Minga la ba! That’s ‘hello’ in Burmese, our guide taught us immediately when he picked us up from the Yangon airport. Our friends Eva and Suresh were arriving late in the evening, so once settled in our hotel, Rick and I set out to explore this one-time capital of British-occupied Burma from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries when it was called Rangoon.
Once considered the “garden city of southeast Asia,” prospering under British rule until independence in 1948, the last fifty years of isolationist military junta rule has impoverished Yangon and the country. In the last decade, the government has slowly been opening up the country to international relations and investment, if not democracy, and conditions are improving. It’s truly a developing country, yet filled with exotic culture and jaw-dropping sights for westerners. What I came to appreciate over the next twelve days was a kindness and openness of the people in this surprising country, now named Myanmar.
Although Yangon’s infrastructure is underdeveloped compared to that of many other major Southeast Asian cities, it has the largest number of European colonial buildings in the region today. I enjoy seeing the architectural marriage of western and eastern design, and Yangon did not disappoint, with some gems of grand old buildings being refurbished and polished, while others continue to mold and crumble. Tea in the British-era elegant Strand Hotel seemed like an experience from time gone by.
The next day we toured the grand centerpiece of the city — 325 foot tall (99 meters) Schwedagon Pagoda that sits atop Singuttara Hill, dazzling gold-plated in the sunlight and visible from miles around, and crowned with an ‘umbrella’ studded with 8000 diamonds and rubies. It is the center of Myanmar religious culture, representing 2500 years of architecture, sculpture, and arts.
A huge marble complex surrounding the Pagoda contains hundreds of stupas, statues, and temples for worship and meditation. The days of the week have planetary posts, each with a different representative image, and devotees offer flowers and prayer flags and pour water on the images with a prayer and a wish. It’s very important to know the day of the week of one’s birth, as it determines one’s nature and place in the world. At Saturday’s post, I had to pour way too many cups of water over the image for every year since I was born.
One temple was filled with young nuns, some praying and others being just like any other girls, chatting and laughing. At another site in our tour of Buddhist sites, we visited Chauk That Gyi Pagoda to see the 213 foot (65 meter) reclining Buddha.
Yangon deserved more time to explore its richness, but the next morning we boarded a prop jet to take us to Inle Lake in central Myanmar.