I was living in Vietnam at the time, so the flight was fairly short and uneventful. Arriving in Yangon, I was through immigration fairly quickly and exchanged some money for the official Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC). this was compulsory I remember $200 for 20FEC. I then got a taxi ticket and was soon headed into the big smoke. I had decided to stay in the YMCA as my copy of the lonely planet said it was very clean and the the rooms airy with big windows. I noted it had that “hostel” feel to it of long corridors and communal showers. The staff were friendly and after handing over $7 I got a decent enough room. I popped out for a walk and was found by a money changer who gave me a huge brick of notes for $100 – (exchange rate was 1000Kyat to the dollar – according to my 2000 vintage lp it was then 400).
I noted that Yangon was bigger and more city-like than Hanoi, it was in fact a city of four million people but a bit of a contradiction. It sprawls over a large area, but the centre is quite compact. In places it is polluted and cramped, in others broad leafy boulevards provide shade. The main streets in the centre are laid out in a grid system containing many neglected British colonial buildings. The main roads are usually busy with plenty of smoke-belching buses, but also a significant proportion of new cars, horns honking constantly. However there are quiet lanes nearby with old faded five storey apartment blocks reflecting their colonial heritage with names such as Godwin Mansions. Although many roads have changed names there is still Strand Road containing the famous Strand Hotel, contemporary of Raffles and you will still see faded street signs for the likes of Fraser Street.
The following morning back at the YMCA I had lunch on the roof which overlooked a lot of Government buildings, again colonial era and surrounded by barbed wire. I chatted to two of the other guests. One was a 72 year old ex sailor who had returned to Myanmar many times and told me he was looking for the remains of Canadian Airmen who had apparently died here during the war.
As I headed out for more exploring, the centre reminded me of India, not surprising since the British brought many Indians here – in 1930 half of Yangon’s population was Indian. It is much less now but there is still the legacy of Indian restaurants and tea shops. The other striking thing about Yangon is not so surprising – the presence of a number of golden zedis (called Dagobas in Sri Lanka, chedis in Thailand, stupas in India, they are essentially large bell shaped structures found at the centre of buddhist temples.) They are often placed within busy intersections. The most notable one of course is the Schwedagon Paya – the most sacred Buddhist site in the country and a magnet for locals and tourists alike. this is where I was to spend most of the day.
Built on a small hill to the north of the city, it’s golden form can be seen shining from some distance. There are four covered walkways going up the small hill, each packed with small stalls selling religious artefacts. But when you emerge into the light you are immediately dazzled not just by the 100m tall zedi but also an assortment of smaller zedis, temples, shrines, statues and pavilions which cluster around its base. A truly majestic place.
It wasn’t the only place I went to however. All my diary says is “I went for a walk around central Yangon and also visited a huge sitting Buddha and a reclining one”. These must have been the Sitting Buddha at the Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda and the reclining Buddha at the Chaukhtatgyi Temple
That night I did what I rarely do on my trips and headed to a fairly expat-looking bar. I wanted to watch the Liverpool derby between Liverpool and Everton. The game was a pretty dire nil nil draw but at least the beers were only a dollar each.
The following day the plan was to get an overnight bus to Mandalay. It was due to leave at 5pm and then arrive in Mandalay the following morning. Wrong! This journey from hell convinced me it was far better to pay a bit more and fly. As it happens I ended up in Kalaw and that trip is where the next post starts.