I have to be honest with you, I only wanted to visit Myanmar after I saw pictures of hot air balloons over Bagan! The scene seemed surreal, numerous balloons flying over an area with more than two thousand temples. I have always been a lover of history and of ancient structures and I have always wanted to fly on a hot air balloon so being able to do both seemed very ideal but on my trip to Myanmar I never made it to Bagan.
Well, maybe in the near future I will be able to fulfil my dreams of flying on a hot air balloon over ancient ruins. For this trip I was only able to explore Yangon and Bago. So, a month after visiting high-rises and mosques in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I hopped on a plane to Yangon to commence my temple run.
For the uninitiated, Myanmar used to be known as Burma and was made famous by Rudyard Kipling. A few lines from his famous 1890 poem The Road to Mandalay
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer
China ‘crost the Bay!….
Well, I never got to Mandalay but let me tell you more about the country. Myanmar is located in Southeast Asia and is bordered by Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Laos and China. The country was under military control and recently just became independent and has been engrossed in rampant ethnic strife, but all these events have not diminished the soul of the people, something I have discovered for myself.
Truth be told, I did not really expect much when I travelled to Yangon because from what I have read, I knew that the city’s highlights were the temples and having been to Bangkok and having visited Bangkok’s grand and exquisite temples, I had this notion that Yangon would not be able to top them.
Yangon, unlike other major cities in Southeast Asia is quiet, probably because the country was under military junta for decades and have just opened its doors to the rest of the world. While in the car and on our way to the hotel, I could see that there were no skyscrapers which seem familiar in other cities. All I could see were a few tall buildings and plenty of settlements, as well as locals wearing the ubiquitous longyi and women with thanaka on their faces.
The longyi is a sheet of cloth that is widely worn in Myanmar. It is often sewn into cylindircla shape and is worn around the waist. It is held in place by folding fabric over without a knot. Thanaka cream is made by grinding bark, roots, or wood of the thanaka tree with a small amount of water on a circular slab. The cream is applied to the faces of both men and women to protect the skin from the sun.
After having our lunch in one of the few local malls, we went straight to the hotel and planned our afternoon. We were fortunate enough to get a driver who speaks very good English so we had no problems with communication.
NOTE: Although Yangon has modern and air-conditioned buses, it is quite difficult to navigate the city, even for locals! So, your best bet is to get a car hire or get your hotel to arrange one for you.
Entrance Fee: K3,000 or US$2.50
Camera Fee: K1,000 or US$0.75
Opening Hours: Open daily from 6am until 10pm
The first stop in the afternoon was Botataung Pagoda. Located in the banks of downtown Yangon, the Botatung Pagoda is one of the city’s most revered temples because it enshrines the sacred hair relic of the Buddha. The pagoda was destroyed in the Second World War and was rebuilt in 1948 following the original design.
We had to leave our shoes outside before we could enter the temple and I had to cover myself up as I was wearing a sleeveless shirt. I was a bit disappointed with Botataung Pagoda as they were doing repainting when we went there so you could not really see the beauty of the temple. There were also a lot of Buddhists queuing up to offer their prayers to the Buddha relic.
TIP: Wear footwear that is easy to remove when visiting the temples because you will be asked to remove them every time. Also bring wet tissues and dry tissues, the former to wipe your feet clean and the latter to wipe them dry, the floors can get really sticky and dirty so be prepared! Bring a scarf to cover your bare shoulders with and wear pants or skirts that are below the knee. Some places do offer longyis for you to borrow and cover yourself with.
After going to Botatung Pagoda, we then went to Kandawgyi Lake to see what we originally thought was a temple, which turned out to be a restaurant, Karaweik Palace. I still laugh when I think about the look on our driver’s face when we told him to take us to temple by the lake. Kandawgyi Lake is a popular recreation center for locals and it experiences heavy footfall all throughout the year. The golden tomb of the Shwedagon Pagoda is visible from the park and is one of the most beautiful sights in the city.
After walking around the park and taking countless pictures, we then went on our way to the day’s highlight and the highlight of any trip to Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda. Officially named Shwedagon Zedi Daw or the Great Dragon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda in English, it is a 326-foot gilded stupa which dominates the skyline in Yangon. According to our driver, the construction of a building taller than Shwedagon Pagoda is not permitted. It must always be the tallest structure in the city.
Entrance Fee: K10,000 or US$8
Opening Hours: Open daily from 04:00 to 22:00 with last admission at 21:45
Shwedagon Pagoda is the most scared Buddha pagoda in Myanmar and it is believed to contain the relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa. Time for a little history lesson. Archaeologists and historians believe that the pagoda was constructed by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries but legend says that the pagoda was built more than 2,600 years ago which would make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. We leave the argument to the experts and return to current times.
Shwedagon Pagoda is so big that there are four entrances leading to it. We entered from the east entrance and as customary, removed our shoes. We were also given a plastic bag where we can put our footwear and take them with us. I can never emphasize enough how important it is to take your wet tissues and dry tissues with you because the floors were sticky and dirty. Truth be told I was not impressed with the Shwedagon Pagoda when I saw it up close. I have been to Bangkok and I honestly adored the temples and pagodas there. In my opinion, they are much more beautiful but to each his own.
The place was packed with locals sending their prayers to Buddha as dusk approached. We saw very few tourists. After about an hour observing locals and taking pictures, we left the pagoda, returned to our hotel and called it a day. It was raining intermittently throughout the day but we were off to a good start.