Yangon is same-same but different from other large Southeast Asian cities in several ways. Traditions are heavy in architecture and clothing, transportation has its peculiarities and Myanmar food is a bit tricky to order.
This is #3 of twelve articles describing my 2013 visit to Myanmar. In addition there are 7 videos and a large picture album.
Burma was a British colony
The British established themselves in Yangon in 1852 and proclaimed it the capital of Burma after exiling the country’s last king from Mandalay in 1885. They ruled the country until the independence in 1948. In the course of these hundred years they managed to construct a number of large official buildings and mansions. Yangon has the largest number of colonial period buildings in Southeast Asia.
A walking tour in down-town Yangon, in the grid of straight streets the British laid out, is highly recommended. The military government, by the way, moved the official capital to the inland city of Naypyidaw in 2006, but Yangon continues to be the country’s largest and most important city. I might add that Rangoon was an Anglicisation of the old name of Yangon. The name was changed back to Yangon in 1989. The country also changed its name from Burma to Myanmar.
Yangon has the unmistakable atmosphere of colonial architecture
The old colonial buildings of central Yangon are generally in a very poor condition. There is of course a beauty in deterioration but Yangon has more than its share of decay. Moss grow freely on the roofs and walls. The building across the alley from my hotel room had a tree growing out of the wall, on the sixth floor. Some of the buildings looked empty, almost all seemed to be left to rotten.
There are a few exceptions. The Strand Hotel has been transformed to its former glory and I noticed a couple of other buildings on the Strand Road that were in the process of restoration. It might be that the authorities have been eager to separate themselves from their former colonial status and used the lack of maintenance as a means. It could also be that the decades of self-inflicted isolationism after the liberation from Britain in 1948 had emptied private and state finances.
There are no motorcycles in Yangon
I did not see any two-wheelers at all, be it motorcycles, mopeds or even bicycles. The reason is that motorised transport on two wheels is prohibited. A government regulation in this respect is obviously enforced vigorously. Fortunately for a tourist there are plenty of taxis, and the locals have a myriad of buses to take. I looked at the ads on buses: Generic teen-agers from a TV-show and Facebook. Change is coming fast to Myanmar these days.
Taxi drivers are at their happiest when they have a passenger interested in listening to their complaints on the traffic situation. One driver told me that traffic is growing rapidly in Myanmar. Although present car-owners are taking care of their rare vehicle, new models are imported in ever larger numbers. In Myanmar they drive on the right side of the road, but most cars are Japanese second-hand imports. This means the driver sits on the right hand side of the car.
All men wear longyis and chew betel nuts
Longyis are long sheets of cloth sewn into a cylindrical shape and worn by men instead of trousers. I had read about this phenomenon but was quite surprised to see that it was so common all over the country, even in the big cities. Very few men had trousers. The exceptions seemed to be some teenagers, but even among them the longyi was the preferred garment.
Furthermore the chewing of so-called betel nuts (actually areca nuts wrapped with some other stuff in a leaf from the betel plant) is extremely widespread among men. The red spit is found everywhere on the streets and pavements. This was definitely not Singapore. The young conductors on the local buses hang out from the doors spitting out the saliva while yelling out the destination of the bus to the people waiting at the bus stops. The teeth of Burmese men looked awful.
Women do not take such mildly intoxicating substances. Almost all of them have cheeks and sometimes their entire faces whitened by thanaka. This is a yellowish-white paste made from ground bark of the thanaka tree. It is applied for cosmetic purposes and has a cooling effect as well.
Sightseeing in Yangon
Apart from the Shwedagon Paya (pagoda) described in the previous chapter, the colonial period buildings, traffic, and the people, what is there to see in Yangon? Here are some more impressions I made during my short stay of two nights.
All guidebooks and bloggers seem to advise a visit to the Bogyoke Aung San Market and nearby malls. Well, so do I. These markets are most of all dry markets, selling durable goods like cloth and electronics. I walked the wet market on 26th Street and found the fresh fish, meat and vegetables much more interesting. It was also a lot more lively and picturesque place for watching the ordinary people of Yangon. Proof of how fresh the food was I got when I almost stumbled over a fish “swimming” across the street, trying to get away from the tray his mates were resting on. What added to my positive experience was the lack of tourists.
Aung San Suu Kyi residence
I may not be the first to take a taxi to Inya Lake to have a look at the house of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. I even took the photograph inserted below. This is not a modest place; the large walled compound belongs to a privileged family. Her house-arrest for a number of years after her winning the 1989 elections is however still a house-arrest no matter how nice the location is. There are two photographs hanging side by side throughout Myanmar. They are of “The Lady” and her father, General Aung San, who was central in the transition from colonial rule to independent nation. I met in the ensuing days in Myanmar nobody who would not speak positively of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Religious buildings – Buddhist
In the previous article I described my visit to the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. I stayed downtown, near the Sule Paya which is generally regarded as the centre of Myanmar. I did not enter it but chose to visit two other pagodas outside the city centre, the Chaukhtatgyi and Ngahtatgyi. Here I was struck by the emphasis the Buddhists of Myanmar put on symbols, and also by the devotion they have.
Myanmar is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Although the majority Bamar group is predominantly Buddhist, there are a number of other indigenous groups in the country, primarily in the border regions outside the large north-south river valley and delta of Ayeyarwady. Actually the country’s name is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, reflecting its history of not being more than a union of more or less centrally controlled states.
The centrifugal forces of Myanmar’s ethnic, religious and political landscape are strong, so strong that the biggest accomplishment of General Aung San was that he was able to secure an agreement among all parties to form a union after the independence. The military government that has been effectively in office since he was executed has not had an easy job keeping the country united. This will also, I believe, become The Lady’s biggest challenge if she wins the Presidential elections in 2015.
Religious buildings – Jewish, Hindu, Christian
I visited a synagogue in the city centre (Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue), walked by a couple of Christian churches (Anglican and Baptist) and a Hindu temple (Sri Kali). It was the British colonial rulers who brought the Indians with them. Actually Burma was governed by the British Viceroy in India.
The non-indigenous minority groups have been under pressure for decades. A lot of Indians and other people groups have left, as a result of long-standing discrimination and sometimes persecution. The day I returned home from Myanmar I heard a news bulletin that there had been another lynching of Muslims around Mandalay. The mob was being led by monks.
I have to this day held the belief that Buddhist monks are pacifists. Not so in Myanmar. Quite the contrary, obviously. What adds to the danger is that the leading politicians are doing whatever they can to please the monks. If they win the allegiance of the monks, they will also get the support of the people. Every day the newspapers had pictures on their front pages showing a leading military/politician visiting a religious place of worship. Buddhist of course. There seems to be no reason to believe that there will be legal actions against the killer-monks of Myanmar.
The National Museum
There are fantastic treasures hidden inside this monstrously ugly building. The light is dimmed and the exhibitions are not state-of-the-art museum wise. However, the collection is very impressive. It did give me some hints of what to look for later in Myanmar.
Eating and sleeping
It is limited what two nights in a capital city can give of experiences. I stayed at the Orchid Hotel City Hall. At 60 USD a night I found it too expensive considering the standard, although it was not a bad place at all. The advantage of the hotel was the location, only two hundred metres from the Sule Pagoda, the definitive centre of Yangon.
What about eating in Yangon? Well, the streets of down-town Yangon are full of stalls selling all kinds of hot and cold food. They are very popular among the locals. I considered it too risky and managed to resist the temptation. I did however have lunch at an alright, yet basic Indian restaurant. The second evening I dined with a multitude of Chinese down by the river, at the Be Le Restaurant. Good Chinese food, but not the right kind of atmosphere for a solo traveller.
The first evening I had a superb Burmese meal at a place called Feel Myanmar. It was recommended in my Lonely Planet guidebook so I was certainly not the only tourist around. Fortunately the majority of the customers looked local. I was taken to a big counter with a whole lot of familiar and highly unfamiliar dishes, sauces and other ingredients. I pointed out the dishes I wanted, and they brought the food to my table with a host of other dishes I had not ordered. That is the Myanmar way: Order the main course and there are several side dishes brought to you as well. Exciting, tasty and filling. (It was too much though, and cost me too much as well, for I had pointed at too many things.)
The travel map
This is a simple map of where I travelled in Myanmar, and in what sequence.
This article is part of a series from Myanmar, describing my travels in August 2013. My visit is presented in ten chapters, a planning document and an article with some final impressions from a country which is included on just about everyone’s bucket list. Read all chapters:
THIS CHAPTER (3) Central Yangon