Urban sauna – summer in Yangoon

So here we are! Myanmar – our last destination. As soon as we landed in Yangoon we were hit by a heat wave. It was 38 degrees and as we were driving from the airport in a non air-conditioned minivan, we wondered how we would cope with the heat. Our hotel room did not have air-con and walking into it was like entering a sauna. Only after 8pm fan on the ceiling was making a difference and we just lied under it catching every faint whiff of wind.
As soon as we set foot at the reception of our hotel, the staff told us that there were no transport connections for a week. The only way of getting out of Yangoon was by plane and we had to book it fast, because there weren’t many seats available. We spent an outrageous amount of money for that 1,5h flight from Yangoon to Mandalay, but it seemed the only reasonable alternative. Myanmar was shutting down for a week because of Water Festival and New Year and we didn’t want to be stuck in Yangoon for a week. After a month of slow paced life in Thailand we were forced to make careful plans for our month in Myanmar and we had to move quite fast. There were many places to see and only a month to fit them all in and we just discovered we had to have a transport strategy to get from A to B!

The day after our arrival we were very determined to see Yangoon and we did it on foot. It took us a whole day of walking in the heat to get to all the places we wanted. After a month of I-don’t-want-to-be-a-tourist in Thailand we regained sightseeing strengths and enthusiasm. Yangoon was inspiring. It was like going back to the beginning of our travels in Cambodia. The country was poor and undeveloped and because of that, more authentic. Once again we felt fascinated by its people and the way they lived. The city was very poor outside of the walls of pagodas and monasteries and hygiene standards leaved much to be desired. Still, it were their ways of living that were most interesting to see. The centre of Yangoon was a multi-religious and multi-cultural fusion. As if Myanmar was a meeting place of all the surrounding cultures. The Burmese lived alongside Indians and Arabs, Buddhists next door to Muslims and Hindu. All lived in peace… or at least so it seemed.

The centre of Yangoon was a gridlock of streets filled with tall blocks of flats. Each flat had bars in windows and balconies, buildings were worn and cracked, rubbish piled in the back yard. People just threw waste from their windows not caring that the pile was already reaching the first floor. Just like in Cambodia, rubbish was a big problem in Myanmar.

On a good note, streets of Yangoon were lined with food and sugar cane vendours and telephone services. People didn’t have stationery phones at home, let alone mobile phones, so they used street phones. Sitting on a small chair on a sidewalk, they would talk to their mothers, doctors, lawyers – laughing, shouting and spitting. We still remain stunned by practicality of people in South East Asia. Everything goes until it does the job. For example, in the streets of Yangoon each flat higher than second floor had a rope attached to the bars of the balcony. It was for lifting things up. Why walk up and down steep stairs if you can shout to a food vendour on the street to put your take-away dinner in the bag and just lift it up? Genial!

That day I think we walked some 20km. We went to China Town, stupa, market, had lunch at an Indian place and then caught a local bus to Shwedagon Pagoda – Myanmar’s national pride and symbol. Honestly, it deserved all the hype around it. We spent 4 hours walking around its magnificent grounds, photographing it and watching parades of Burmese people dressed in traditional outfits. Unlike other religious sights we have seen so far in SEA, that pagoda was a place of worship. It wasn’t just another touristic attraction, but a religious site of great importance to Burmese people. When evening came more people flocked in to pray, meditate and hang-out. It was customary in the pagoda to wash “your” Buddha. There were Buddha statues all around the circular square – each for a different day of the week. I was born on Wednesday, found my Buddha and washed it 29 times – my age plus one extra year for good luck.
Shwedagon Pagoda was stupendous. It had 4 long entrance staircases, which themselves were architectonic pieces of art, and a beautiful garden on the west side. We could easily spend a whole day there walking from one temple to another, from garden to food and flower vendours. The only thing we held against it was how soaked in gold it was. Instead of magestic, it gave an impression of cheap plastic. Also Buddha statues, all painted in a kitsch bright manner with white face, black eye-brows and red lips, with flashing circles above his head. As it often happens with iconic people, Buddha opposed commercialism and glorification of his image, but all across South East Asia he was made a “King of Pop”, in Myanmar more than everywhere else we’ve been.

It was a long day and we finished it with an Indian dinner and a long walk to the hotel. The day after we tried to do some more sightseeing, but we didn’t have any more energy left. It was hot, sticky and our feet hurt after the previous day. We took a taxi and went to a cinema. That was the best thing we could have done. We escaped from the heat and had fun! The only bizarre thing that struck us was national anthem played before the movie. All of a sudden, after commercials, loud music started and everyone stood up and mumbled the words of the anthem. The movie was 3 hours long (not long enough) and once Noah brought the arc to the land, we had to leave the air-conditioned paradise and wipe sweat from our foreheads once again. We took it easy though and just took a taxi to beautiful gardens and lake close to Shwedagon Pagoda. Ale was determined to take a good picture of the pagoda though and instead of chilling out by the lake, we walked all around the pagoda to look for a perfect picture spot. We didn’t find it in the end and after an hour of searching, we dropped on the grass and watched the sun disappear behind the pagoda.

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