Messages From Myanmar #02
08 September 2015
Photo Update Alert:
Hello there… Rodger French here.
It took, like, ten days, but the nasty jet lag has subsided, so A.J. and I are finally feeling like actual human residents of Yangon. In addition to getting our bearings and figuring out how best to get around (Pro Tip: Taxis), we’ve also managed our first tourist excursion. And it was a dandy; check out the photoz.
The Embassy has an in-house travel agency, so they set us up with a driver and tour guide for a six-hour, más o menos, tour of some major attractions. Our guide “Freddy” spoke fine English and did an excellent job. A convert to Christianity, he grew up as a Buddhist and so was able to help explain this ancient religion to the newly arrived gringos.
[Theological Sidebar - My knowledge of Theravada Buddhism, the form practiced by about 90% of Myanmar’s people, is rudimentary, to say the least; so I will resist theological elucidation in these postings. For my own part, as a long-time religious skeptic, I consider it my prerogative to gratefully accept those aspects (of any religion) that feel right to me and respectfully take a pass on those that do not.]
Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda Reclining Buddha - A most impressive example of a highly revered image. First completed in 1907 and renovated in 1965, this Buddha is 65 m (213 ft) long, 16 m (52 ft) high, and very expressively decorated. One of the most interesting features is thus described: “The soles of the feet contain 108 segments in red and gold colors that show images representing the 108 lakshanas or auspicious characteristics of the Buddha.”
Shwedagon Pagoda - Also known as the Golden Pagoda, this is Yangon’s most famous landmark and Myanmar’s most important religious site. First constructed over 2500 years ago (according to legend, and a matter of some debate), the pagoda has been enlarged and renovated many times, and numerous other structures have been added to the site.
Situated on Singuttara Hill (not far from our apartment, actually), Shwedagon Pagoda is 99 m (325 ft) in height, gold plated with the equivalent of 22,000 gold bars (301 tons), and has a spire encrusted with thousands of precious gems. It is a wondrous and opulent sight. We spent two hours circumnavigating it, pausing to admire multitudinous images of the Buddha, reflect on the days of our births, and consider the importance of the number eight in Buddhist teachings. It is an altogether magnificent place and we look forward to returning, particularly at sunset.
[Lunch Sidebar - The Thiripyitsaya Sky Bistro, located on the 20th Floor of the Sakura Tower, offers affordable food and excellent vistas. From there we had our first look at the Yangon River and the Port of Yangon, which, like so much of this city, has recently experienced intense development.]
Bogyoke Aung San Market - Built by the British in 1926 (f.k.a. Scott’s Market), this enormous neo-colonial structure houses hundreds of shoppes selling antiques, jewelry, clothing and fabric, art, handicrafts, and souvenirs. It is also reputedly the best place in Yangon to find black market moneychangers. Many shoppes are located in extreme proximity, so the overall effect can be claustrophobic; but the hustle is not oppressive.
Sule Pagoda - Though not as impressive as Shwedagon, Sule Pagoda occupies a central place in Burmese life. Literally. The British used it as the starting point when they created the present street layout of Yangon. Sule also served as a meeting point for pro-democracy demonstrators in both 1988 and 2007 and became the scene of brutal crackdowns by the military government.
Bonus Tourist Points - On the way home, we made two brief stops for scouting purposes. First, The Strand Hotel, a surprisingly unostentatious 5-star joint built by the British in 1901 and originally designed to be “patronised by royalty, nobility and distinguished personages." (White people.) Nice gift shoppes.
The second stop was the Yangon Central Railway Station, a grandiosely funky place and terminus for the Yangon Circular Railway, an epic 3-hour/45.9 km (28.5 mi) journey with 39 stops. We’re giving it serious consideration.