CURRENT LOCATION: Napyitaw, Myanmar
We'd had a great intro to Myanmar with all the friendly faces and delicious, cheap food the night before, so we were ready to go the next morning. After breakfast at our friendly guesthouse, we hit the road, armed with another trusty walking tour. This one took in a small section of Yangon's stunning British colonial era architecture. The streets are lined with incredible old buildings, usually in need of a little TLC, but all the more charming for it.
WARNING: I'm sure reading about us walking around looking at buildings is thrilling, but if that doesn't sound like your thing, feel free to skip this section. We won't take it personally. Hell, we'll never know. Plus this could be a long post, so settle in either way.
Another random note: as we walked to the beginning of our tour, we didn't see a single other european person, and judging by the looks we were getting, that wasn't unusual. People would stop and stare open mouthed, then burst into delighted laughter when we smiled and said hello. While Myanmar officially began welcoming tourists in 1992, it wasn't until the military junta handed over power to the civilian government in 2011 that tourism began increasing (more Myanmar history later). Western faces are certainly still a novelty!
Our tour began at The Strand Hotel, built in 1902 by Armenian hotelier brothers. Over the years, it became run down, but in 1990, a Singaporean hotelier worked with the Myanmar government to renovate it. It reopened in 1993 with 32 fully renovated rooms. It now houses one of the coolest expat bars in town (rumour has it, we didn't go in), largely because of the variety of spirits available there which aren't available elsewhere. The 50% off happy hour on Fridays doesn't hurt either I bet.
This wasn't our best mapped walking tour, so we spent the next little while wandering round, a little lost. However, we managed to find the Accountant General's Office and Currency Department, which was one of my favourite buildings of the day. Clerks here gathered colonial government revenue (I assume some kind of tax) that came from opium, salt, customs duties, railways, post offices and telegraphs. This building was stunning in its decay. The one bright turquoise paint was now faded and peeling, most of the windows were broken, and vines and weeds covers the exterior. It was such a breath taking sight, and incredibly photogenic too. Sadly, after we got home, we found out we could have gone inside.
Our next walk by was of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (which seemed like a weird combination to me), housed in a grand, but rather unimpressive building.
We continued on to Sofaer's Building, which sadly was difficult to see because we were standing at the base of it, and couldn't get across the street to see it properly because of the traffic. However, the building was still lovely, designed by Isaac Sofaer, a Jewish immigrant from Baghdad. It contained some of the city's first electronic lifts. During the building's heyday, around 1910, it served as an emporium, where people came to buy Egyptian cigarettes and European liqueurs, and to collect telegrams.
Inside the building, we stopped in at Lokanat Gallery, which has been showing works from contemporary Burmese artists for 40 years. Climbing up the dusty old staircase was amazing, imagining what this grand building looked like in its prime. We managed to check out an exhibit by a local artist called Nay Tun, who had done a series of incredible cubist watercolours (I know nothing about art, but they were definitely watercolours, and the looked cubist to me, forgive my ignorance). If they were smaller and more portable, we definitely would have bought one - they were stunning. He's a member at the gallery, so I'm sure a quick Google would show you some of his work. It was certainly worth a stop!
From there, we continued to the Railways Building, a large stone and brick building constructed in 1896. In May 2013 it was announced that a Hong Kong based company wants to convert the building into a 5 star hotel, and surround it with skyscrapers. In my humble opinion, the designs are hideous, and I have no idea what they'd do with the four skyscrapers once they're built. I suspect the designers may not have never actually been to Yangon...
Our next stop was another highlight - the Minister's Office, also known as The Secretariat. The Victorian brick building housed parliament from 1948-1962, and is the site where the father of a significant pro-democracy leader was assassinated in 1947. The building has been behind razor wire and closed to the public for nearly half a century, and few have ever seen inside. The local government offered it to investors, who wanted to turn it into a vast hotel. Public outcry kept this from happening, and the contract was instead awarded to a local couple who were educated in Singapore. They plan to turn the 400,000 square foot space into a collection of museums, galleries and cultural centres. Sadly it didn't look like much had been done when we were there, but it would be an incredible foundation in a great location if the plans should be completed.
We were getting pretty pooped by this stage. The temperature wasn't too bad, maybe in the low 30s, but the humidity was 100%, and was really draining us of our energy. We were pleased to find ourselves at Mahu Bandula Park, a green oasis in the middle of chaos. For some reason, it was surrounded by barbed wire, so it took a little investigating to find the gate. Eventually we found our way in and checked out the Independence Monument, commemorating Myanmar's independence from the British in 1948. From the park, we also had a great view of the High Court Building, and the City Hall.
The High Court Building was the highest seat of justice in Myanmar during colonial rule. Built in 1911, the massive brick building is planned to be turned into a museum and national culture theatre.
The City Hall building was also amazingly cool. The whole building was mauve, with a traditional 3 tiered roofs, and two giant dragons guarding the front doors.
After a quick break in the shade, we headed across the road and into Sule Paya Pagoda. According to legend, it is more than 2500 years old, and is believed to enshrine a hair of Buddha. We wandered around the breathtaking pagoda, enjoying watching the locals going about their daily business.
After such an active morning, we retired to the guest house to take advantage of the air conditioning. Later that evening, we headed out to 19th Street for dinner. It was really cool to see so many locals out, just going on with their lives. Other than to stare, wide eyed, at the crazy foreigners, people didn't pay us much attention in terms of their behaviour. Pretty much everywhere else we've been, we've felt like lots of the things going on around us were for our benefit - contrived shops, places and scenes, designed to target and entertain tourists. On the contrary, this felt like such a genuine experience. We pulled ourselves up at a table and ordered a variety of tasty BBQ treats, soaking in the atmosphere - including a particularly aggressive guitar playing busker.
Day two had a frustrating start. Yet again we found ourselves out of laundry. Yet again we were at a guesthouse with the ridiculous policy of charging per item. So off we schlepped from our guest house on 11th Street to the laundry shop on 20th Street, which charged per kg. Once we finally found the place, we were informed that they couldn't have our laundry done by the time we were leaving Yangon. So back to the guest house we schlepped. It's safe to say spirits weren't particularly high. Nonetheless we soldiered on, striking out to find a synagogue we'd read about. After an hour of walking around, finding nothing, spirits were plummeting. Recognising a nose dive in blood sugars, we refuelled with some delicious sugar pancakes from a friendly street vendor. That lifted the mood, and provided us with enough brain power to use the guidebook saved on my phone to find the synagogue. We'd been sitting about 10 feet away from it while we ate our pancakes.
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is the last remaining Jewish house of worship in downtown Yangon, and Myanmar's only synagogue. The present stone building was built between 1893-1896, replacing a smaller wooden structure built on the site in 1854. According to information inside the synagogue there is a small Jewish community in Myanmar, and some quick googling estimates the number to be around 19 - even smaller than New Zealand! Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the number was estimated to be around 2500. Sadly, the caretaker of the synagogue, Moses Samuel, died just a month before we arrived. Apparently him and his family were largely responsible for looking after the synagogue, and were especially welcoming to visitors, usually giving them an extensive tour. We were greeted by a friendly man who opened up for us, despite us arriving outside visiting hours, but his limited English made it difficult to communicate. We enjoyed looked around inside however, and found it a peaceful break from the hustle and bustle outside.
Our next mission was to make our way to Shwedagon Pagoda, the most easily visible and recognisable site in Yangon. It was a fair hike away, but on the way, a mirrored pagoda down a driveway caught our eye. A friendly local standing at the gate told us it was open, and to go down and look. Unassuming and with no sign, it was amazing. It was quite small, but completely covered with mirrored tiles. When you looked up the the roof, which had a big spire, it blended in with the sky. We had a quick look around, then continued on.
15 or so minutes later, we made it to Shwedagon Pagoda. We left our shoes at the shoe check, and made our way up the huge flights of stairs to the top. There, we paid our entry fee and walked in. The first thing you see is the massive gold stupa, rising 99m above you. While there were more tourists here than anywhere else we'd been, it was still overwhelmingly locals.
The pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, and is believed to contain relics from 4 previous Buddhas. The base of the stupa is made of bricks, covered with gold plates. This then rises into the bell shaped part of the stupa, which then turns into the turban, the inverted almsbowl, the inverted and upright lotus petals, the banana bud, and then the umbrella crown. Seriously, that's what all the features are called. The crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. The very top of the umbrella crown, the diamond bud, is topped with a 76 carat, 15g diamond.
It was bustling, and we walked around, taking in the scenery and enjoying people watching. Around the base of the tower were shrines to each of the days of the week. A man explained to us that people come here to wash the statue of the Buddha allocated to the day they were born on, for good luck.
After such an exhausting cultural experience, we needed ice cream. We stopped off at Happy World to fill our need, then continued on to People's Park. It was here we were introduced to the affectionate nature of the people of Myanmar. Everywhere else we've been in South East Asia has very publicly voiced its disapproval of public displays of affection. They even have signs, with cartoons on them warning you not to get carried away. One said, "You can hold hands, but this is where it stops". In Myanmar, not so much. Men and women walking hand in hand, or with their arms around each other's waists. Often, men will walk with their arms around each other, and women will hold hands. The park was filled with couples sitting together, giggling and kissing, in a manner that, to be honest, would've grossed me out at home, but over here I found quite charming. It was nice to see people being affectionate in public.
Aside from snogging teenagers, the park also contained an old aeroplane, and three swing bridges. We took full advantage of the facilities. On the way out of the park, we also checked out another art gallery, with another great exhibition. Sadly, we didn't catch the artist's name, but he worked in a variety of styles and media.
Our long walk home was significantly slower after a big day! While our dinner that night we pretty average, we did get to walk home in this amazing monsoon downpour. It was so much fun getting soaked to the bone in two minutes, especially while it was still really warm - even the locals seemed to be enjoying it! It was less fun having wet shoes for the next few days though...
On our last day in Yangon, we headed to a slightly less well know site - the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor of India, Bahadur Shah II. Following his involvement in the Indian rebellion against the British in 1857, the British exiled him, his wife, and their two sons to Yangon (then Rangoon). It is suggested that he slowly went mad in exile, eventually dying in Rangoon in 1862 at the age of 87. He was buried secretly near Shwedagon Pagoda, and while it was known that he was buried in that area, his grave wasn't marked. During renovations to the shrine built to him on site in 1991, his grave was found. Now, the main room contains the remains of his wife and two sons, plus some photographs and drawings of the family, and some of his poetry (written while in exile), and separately, his remains.
Our cash was starting to dwindle, so we needed to make a pit stop at an ATM. While Zev ran up the Shwedagon Pagoda stairs again (I know, it's weird that the ATM is in the pagoda), I sat at the bottom and waited for him. While I was now used to people staring, this was seriously weird. Within about 2 minutes of Zev leaving me, two young girls came over and started making camera motions at me. I smiled and said, "Sure!", thinking that they wanted me to take a photo of them. They promptly mobbed me, and started taking selfies. Crazy. Shortly after, the young boy selling plastic bags for your shoes at the gate (long story) came over and started chatting. He taught me how to say his name, then pointed out all the white people that walked past to get into the pagoda, as if I'd probably know them. Next, a group of 5 or so young teenage boys walked out of the pagoda, grinning cheekily and yelling, "Hello miss!!". A couple of minutes later, it was a slightly rowdier, slightly older, slighter larger group of teenagers. The whole time, other people walking past were pretending to take photos of the pagoda, while not-so-subtly actually taking photos of me. I was certainly at my most photogenic, in dirty clothes, dripping with sweat, and with about three inches of grey regrowth in my hair. I was grateful when Zev returned.
After our success with parks the previous day, we headed to Kandawgyi Lake, an artificial lake built by the British as a reservoir. We walked around the lake on a slightly worse-for-wear boardwalk, cellphone cameras snapping away all around us.
Feeling adventurous, we decided to try some street food for lunch. I asked for something vegetarian, and was offered shrimp or fish balls. I declined both, opting instead for plain rice. Zev was a little braver, choking down on what he described as, "fermented fish guts", and a nice cold bowl of tea leaf soup. In an attempt to get the taste out of our mouths, we bought a mango from a nearby fruit vendor. One bite was all it took to discover it was completely unripe, and soaked in lime juice. We abandoned said mango.
That evening, we enjoyed another delicious 19th Street BBQ dinner to make up for it.
Sadly, this morning, we had to be up at 6am to leave for the bus station at 6.30am. The drive, which was due to take 1.5 hours, ended up taking 40 minutes, so we arrived at the bus station at 7.10am for an 8.30am bus. We sat around in the completely chaotic bus station with no waiting area, perched on our bags in the middle of the carpark. At 8.15, the bus pulled in, and we all loaded in. As far as buses go, these were pretty nice. Plenty of leg room, which was a change.
Six hours later, we were driving down some of the most bizarre roads we've ever seen. We'd arrived in Naypyitaw, the new capital of Myanmar, a city so new that it doesn't even appear in our guidebook. But I'll save the juicy details on that for the next post!
But now, for a little Myanmar history. The British conquered Myanmar after three Anglo-Burmese wars in the 19th century, and the country became a British colony. Burma became an independent nation in 1948, initially as a democratic nation, then, following a coup in 1962, as a military dictatorship. While the military dictatorship formally ended in 2011, most of the country's leaders are former military leaders.
For most of its independent years, Myanmar has suffered ethnic clashes and its many ethnic minorities have been involved in one of the world's longest running civil wars. During this time, the United Nations and several other organisation reported consistent and systematic human rights violations throughout the country. In 2011, the military leadership committee was officially dissolved following a 2010 general election where a civilian government was elected. While former military leaders still wield enormous powers, the military have taken steps towards relinquishing control of the country. This, combined with the release of political prisoners and improvements in the country's human rights records and foreign relations has led to the easing of trade and economic sanctions.
That said, there is still continuing criticism of the government and its lack of response to religious and ethnic clashes, and its treatment of some minority ethnic groups.
As for the Myanmar/Burma debate... In Burmese, the name of the country is Myanma (more formally, when written), or Bama (more colloquially, when spoken). The British used the name Burma, from Bama. Bama is also the largest ethnic group in the country. As such, many of the ethnic minorities don't consider the name inclusive, so they oppose its use. During the military dictatorship in 1989, they decided to change the name to Myanmar in English, although they left the Burmese name unchanged. This angered many minorities who had grown used to Bama/Burma, and felt that the new name was actually less inclusive. The name change was not widely adopted by the rest of the world either, who did not to recognise the dictatorship's power to change the name of the country. Following the governmental reforms of 2010-2011, the use of Myanmar has become more widespread.
So there's a good starting point, although we may find ourselves getting into more details in future posts. Now though, I'm tired, so I'm super happy that our empty hotel has fired up their karaoke machine, while Zev and I try to get some sleep in our twin beds.
Lots of love,
S & Z
(Original post date: 10th July 2015)