Salad which was delicious and crunchy with an unusual flavour of tea leaf paste. The vegetable rice which was slightly fermented and topped with a fried egg was also flavourful.
We eschewed the tea and went to Sharky’s down the road. Sharky’s is a restaurant and shop which favours organic artisan food along with homemade gelatos. Our daughter had Buttery Pumpkin Ravioli and a Chocolate Mousse for dessert. The bread and watermelon jam for sale looked tempting but we decided not to buy any items that would not last the long journey.
Another way to explore Yangon is by the Circular Train. We undertook this journey later as a way to see another part of Yangon. The station is another example of the British influence and is an old building that looks like it is from another era.
The Circular Train goes around Yangon and the journey takes about 3 hours. You can get off at any point and take a cab back to downtown. The train journey is much like any suburban journey in South Asia. The train has two benches that run across its length like a modern metro. Vendors of cold water, bean cakes and betel nut leaves climb in and out trying to make a living.
The sights outside show a glimpse of a typical town in a developing nation - small crowded streets; houses with corrugated roofs and bamboo walls sitting side by side with new apartment blocks; markets that sprawl across the pavements where vendors do a brisk trade in fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. This was very similar to what we saw in India and unlike many westerners who take the train, we did not find anything novel in the journey itself.
When the sun is hot and angry, it is a good time for indoor shopping. We decided to head to the indoor market at the end of the downtown, the Bogyoke Aung San market earlier known as Scott market. This is a great place for local shopping with something for everyone in the family. It is closed on Mondays like the museums in Yangon but opens through the day on other days of the week. The gems shops at the ground level offer sapphires and rubies at attractive prices and promises of government guarantee. On the other levels are clothes shops that sell t-shirts and large colourful bolts of cloth, handicrafts and knick-knacks.
This is a place to browse at leisure interspersed with some gentle haggling. I almost picked up a pair of sapphire earrings from Mohammed Moin’s Shop but decided to take a look at some more designs. Mohammed, whose ancestors were from India, spoke fluent Hindi, Tamil and English as well as Burmese. We would have stayed longer but it was time for our last stop, the most important landmark in Yangon.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in the heart of Yangon is a shimmering golden stupa that looms like a giant amongst other pygmy-like structures. “A golden mystery upheaved upon itself on the horizon, beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that neither Muslim dome nor Hindu spire.” The British writer Rudyard Kipling was amazed when he first glimpsed the pagoda and it continues to evoke the strange mixture of incredulity and awe even today.
Our guide Win explained the pagoda’s unique features. The main golden dome that rises about 323 feet above the base was supposed to have been 2500 years ago by King Okkalapa to contain 8 holy hairs of the Buddha but many additional features and embellishments were added by the successive Burmese kings. The gold on the stupa is real, so are the gems and ornaments that hang from the spire.
We walked around the structure past many small shrines which had been built by wealthy donors. There were eight corners with the names of the days, the planetary posts where people who were born on that day offered prayers and water to the Buddha shrine.
Many meditation halls holding several statues of Buddha had been constructed by different communities, the different ethnic groups in Burma, the Arakans, the Mon people and the Shan people, all united by their faith in Buddhism.
It was late evening when the setting sun cast a glow on the golden stupa and everything around seemed enveloped in the golden light. It was a fitting end to a lovely day in Yangon.