Myanmar has always been a very enigmatic country for me.
While growing up, I read the newspapers about Aung San Suu Kyi and the civil unrest in Myanmar, but could not get satisfactory information about either, with all the media controls imposed by the government. The country also maintained a stringent control over tourism, with restrictions on border crossings on all sides, and foreigners not allowed to go beyond defined perimeters.
But since 2010, there has been a remarkable change in the affairs of Myanmar, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, and many international carriers launching direct flights to the country. Tigerair may have launched their Yangon flights only recently, but Jetstar has had a direct flight from Singapore to Yangon for the last 2 years or so.
And on an impulse, I booked a flight from Singapore to Yangon. I wasn’t alone. I managed to convince a few other local travellers from Singapore to join in.
Further Reading: 10 Direct flights from India that you may not have known of.
The closer we got to the travel date, there was an unexplainable fear. Very few people I knew, had ever been to Myanmar. And lonely planet’s thorntree forum seemed to provide details of all kind of weird stuff that foreigners had to face in Myanmar. This was going to be fun!
The first thing you notice when you land at the Yangon International airport, is the pagoda-shaped dome of the airport. It is not surprising to see pagodas in this part of the world, but an airport was the last place that I would have expected to find it. I wanted to take a picture, but the fear factor had still not subsided.
A word of caution before I proceed. You may have heard the word ‘Rangoon’ being used for Yangon. DO NOT USE THIS WORD IN MYANMAR!! Yangon is the name used by the military government, and Rangoon – which was originally the name – is used by the NLD party and Aung San Suu Kyi. And a lot of western governments, which don’t agree with the current government, use the word Rangoon. But remember that when you are in Myanmar, and you use the word ‘Rangoon’, you are defying the government. And that is one mess which you may not want to get into when you are in a country like Myanmar!
Further Reading: That time when I found out there are Burmese Pagodas in Mumbai!
After touching down at Yangon, our first stop was at the Aung Mingalar bus station. From flight to bus, you say? Well, we needed to book our buses to Bagan for that evening. There are no bus companies in Myanmar which let you book tickets online, so you have to book them in person. Almost all buses to Bagan leave around 6 pm, but it is better to book the tickets in the morning itself because they run out. I mean, when you only have about 3 bus lines running between Yangon and Bagan, you don’t want to leave things to chance, right?
After reserving our tickets, we had nearly 7 hours to kill before the actual bus. So, we boarded a taxi, and left for the most touristy place in the whole of Yangon. The Shwedagon Pagoda.
Interestingly, our taxi driver started playing Tamil songs! And he also started speaking in Tamil! Turns out, that before 1947, when the British still ruled India, there were many Indian army men who were stationed in Myanmar. These guys never left even after India got independence – such was their love for the place. And when we passed a police station, our driver said in perfect tamil about the cops: “Pitchakaaran Nai“ (Beggar dog!!)
(Note: The translation is correct. Tamil is a funny language, I tell you!)
After some tortuous traffic – traffic is omnipresent in Yangon – we finally reached the Shwedagon Paya. Paya is Burmese for Pagoda. And the road that led to the Pagoda, was called the Shwedagon Paya road too. How convenient!
The Shwedagon is shaped like a cross, with four entrances: north, south, east and west. We started our way from the south gate, which had 2 giant statues guarding it, which resembled rather canine-looking lions. The entrance led us through a covered walkway with steps, with shops on both the sides. And almost everywhere, there were the unique Burmese temple offerings, which were like a semi-circular canopy, filled up with Kyats (Burmese currency) or even other things. These temple offerings were from devotees, as a tribute to the gods. Or so I was told.
Walking up the path, we reached the pagoda itself. But not before a security officer came running to us, like we stole something or had brought in a bomb.
“Did you buy ticket?”, she asked irritably. I told her that I just got here.
“Come with me”, she said, and took us to a ticket counter where we had to pay USD 5 to get a tourist pass, which turned out to be just a sticker that needs to be stuck on the t-shirt. We were sure that we saw some of these stickers lying on the floor outside the pagoda entrance. Freshly armed with the ‘foreigner sticker’, we set out to explore the rest of the pagoda.
At the centre of the pagoda complex, stood the giant stupa, with a lavish platform all around it. There were people sitting everywhere in the platform, and it looked more like a communal gathering venue, rather than a religious center. The stupa is octagonal, and shrines were located in front of each of the sides of the stupa, to represent the 8 days of the week.
Wait, did I say 8 days??!! Well, yes. It is interesting to note here that there are 2 Wednesdays in the Burmese calendar, thus totaling the 8 day-shrines around the stupa. And devotees prayed in front of the shrine for the day. I remember cracking a joke about ‘sub of the day’, from a subway joint, but I don’t want to crack that joke in print. Not going to leave any traces!
There is a lot of history in this complex, with places like the Naugndawgyi pagoda, where Buddha’s sacred hair is said to have been washed. Or the Dhammazedi inscription, which states the story of the pagoda. Dress modestly, get yourself a Longyi, and click away.
Further Reading: Follow up on this post with the Bicycle trip through Bagan.
This post is part of my travel stories in Myanmar. Click here to check out other amazing stories from Myanmar.
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