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Many people were surprised to learn that my family and I were going to Myanmar for holidays. She is a closed country which is gradually opening up for tourism. A country whose size is bigger than United Kingdom and France combined yet virtually unknown. Myanmar is the largest country in South-East Asia with a land size of 676,577 sq km and a population of about 48.8 million. Reading from travel tales has sparked my interest to visit this Buddhist country, about two hours and forty minutes flight away from Singapore.
I am determined to see for myself the much talked-about the warmth and friendliness of the Burmese despite the general poverty of the masses. I was not disappointed. Two incidents had convinced me the geniune kindness of the common people in Myanmar.
Faces of Myanmar
On our way to Shwedagon Pagoda in a taxi, I asked the taxi driver, a Chinese descendent, was there any nearby restaurant. To my surprise, after reaching the pagoda, he parked his taxi and came out to show us the way to the restaurant. This gesture had impressed me. I never have such a gesture rendered to me before.
While touring around the premises of one of the many pagodas, I saw a scrawny man carrying a ice-box. Presumably, I thought to myself he was selling ice-cream. I was right. He did not speak English and I cannot understood Burmese. So the universal sign language. Presto ! He understood what I was asking. He opened the ice-box for me to see. I requested to take a photo of him. Not only did he oblige, he took out a ice-cream and posed for me.
I was very impressed. The people may be poor but they work hard and live a simple and happy life.
In the hotel where we stayed for the five days, we were politely greeted by the staff whenever we met. Hotel Nikko Royal Lake is basically catered for Japanese. Not sure whether the staff have special training. Nevertheless, it was a very pleasant stay for us.
Basically, I saw no Burmese wearing shorts at all. I was a little apprehended to wear one. Hence, throughout the five days, I was wearing long pants. For most, the Burmese will wear longyi. It is a kind of sarong that you wrap around your waist. Very colourful and charming. Pardon me, I did not wear one as I have never worn a sarong in my life. My daugher,Jia Hwei who was influenced just after five days, bought two longyi.
Unlike us in Singapore where most families have 2 children, Burmese families are bigger. .
If you are in Yangon, you cannot miss the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. It is magnificient especially in the night. Because one has to remove sock and shoes, it is advisable to go in the evening. While we were there, the weather was so hot, it would be painful to walk barefoot.
Shwedagon Pagoda was built around 2500 years ago. It is situated at the Singuttara Hill, about 3 km from the city center. With the golden stupa rising more than 100 metre high, we could see it from our hotel room. A beautiful sight, especially in the evening. Every day, thousand of pilgrims will visit this famed pagoda in Myanmar.
‘Shwe’ means gold and ‘Dagon is a former name of Yangon. The pagoda’s beauty derives from the complex geometry of its shape and surrounding structures, equally mesmerizing is its golden glow. The lower stupa is plated with 8688 gold bars and 13,153 on the upper stupa. The tip of the stupa is set with 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies, saphires and other gems with 1065 golden bells. At the very top is a single 76 carat diamond. Awesome.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the largest building in the world which is covered with gold. It is also the highest pagoda in the world, the largest golden monument in the world, the most valuable building in the world and the largest golden pyramid of the world.
Foreign tourists are requested to pay entrance fees to visit the pagodas. For Shwedagon, it is US$5.00 per person. Personally, I feel it is quite high. Nevertheless, if the money is for the upkeep of the pagodas, good for them. The local needs not pay. All donations are voluntary, from the smallest coin to the priceless jewels hung on the top of the pagoda.
We paid US$30.00 for car and driver to take us to Bago, some 83 km northeast of Yangon. It is another township full of pagodas. We visited the Shwethalyaung Buddha – a 55 metre and 16 metre reclining Buddha.
Along the way to Bago, we stopped to take a look at the Allied War Memorial Cementery(32 km from Yangon) which has 27,000 gravestones of Commonwealth and Allied soldiers. This place has an air of peace and serenity.
Entrance to Bago required us to pay US$10.00 per head. This will enable you to visit the various awesome pagodas in the Bago area. Noticeably is the Shewemawdaw Pagoda. As most signs in pagoda was in Burmese, if you are not sure, ask. Jia Hwei and I were climbing up the stairs at one of the stupa where we heard someone was shouting. Needless to say, we did not understand a single word. Actually, they were telling Jia Hwei to stop as female was not allowed to climb up.
About one hour drive from Yangon across Myanmar longest bridge is Thanlyin (Syriam). Again, I engaged the same dirver whose name is Win for the service. I paid US$20.00 for the half day trip.
To reach Yele Pagoda, one needs to take a short boat ride to an island. For the tourists, it was 500 kyats per head. The boat has chairs. For the local, it is different boat. Needless to say, there are no chairs.
Where we will go to the beach for a family outing, I noticed, the Burmese will go to one of pagodas for a family outing. There is always a shelter area in the vicinity of the pagoda. This is the place where one can take their lunch and spend the afternoon away. The devotee goes to the pagoda is to rejoice: to rejoice in the good deeds of others and in one’s own good fortune to be able to do good deeds.
I did not see many highrise buildings in Yangon. There were many buildings in various state of dilapidation. However, there are some constructions going on. In 10 years time, I wonder how Yangon will be. Currently, you cannot find a MacDonald or Starbucks there. I could not find any shopping centre too. It’s a different world.
The Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scotts Market) is one the most crowded places in Yangon. Here, there are many shops selling many wares. I saw Hang Ten and Giodarno. Along the streets nearby, there were many street vendors selling anything you can think of. I saw one selling puppies!
As far as food is concerned, we were afraid to try the road-side hawkers. Imagine having upset stomachs is already a deterrent factor. We were warned to take only bottled drinks. It is better to be safe than unsafe. So, most of our meals were taken in restaurants. Because of our exchange rate, I could consider the food was cheap and good. One particular Indian restaurant near Hotel Nikko was Asoka. Superb food with immaculate service. We found this restaurant by chance.
Public transport was a nightnare for us. We wandered by taxi and foot. Again, the taxi fare was cheap for us. There was no traffic congestion on most of the roads. As cars were expensive, I saw more taxis than private cars. Most of vehicles are not air-conditioned. As long as it can move, they will use it – never mind how old or how bad the condition of the vehicle. Despite the old vehicles running, the roads were generally clean. In Bago, I noticed that horse cart was used as a kind of public transport. Poor horse was as scrawny as the owner. In Thanlyin, there was the good old bullock-cart. The bulls were not as bad shape as the horses.
By the way, I nearly became a millionare in Myanmar when I changed US dollar into kyats! One US dollar = 900 kyats during my stay there. Just for the record, this was the black market exchange. One piece of good news is where previously tourist needs to change US$200 into government issued foreign exchange certificates (FEC), this regulation is now gone when I was there. Imagine, since there are three of us and we need to change US$600 ! Personally, I feel with this regulation gone, more tourists will visit the Golden Land. I hope they will accept credit cards in the future.
Generally, the trip was an eye-opener for us. How lucky we are to live in this part of the world. Where one bowl of noodle cost 3 dollars or more in Singapore, this sum could be a daily income of the average earner in Myanmar. Labour must be very cheap. In a small shop, I noticed there were 4 to 5 employees around.
No amount of reading materials can be as valuable as hand-on experience. I was fearful of the Burmese customs initially without knowing what to expect. It turned out to be different. They were not too friendly but diplomatic. I hate touts. There were some. Leave them alone and they leave you. I worry about how to join the local tours as we were on free and easy package. People came to me and introduced the tour package.
In retospect, I think 4 days in Yangon should be sufficient. My tour package was 3D2N which I found was too short. Hence, I extended 2 more days. Tour price=S$358 per head with S$48 per head per extension day. We flied Myanmar Airways International.
I would never know the friendliness and warmth of the taxi driver and ice-cream man, the intelligence of DoDo, the elephant in Yangon Zoo,
the smile of the receptionist, the goodby wave of the pop-corn boy,
the interesting chit-chat with the young waiters..
yes, I hope I will be back someday.