When we were planning the HoneyTrek route, Myanmar (formerly Burma) was still under a military dictatorship, saddled with sanctions and virtually shut to the world. The regime officially ended in 2011, but after 49 years of oppression it hardly seemed like a place you’d want to visit…but everyone we met who’d been said exactly the opposite. When they spoke of the incredible landscape, architecture, temples, history, and people, they all had a twinkle in their eye. Our curiosity was piqued so we decided to rejigger our route and discover this mysterious land for ourselves.
Travel Guide: Yangon, Myanmar
Our first stop was the former capital and largest city, Yangon. Vibrant, exotic, chaotic, it’s a place where life plays out in the open. Vendors set up shop anywhere and everywhere, old men gather on the corner to share pots of tea, and monks collect alms throughout downtown. The people watching is incredible and it’s all set to the backdrop of 2,000 year old Buddhist temples, communist block buildings and British colonial architecture. See the slideshow, you won’t even believe half of it.
Cut off from the first world until 2011, Myanmar is in a time warp where letter writing is still a profession and telephone booths like this even exist.
Being in center of the Golden Triangle and a former British colony, Myanmar is a fascinating blend of eras and styles. The area around The Strand is lined with beautiful colonial buildings that have hardly been touched since the Brits left—case and point, the British Tax Office, seen above, was bombed in World War II and still has a massive hole in the roof.
Traditional dress is the norm in the city with men wear skirt-like longyis and the women beautify with Thanaka face paint. Thanaka is a tree that you rub on a stone with a bit of water and it creates a lovely yellow paste. It’s the makeup of Myanmar and ladies brush it across their the cheeks, forehead, and nose in the striations of their choosing. Theories differ on its benefits (good for the skin, a cooling quality, natures sunblock, etc.) but the main reason is it makes them feel more beautiful. Can’t argue with that.
There are infinite charms to a country that’s gone without a tourism industry for five decades, but the quality of the lodging is not one of them. Not only are there very few hotels but they’re usually run-down and double the price of anywhere else in Southeast Asia. On the bright side, Pyin Oo Lwin Guest House did have fabulous views of city hall (if you can make it past the “lobby”).
A German lady at our guest house (She was a single mother traveling for a year with a two-year old–and we thought we were bold!) tipped us off to this incredible morning market, Theingyi Zei. We arrived just after sunrise and the streets were paved with blankets of fruits, vegetables, and animals (dead and alive) with locals weaving between them shopping, munching, and starting their day.
The market also has an indoor portion that runs all day, but it’s not for the faint of heart. You might see more than you bargained for, but inside and out, the Theingyi Zei market is one of our favorite markets in Southeast Asia.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is 2,600 years old (making it the oldest pagoda, not just in Myanmar, but the world!) with enshrined relics from Buddha’s life, including eight of his holy hairs. Pilgrims travel the world over to see this place, but if you are staying downtown, head a few kilometers north with the massive golden dome as your compass.
Shwedagon’s design is absolutely dazzling with 82 buildings and the main zedi (aka. stupa) which is made from 53 metric tonnes of gold leaf ($2.5billion USD in case you were about to do the math yourself) and topped with 2,000 precious stones, 5,000 diamonds, and one 75-carat diamond at its pinnacle.
Everyone seemed to be at Shwedagon with such religious purpose–giving offerings, saying mantras, moving through prostrations. One proud Yangonite saw us standing on the sidelines and asked if he could show us around. We responded with our usual backpacker frugality and skepticism, “That’s okay, we don’t have money for a tour today.” He insisted it would be his pleasure and wouldn’t accept a dime. He took our smile as a yes and then asked me, “What day of the week were you born and how old are you?” Being 31 years old and born on a Wednesday, this meant I should go to my astrological post of a golden elephant) and pour 32 cups of water over it (an extra for long life) as a form of prayer. Then we walked clockwise around the zedi (the respectful direction to go) and chatted about the temple, Yangon, and life…this genuinely kind encounter was the first of dozens to come.
It should be noted that March and April are the hottest months in Myanmar…and exactly the time we visited. After holiness, free water and shade add to Shwed’s popularity on the typical 100+ degree day.
We weren’t ready to leave the pagoda, but we were in desperate need of food and siesta—especially if we were going to come back for sunset (yes, it was so good we went twice in one day!). The dining experience of tiny plastic children’s furniture and a bill of $1.50 was in line with our previous Southeast Asian meals but the flavors were not. Indian, Chinese, and local Bamar and Shan influences blend for dishes that feature more pickled salads, creamy noodles, and meat of ALL varieties.
We returned to Shwedagon just before sunset and it was hard to tell if it was the tons of gold leaf or the sun casting this incredible glow over the crowd. As night fell, the candles became the new shimmer and the energy even more radiant.
With just three days in Yangon, our love affair with Myanmar had already begun.