Vibrant, Dirty & Disparate Yangon

A sinewy monk in saffron leans over a table with booksellers at Yangon's bustling Bogyoke market.
A sinewy monk in saffron with booksellers across from Yangon’s Bogyoke market.
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When I arrived in Yangon it was late, but I wandered around as dusk fell, exploring back alleys and finally venturing across suicidally busy Pyay Road to Inya Lake (not to be confused with Inle Lake). Disoriented from jet lag and sleep deprivation following my 46-hour trip from Baltimore I wandered around lost–constantly thinking I recognized a particular stray dog which I had seen in an alley on my way to Inya Lake. (It didn’t take me long to realize that somewhere back in the gene pool was a dominant stray dog that has given rise to a line of Burmese street dogs that all look alike). Finally, I asked a teenaged kid for help and he walked me back to my bed and breakfast, Myanmar Bike World.

That act of kindness in helping a stranger find his hotel at night came to characterize the kindness of the Burmese people. This was repeated over the next few days, as my taxi driver took me into town to buy a plane ticket and refused to charge me for waiting at the airline office.

I spent two days in Yangon, and this, written after the fact, is an impressionistic account of my experiences and perceptions.

As elsewhere in any medium-to-large urban area in Myanmar, rush-hour traffic in Yangon is often frenetic, but the appearance of chaos is deceiving, as Burmese–unlike many Americans–know how to drive in dense urban traffic and use skill and focus rather than aggression to negotiate the road.  However, one characteristic that differentiates Yangon traffic from that in Mandalay, Bago and other cities is that motorbikes are banned in Yangon for reasons unclear (See “Ban on motorbikes lingers”).

In Washington, Los Angeles or New York a blown horn is a sign of anger or impatience, while in Myanmar the horn is used ONLY for one purpose–to alert other drivers and pedestrians to your location. This is necessary because of the volume and velocity of both vehicular and human traffic. I will talk more about the paradox of traffic madness with harmony in other posts.  Getting used to the need to beep almost caught up with me in Bagan, where I rented an electric bicycle.  I overcame my conditioned aversion to beeping after nearly hitting a little kid running blindly up a dirt alley.

Building cranes loom over crumbling high rise buildings and rush hour traffic in downtown Yangon

Yangon is a city that exemplifies the changes rippling through Myanmar since the opening of diplomatic relations and tourism a few years ago.  Busy traffic, crowded sidewalks, and  dilapidated apartment buildings with clothes hanging outside coexist with building cranes looming from the few vacant lots in downtown Yangon. Yangon was the only place I saw people other than monks or nuns begging, and there is an area along the major thoroughfare into the city lined with homeless people living in makeshift shelters where they hang clothing on fences and cook with small stoves or campfires.

Open ditches full of trash, garbage and other waste line the main road. Trash—particularly plastic—is a huge problem everywhere in Myanmar, and there appears to be little coordinated effort at trash collection and cleanup.

Crumbling buildings and an aging electrical grid characterize much of downtown Yangon
Nuns in pink bearing alms bowls march through downtown Yangon

In the Bogyoke market and surrounding streets, modern malls coexist with myriad street vendors hawking everything from fruits, herbs and prepared food to books and T-shirts.  On one block there are a line of opticians, and this is where I ventured into Pwint Thiri Optic at 373 Upper Shwe Bontha Street to get a new pair of prescription bifocals made on the spot.  After a brief eye test, the optician showed me a choice of frames. I selected a titanium flex frame and the optician told me to get lunch and come back in one hour.  I returned as directed and picked up my new glasses for a total of $31. Note: I eventually found my misplaced prescription glasses and noted that the lenses were a bit sharper than those from the Burmese optician. But for $31 the Burmese glasses did the job–and with better quality frames than my nearly $200 pair from my hometown of Baltimore.

Booksellers along Bogyoke Aung San Road in Yangon
Yours truly in longyi at my Yangon hotel, Bike World Bed & Breakfast

Just before entering the optician I had purchased a longyi, the omnipresent garment of choice for the majority of Burmese men and women.  This garment is a long, wrap around, one-piece, ankle length dress–and is readily visible in my photo gallery here.  I never quite mastered the art of tying the longyi, and always felt on the verge of becoming semi-naked in public at any moment. But with a little help from the optician, I tied the longyi and wore it all day in Yangon.

Shwedagon: The Disneyland of Pagodas

Shwedagon pagoda at night
Shwedagon pagoda at night

Yangon’s fabulous Shwedagon pagoda is among the most annoyingly touristy scenes in Myanmar (second, perhaps, to Bagan’s Shewsandaw “sunset pagoda”).  Its splendor notwithstanding, it is the Disneyland of pagodas. Admission (as of January 2014) is $8 U.S. and at the entrance guides asking $10 more accost visitors. Hiring a guide is optional, however.

Once inside you may be approached by others wishing to tell you about the details of this remarkable pagoda. (I finally broke down and gave two young students $5 after they pointed out sparkling jewels in the dome of the chief pagoda and other interesting information. After I gave them $5 they tried to shake me down for another $5 at which point I walked away. Be warned). The commercialism is rampant–there are actually bank teller machines scattered along the edges of the main plaza–amplifying the feeling that this is as much a state business as a venerated shrine.

Flickering candles lit by Buddhist acolytes add to the dreamlike ambience of the Shwedagon

That said, the Shwedagon should not be missed.  It is so fantastic in scope, intricacy and conception that even a series of photographs do not do it justice. Do go at night–as beautiful as it is during the day, the Shwedagon comes to life at night, glimmering like a fantasy from a psychedelic dream. Buddhist visitors light rows of candles, with the flickering of long rows of candles adding to the other-worldly effect.

The Shwedagon has a long and storied history. According to the official Shwedagon Pagoda website, it was built some 2,500 years ago. It is said to contain strands of the Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. It stands  nearly 110 meters, and is covered with gold plate and encrusted at the top with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious stones.

Buddhist visitors take a moment for contemplation before Buddha images at the Shwedagon
Buddhist visitors take a moment for contemplation before Buddha images at the Shwedagon

Despite the throngs of tourists, Buddhist visitors are seen throughout in contemplation before the many statues of the Buddha.  For visitors from abroad, the Shwedagon brings home the extent to which Buddhism has shaped and continues to shape the culture and life of Myanmar.

After two days in Yangon, I prepared to head to catch a bus to Bago, a small city with an amazing number of diverse pagodas. Click Bago to link to next narrative.

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