So before I even begin about my day, I have to describe my arrival into Yangon. Normally I sleep lights out on a plane, but I simply could not shut off my brain so I had little if any sleep in the 20 plus hours it took me to get to Yangon. Add to this the fact that I had been up since 5:15 a.m. the day of my departure and I was one tired lady on arrival. I left the plane with my carry on, breezed through immigration as I had arranged for a visa prior to my arrival and then breezed through customs and out the door to look for my driver. I found one fellow from the local travel agency I had hired to arrange for my pickup and guides. However, I quickly learned he was not my driver. He nevertheless put in a call to the office to locate my driver while I waited. As I stood there, I suddenly noticed that I had forgot something …. uh my luggage. I was so tired I completely forgot to go to the luggage carousel and pick up my checked bag. I started laughing and told the guy I was standing with and he started laughing and couldn’t stop. Good grief.
So off I trundled to the nice customs guys to explain what I had done. The customs guys took me through a screening line and after passing by the folks I had just left, did the walk of shame and found my luggage on the carousel. That was a first! With ALL bags in hand, my driver zipped me to my hotel, where they checked me in and I spent the next glorious 7 hours sleeping.
After a lovely breakfast on the terrace, I was ready for a day of touring. As it turned out, my first day in Yangon, was really interesting, albeit a bit (or lot) wet. Cyclone Kyant in the Bay of Bengal, is creating some heavy rains. Not expected to see much wind etc., but the rain today, while sporadic, was that lovely tropical downpour that leaves everything more humid than before.
Anyway, despite the off and on rain today, my guide Jennifer (don’t ask me to spell her Burmese name) was terrific. First up was a walking tour of central Yangon, which was made easier by the fact that the entire central district is on a grid so it is easy to find your way around. We walked from the Sule Pya pagoda, past the city hall (which was a cool combination of colonial, moorish and asian architecture) and Immanuel Baptist Church (yep a real church in Buddhist county), through the Mahbandoola Gardens with its massive obelisk to freedom from colonial rule and then bobbed and weaved around a myriad of street vendors selling everything from postcards and fans to assorted noodle dishes with tiny crushed shrimp condiments.
We then walked around the block past the courts and stock exchange, the historic Strand Hotel (in the middle of a reno so was not open), by the fabulous colonial post office and then past the library, which was actually this cool open air book stall. We then jumped back into the car and moved at a snails pace through the traffic jams to Botataung Paya where (1) a bird pooped on my shoulder and (2) I almost took a header on the wet marble floors. Note to architects. When designing a pagoda in a country where tropical rains are common, try to avoid using marble. Just a thought.
Anyway, about that bird, I have no idea how long I wandered around with bird poop all over my shoulder, but finally a nice, young guard at the pagoda informed me of the offering from the bird. Turns out, it is apparently good luck to have a bird poop on you in a pagoda… or at least that is what the nice Burmese folks were telling me. Of course since I do not speak Burmese, they may well have been laughing their asses off at me without me knowing it.
So after cleaning up, Jennifer and I did a loop around Botaugung paya aka 1000 Military Officers Pagoda (seriously) where we saw lots of “gongs”, burning incense, people praying and buddhas, buddhas and more buddhas. The highlight was going inside the Stupa and seeing the golden box that holds 2 strands of Buddha’s hair. … no so much for the golden box, but for the hundreds of pilgrims who had traveled from all over just to see the box. Quite a sight.
Next up was my favourite part of the day .. the Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Paya. A reclining buddha is rare to see (although I do have a picture of one at Buddha Park in Vientiene, Laos). However, this statute is allegedly the second largest reclining Buddha in the world. It was awesome and rather than describe the Reclining Buddha I will let the picture speak for itself since my words could not possibly do it justice.
While at the site, I also made a water offering to Buddha, a stick and my Buddhist animal (elephant without tusks), which is determined by the day and time you were born. After Reclining Buddha Jennifer and I dodged the rainstorm that hit while we were in the Pagoda and headed off to lunch, which turned out to be a delicious highlight of the day. Curry was the food of choice with Jennifer opting for beef and me opting for prawns). Now two things I learned at lunch: (1) whoever said Burmese food was bland is nuts and (2) prawns in Burma are HUGE in comparison to what we have at home. The lunch was really good and spicy and one of the best curries I have had outside India. YUM.
After lunch, Jennifer took me to the Bogyoke Aun San Market. This place had everything under the sun. Gold, diamonds, jade, carvings, cloth and then a lot of stuff that looked like it came from China. I ended up buying a couple small bracelets for what amounted to a few American dollars as well as ….. yep my Christmas ornament. A small woven ball. Score! (Still have yet to be shut out of a country.)
Our next stop was supposed to be the Theingye Se Market, which is more of local market with lots of produce etc. However, the rain had started to fall so we decided to skip the market since it was entirely out doors and head to the number one tourist site in Yangon: the Shwedagon Paya. (The market will have to wait for my return in a couple weeks.)
So Shwedagon Pya is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. The zedi or stupa (the pointy part of the pagoda) is the 325ft high and covered in 26 metric tons of gold leaf, along with thousands of diamonds and other gems,which adorn the top of the stupa. I saw pictures of the top of the stupa and the jewels on top of that thing are ridiculous. Made me wonder whether anyone has tried to pluck some those from the top.
What makes Shwedagon Pya so important is that the stupa apparently holds eight hairs of the Buddha as well as relics of three former buddhas. (Yes there were actually 4 Buddhas, but the last Buddha is the one who is recognized as the current deity).
There are four entrance stairways to Shwedagon Pya that lead to the main terrace. We did not walk up the stairway, but instead took the elevator. (When I return in a couple weeks, I plan to walk the staircase and sit and watch the sun set. Unfortunately,, with the rather spotty showers today, I did not want to slip on the stairs (yep more marble) and the cloud cover meant no sunset so I have already planned a return trip.)
Anyway, about Shwedagon. The original stupa is thought to have been built by the Mon people some time between the 6th and 10th centuries. However, it has been rebuilt many times because of earthquake, fire and cyclone damage. Today, Shwedaong Pya is the center of Yangon tourism. And you could certainly tell. When we arrived there were thousands of men, women, children, babies, monks and tourists from all over Asia plus a few Western tourists. (Western tourists were so few, i had a number of young kids stop me for a picture).. As you walk out of the entryway, you are hit by a cacophony of sites and sounds from the marble-floored main terrace, which was surrounded by pavilions and worship halls containing buddha images and two giant cast-iron bells. People were everywhere. There was chanting, gongs going off, women selling gold leaf in a sing song voice (the gold leaf is to put on the pagoda), people praying, tourists taking pictures, and water pouring ceremonies all over the place. It was organized chaos in the best sense.
We took about an hour to walk the circumference of the stupa. I can honestly say after walking around the Shwedagon, I have never seen so many buddhas. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. So enjoyed Shwedagon, and itreally was a beautiful pagoda, but I think it lost something in the cloudy sky. It apparently glows in the sunlight and for one brief moment the sun came out and I understood what everyone meant. However, I plan to go back if the weather cooperates in three weeks and so I can actually see this pagoda in all its glory. Until then, it was time to get back in the car and head back to my hotel in what was now a downpour. I was hot, tired and ready to find a Myanmar beer.