August 7, 2014
Yangon can be overwhelming when you take your first walk in the sweltering heat, dust en car exhaust fumes. Most pavements are actually just covered (or barely covered) sewers, with a rat sometimes sticking her nose out, which makes you pray you don’t fall through. The place takes a while getting used to, so you best take your time to discover Yangon.
Being already quite tired when arriving in Yangon, our first walk to Bogyoke Aung San market was indeed an overwhelming one. On our walk we passed the General Hospital which is housed in an beautiful red painted old colonial building. Bogyoke market is big and busy, and you better be awake to beat the hustle and bustle of the place. The market sells a broad range of products, but jewelry takes up a big part of the market. You also find longyi’s, the typical skirts worn by men and women in Myanmar. These might be handy when visiting temples where your knees should be covered if you want to get in. Further: cotton shirts, printed tee’s, printed tote bags, art galleries, dry foodstuff, shoes, bags, …. You will surely find some souvenirs to take home. After strolling around for a while we took a refreshing ice coffee in Bogyoke’s Bambi cafe. (they have english language menu’s). Later on we took a second coffee a bit further down the road in Bar Boon. (as I said we were tired…) This bar has a very Western feel, and very good coffees! You look out over the busy streets of Yangon from the open terrace.
We then walked in the direction of Pansodan road to visit Pandodan art gallery, and continued in the direction of the river to see Sule Pagoda. Further down Pansodan street you pass several old colonial buildings, in different stages of decay. Sule pagoda doubles as a traffic roundabout, kind of crazy to just lay a busy intersection all around a holy place. The inside of the pagoda is really disappointing, not attractive and dirty, and it is mostly the outside, that was just being lit, ( it was dusk time) that you want to see.
The next day we left for Bagan, and only came back to Yangon four days later. This time we had prepared what we wanted to see in advance, and had decided to visit different art galleries to see if maybe we wanted to buy a painting.
We were also thinking about maybe buying some jewelry, but after a day looking around ( and a quote for a ring in Bogyoke market for 15000 dollar, I shit you not), and reading up on it, we came to the conclusion, we were no experts enough to buy something. I guess jewelry traders can really do great deals (rubies, sapphires…), but as a regular tourist you can just be either lucky, or most likely be very unlucky! (I wrote a separate post on our quest for a painting in the many art galleries in Yangon.)
We made a list of the art galleries worth visiting, and looked how we could combine them with the other sights we wanted to see. The first day was a very rainy day, so we first visited three art galleries all in the area of Park Royal hotel. This was after we found out that the National Gallery was closed on Mondays. We unfortunately did not find any time later to visit the National Gallery.
Since it kept raining we moved to the Strand hotel to get an afternoon tea , ( as a belated lunch). This could easily be combined with a visit to the River gallery, the Lokanat gallery and some book shops like the Bagan book shop, which were all in the same area of Yangon. The high tea at the Strand hotel was a real expensive disappointment. It costs 18 dollar per person, + service charge and taxes, (we only took two to share with the four of us), and what you get is really not worth the 18 dollar. The sandwiches could not be cut smaller, the scones were a quarter of their normal size, and the pastries really simple. Even the tea was apart from being served in silverware just plain lipton tea. At the Bagan book shop, you can get every English language book there is to find on Birma. Since there are not too many of those books, the bookshop is very small, and most of the books are copies of the original ones. So after the book shop, and it still being a rainy day, we decided to take a taxi to Dagon centre to wander around in a covered area and get a coffee with a donut. J’ Donuts located a bit further on the street from Dagon centre, was by 6 PM completely sold out, so we took a coffee and some pastries in So Good bakery in Dagon center. It is actually a very good bakery and they sell the same cakes as in Portugal; namely Pasteis de Belem. The ones in Yangon come pretty close to the real stuff. All this sweet stuff made dinner unnecessary that evening.
Since Bogyoke market is closed on Monday, our first stop the next morning was at Bogyoke market to buy some necessary souvenirs we wanted to take back home. We came quite early in the morning, when the market was just starting up and shops still unpacking their wares. Coming early in the morning gives you the advantage of being the first customer. If you are the first to buy something, the shop owner bargains down the price more easily because the first sell is “lucky” money. It is the start of a good selling day and you will see the seller tap their goods with your money. We brought luck to at least three shops that morning!
We visited Taw Win gallery again in Bogyoke, but found the other galleries in the market very low in quality. We then visited some art galleries in the residential Inya area, and then went to Shwedagon pagoda, the highlight of the day!
The place is truly impressive, and at the same time bewildering in its combination of the beautiful Buddhist artifacts and stupas with the kitschy multicolored neon lights everywhere. It was still a grey day, so we missed the way the sun can makes all the gold shine, but then the temple was also rather quiet, since not too many people were visiting. We paid respect to our birthday Buddha ( the Buddha that represents your day of birth, mine is Thursday. You pour water over de Buddha, over the statue behind it, and over the representing animal in front. (mine is a mouse) Do this in uneven numbers of times.)
We were a bit hungry and decided to get a bite and then to come back around dusk, to see the temple lighted. We asked the sellers at the ticket booth if we could come back in with the same entry tickets? And yes we could! We took a taxi to Taw Win shopping centre, took a pot of yoghurt ice cream at Frolick Yoghurt, and after some strolling in the mall ordered a coffee outside on the other side of the street. (at some local donut and pastry shop)
We then took a taxi back to Shwedagon pagoda around dusk. It is truly magical with the lights on. From some angles around the stupa you can see the huge sapphire on the top of the stupa shimmer in different colors. What we couldn’t see in the afternoon, we could see now, all the gold shimmering everwhere! The temple is also a lot busier in the evening, Burmese obviously like this time of day to visit the temple. We saw small children already washed and in their pj’s coming in with their father, as an alternative for a bedtime story.
That evening we ate in 19th street in Chinatown, where every evening the street turns into a huge open air barbecue restaurant. You choose one of the many restaurants in the street, take a plastic basket at the food counter, and choose whatever you fancy on a barbecue. They have everything from meat, over fish and seafood to vegetables. And the atmosphere resembles that of a large garden party, but set in the bustling streets of Yangon. It was great food and a great experience, best enjoyed with a good glass of beer.
The next morning we bought two paintings at Nawaday Tharlar art gallery.
After that we decided to take the Circle line train, the train that takes a huge circular route around the suburbs of Yangon, because we could combine it with a visit to the marble Buddha Kyauk Daw Kyi Pagoda in the north of town. One of the stops of the Circle line is actually close to this temple, at Insein. Insein is a stop after about one third of the route, or one hour, which was for us more than enough because three hours to make full circle is just a bit too long. (believe me after one hour you already feel the hard benches you sit on) You pay 800 kyat per person at the counter of platform 7 where the train leaves. The train conductor wanted us the sit in the carriage with the better seats but we told him we actually preferred the carriages for people with goods. In these carriages there are two long benches along the side of the windows, so the middle stays free for people to place large items. The train left on time at 13:05. During the ride it is fun to observe to people getting on and of. With every stop your carriage changes into a new scene. Many people board to sell goods, and we bought mango and watermelon, to snack while on the train. We had only brought water with us. And as much as we observe the people around us, even so much do they observe us. Outside you pass the people who live next to the railway line, often in very poor conditions.The train runs at low speed and stops very regularly, but only for a very short time, people sometimes still board while the train is already moving. If you download the route and stations from the internet in advance, you can easely follow at which station you are.
We got of at Insein, which is a larger station that the others. In Insein we first started walking to the temple, but after asking around, took a taxi, because the temple with the marble buddha was further than we thought and is was too hot to walk.
The Buddha is quite impressive if you know it is carved out of one massive block of marble. The temple sits on a small hill and gives nice views over Yangon. You can combine the temple with a visit to the famous white elephants. A bit further down the road they keep two white elephants, which are sacred in Myanmar (as in Thailand). Be warned though, they are kept in very sad circumstances, chained to the cement floor during the daytime.
Visitors can view them from another platform, ten meters away. We left quickly since the view did not really cheer us up! ( the elephants showed repetitive behavior, a sign of boredom). We took a taxi back to the hotel to take a shower. We decided to have dinner in a restaurant recommended to us by the owner of the Nawaday art gallery: Shan Yoe Yar restaurant.
Really; do not spend your money in the Strand hotel, have a lunch or dinner here instead. The food is exquisite, the interior nicely decorated the service outstanding. The food is mainly food from Shan state, and we took some specialties which were very yummy. And try their Shan Yoe Yar tea; really special.
We then headed to Nawaday Tharlar art gallery where we were invited to join their weekly open Mic session, an event where al kinds of artist get a free podium, and can sing, play music, recite a poem, paint, …. It was a great evening, with great atmosphere, and such a nice way to end our stay in Yangon!
We had doubts about coming to Myanmar, was it too early, too late, politically correct, ….
Well it is a great country to visit, and very, very safe. The hotels are not cheap, but al the rest is dirt cheap, and you get good quality, and the friendliest people on earth on top of it all!