Burma has many treasures and undoubtedly for us they were its enchanting temples, curious, gentle people and a colonial history that still remains to this day. The rural scenery is breathtaking and a world away from the new face of Burma that is rapidly taking shape everywhere.
We had read many things about travel in Burma through the media, travel forums and websites. We had heard that there would be limited internet access, phone reception would be zero and you had to carry only pristine notes – otherwise they may be a chance your money would be rejected. Of course you wouldn’t be able to withdraw those shiny notes as there was apparently no ATM’s! With all this to think of, we landed in Yangon slightly apprehensive though open-minded about what to expect. We were lucky enough to have arrive at the tail end of the 27th South East Asian Games. This was Burma’s moment and they had to raise their game. The result? Our UK phones worked, we were easily able to buy a sim card by some very helpful people at the airport and at the hotel we had wifi! Though temperamental, we were just grateful it actually existed! We had no issues with the money and of course there were ATM’S. What was all the fuss about?
We arrived to find Yangon gloriously bathing in the feel good factor of the games! Five star hotels competed with colonial buildings whilst golden pagodas stood side by side with churches and mosques – reflecting a rich culture and a melting pot of people. Huge advertising billboards towered over swarming streets filled with hawkers, business people and tourists.
Sunset at the Shwedagon Temple
The Shwedagon Temple attracts people from all over the world to enjoy its enchanting beauty. We discovered the best time to visit was at sunset when the crowds thinned out and the temple revealed itself in all its golden glory. Standing close to 110 meters and covered with hundreds of gold plates, the top of the stupa is encrusted with thousands of diamonds – the largest being a whopping 72 carat diamond! Somehow this fact had escaped us and it was only when a random guy asked us to stand in a certain spot and look up, that we saw the diamond wink at us in the setting sun!
The Streets of Yangon
Yangon is home to many cultures and religions. From the mosques of Yangons’ townships, where you can wade through the bustling urban sprawl of flea markets, gleaming pagodas of Buddhists. Wherever you go, you’ll always be greeted with smiles, curious looks and an eagerness in the people to get to know you.
The Architecture of Yangon – A Glimpse into the Past
Meandering through the streets of downtown Yangon was like reliving Burma’s colonial history. It was evident everywhere. Apparently Yangon has the greatest number of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia. We could see why! Everywhere, there were impressive examples of magnificent architecture. Some still had life in them and were used to this day, whilst others sadly lay in the shadows of shiny new five-star hotels – forgotten and neglected.
Thanks to Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay has a hard time living up to the romanticised and nostalgic images captured in the poem “Mandalay”. It was nothing like that. Instead we arrived to find congested streets at the centre of which stood the old royal palace, surrounded by the walls and moat of a military base.
The day after arriving we decided we would walk to Mandalay Hill to see the sights and view the sunset. Bad move! Though we could see the hill from where we were staying, we seriously underestimated how far it was and how hot it was! Hours later, we had only got half way, the sun was crazy hot and we were tired! I think we looked tired as an elderly man on a taxi-bike rode up and offered a lift for a price. Well we took it! We jumped on the bike (yes there were three of us on a tiny bike) and chatted to the very well spoken man on the way. The taxi guy said he would wait for us at the top of the hill and take us home. Did he wait? Hell no! Of course he wouldn’t! So after watching the sunset on the hill and realising the elderly Indian had made a sharp exit we walked it back to the hotel. Night drew in and after walking through some dark streets for what seemed like hours and wishing a taxi would drive by, yet another guy appeared out of no-where! “Do you need a lift”? he said. I looked at Asad. We both looked at the guy, decided he wasn’t a mass murderer and jumped on his bike and yes there were three of us on a tiny bike!
After the escapades of the night before, we bravely decided to rent a motorbike and explore the sprawl the easy way. Well not that easy! We had no mirrors, the clutch was none existent, the helmets didn’t fit properly and much to the amusement of the locals who laughed at us – the bike kept on stalling! On the list of things to see were Mandalay Palace, Kuthadaw Paya, Mahamuni Paya and further afield the stunning U Bein Bridge. Somehow we got back alive from riding the scooter. Asad did a man scream every time he turned right on a junction! It was like dicing with death, weaving in and out of crazy traffic – a totally hair-raising experience! But such fun!
Described as the worlds largest book, Kuthodaw Paya is home to 729 marble slabs inscribed with ancient Theravada Buddhist scriptures.
Mahamuni Paya is a large complex where at the heart of the pagoda is a 3.8 metre-tall Buddha figure. Male devotees visit to apply gold leaf to the figure. Women are not allowed within the inner area and instead ask the men to apply it for them. The figure itself is said to weigh six tonnes and at 4am each day, crowds gather to watch the face being washed.
Constructed between 1857 – 1859, this is the last royal residence of King Mindon and King Thibaw – the last two kings of the country. It was part of King Mindon’s founding of the new royal city of Mandalay. Not only was it taken over by the British but also the Japanese. Adding insult to injury, it was pretty much destroyed in World War II by allied bombing. Only the royal mint and watchtower survived. A sad ending. It is protected by walls and a moat more than 2km long on each side.
Security was tight when we entered and they made sure we didn’t digress from the straight road leading up to the palace. Though I must admit the urge to rebel and sneak off did rear itself, but thoughts of being locked up kept us in line! It didn’t take long to walk around the palace. To be honest, the outside was more impressive. So apart from a museum which offered some insight into the royals, we were in and out in less than a couple of hours.
U Bein Bridge – A magical sunset on the longest and oldest bridge in the world
Stretching for 1.2 kilometres across Taungthaman Lake, U Bein Bridge is believed to be the oldest and longest teak wood bridge. Built around 1850, it’s made from reclaimed wood from the former royal palace in Inwa. Lined with hawkers selling souvenirs it still acts as an important passage way for locals and monks who visit the temples nearby. Though the banks of the lake were terribly littered – it was a great place to get some amazing photo’s of local life.