A day in Yangon, Myanmar

It would have been reasonable after a 26 hour flight from L.A. through Tapei to Yangon, for us to aim straight for a shower a bed and some rest. But we never said we were reasonable people – that’s not how we roll.

So, one hour after arrival at the airport, that would be one hour through hellish traffic in Yangon, we arrive at our guest house, drop off our bags, and launch our adventures with a visit to Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda. We are headed to a market, but the taxi driver mentions we are very near to this famed Pagoda, and so we stop here first.

We are back in Asia!

Our shoes are off, we are surrounded by monks and golden buddhas.

The Buddhist temple complex is superlatively golden. There is a soaring central gold stupa which is around 2500 years old, not only a remarkable architectural achievement, but also a massive reminder that the culture of Buddhism permeates all aspects of Burmese life.

This Pagoda is the holiest of holy temples for Burmese Buddhists and a symbol of Burmese identify. Incidentally, in recent decades it has been a rallying destination for the pro-Democracy movement.

Shwedagon Pagoda is a carefully laid out set of temples, smaller stupas and altars organized in a geometric configuration. We arrive at midday and the sunlight is bright and the ground is warm underfoot. Walking barefoot: one of the pleasures of being in Asia.

As we leave our shoes at the entrance of the Pagoda, the shoe check woman is eager to share her Thanaka. Thanaka is a yellowish white paste, the ground bark of several trees. It has been used by the Burmese people for about two thousand years as a sunblock and is also believed to act as an anti-sceptic. Peta obliges and for the rest of the day wherever we go, people look, smile, point to their faces and give her the thumbs up sign.

I (Ben) have wasted no time before ‘going local’, having seen at the airport and on the way to the guesthouse that almost all men wear longyi, not that different to the ones I have worn in Indonesia and India. I of course, brought my favorite longyi along (which I purchased in India). I just have to learn how to knot it in a bundle in the front, the way it’s done here. By making a move to integrate ourselves with locals, we immediately send a signal that we respect their local practice.

After our first (immediate) immersion into the serene, at the Pagoda, we head to the nearby Chinatown, to get our first meal in Yangon. Myanmar is bordered by Thailand, China, Laos and India. All these neighbors and cultures have intersected throughout the ages and influenced Myanmar’s history and food in a myriad ways. We have been spoiled with street food in Viet Nam and Thailand and are hoping that Yangon will deliver some tasty morsels as well

In Chinatown, Peta selects a longhi (cost: $3) and the woman who sells it to her, tells us where we can find a seamstress who will add a waistband which helps to secure the longyi.  Chinatown is hectic and bustling.  Our first meal in Myanmar: Shan noodles, at a street-side stall.  Instantly obvious: there is lots of street food in our near future.

Might have overdone it just a tad, after a long plane flight, not a huge amount of sleep and some jet lag. We start to fade and it is time to face Yangon’s traffic once again. The traffic jams here are awful. We had heard about them and they require an inordinate amount of patience in a city that has just grown too fast as the country is opening up to the outside world.

(Hint: slight detour below into Myanma’s political background and evolution which is leading to Myanmar getting itself ready for an influx in tourism)

~ ~ ~

Myanmar is emerging out of a tightly run military dictatorship and we are here at a historic time of transition to democracy. Aun Sun Suu Kyi is known to much of the outside world as Asia’s counterpart to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. The daughter of a national hero, she is the leader of an opposition party that has been a vocal opponent of the military regime for decades. She was jailed, then put under house arrest for over 15 years, and after her release, she immediately returned to political life and emerged as a peaceful leader committed to force and then nurture the movement toward democracy in Myanmar. A national election, a few years back, had put her as the winner in the last national election, but the military at the time refused to give up power.

The international community has put significant pressure on the government to find a productive and peaceful path to rehabilitate Myanmar as a member of the international community.

In 2015, another national election was held and Auun Sun Suu Kyi was the clear winner, again. This time, the military junta seems to indicate it is willing to gradually manage a transfer of power in ways yet to be determined. The world is watching Myanmar at this crucial time in history and we are excited to be here at this turning point in a country’s future.

For us, political instability is not a valid reason for us to avoid a country. We moved to Nicaragua soon after the election of Daniel Ortega, a nemesis of the United States (for 30 years.) When we were in Thailand last year, we were in Bangkok at the time of the military coup. The overwhelmingly positive reaction of the Thai people all around us illustrated once again the gap between “the news” as it is reported and viewed from a TV set many time zones away, and reality on the ground, which is usually less dramatic.

~ ~ ~

We did not come to Myanmar to be surrounded by concrete and traffic, however.  After one day, we are ready to launch our adventures into the beautiful and serene Myanmar, which we know beckons beyond the urban jungle.

When we wake up pre dawn, we start talking about our options…. We decide that after a long flight we are certainly not ready to sit for 14 hours on a bus. So we decide that our best strategy is to make our way slowly North by breaking up the trip and stopping at places along the way.

We are heading North ~ toward Bago, en route to Bagan.

We have missed the early morning bus, and so opt for a taxi to take us to Bago. The benefit of having a taxi means we can stop when we like. Trains here are notoriously slow and have a tendency to derail. Taxis on the other hand are a good value for covering short distances.

We are quickly surrounded by open fields and driving through small towns.  As soon as we notice a market, we stop!

We always look for the market place first ~ markets are the center of life and activity. It is here that we get a first sense of a local community and how much of a language barrier there is and whether people are comfortable interacting with us. It’s also a great place to determine what fruits are available and often a good place for street food.

Our first market is an explosion of petals. The vegetable and fruit market is fronted by woman selling brightly colored flowers in bunches.  The ethnic mix at this busy marketplace is noticeably different.

The plant based paste of Tanakaha for sun protection is way more prevalent and pronounced here. Old women and young children either have large patches of it on their cheeks or in some cases, covering their whole face, exception being the nose.

We find ourselves some tasty tidbits, a mochi like mini rice crepe rolled up with fresh coconut and honey inside… yum. Hot juicy corn on the cob, and some quail eggs. Watermelon and papaya for later.

Ben’s tendency is to stop the car at virtually every temple along the way. I prefer we pace ourselves, knowing that there are many Theravadic Buddhist temples in our near future. We stop at one and enjoy observing the people and seeing what the food stalls are offering. People are not used to foreigners outside of the big cities and are definitely as interested in us as we are in them. Its a mutual discovery process. We take pictures, they take pictures on their omnipresent cell phones. We get offered tastes of food, even off a woman’s spoon. (Pate-like bright pink and white fish cake wrapped in a banana leaf with an oily sauce.)

Our destination lies 45 mintues from Bago. It is a  bird  wetland and sanctuary (Bird sanctuaries are a rare treat we have grown to love, since our first visit to one in Rajahstan in India 10 years ago, which provided a stop over point for birds during their annual migration.)

Lunch a stop on the side of the road with our young driver Wenda and a friend who speaks some English and knows the way to the bird sanctuary. We enjoy our first ‘mohinga’: a Burmese classic (usually eaten for breakfast) of noodles, soup broth made from fish, tiny pieces of chopped green beans and a crunchy type-cracker on top.

The contrast between our Yangon habitat and our next room for the night could not have been more extreme.  Our room is perched over the shallow wetland waters. No horns.  No sounds, but the sound of birds.

Ommmm

IMG_0002

Myanmar is at a turning point in its history. Aung Saan Suu Khyi, the Nobel Peace prize winner and opposition to the military junta for the past several decades, the Asian counterpart to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, was elected by an overwhelming majority of the Burmese people a few months ago. This is a critical step toward democracy.

IMG_0017

 

IMG_0028

Shwedagon Pagoda ~ The most revered Buddhist temple in all of Myanmar.

IMG_0008

As we enter the pagoda. leaving our shoes in the front, the woman at the entrance insists that Peta should have thanaka paste applied to her face. This simple gesture brought many smiles and thumbs up our way, all day long.

IMG_0027

The pagoda and temple complex is a place where people congregate and rest, often lying down, such as this man, with his newspaper.

IMG_0019

The size of this Buddha is incredible. It is absolutely huge and covered in a bright orange fabric from the neck down.

IMG_0033

Buddhist female monks in bright pink are amongst those who come to the pagoda.

IMG_0037

Rows of candles and incense have been lit by the many visitors to the pagoda.

IMG_0090

The central golden pagoda in the middle of the temple complex.

IMG_0097

A group of monks in ruby red robes against the gold of the Shwedagon pagoda.

IMG_0101

A man crouches in prayer, a man sleeps on the floor of the temple during the mid day heat.

IMG_0125

Bike drivers resting in between rides. On the streets of Yangon.

IMG_0120

Making a crepe like concoction, with small beans in the batter.

IMG_0121

Making soup dumplings.

IMG_0133

Not exactly sure what kind of fruit this is.. but we saw it often, both in fresh format in the outer rung and cooked in the middle.

IMG_0134

Sticks of all types grilled on a small food cart.

IMG_0137

Our first Burmese noodle dish… a mix of crunchy cabbage, spices, chopped green beans and other yummy goodies.

IMG_0140

Noodle dishes are a staple part of the Burmese diet. Almost always served with hot clear broth on the side to wash it down.

IMG_0164

Huge pomelos (a variety of white grapefruit) are currently in season.

IMG_0167

A typical ‘modern’ apartment building in the city of Yangon.

IMG_0162

Older buildings, full of character and architectural details still line many streets of Yangon.

IMG_0156

Many buildings are in a state of disrepair, and were reminiscent to us of those in Cuba.

IMG_0145

Large selection of colored fabrics which are used for wrap around skirts. Called longyis for men and htameins for women.

IMG_0175

Shredded papaya salad stall along the road to Bago.

IMG_0147

This woman on seeing Peta’s thanaka paste on her face, and that she was having a traditional longyi made, could not contain her enthusiasm and affection and delivered several hard hugs.

IMG_0182

Vendors on the side of the road outside of Yangon.

IMG_0186

A basket of fried snacks.

IMG_0189

Mother and son sitting near the large market on the road to Bago.

IMG_0193

A woman calmly reads her newspaper near the market, amidst the traffic of cars and bikes and pedestrians.

IMG_0197

Fruit vendors at the large market outside Yangon city.

IMG_0201

A woman balances a heavy bag on her head and carries bunches of greens in her arms.

IMG_0196

Quail eggs for sale.

IMG_0202

Bike ‘tuk tuk’ drivers congregate on the side of the road.

IMG_0204

The market yields all sorts of interesting foods and vegetables.

IMG_0209

Flower sellers.

IMG_0212

Two little faces amongst the petals.

IMG_0183

A captivating little boy, his face covered in thanaka sunblock paste playing with a bucket of water on the side of the road.

IMG_0213

Steaming hot corn on the cob. Delicious!

IMG_0215

This particular market had a large section of bright and beautiful flowers.

IMG_0225

Ben happily makes his way through the market. Favorite thing to do!

IMG_0214

This flower seller has so much thanaka paste that her face appears mask like.

IMG_0236

Sticks with grilled meats on bamboo mats, shredded cabbage.

IMG_0240

Pickled preserved shrimp and fish is cut into strips for soup. Sold inside banana leaf packages.

IMG_0242

Colorful fresh fruit cars are everywhere.

IMG_0246

Selling flowers for adornment inside the pagoda.

IMG_0248

Green sliced mangos and other fruits make a decorative tray of circles and semi circles.

IMG_0254

What a face! Young children often have their faces completely covered by thenaka to preserve the lightness of their skin.

IMG_0265

The bridge leading to the bird sanctuary and small resort within it.

IMG_0015 IMG_0023 IMG_0092 IMG_0114 IMG_0211

 

IMG_0284

Lookout post for watching birds and sunsets in the sanctuary.

IMG_0267

View from our little waterside cabin.

IMG_0310

Still jet lagged and up at dawn. No better time and place to do yoga.

IMG_0316

A monk requests to have his photo taken with Ben. Only with pleasure!

IMG_0356

Delicious breakfast mohinga along the road. Noodles in a broth, with chopped parsley, roasted garlic and crunchy toppings. Yum!

IMG_0352

We soon got addicted to Mohinga. The classic noodle breakfast slightly different each time depending on the vendor and their style of making it.

IMG_0361

We weren’t sure what kind of bus would show up to the side of the road for the long 8 hour journey to Bagan. But in fact, the bus was comfy, air conditioned and other than the loud tv show blaring in the front and the numerous stops along the way, was a pretty smooth ride.

IMG_0307 IMG_0315IMG_0368

13 thoughts on “A day in Yangon, Myanmar

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Oh yes, just a bit different from Chicago. Although the traffic jams in Yangon are worse than in Chicago. Stay tuned for the serenity of Buddhist temples in Bagan, upcoming soon! Thanks for commenting!

  1. Alison and Don

    I so enjoyed reading this. It brought back many memories. How wonderful to be going to the bird sanctuary. We were pushed for time so didn’t get out of the main tourist destinations. Looking forward to a quiet moment to watch your video.
    Best wishes, and happy travels for the new year
    Alison

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Alison. So glad you enjoyed it and it brought back memories. Hope you enjoy the video …it has our photos embedded in it, as internet is pretty sketchy here and it’s just too impossible to load up all our pics. Look forward to your comments about the video. Happy new year to you both as well! Thanks.

  2. Ezra

    I appreciate the point on entering into areas that the media portrays as dangerous only to discover that thing are basically okay. Also wondering if thanaka is available in thailand, not crazy about conventional sunscreen, which is the only thing I’ve found in the area so far. Enjoyed watching your video, thanks for taking the time to log your experience. Cheers!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      So glad you enjoyed the video! Thanks for the feedback!
      Thanaka (the white plant based face sunscreen is specific to Myanmar.)
      Enjoy Thailand!

  3. Sharon Rosenzweig

    I’m so glad you’re back in Asia. I’ve missed these posts. I love the improvisational way you travel. I assume you use the Internet to figure out a basic destination and then let serendipity and cab drivers detour you along the way. As a devoted stick in the mud, you provide a great service, since there’s lessons here beyond vicarious thrills.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      It’s so good to have you as such a loyal reader and commentator!

      Here is how the improvisational travel approach works, for us…We select a few potential destinations ahead of time based on research, or other seasoned travelers recommendations. We know full well, we might change direction once we are actually ‘on the ground’. For us, it’s the actual journey, with its adventures and twists and turns, more than the destination.

      We have found that hotels and cab drivers recommend things that tourists tend to like and these seldom work for us, being rather contrarian ( as you know) and serendipitous.

      Ben does have very good natural instinct for ferreting out authenticity, spontaneously, as we go.

  4. Zwi

    Hi Peta and Ben,
    l love seeing where you go, but prefer the still photos to the video, as they let me decide which photos I want to look at for how long. They are always so beautiful and interesting.
    Zwi.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Zwi, thanks for that feedback! – it made me realize that I too miss the still photos in a post and as you say, the viewer can determine the time spent on each photo. So glad you find them beautiful and interesting… Especially as a photographer yourself.

  5. Stan

    After our little ‘chat’ earlier, I am finally catching up with your posts and as ALWAYS – love reading them and feeling you wherever you may be. I love your writing…
    Myanmar looks magnificent and is totally on my list…
    People have been mentioning your video.. I must have missed it. Where do I find it?
    I do love the pictures though, usually more than videos, and your pictures are fantastic – colourful and real gems…
    Looking forward to more…

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thank you Stan so much for your lovely and generous comments!!
      I know you would love Myanmar, especially Bagan and that it would resonate with you. The video is in a separate blog entry after this one, and I will send it to you as soon as I am done replying here.
      So glad you are enjoying the writing and photographs! That makes me super happy!
      xoxo