We wanted to sail to Myanmar but it worked out to be seriously expensive, so we looked into flying there instead, so for $47 we decided it was a much better option. In fact the visas to get there were more expensive @ $50!
Myanmar formerly Burma is still very unspoiled and is very much an undiscovered part of the world. It has been closed to foreigners for many years and as a result you feel as though you are stepping back in time. The majority of people still wear traditional clothing – and most women and children paint on their cheeks a very special, cream coloured paste called Tannaka which is part of the bark of the Tannaka tree. It protects their face from sunburn. The older people still chew betel nut, leaving their mouths stained red and their teeth blackened. All the males at some point in their lives become monks and as a result, we saw many of them – all clothed in either Burgundy or burnt orange gowns. 85% of Burmese practice Buddhism and the landscape is covered by Stupas or Pagodas. In the richer towns they are covered in gold leaf but in the poorer places they are painted white. Either way they are visible for miles standing proudly catching the suns rays.
We arrived in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) late in the evening and took a taxi to our hotel. We noticed that we were in a right hand drive car, but that we were also driving on the right. We asked the taxi driver if he was driving on the wrong side of the road and he told us that left hand drive vehicles were more expensive so only rich people had left hand drives. It was a bit disconcerting at first but we didn’t crash so they obviously know how to handle it! Yangon is the largest city and has lovely wide boulevards with wide pavements, until you reach the older section where the roads are narrow and packed with hawkers with a huge variety of wares. We were staying in the older section and it was crazy. Everyone seems to eat out and we had to literally climb over stalls selling all types of food. It seemed as busy at 10pm and 10am. They sit on small child size chairs and tables and their are tea houses everywhere – a legacy of the British occupation.
Every street seemed to be dedicated to selling something. We found one street that only sold sewing machines – hundreds of them – from old singers to modern Janomes. If they weren’t selling the machines, they were selling re-conditioned ones or parts. I loved their shopping baskets and bought one myself. I realised that I was being pointed at and giggled at and asked one guy what they were laughing at and he told us that the baskets were used by the women to only buy their vegs early in the day and that it was ‘odd’ to see a westerner with one.
On our first morning we took a three hour circular train around Yangon and the surrounding countryside. It was a fascinating insight into their daily life – as much as we were interested in seeing into their world, they were equally fascinated in us and we became the focus of their attention. It was a bit like going round the circle line on the London tube, watching these lovely people going about their daily lives. We could see directly into their houses – but everybody seemed to be outside. The actual platform was a hive of activity with people selling mainly food. Inside the train there was a plethora of people coming by offering items. One guy gave me a pigeon egg and everybody giggled while I peeled and ate it. For 50 cents – we couldn’t have had a more enjoyable afternoon.
The train sellers seemed to jump on and off the train regularly. We weren’t sure whether there was some unwritten rule that meant you could only sell for a few stops or whether they didn’t want to travel too far from home, but it gave us the opportunity to see the huge array of mainly foodstuffs they sell.
At every station there were these earthenware pots. These were filled with fresh water and people could just help themselves. We saw them all over Myanmar – very thoughtful.
We also visited the most holy site in Myanmar and the biggest tourist attraction. The Shwedagon Pagoda.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred site in Myanmar, and people come for miles to worship at it. It is 2,500 years old and is 110 metres tall. The central stupa is covered in gold—not gold leaf, but thick plates of solid gold and is encrusted with 4531 diamonds at the top the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond. There are thousands of temples, statues and stupas here and it was very busy – not only with tourists but Burmese visitors. Ian had to buy a sarong as he was in shorts and of course we left our shoes at the entrance. Once past all the hawkers outside selling miniature statues and guide books, we found monks washing the statues and chatting to tourists and whole families who had come for the day to place flowers, light candles and incense and worship. It was a very beautiful and peaceful place, with many worshipers completely entranced – you could feel its power. It can be seen for many miles and dominates the skyline of Yangon.
We spent most of the day here and walked back via the large jade and marble markets. These were mainly to cater for the blossoming tourist industry.