A good deal of our time in Yangon went towards logistics – talking with Kalya, pouring through Lonely Planet, calling up hotels around the country as we sketched our route. We did get out a bit however.
One of our first excursions was a sunset visit to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the largest, most iconic and holy pagoda in all of Myanmar. It towers over the city and is the stuff of local lore and historic legend. You can read more about it here if you’re interested.
As with many of the things we’ve seen on this trip so far, photos can not come close to capturing the grandeur of Swedagon – but as always I will post some of my pictures anyhow. Our first visit was a bit spontaneous and I didn’t actually have my camera with me – the photos are from a subsequent visit at the end of our time in Myanmar. We got a cab from the hotel to drop us at one of the four entrances. We hadn’t seen the pagoda before this (it’s visible from many, but not all, vantage points in the city), and it managed to deliver the drama.
One enters the large compound through a long, broad covered stairway. The entrance of each of the four stairways is guarded by massive chinthe on either side – for their sheer size already an impressive sight to behold! Vendors, devotees and orange-robed monks accompanied our slow ascent through the passage, and then suddenly the courtyard was before us.
We were lucky; on our first visit the pagoda wasn’t too busy. The atmosphere was peaceful in the soft twilight and it felt like we were the only Westerners in this gentle, sacred, awesome space.
We wandered in barefoot across the still-warm marble of the compound, watching the night descend as the endless lesser spires and buddhas were lit up, until we turned a corner and caught our first view of the main stupa itself. The thing is just huge and just incredible. Covered in plate gold and topped with an unbelievable number of diamonds, I would have thought the excess of riches could come across as tacky but it is simply awesome.
We were also lucky to meet a lovely, friendly monk named San Ta (sure I am spelling that wrong) who took time to chat with us and show us some of the lesser known sights within the complex.
Shwedagon towers over the city of Yangon. This photo was taken from some swank restaurant in a high-rise that a friendly Burmese guy we met on the street took us to. (We went together for a tea afterwards at a normal shop where he taught me some basic Burmese words)
Entering the complex
Up close at the big pagoda
Night falls at Shwedagon
The (new) road to Mandalay
I may write more about our time in Yangon later, for now though, let’s get the trip started. After all the planning and preparation, we were finally ready to leave the creature comforts of the Classique and sink our teeth into the rest of Myanmar. We decided to start our trip with a boat trip up the famous Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwaddy) River.
To do this though, we first had to get to Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar. Mandalay is another place I knew nothing about, but there is a Robbie Williams song called “The Road to Mandalay“ which I do know (which, reading the lyrics, has very little to do with the Burmese city I think) and this inevitably became the auto-repeated soundtrack in my head for much the trip!
We seemed to have great timing – we arrived shortly after the opening of a brand new highway the government had built between Yangon, Mandalay, and the new capitol, Nay Pyi Taw (if you are interested to learn more about the wackyness of the Burmese government, look into this place). That meant that the trip to Mandalay would only take around 6 hours by bus – something that would not have been possible a month earlier.
More affordable than planes and more reliable than the trains, buses are a really popular mode of transportation in Myanmar. We were amazed at the size of the bus center in Yangon. The place is a dusty maze of parking areas crammed with hundreds of buses old and new, food shops and ticket offices. It took our cab driver well over five minutes of driving around and stopping for directions until he found the right corner of the center where our bus was waiting.
We got a luxury bus for this leg of the journey. Decent seats, air con, a complimentary wet nap to wipe the grime of travel from our faces (unnecessary since we came straight from the hotel but boy could we have used it at later points in our trip!), and TV and stereo blaring primitively edited Burmese movies the whole trip long. (one about a man who cross dresses and poses as a nanny to get closer to the woman he loves seemed somehow familiar… )
Travel on the highway was smooth but surreal. We saw hardly any traffic on the brand new highway traversing mostly empty plains. Some sections were still under construction – occaisionally we’d pass teams of construction workers protected from the strong sun by long sleeves and pants and broad hats. The whole length of highway between Yangon and Mandalay had only one rest stop, fashioned somewhat after the Western style, with huge (nearly empty) parking lots and a strip of redundant restaurants and shops (although the excessive number was western, the shops themselves were decidedly Asian, with things like dried fish hanging from the ceilings and free green tea with every beverage or meal ordered). The whole thing was bizarre but fun.
Sign posts at the rest stop
Workers at the side of the empty road
We arrived into Mandalay on time (in fact, I still owe Roman for losing that bet…), pulling into a smaller but equally dusty bus station outside the city. There were a couple of other Westerners on the bus with us; we ended up sharing a cab (i.e. squishing into the back of a mini-truck) into town with a Dutch man and his Burmese wife.
Elmer and Ohmar ended up becoming our travel companions for much of the trip. Luck had it that much of our itinerary was the same, and even when we thought we would miss each other due to timing, we often ended up randomly crossing paths. They were good fun and generous with their local knowledge (Ohmar especially), and added so much to our experience of Myanmar.
We discovered that we were both taking the same boat ride to Bhamo for the next day, so they joined us at our hotel in Mandalay (cheaper yes, but a definite downgrade from the Classique (grungy, dark, big, inexplicable hole in the bathroom ceiling), but they were showing football in the lobby so Roman was pretty happy. TV in Myanmar is pretty restricted by the government, but one thing that gets aired consistently and is a definite improvement over the often dull, contrived government-controlled local programming is European football. Folks in Myanmar are crazy for it and we met a lot of Manchester United fans during our time there).
The boat was scheduled to leave at 6am and we had to get there before hand because Elmer and Ohmar still had to buy tickets, so it was a short night in Mandalay before our early start the next day…