Parul and I decided to visit Burma / Myanmar for a vacation in late February 2016. We ended up getting three full weeks to travel the beautiful country. In a country like Myanmar that has a rapidly evolving tourism industry, I intend to fill the gaps that I found while trying to plan a trip myself. That and a first hand narrative of the wonderful experiences that we have had.
This post is for the final leg of travel - Yangon (16 Mar 2016 - 19 Mar 2016).
Good morning Yangon
We were back in Aung Mingalar, the place that had given us the first taste of Burmese people and their life. My neck was hurting a little because of the weird angle I had fallen asleep in but it was nothing I could not ignore. Parul seemed fine despite her hour long ordeal with the hilly roads. We had planned extensively about the commutation downtown from Aung Mingalar. This time we were not a mere 5 or 12 kilometers from our destination as had happened previously in Bagan and Inle. Aung Migalar station was roughly 25 kilometers from downtown Yangon! My mortal fear of bargaining with overcharging taxi drivers led me to look for alternatives across the forums online. We had finalized on taking the inner circuit train to Yangon Central from the Mingaladon station that was a walkable distance from the bus stand. So we sat in a tea shop, having the cloyingly sweet tea and some cold e kya kyway while declining the approaching taxi drivers.
After finishing the tasteless food, we felt refreshed enough to attempt the walk to Mingaladon station. It would easily be around an hour’s walk. We got out of the bus station, constantly declining the offers of taxi drivers and walked to the highway. We could see a few local buses stopping to pick up passengers right opposite the bus station. It is only logical that the major bus station have buses going into the city. We decided to try our luck there for a bit. It would mean missing the inner circuit train but it might also mean getting to our hostel faster. We went and stood with the locals and started looking around uncertainly. My research told me that a bus going to downtown would be going to Sule. That was the word to watch out for. The first bus stopped and I pricked my ears to the names that the conductor was hurling out. No Sule there. Another bus stopped within five minutes and the conductor started a rapid fire of destinations. I thought I head him say Sule.
“Sule?” I asked in order to confirm.
He nodded and pushed me inside. Parul followed. Hurrah! We were taking a bus to downtown! That seemed simple enough. We went towards the back of the bus as the conductor instructed. There was space to put our bags down. Parul even found herself a seat stuck between two Burmese men. I found one after a while. The bus hurtled down the highway to Yangon and into the city. It seemed like another familiar experience. One of Delhi with the racing Blue Line buses. The competition between the local buses here was similarly scary. Good thing that they were not overstuffed like their counterparts in Delhi. We were the only tourists in the bus. The other passengers were local men and women who were making, what I supposed was, their daily commute into the city before the day’s trade began. They would probably set up shop and see their daily business through before making a similar journey back towards the end of the day. The conductor came along and I uncertainly offered him a 1000 MMK note. He vaguely pointed at the two of us and the luggage and left with the bill. Definitely Blue Line but still less of a hassle than taking a taxi.
Taking the bus to Yangon downtown
Yangon zoomed past us as our bus raced down the streets. We arrived at our stop, which was also the last stop of the bus, within thirty minutes of boarding it. The bus had done 25 kilometers in 30 minutes while stopping to pick and drop passengers on city roads. I think that might be enough to paint a picture of how fast the bus was going! Google Maps told us that the hostel was a 20 minutes walk away and we started due west. The shops were not open yet and the street’s crowd consisted of the morning walkers and the newspaper vendors. We walked leisurely down the street, enjoying the views of a city that was shedding it’s somnolence. A colourful, South-Indian styled temple appeared on one of the crossroads. Pigeons flocked on the electricity wires next to the temple and vendors sold corn seeds that you could feed the birds with. We evaded the birds as deftly as we could and continued down the road.
The hostel was easy to find. It was obviously named The 20th Street Hostel. I checked at the reception and we were told to sit in the common area till the check in time of 2 PM. There were a lot of people waiting like us. The hostel offered one of the common bathrooms to the waiting crowd. The breakfast was served in a while and we were welcome to help ourselves to that as well. I really liked the hostel thus far. Too bad we were spending just a day in it. We freshened up and helped ourselves to some breakfast before hitting the streets. It was still a few hours to 2 PM and we were surely not going to spend it sitting around.
The market had come alive by now. We immediately walked into an area that sold hardware goods and music systems. People were thronging the street and there was heavy pedestrian traffic. The temperature was also rising by the minute and all this contributed to our next decision. We were going to watch a movie in a nearby theater. We had walked past it on our way to the hostel and now we traced our steps back to it. It was a single screen theater and the one that we ended up in was showing Gods of Egypt. The girl at the ticketing counter explained the theater sections to us and we took two tickets of the 1800 MMK category. This was the rate for a 3D movie! The movie itself was rather puerile and had some passable acting. Still, it was the most efficient way to kill a couple of hours.
Our movie watching gear
Back outside, we faced a hotter Yangon. We walked back towards the hostel and stopped for some food at a street side Chinese place. I could see several ethnicities in Yangon. There were the various national ethnicities of course. Then there were a lot of Chinese and Indians as well. Some of the Indians were dressed in htameins and lungis and wore thanaka but some still had their sarees on, holding on to their Indian identity as long as they could. The Chinese food that we had was pretty delicious. By the time we got back to the hostel, it was check in time and we were given our “room”.
Awesome Chinese food
For some reason I was under the impression that I had booked a private room. I checked the booking and turned out that I had just booked a bunk bed. And that was precisely what we got : a bunk bed partitioned away in a dormitory of four similar bunk beds. There was a shared bathroom which was ample. The air conditioner spat out arctic air. I kind of liked this place. We washed up, changed and caught up on some sleep. Parul had coordinated with Emul and we were going to a photo exhibition with him this evening. Neither Parul, nor I had ever been to one before!
The Expatriate Life
We got up and got dressed. Parul’s backpack contained a few dresses. I tried putting together the most appropriate clothes that I could. We walked all the way to the venue. The walk itself was not very long (a little less than an hour) but the humidity was a killer. We walked along the pleasanter parts of the Zoological Gardens and the Kandawgyi Lake but nothing helped. We arrived at the venue sweating buckets. The opening ceremony was supposed to start at 6:30 PM and we had reached a few minutes late. We were not sure whether it was over or delayed itself. Emul was stuck in traffic and was running late himself. Parul walked up to the information desk and started looking at some pamphlets. I just hung around at utter loss.
Emul finally came running into the venue and started cursing the Yangon traffic. He also concluded (somehow) that the ceremony was delayed. We took seats and in a few minutes the opening ceremony started. Emul knew a few people in the crowd. The ceremony was a walk through the main photographer’s work. Some of the images were quite nice. He was promoting a new book that was due later this year. It was about some African tribe of cowherders that indulged in some impressive body painting. There were additional works by other photographers which featured intermittently through the ceremony. I particularly liked a collection shot in the Arctic region and another about a border town in Myanmar that had sprung a illegal market for exotic animal parts for Chinese and Thai tourists.
After the ceremony we went in and got some drinks. These events might be boring as hell but at least they had free wine! Once we had the glasses in our hands, we felt that we could go through the exhibition. The African tribe was the feature. There was another work by two Burmese photographers about the taming of elephants and the life of mahouts. This seemed like a more suitable subject for an exhibition. I was at an utter loss as to why an African tribe shot by a German photographer was being exhibited in Yangon! Emul offhandedly told me that Yangon’s huge expatriate population was in dire need of things to do. Hence the regular exhibitions and meet ups of similar kind.
Once we had had enough of the exhibition, we took a cab to Yaw Min Gyi Street. Emul had suggested a Vietnamese food joint for dinner and we had immediately agreed. There was a profusion of options on the menu and it took me a while to decide. The food was quite delicious. We sat talking about life in Yangon as such. Emul’s friend was trying to start a company and was having troubles with his ISP. Internet connectivity in Myanmar was in pretty bad shape. Then Emul and Parul started discussing about fabrics while I returned my attention to the food.
Dinner selfie with Emul
We thanked Emul for the evening and bade him goodbye. Then we walked back to the hostel and Parul immediately fell sleep. I considered staying up to watch a UEFA Champion’s League match but I could not muster the strength. I gave up around midnight and hit the sack myself. We had had an extremely exciting and tiring first day in Yangon.
The next morning we got up, had some breakfast and packed up. We were shifting to another hotel on the far east side of downtown. This was the only hotel reservation we had made beforehand. Di and Priyank had gifted us the stay as our wedding gift. The hotel was quite a walk away, all the way to the 46th street. Parul was exhausted, understandably because of the heavy bag and the severe heat. We stopped for some sugarcane juice on the way that helped a bit. We saw the Sule Pagoda on the way. It was built on a roundabout and wasn’t as impressive as the other pagodas we had seen till then. The north-south road that runs along the Sule pagoda (31st Street I guess) visibly divides the Yangon downtown. The west is more of a market with wholesale shops. The streets are usually clogged with traffic and the building are functional and plain. The east side was much more uptown. There were multi-storied buildings that bore logos of multi national companies. The government buildings were also on this side. There were gardens as well and the roads were much less clogged.
Western Downtown Yangon
Eastern Downtown Yangon
We got to the Grand Laurel Hotel and got our room. It was a really nice room with a nice view and a bathtub. However, it lacked the freebies that a hostel provided. I think I am more at home in hostels with their common rooms, socializing tourists and free breakfast than the luxury hotels with their big rooms and fancy beds. After resting a while we headed out to the Bogyoke Market. It was just a 10 minute walk away from out hotel and we reached without incident in the oppressive heat. It was really big market but it was in the process of shutting down. At just 4:30 PM in the evening several shops had their shutters down and the market was evidently past it’s peak hours. This was an interesting way of life; start early, end early and sleep early. I think Indians as a people are workaholics. Anyway, we came out of the market without buying anything. We took a quick tour though. There were shops of jewelery, lacquer-ware, clothes, money exchange, etc. Anything and everything a tourist might want.
We headed out to the 19th street next, which was apparently the food street of Yangon. En route we picked up a few pajamas that Parul wanted and ate at a bakery. We beelined in the bylanes till Strand Road and then headed north along the 19th.
Streets of Yangon
We hit the street food section at the crossing of 19th Street with Maha Bandula Road. It was mostly meat and veggies on sticks for barbecue. You could sit and order some beer as well. Every shop seemed to have the same kind of food though. A man stood strumming his guitar and singing. Restaurant owners bought his services to attract the crowd.
Barbecue food on sticks
19th Street Nightlife
We walked along the street and tried a bit of the food. Then we came out and tried some fried spring rolls and eggs. There was a beautifully decorated Chinese temple which Parul took pictures of.
Since neither of us were very hungry, we hung around for a bit and then walked back to the hotel. Though we did not have any luggage on us, the walk was a bit of an overkill. We had walked a lot in the day. Back in the hotel we took a bath and started watching The Big Short. Towards 11 PM we started getting hungry and I tried checking what the late night food options were in Yangon. Though the city seemed to be safe, none of the food options were nearby. We ate out of the pack of popcorn that we had been carrying since the train journey from Hopin to Mandalay. Parul fell asleep mid way through the movie and stayed up till I finished it. It was a good movie but I did not really care as much as the movie was probably trying to make me. We had been hit very little by the economic crisis that the American real estate mortgage collapse had brought. And it seems like the morons are falling for it again.
The next morning we went to have some breakfast in Lucky 7 Tea House. It was pretty crowded and justifiably famous. We grabbed a seat and I ordered a Mohinga which is supposedly the breakfast thing in Burma. It is vermicelli soup with fish. It was nice but not really filling. I topped it up with a duck meat puff. Parul had some poori-aaloo (her love for potatoes knows no bounds) and cold Milo. The bill was on the upper side. In Myanmar, you never know whether the bill is what it is supposed to be. There are no printed prices in the menus and the bills are many-a-times simply communicated verbally.
Breakfast at Tea House
We returned to the hotel and killed some time. It was too hot to walk around like we had done on the previous days. We had lunch in a place right next to the hotel. I had pork curry with fermented mustard and some rice. Parul had some Shan noodles which she was growing tired of. My dish, as usual, was much more elaborate than hers.
Kevin samples our lunch
We left for the Bogyoke market again after lunch. Despite the heat, we did not want to wait too long lest the market close down again. Parul wanted to get some lacquer-ware. We found a good shop and bought more than we had thought of getting. These things were definitely not cheap but the artwork was exquisite. We still had a lot of kyats left on us and not much to do with it. We thought that we’d blow it all on a lavish dinner that night. But we had the evening ahead and a major touristy task left : the Shwedagon Pagoda.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is just 3 kilometers from the Bogyoke market and we decided to walk there. We ambled at an easy pace since we were planning to get to the pagoda towards the sunset. The hugeness of the pagoda made itself visible from quite a distance. It really was BIG! And it was glittering with gold. Just before the Shwedagon Pagoda complex on the southern side, there is another pagoda : the Maha Wizaya Pagoda. We went in this one since it was too sunny to walk around Shwedagon. The Maha Wizaya was unlike other pagodas from the inside. It was full of art work; there were wooden carvings telling the story of Siddhartha; wall paintings of various holy places across Myanmar; the main chamber’s walls were made to mimic the forest grove of Lumbini where Siddhartha was born; the “sky” laid out the constellations and the Plaster of Paris trees were detailed to the last leaf. It was a breath of fresh air after the monotonous pagodas that we had been seeing.
Glimpses of Maha Wizaya Pagoda
We sat outside the pagoda for a while and rehydrated ourselves. We waited for the sun to get a little mellow before continuing to the Shwedagon which was just across the street. We walked up the southern stairway which had a really nice teak roof and marble flooring.
Southern Stairway to Shwedagon
The prettiness made sense when we were asked to buy tickets worth 8000 MMK each! It was an outrageous amount, especially since it was a single day fee. Had I wanted to come here again, I would have to pay the same amount all over. We were given a map with the tickets and as I was unfolding it, a man came up to us and offered to be our guide. Though we would have loved to take a guided tour of this giant complex, we were not really capable of such a splurging anymore. Our stash of kyats was depleted after buying the tickets. He was surprised to know that we were Indians. For some reason, he had taken me for an Italian! That’s the farthest west anyone has ever confused me for. 😝
The map turned out to be quite informative. We missed out on the museums since we were late but we saw the photo gallery and covered all the spots marked on the map. The Shwedagon is more of a complex than a single pagoda. There are two other smaller pagodas located within the complex. Bells and statues pepper the entire complex, each with a history and magical stories of its own. The main statue is off limit to visitors but there are television screens displaying it’s smiling Buddha face all over the complex. We spent the rest of the evening roaming around the Shwedagon complex.
The grand Shwedagon
Covering all the spots on the map required an effort and we were exhausted by the time we were done. We sat down to rest our aching legs. Parul had seen a woman feed her babe somewhere around and we discussed as to why and how the practice of public breast feeding ever became a taboo in the places it did. Then Parul put on the prime lens on her camera and we did another quicker round of the pagoda before walking down the southern stairway.
Photo session at Shwedagon
You can find more pictures of Shwedagon in the album embedded at the end of the post.
We sat putting on our shoes below and watched a group of men play chinlone. It was a treat to watch them play.
We waked back to Yaw Min Gyi street from Shwedagon. Since we no longer had the money to splurge, we had a simple dinner at another local joint. Another ten minutes walk found us back to the hotel. We slept a sound sleep, curing our legs of the ache it had acquired from the rounds of Shwedagon complex.
The Return Journey
The next day we got up and packed our luggage. We had initially thought of taking the Yangon Inner Circuit railway to a station near the airport but since we were not aware of the timings of the trains and how long it took and what the possible commutation options were on the other side, we decided to forgo this adventure. This was probably not the best day to try it. We checked out of the rooms and had got a couple of burgers from a stall near our hotel. We hailed down a cab and it took us to the airport for 8000 MMK. Seemed like an extremely reasonable amount after all the absurdity we had paid in Bagan and Shwenyaung.
We reached the airport and parted ways. Parul’s flight was at 3 PM and mine at 7 later in the evening. I had not booked a return flight initially and planned a return journey to India later. Parul was going to return to Delhi and I would be going to Chennai and then to Pune. I worked in a coffee shop next to the airport entrance. I ordered some butter toast, coffee and eggs which were quite nice.
Butter toast at the airport cafe
After an hour of so I got bored and headed to the airport. I got the remainder of currency exchanged for USDs and waited a long time for the check-in counters to open. I used this time to catch up on the new season of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.
The rest of my journey was an odd mixture of waiting, hunger, sleeplessness and roaming around pointlessly at the Yangon, Kuala Lumpur and Chennai airports. The KL airport is probably the most impressive one I have seen. There are TV lounges designed to help the passengers in transit kill time. Once I landed in Chennai, I treated myself to some filter coffee. Chennai serves the best filter coffee that I have ever tasted. I was back in Pune the afternoon after I had departed from Yangon. I felt the familiar ache in my legs as I walked back to Parul’s place with the bag on my back. The three weeks seemed to have ended too soon.
All bordered images are credited to Parul.
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Previous posts in this series :
And here is the complete album of the Yangon of our trip.