Myanmar – Yangon and Golden RockBack to Story

A faded colonial town holds one of the world's most amazing religious sites

Myanmar has been a destination that that holds a special fascination with many.  Flying into Yangon the capital is a  smooth process with options from Bangkok, China and Vietnam to name a few.  The whole arrival process having been opened up recently with the option of picking up a visa on arrival or applying through the Embassy from your country of origin

Yangon

There are many fine hotel choices in Yangon and often with a local flavour to them. In this case it is a very cushy landing as far as an introduction to Myanmar because the destination is the Governor’s Residence. This amazing hotel is part of the Oriental Hotel group and meets the standard you would expect from this well respected luxury brand. Located in the heart of the embassy quarter the wide streets are lined with people walking or jogging and the local buses are packed full of people making their way home.

Walking into the Governor’s Residence is like a step back into a colonial times. The entrance is very grand with a covered walkway through the gardens and a lush lawn which had been set up for a candelight dinner. Very romantic for Valentine’s Day. The swimming pool looks very inviting reflecting the surrounding lights. There are two bars panelled in teak and adorned with cane furniture – cocktail anyone?

The restaurant is booked out with guests and expatriates but it is an easy walk to a nearby local favourite.  The curries are delicious and I leave satisfied.  The food is normally cooked in a gravy with ginger, garlic, chillies and lots of oil. Dried fish and mushrooms are also frequently used in the dishes. The tourist restaurants will however assume you don’t like spicy food so don’t be shy if you do.

Local Fish Markets

The next morning well before dawn I make my way down to the fish market to explore the local life. My taxi would not be allowed on the road in any country with standards so we rattle and hum our way down to the river. It is just after 5am and the city is already alive. People are out doing their early morning exercise –  typically a brisk walk with friends or in some cases a run. The parks are full of groups of people doing what looks like Tai Chi.

The monks are also on the streets collecting Alms. This is the Buddhist ritual of receiving food from the people. With bare feet they walk the streets to collect their food in their bowls to take back to the monastery to share with the other monks. The activity on the streets heightens though as we approach the fish markets. The other country where i had seen alms being collected was on my travels through Laos.

The area is on the river where the boats unload their catch of the day into the warehouses which are buzzing with fish and food vendors and buyers alike. This is not highly sanitised food preparation as fish are carried in baskets, wheelbarrows or whatever can be found. The catch is sold in everything imaginable and in some cases directly from the ground. There is a fascinating range of fish and some of the largest prawns I think I’ve ever seen.

Later I meet the guide and we explore central Yangon. The city feels very calm and the buildings while being run down speak of the times of British rule. There are interesting street markets on the side of the main streets which also tell you a little more about how the locals live.

Shwedagon Pagoda

The highlight of Yangoon is the Shwedagon Pagoda , which is the city’s and possibly the country’s most sacred Buddhist temple. It seems there is some debate over the age and origin of the pagoda but it is said to contain relics of the Lord Buddha. The stupa is plated with over 20,000 solid gold bars and the effect is truly dazzling.

The tip of the stupa is crowned with jewels that would impress any international diva. Diamonds, rubies and sapphires twinkle in the light.  As the sun starts to set a local shows me where to stand to see the tip sparkle with gems.  In a light breeze you can hear the bells and at most hours the recital of Buddhist teachings being chanted echo around the pagoda.

There are so many angles and corners to explore that it took me four hours before I felt I could leave with the intention of returning again. The small pagodas surrounding the main one contain shrines to the spirit gods or Nats and there are people paying their respects to many of these as you walk around. Worship of the spirit gods pre-dates Buddhism in Myanmar and in many of the pagodas you can see these two beliefs side by side.

Sunset is the popular choice for photography but the early morning visit rewards you by allowing a look at the religious life of the temple as pilgrims arrive from 5am with no tourists in sight (possibly for good reason as they are tucked up with their feather pillows in nearby hotels). The pilgrims often travel from all around the country or even overseas to visit this sacred temple. A visit to this temple is not only about one of the world’s most magestic religious sights but also about a living and vibrant Buddhist life.

Botataung Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda is not the only pagoda to visit in Yangoon. In the middle of town on the waterfront is the Botataung Pagoda. This Pagoda is said to contain the sacred hairs of Buddha. Walking around the pagoda you enter a variety of small rooms encased in gold. Each corner seems to contain either a monk or devotee sitting quietly. There is a steady line of offerings coming through the front gate. These are offered to Buddha and contain pineapples, fruits, grains and other goodies in an elaborate bouquet.

Well worth visiting are the nearby river docks. Here floating market boats travel to rural towns packed with everything from rice and foodstuffs to household furniture and kids toys. Men walk quickly backwards and forwards over the wooden planks carrying huge sacks of rice and other goods. Women sit over charcoal stoves cooking up the next meal while children look on. There is definitely a river way of life for these people who live on what we would call a barge. The wharf area is soon to be moved as this real estate is set to be developed, so perhaps next visit things might have changed.

Another interesting way to observe Yangon life is to catch the local train to one of the outer suburbs or take the full loop around. The bus is apparently the cheapest form of transport but the trains are also well patronised. Foreigners must buy their ticket separately and seem to be seated together under the watchful eye of the conductor. There are vendors jumping on and off selling everything from watermelon to eggs.

Golden Rock

More than a day trip away but a destination by road is Golden Rock. It takes approximately four hours to drive down there so it is definitely a commitment. This visit is all about seeing a pilgrimage site that is famous for the Buddhists the world over. Basically it is all about a large bolder which is seemingly precariously perched on the edge of a cliff. The bolder and its platform are painted gold while on top of the bolder is a gold pagoda.

Reaching the destination requires some work. Not only in terms of the long drive but there is a ride on the back of the local truck to follow wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel. Sixty five people are crammed onto the back of each truck to reach the base camp where the foreigners are offloaded. It has been decided that it is only safe for the locals to ride to the top. After being offloaded comes the decision to be carried up the hill while sitting in the middle or walk. It is 38 degrees C when we start the exhausting climb up the hill. I am nearly crawling the hill by the time I reach the hilltop hotel where we are staying, an hour later I might add. My face is so red in any western country the paramedics would be called. My guide has misread the itinerary though as he obviously thinks he is running a bootcamp because he declares we need to rush in order to see the sunset.

Once my heart returned to a normal rate it was an amazing view and it does have a sense of wonder about how the rock may be perched up there. Days before the news of the Christchurch earthquake had shaken the world and I can’t help but wonder how this rock has survived storms and earthquakes. There are many legends in Buddhism surrounding this rock and how it got here including that it contains a sacred hair of Buddha.

So what do you see while you are there? Monks, and general pilgrims making their way up the hill and sleeping around the site. They too often travel great distances and under considerably more hardship th Many spend a few days going to surrounding pagodas at the same time. A highlight was seeing the hermits dressed in dark brown and wearing hats with what look like a crosses on them. Traditionally they live off the land and were considered healers and medicine men.

At the time I was not convinced that the effort of the journey was rewarded, however, visiting some of the villages and monasteries on the journey home turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. So as they say in the world of travel: you don’t know what you’re going to get but it will be good.

Travel photography - Yangon city, Schwedagon Pagoda, and Golden Rock.

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