Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Smelly Fish and Shimmering Stupas: Yangon, Myanmar

Destination:  Yangon, Myanmar
Number of days spent:  2 days
Where we stayed:  Ocean Pearl Inn - $15/night with breakfast & free water refills (offers free airport pickup and reliable hot water but is probably a 20-30 minute walk to the center & a taxi ride away from Schwedagon)
Best Restaurant:  If you walk down 15th & Mahabandola road there is a barbecue stand with amazing pork skewers (150 kyat – $.15) and made on the spot gyoza (100 kyat – $.10 each).  There is no name but they are set up next to a shop called Du kidding. 
Best of:  Sunset at the Shwedagon Paya, experiencing the ‘real’ Yangon at the fish market
Worst of:  United Airlines lost our bags.  No worries though, we were able to go to the airport and pick them up 24 hours after we arrived so aside from wearing the same clothes 3 days in a row, it worked out.
Most memorable:  We feasted on the Chinese barbecue for less than $2…we could have used a cold beer though.  When we go back to Yangon we will definitely hit that place up again. 
Useful tip: Bring brand new dollar bills, most places won’t take bills that are overly creased, used or with pen marks.  We made a concerted effort to bring such bills and still had bills rejected.  New is best.
US Dollar Bill Rejections:  3
For most visitors to Myanmar (Burma) the journey begins in the city of Yangon, the commercial and business capital of Myanmar (Burma).  Yangon was the governmental seat from British colonial rule till 2005 when the ruling military junta, possibly fearing an invasion or just paranoid, moved the capital further inland to a dusty patch of empty land and began expensively building their new Royal City.  No matter, Yangon seems to be carrying on just fine.  A pulsing city of over 4 million, the city sprawls out encompassing decaying colonial buildings, manicured lakes, and stunning pagodas (Payas).  The literal and figurative jewel in the crown of Yangon is the Shwedagon Paya dominating the skyline atop a hill just north of the city center.
Exhausted from our 36 hours of planes and airports, we took it fairly easy the first day.  We thought we could take on the world, but a couple of hours in, we realized sleep was what we really needed.  After checking our e-mail and letting folks know we made it all right, we crashed into our pillow at around 5pm and didn’t get back up until around the same time the next morning, just in time catch the fish market.     
A short taxi ride away from the center will bring you to the San Pya Fish Market.  It won’t make any Top 10 don’t miss lists anytime soon, but the market is a great place to see everyday ‘Joes’ doing their thing.  Odds are if you come you will be the only foreigners there, we were. 
We got there just before sunrise so we decided to join the masses at one of the local tea houses.  Sitting on ‘doll house’ sized plastic chairs, people pour over the days news and gossip all the while sipping on cups of coffee or Chinese tea, the most common beverage in the country and usually free.  While we got several stares, we enjoyed our coffee along with a couple of deep-fried ‘doughnuts’ watching the sky gather enough light to take a few photos of the market.
The market itself is a crazy mess.  Back-breaking baskets are filled with fish are shouldered by brave men and carried up dumped in the back of huge trucks.  Makeshift wooden crates are nailed back together and filled with ice and fish.  On the narrow and water logged streets its difficult to just stay out of the way.  A few minutes into it, the locals all wanted to pose for the camera and it turned into somewhat of an impromptu photo shoot.     
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After the market, Jason had to make the 2 hour return trip out to the airport to get the lost bags.  While he was doing that, Tracy walked down the street from the hotel to check out the  Botataung Paya.  What makes this paya unique is that you can walk through the maze like mirrored corridors inside the pagoda. 
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Bags collected, somewhat well rested and back together we made our way to the Sule Paya.  Occupying the main traffic circle in central Yangon, Sule’s central location make it both an ideal landmark for tourists and a common place for people to pray on their way home from work.  
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Northeast of the city center lies the Chaukhtatgyi Paya.  It’s claim to fame is the massive reclining Buddha that dominates the purpose built warehouse covering it.  A visitor to the area some 50 years ago would have looked to this same patch of land and saw a massive standing Buddha towering over temples and buildings here, but it crumbled into a pile and was replaced with this one.  A picture on one of the walls shows the unique scene.  Just make sure you take off your ‘feet’ as foot wearing is prohibited :-).
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Across the street sits the Ngahtatgyi Paya.  The paya houses a beautiful Buddha image with splashes of gold and gems.  The intricately carved wooden backdrop is equally as impressive.
No trip to Yangon, let alone Myanmar, would be complete without a stop at the stunning Shwedagon Paya.  The city of Yangon itself was founded and built around this holy site.  It is the holiest Buddhist structure in Burma.  No matter what time of day you visit, pilgrims pray to the numerous Buddha Images, including the one that can only be seen by a TV screen. 
Around the main stupa lies planetary posts.  These posts, totaling eight, contain animal images, a statue of the Buddha and water.  Depending on the day of the week they were born (there are eight because Wednesday, Buddha’s b-day, is split into two) worshipers come here and pour water over the heads of the Buddha and the animal symbol 9 times for good luck.
In one of the corners of the complex, a large bell rests.  As British troupes were trying to load the bell onto a ship bound for England, the bell fell in the water.  After several unsuccessful attempts at raising the bell, the soldiers told the Burmese that if they could get it out of the water, they could have it.  Using an old method, the people were able to raise the bell from the bottom and it became a symbol of national pride.
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As impressive as the paya is during the daylight, the setting sun along with the lights at night bring the structure to life.  The jewel encrusted umbrella (the very top of a Stupa usually consisting of bells, some sort of metal and precious stones) glimmers in the lights.  A mind numbing amount of diamonds and precious stones adorn the top.  The umbrella contains over 2000 carats worth of diamonds, including one massive 76 carat diamond, along with 1300+ other stones.       
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Planning on returning to Yangon twice more, we saved a few more of the other sites for another trip back, including another trip to the Swedagon Paya.  Bags in hand we headed out bright and early to our next adventure, the train to Mandalay.
To see more photos from Yangon click here!

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