Being in a new city and in a new country is thrilling, overwhelming and often hilarious. Here are a few shots and moments from a day on the town.
The Circle Train is a “must do” for Yangon novices and veterans alike. The train leaves from the downtown train station (seen in the Anthony Bourdain Myanmar episode) and takes about three hours to circle the entire city. The train we intended to take transports locals from one township to the next.
When we arrived at platform 7, the man in the ticket window gave us each a ticket for 1,500 kyat (about $1.50). He was very worried about us as we waited for the train and every five minutes or so would come out of his booth and tell us to “please wait” – a common phrase Myanmar people say to foreigners. A few minutes before the train pulled up, he brought us a new ticket that said “foreigner.” We had been warned that they might make us take the “foreigner train” which is less desirable because it has aircon and they make you keep the windows closed. We wanted the local experience where you sit on hard wooden seats and are in the mix of locals bringing their goods to sell at the markets. Now we know and next time we hope to ride the local train.
However, I would not call our experience anything less than “interesting.” The time spent waiting for the train was a highlight of the day. We saw handmade chairs balanced on a stick carried on and off trains. We saw a little boy take his pants off and poop on the platform to be followed by his mom picking it up in a bag and throwing the bag in the train tracks. We even made a friend!
Hopefully next time we’ll get on the local train.
Someone recently told me, “Shwedagon Pagoda isn’t technically one of the 7 wonders of the world, but it should be!” Agreed.
Shwedagon Pagoda is an icon of SE Asia and the Buddhist religion. It has also been symbolic of our move to Myanmar. When I would daydream about life in Asia, Shwedagon was the place I envisioned exploring. It was the place I expected to fall in love with.
The size alone is striking. You can enter the pagoda from four entrances; North, South, East and West. Each offers a different perspective of the enormous structure and each has a different feeling of grandeur.
Entering through the South Gate offers a massive marble staircase with teak ceilings. Vendors line the steps selling flowers, mala beads, Buddha posters, paper umbrellas, fruit, incense and anything else that could be considered an offering to the thousands of Buddhas and shrines.
At the top of the stairs awaits many middle aged men in Longyis eager to take you on a tour. For 10,000 kyat (pronounced “chat”) they will show you “all important places” and “all beautiful Buddha.” We decided that seeing “all beautiful Buddha” was very important.
The first thing our tour guide wanted to show us was one of the seven shrines that surrounded the golden stupa. He took us to “Wednesday Corner” and asked “What day you born?” Hmmm, well frankly, we weren’t sure so he said, “Okay okay. Wednesday is okay.” He showed us how to take the small tin cup on the edge of the fountain, fill it up with water and then pour it over the head of the Buddha. Each cup full of water that is poured over the shrine has a different meaning, “one for Buddha, one for father, one for mother, one for Wednesday and one for good luck.”
The structure itself sits on the top of a hill surrounded by hundreds of smaller buildings. Each smaller building is the home to shrines, Buddhas and offerings. In every building, you will find locals meditating, eating, socializing and texting. The people watching is spectacular.
Each time you visit Shwedagon, you will discover something new. It is so large and has so many nooks and crannies to be discovered. I love finding new rooms that I have not visited and new perspectives that I have not yet discovered.
There is so much to learn about this true world wonder. I will continue to go back again and again and open my heart to this incredible place.
In 20 years when we look back on the time that we lived in Myanmar, it will be the smells will bring us back to thrill, the frustration and the excitement of this adventure. The layers of mold, fish sauce, gasoline and scented soap have transformed from striking new stenches to shockingly familiar scents in just one week.
The buildings in Yangon are either very old or very new. They tell the story of these people and this culture. They provide the framework for the luxury, the turmoil and the change this city has gone through. The ubiquity of vibrant moss and trees growing from the side of six story buildings makes it seem like this city was plopped down in the middle of a jungle. When the city stopped growing, the jungle didn’t. Both the jungle and the people are seeking light through cracks of opportunity.
We wrapped up our first week in Yangon with a day exploring the city. After 3 hours of walking around downtown, we left Bogyoke Aung San Market in a down pour and spent the next 40 minutes in a cab asking ourselves common questions in Myanmar; why do our hands smell like fish sauce? Is the four foot long gas tank behind my head in the trunk totally necessary? Does the cab driver understand where we wanted to be taken? How does every car in this city avoid hitting one another? Where is the closest hospital just in case? Am I going to get sick from all the delicious street food we just ate?
Yangon is so unique. It is exactly what you imagine; old, colonial, moldy, mossy and colorful. It is also so much more than I imagined; there are contemporary and thriving businesses, there is a fast paced beat and it is quickly being built up more and more. There are many new cars on the streets, traffic is abundant, people are holding smart phones everywhere you look and serviced apartments for Westerners are spreading like wildfire. You can go to a licensed Apple retailer in the mall or buy whatever Timberland attire your heart desires.
It is fascinating to watch this place transform from a society stuck in time to a modern day thriving city. It has a long way to go, but we feel so lucky to be here to watch these people and this country embrace the old, welcome the new and thrive.
Since the borders to Myanmar were recently opened in 2011, there isn’t a lot of current information about life in Myanmar. Most travel books are outdated and there are very few blogs that are current and applicable to our new life in Yangon. Over the past few months we have collected a list of the best resources out there that are the most up to date!
Free downloads: Burmese by Ear or Essential Myanmar
Did we forget any essential Myamar resources? Add them here!