When my time in Thailand came to an end I was feeling ready to move on to something different, and different is what I found when I arrived in Yangon, Myanmar.
From 1962 until 2011, Myanmar, also known as Burma until 1989, was ruled by a brutal and oppressive military dictatorship which effectively cut off contact with the outside world. With a history full of civil wars between ethnic groups, its first democratically elected leader installed just last year, and the current state-perpetrated violence against the Rohingya people, Myanmar is a complicated country and impossible to truly experience in a week, but I wanted to get a small taste of this place that has had so little opportunity to be Americanized and turned into a tourist hub.
My first stop in Myanmar was Yangon, which is its largest city but not the capital: in 2006 the military government moved the capital to the purposely-built city of Naypyidaw, which I wish I had a chance to visit because it’s basically empty and absolutely bonkers. (Look at the pictures in that article. It’s crazy how empty the entire city is.)
I stayed in downtown Yangon, which is known for having the highest number of colonial era buildings in Southeast Asia. In the late 19th century the British colonized Burma and constructed hundreds of buildings in a variety of British and Burmese styles, and with the country’s subsequent isolationist policy many of the buildings stayed the same, although falling into disrepair throughout years of the military regime.
I only had a day and a half in Yangon so I didn’t do much besides visit a market and a couple of temples. (I’ve seen so many temples on this trip.)
Bogyoke Aung San Market was easy walking distance from my hostel and it’s the premier place to go if you’re looking for any sort of Burmese…anything. Jade bangles of varying quality can be purchased in basically every other shop and I spent a good part of my time there convincing myself that I didn’t need one in every available shade from pale mint to bright apple green. Then there are the wood carvings, lacquerware, puppets, fabrics, and longyi, which is the traditional skirt-like garment worn by both women and men. It can be worn as a wrap skirt but it’s often sewn into a tube and secured around the waist using a method of tucking and rolling.
As for the temples, first I visited Sule Pagoda, a stupa in the center of the city. Said to be more than 2,500 years old and supposedly houses a hair relic from the Buddha. The pagoda has been an important part of Burmese politics, serving as a rallying point during revolts as recently at 2007.
And last in our tour of shiny gold religious monuments we have Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, and the place that almost proved to be my undoing. Turns out that the shiny gold and white marble are extremely effective at reflecting the already strong sun and I got a little woozy from the heat.
At the tip-top of the pagoda are 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, with a 76 carat diamond crowning the whole thing. There’s a pair of binoculars installed on the grounds around the pagoda and I saw a pair of monks taking turns peeking through it to see the gems.
While I was at the pagoda I noticed signs marked with days of the week (shown in the two pictures directly above) but I didn’t know the significance. Wikipedia to the rescue:
It is important for Burmese Buddhists to know on which day of the week they were born, as this determines their planetary post. There are eight planetary posts, as Wednesday is split in two (a.m. and p.m.). They are marked by animals that represent the day — garuda for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked elephant for Wednesday morning, tuskless elephant for Wednesday afternoon, mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday and nāga for Saturday. Each planetary post has a Buddha image and devotees offer flowers and prayer flags and pour water on the image with a prayer and a wish. At the base of the post behind the image is a guardian angel, and underneath the image is the animal representing that particular day. The base of the stupa is octagonal and also surrounded by eight small shrines (one for each planetary post).
So, yes, after the beaches of Thailand, Yangon was an adjustment, but one I enjoyed experiencing. Soon, however, I was boarding an overnight bus and heading to Bagan.