Adventures in Asia: Yangon, Myanmar

To this day, I still can’t believe that I had ever stepped foot anywhere in Myanmar. What a surreal experience that whole weekend was.

            My decision to book my flight to Myanmar was completely spontaneous (I booked it when I should have definitely been studying for my upcoming midterm). Again, I had been tracking flights for a while and suddenly, prices dropped. And so, I found two people to go with, and together, we committed to this seemingly wild idea of going to Myanmar for a weekend. Coming to Singapore, I actually had made a list of places that I wanted to visit while I was going to be in Southeast Asia. I guess you could have called it a priority list; I knew that I wasn’t going to have the time to see everything and so, I wanted to make sure I saw what I wanted to see. Myanmar was never on that list. I had heard of the country but had barely ever heard of anybody talk about visiting Myanmar or going to travel there (to be honest, I had never heard too many positive things about the country). However, at the start of my exchange, I was talking to a new friend and we were talking about where we wanted to travel to. She told me that she wanted to go to Myanmar so badly and after seeing that I didn’t seem as excited about it as she did, she showed me pictures. I was hooked on the idea right away – all the pictures made the place look so magical, so foreign, and so ancient. And so, the idea stayed in the back of my mind until I finally booked tickets.

            The itinerary for the weekend was to leave Wednesday night and spend all of Thursday in Yangon. We’d then board a 10 hour overnight bus Thursday evening bound for Bagan, and arrive in Bagan at around 5 in the morning (just in time to catch the sunrise). We’d spend all of Friday (and Friday night) in Bagan and then board another 10-hour bus back to Yangon the next day to arrive at the airport just in time to catch our flight at 9 pm on Saturday. As you can see, the tough part of going to Myanmar for just a weekend is that you’re spending so much time on a bus travelling so really, you don’t have that much time to actually be doing things. Yes, you can choose to opt for flights between Yangon and Bagan to save time but that involves much more money.

            Okay, so starting with Yangon: Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar and if you’re coming from another city in Southeast Asia, it’s probably easiest to fly directly here. We got into the city late Wednesday night and right away headed to our hostel, the Little Monkey Hostel. We got a room with 6 beds but it ended being just the three of us, and it was only about $10/person/night. An important note: you can pretty much get by with USD while you’re there but they will only accept your bill if it’s crisp and new. I would recommend having their local currency on hand, however, since a lot of smaller places might not take USD.  If you go to a currency exchange booth and you give them a wrinkled or slightly folded USD bill, they’ll actually quote you a worse rate which I found to be so strange.

            The next morning, we woke up bright and early (at 5 AM, to be precise). Before coming to Myanmar, I was talking to somebody who had visited the country a year before while he was on exchange in Singapore. The one piece of advice he gave me: “Wake up for every sunrise while you’re there.” And so, that’s exactly what we did. We only had 3 sunrises to catch during our time in Myanmar and we were dedicated to waking up to see all of them.

            To see the sunrise, we decided to head to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is Yangon’s most famous landmark. The main pagoda reaches a height of over 100 metres. The main gold-plated dome is topped by a stupa that is encrusted with 4531 diamonds, the largest of which is a 72-carat diamond. As for the dome itself, I had read in my guide book that it is covered with as much gold as you can find in all the vaults of the Bank of England combined. You do have to pay entry to visit each pagoda/religious site and something else to remember is that in Myanmar, there is a rule that states you have to take off your shoes and socks when stepping foot inside temples and pagodas. Therefore, sometimes, it’s best to visit the pagodas earlier in the morning before the afternoon sun makes the ground so hot to the point where it’s unbearable to walk on it.

            As soon as we stepped into the grounds that made up the Shwedagon Pagoda, I was blown away. For 6 in the morning, it was busy! The place was filled with locals, monks, and nuns who had come to do their daily prayer (I had no idea that this ritual took place so early in the morning – it could have been a pre-work activity for them). Everywhere we turned, there were families or lone individuals sitting on the ground, deep in prayer, and somewhere far away, on a loudspeaker, they were playing the sounds of what sounded like a man leading a group in prayer. So much humming, singing, and chanting.

The three of us first did a walk around the perimeter of the pagoda before settling down to sit in front of the pagoda and wait for sunrise. Another important tip: You can’t sit with your feet facing the stupa (so you either have to kneel or sit cross-legged). We had this pointed out to us by a local after we sat down, and we were grateful that somebody said something. My guide book had said that to sit before the stupa is an unbelievably humbling experience. That morning, as the three of us were sitting there in silence in front of that stupa with only the background noise of prayer to fill our ears, I understood what the author of the book meant. I felt so humbled. I felt so small in the presence of this powerful religion, and this gold-plated stupa. I felt swallowed up by the heaviness and seriousness of the moment. And it’s hard to re-create that feeling or even try to understand what that feeling is like if you’re not there.

            We sat like that, mostly in silence, for close to 45 minutes and we watched the sun slowly come up and watched as the light turn from dark blue to a pale yellow. I liked having the silence so early in the morning. After more light began to dominate the sky, we got up and started walking around again. We stumbled upon a place on the grounds that had a lot of people sitting around, facing the front of the room; it looked like they were about to start doing morning prayer. So, we sat down and joined them. Less than a minute after we sat down, somebody went to the front of the room and rang a gong to start the prayer. Suddenly, the area was flooded with a ton of different voices singing the same prayer in unison. Everybody belted out the prayer; they were all so dedicated to the religion and to the practice. At first, for some reason, I felt anxious because I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. But that feeling quickly faded. Being there at 7 in the morning felt so refreshing to me; I thought to myself, “Have I ever been in a situation like this? Did I ever think I would be in a situation like this?” I thought about how I’d listen to this type of song prayer back at home with my meditation app, and how sometimes the prayer would also start with the sound of a gong. And now, 15000 km away in the country of Myanmar in what feels like a completely different life, I was there, listening to it all and seeing it all happen in real life. I could barely believe it.

After a while, we left and took a cab to the Sule Pagoda, which is at the center of the city and placed in the middle of a busy intersection. The top of it reaches 44 metres high and apparently contains a hair relic of the Buddha.

Once we got inside and paid for our entrance ticket, one of the workers there started to talk to us. He told us that what we should do is look for our “corner.” How you do that is to figure out the day of the week that you were born and search for the little monument in the pagoda that is labeled that day of the week (ex: Monday, Sunday). Once you find it, you can choose to do the prayer ritual that they all do. Essentially, there’s a fountain that provides water and a cup. You pour 5 cups of water on the Buddha that is placed there, and 5 cups on the animal that is associated with your “day of the week”. Then, to finish it all up, you ring the gong 3 times to share happiness with everybody. The three of us all found our corners (Mine is Sunday) and proceeded to partake in the ritual.

            After leaving the pagoda, we decided it was time for lunch. We chose to go to Bogyoke Aung San market, which not only had a large array of food choices but a ton of little souvenir stalls. I’m really realizing how popular these cheap markets are in Asia, even in places that aren’t as tourist infested like Myanmar. After we got some food in us, we took another cab to Kandawgyi Lake, which actually happens to be an artificial lake built by the British to serve as a reservoir. The Karaweik Palace, a concrete replica of a Burmese royal barge, sits on the lake and is the most prominent landmark. We found out that inside, the only way to go into the palace is to actually sit and have some food or a drink. Even though we just had lunch, we decided that another break couldn’t hurt (and we wanted to see the inside of the palace). Apparently, the stage inside of it that sits in front of all the dining tables is the only place in Yangon where you can regularly watch a cultural show of traditional dance and music. We went inside and had a drink. My friend, Nick, ordered the national beer for Myanmar and when he got it, he realized that the logo for Myanmar’s official national beer was actually the very same palace that we were sitting in.

            After a beer, we left the palace and walked around the lake to get some good photos. There was actually a nice boardwalk that surrounded the perimeter of the lake and it was a great way to get some walking in (despite how hot it was starting to get). After a while, we felt as if we had seen what we needed to see and decided to take another cab to Inya Lake, which was a bit further away than everything else had been. However, luckily, cabs are incredibly cheap in Myanmar given the exchange rate and we were able to call them on the phone using our Grab app.

            There was not much to see at Inya Lake, even though it is the largest lake in Yangon. It was only after we got there that I realized that I got it confused with Inle Lake (haha), a freshwater lake that is often frequented by visitors travelling to Myanmar.

            Our next cab ride was to Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, which housed a HUGE reclining Buddha. The three of us went inside and instantly just went, “Wow.” It was hard not to be shocked and once again, humbled, standing in front of this Buddha that seemed to just be looking right at you, into your soul.

This reclining Buddha was built in 1966 to replace the old image that was built in 1907. It measures 65 metres (much longer than the one I had seen in Bangkok) and is housed in an iron structure with corrugated iron sheets of six layers. We sat in silence for a bit in a carpeted area directly facing the face of the reclining Buddha. As I kept looking at the face of the Buddha, one thought continually grew stronger in my mind: “This Buddha’s face looks like my mother’s.” I couldn’t stop laughing at how I thought about that. They had the same colour of eyeshadow, the same shade of lipstick, and the same fair skin. It seemed like such a funny idea that even across the world, my mom was still “with me.”

The three of us got up and walked around to see the front and rear of the Buddha. What we all loved the most was the design on its feet (if you’ve seen my other posts, you’d know that oftentimes, the feet bears so many intricate details and carvings that seem to illustrate a story or a myth).

            Finally, our last stop of the day was the Botahtaung Pagoda. Yes, this one also had a huge gold dome and stupa but one reason that it stood apart from the rest is because you could actually walk inside the main dome. Inside, absolutely everything was gold. It housed relics which were contained in glass cases but apart from that, every wall and every hallway and every little statue was plated with gold. It was incredible.

            That same evening, we hired a cab to take us to the bus station so that we could catch our 7 pm bus to Bagan. If you end up booking a time in the evening, I’d definitely recommend giving yourself more than enough time to get there because of how bad the traffic is (we cut it so close that we thought we weren’t going to make it). See how long it should take to get there from your hotel and add even an hour and a half to that time just to play it safe. We booked our trip on a general bus site and picked this time and this bus company (Elite Express) because of the good reviews and because we wanted to make sure that we’d get into Bagan with about an hour to spare before the sun would rise at 6:30AM. The bus journey didn’t end up being bad at all. There were enough empty spaces that we each got our own two-seat row and they also provided blankets which were helpful since they had the air conditioning going all night. The bus was also kept very clean, which was nice. The trip ended up taking 9 hours and they made one stop to use the bathroom and to buy a few late-night snacks. I’d definitely recommend booking with Elite if you ever find yourself needing to make the trip.

            And that caps off the short one-day exploration in Yangon! We went to sleep on the bus and were lucky enough to wake up in Bagan the next morning, with over 2 hours to go before the sunrise. Stay tuned for the next post! 

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