Our train to Yangon was over an hour late but we were the star attraction for everyone else who was waiting. A kindly monk bought us coffee, we had mimed conversations about hygiene and religion with strangers (we think?) and an elderly lady marvelled at the size of Ryan’s calves (leg muscles, not livestock)…just another morning in Myanmar!
When our train slowly rolled in we jumped aboard the ordinary carriage and settled into our scenic and bumpy ride. Even the onboard mouse, who ran between our feet, didn’t spoil the experience. As a huge thunderstorm broke we arrived in Yangon, in the pouring rain, and got in a taxi for our hostel. Yangon is a city at once in a time warp, and striving for modernity; colonial buildings crumbling in sad beauty while high rise shopping malls are being built. Law writers sit outside the high court typing on old fashioned type writers and tailors crank their foot powered sewing machines. All jostle for space on the crowded pavements along with betel nut sellers, tea shops and mobile phone stands..and everyone is trying to hide from the rain. The art of avoiding puddles in the hole ridden sidewalk and not getting wacked in the face by people’s oncoming umbrellas is quite an art!
Shwedagon Paya is the holiest Buddhist site in Myanmar and all buddhists hope to make a pilgrimage here once it their lives, and its easy to see why. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gemstones sit atop shimmering golden stupas, and if you stand in exactly the right place you can see brilliant flashes of white from the diamonds, green from the emeralds and red from the rubies. The main stupa is surrounded by dozens of smaller equally as golden stupas and shrines that all lead to an amazing “zen” feeling, which is accentuated by the dozens of orange clad monks walking around its perimeter.
In contrast to all the “zen” feelings there are signs in the temple that show the countries desperate hunger to catch up with the twenty first century, with the complex having at least three ATMs and potentially the fastest WIFI in the Myanmar…. Not bad for country which had neither of these things only a few months ago. It also meant Shwedagon seemed to be the place for the locals to come and hang out, meet friends and check their Facebook… all this made for great people watching.
Another highlight of our stay in Yangon was the free walking tour with Chino, a young Aussie bloke who recently moved to the city to teach english. In the short time he has been there, he has fallen for the city so much that he created a free walking tour to show other tourists his favourite spots. He had a huge amount of knowledge about Yangon and all things Burmese, including the history, architecture and even constitutional law. He could even recite Rudyard Kipling poems about the area. He leads the tour every day from 4pm, meeting in the car park opposite the city hall, and is very highly recommended.
Unfortunately our memories in Yangon won’t all be beautiful colonial buildings and shimmering golden temples, as nearing the end of our stay we both succumbed to something of an inevitability for long term travellers like ourselves… it comes in many name’s but for the sake of this experience we will call it “Burma Belly”. We are not 100% on its causes but for El we think it was a particularly oily biryani (there is a large indian population in Myanmar so indian food is everywhere) and Ryan from some potentially undercooked BBQ sticks… it seemed that even our tried and tested southeast asian stomachs were no match for Myanmar’s kitchens. Even dodgy stomachs couldn’t stop us from exploring the rest of this enigma of a country, so we hopped on the next overnight train to Bagan. If you liked the ruined temples from Thailand hold on to your seats Bagan going to blow your mind…but more on that next post.