Published on February 16th, 2011 | by Simon

Mindblowing Myanmar

Words fail me – well nearly! This is the most stupendous traveling experience I have had in a very long time.
Whatever else the governing generals may have done, their policies have effectively placed Myanmar (only the British decided it should be called Burma) in a time-capsule. No credit cards, no ATM’s, no mobile phones, hardly any internet (and even then glacially slow), public phones on the street in the form of three or four normal landline phones set up on a table and wired in to who knows where – all attended by a payment collector person, a currency where the biggest note is worth $1 (so any exchange involves a pre-rubberbanded brick of 100 or more notes), and most critically hardly any tourists. I love it!

You can tell you are off the tourist track when you sit down for dinner in a local restaurant and the other diners pause to stare at you, and then help you to the necessary condiments, water, tea from the thermos flasks, etc. All smiles. My general health expectations were set by the huge rat that ran across my path just as I exited my guesthouse, but (to date at least) the food has produced no adverse effects. For those of you who know South Indian food, Massala Dhosa, Rasgulla, and tea cost me $1.50.

Lunch was even cheaper. I had indulged myself by having a Singapore sling at The Strand Hotel – the local equivalent of Raffles in Singapore – and then a superb pot of tea (Darjeeling). As they fed me lots of nibbles, I just stopped at one of the many pavement lunch places for some deep fried batter and egg concoctions with salted sesame seeds and a cup of tea (10 cents in total). And I then rounded it off with a $1 haircut – with much attention to detail.


Yangon (Rangoon) is rather like the India I remember and love – which has quite possibly disappeared from the current India. Chaotic traffic is made all the worse by a bizarre government decision to switch from driving on the left to the right. Sounds fairly simple, but in a country with so many old vehicles, at least half of the drivers are on the wrong side of their cars. And as for buses, well the doors on the ‘wrong’ side have all been boarded or welded closed, and someone has taken a metal cutter to the other side to create a means of getting on and off without risking life and limb in the middle of the road.

The exotic look of the place is added to by the longhi which is a long wrap-around piece of fabric, worn by most men like an ankle length kilt. And even though supposedly banned by the government, chewing and spitting betel nut is still pretty common. So there are red/brown stains on the pavement, and the taxi driver I just employed gave me a wide welcoming grin which was partially toothless but also totally stained a nice shade of deep terracotta. And the women, just as was the case when I was last here 30 years ago, still use a form of caked and uneven pale custard coloured cheek powder made from sandalwood and making them look for all the world as if they have just finished making dough and clapped flour-covered hands to cheeks. Everyone of any social standing doesn’t want to get tanned, so carry umbrellas to ward off the midday sun (into which only mad dogs and Englishment go, as Noel Coward wrote of this part of the world).

A trip around some of the lesser payas (pagodas) this morning brought me face to face (or actually face to armpit) with the hugest reclining buddha I have yet seen. They even posted a table of vital statistics including the expected length and height, but also some more obscure ones like ‘size of eyeball’, and mysteriously ‘length of protruberance’ (for the record 2 feet)…

I couldn’t hold off visiting the ShweDagon pagoda any longer. I remember it as stunning. And it still is. This is the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen anywhere. Partly because it is still very much used as a religious site; partly because there are so very few tourists; but mostly because it is totally, utterly, blow your mind lavishly colourful. You emerge from the dark entrance stairway into a deafening explosion of technicolour glitter – ShweDagon is not just one huge stupa, but around the base cluster an incredible assortment of smaller stupas, statues, temples, shrines, images, and pavilions. The main stupa which is 120feet high (about a 15 storey building), is gilded round the base levels but from the lotus flowers about halfway up, it gets real. The banana bud is covered with 13,000 foot square plates covered in gold. The weather vane at the very top is studded with 1100 diamonds totalling 278 carats, leaving aside over 1300 other precious stones. And the whole is capped off with a hollow gold sphere covered in 4400 more diamonds and tipped with a single 76 carat stone. As the sun sets, if you stand in certain spots you can see the sparkle from the diamonds reflected to ground level in rainbow colours.

But all this talk of numbers and size cannot convey the feeling of deep, though informal, religiosity. Worshippers throughout the day far outnumber tourists, and as the sun begins to set, the gold goes from light, to dark, to rosey hued – as the night decends into inky darkness. And then they turn on the spotlights. To see everything illuminated in brightest gold and set against a black night – perhaps with a nearly full moon as last night, is a magical experience that I have carried with me since last here 30 years ago, and which has lost nothing at all in the replaying. This is simply the most astounding religious building in the world…

This morning may have seemed an anti-climax, but I’m going back to the ShweDagon this afternoon. Buying a rail ticket to Moulmein for tomorrow was much fun. It’s always challenging when faced with a booking office where all the signs are in an unknown script. But they dug out someone with rudimentary English and then in clicked the Indian style bureaucracy that was transported to Burma by the British (along with a huge number of Indians to run it). After much writing with carbon paper in triplicate and much stamping of paper (two stamps at least on top of each other), I am the proud possessor of a limp piece of paper which is my ticket for the down train at 6:30am in Upper Class with reserved seating (the only choice on offer to foreigners). Should be interesting…

In the spirit of covering my bases, and because I have never been anywhere I could do this before (though possibly one could in Manchester), I visited places of worship of the five great world religions this morning. Amazingly, there is still a large synagogue here (though only 8 families remain of the thousands who were here 100 years ago), the Sri Kali temple was suitably riotously coloured on the outside, and dark and basic inside (I offered a prayer to Ganesh for my future improved financial wellbeing), and then St Mary’s, followed by the Sunni mosque which sits right beside my hotel, and finally to the pagoda housing the first of Buddha’s hairs to make landfall in Burma. That was pretty reverentially amazing with mountains of banknotes stuffed through a slot to fall next to the relic and into the well where it was found. Strangely Buddha’s tooth (big) and body relics (small) are housed in much less splendour outside. I left donations at the three places which offered me that option, so I should have a panoply of deities watching over me now (I hope).

Much has changed in Myanmar since I wrote this in early 2011. Check out the latest here.

Please check out all the images of Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda here.


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