Myanmar (Burma) is one of those places. Ones of those places that make you think twice about going there. Not that you really know much about Myanmar but you know what you’ve heard isn’t good politically. However, if you’ve traveled much in the region, intrepid travelers will tell you it’s one of their favorite spots in Southeast Asia.
The largest city in Myanmar and formerly the capital, Yangon (Rangoon), is a great Asian city. It still has some colonial charm that its larger neighbors have lost along the way. Likely it’s due to the fact that the military government was so strict for so many years but visiting now is a treat.
Also noticeably missing from Yangon are the motorbikes that infest many other large Asian cities. In Yangon, people still walk and ride bicycles like my grandmother used to tell me all the Chinese and Vietnamese did before they got motorbikes. Yangon is a very pleasant place to be. It also has some of the friendliest and smiliest people I have ever met.
Yangon is a cool city in that there are stupas and pagodas all over the city. They are clearly the centerpieces of a drive around town and none is more amazing than the famous Shwedagon Paya (Pagoda).
The glorious gilded spire of the Shwedagon Paya is the city’s defining image to the world. It is massive at nearly 100 meters tall. The complex has the central zedi and 82 other buildings around it. They are all fabulous to look at day or night.
The top of the central spire is covered with over 5000 diamonds and over 2000 other stones. It is also said that it is covered in over 53 metric tons of gold leaf to give it that amazing glow.
You can enter the complex from any of four directions. There are lifts if you like or you can enter as the locals do through the grand staircases. You must take your shoes and socks off before entering into the Shwedagon Paya; there are no exceptions on that. It is kind of gross I agree, but at the same time it is their custom and you must adhere to it or miss out on one of the world’s great religious symbols.
As you walk around the spire and admire all the adorning buildings full of Buddhas, it is mesmerizing. They are fascinating to me and so bright that you can’t stop looking. Each entryway gives a new take on Buddha and his disciples. I wish I knew more about Buddhism to explain all the reasons behind it but I know enough to know that it’s really a treat to walk around and see it.
You won’t be alone on the Shwedagon Paya. There are Buddhist pilgrims from all over who come to pray here. There will also be a ton of monks. There really isn’t much in the way of hassles surprisingly except for a few guys offering souvenir photos. However, when you turn them down, they will happily snap a photo of you with your camera.
Burma and Yangon have long avoided the tourist infestation that the rest of Southeast Asia has experienced in the past decade or so. Fear not though, it’s coming and it is has already started. There is a ton of foreign investment going on in Myanmar. The Japanese and Chinese are heavily invested in Burma. With the visa restrictions growing easier and cheaper by the day, the backpackers are coming too.
They are searching for the forbidden land of Burma, the untouristed Shangri-La of Southeast Asia. They may have found it for now but having been there just 3 years ago, it’s already more expensive than it was then and there are more and more white people popping up around town.
I met some travelers at the Shwedagon Pagoda the other night, they invited me to a bar with them afterwards and I accepted. We went to a place called the Strand Hotel on a Friday night and it was packed. Every expat in Yangon was there (Granted there aren’t many bars in Yangon at all). Not a local to be seen.
And today I had lunch at the Traders Hotel, which is the nicest hotel in Yangon and I saw my first old white person tour group; in full safari gear ready to tackle the town in style. So believe you me…they are coming! Get to Myanmar while you can!