Floating in Myanmar, Yangon Style
I’ve always had a fascination with Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known. It started way back when I first visited the beautiful home, now monument to a legendary silk merchant Jim Thompson in Bangkok, Thailand. His contribution to the silk trade in the region including Burma and unexplained disappearance has held my attention for years. And of course, who hasn’t been interested in the life and times of Myanmar’s current ruler, Aung San Suu Kyi?
So, when I was offered a unique opportunity to join a small group led by the author of Floating, James Cannon Boyce, I jumped at the chance. Floating chronicles James’ travels in Myanmar in search of answers about his father’s untimely death there. Our ten-day trip would follow the story line of the book and include time in Yangon, Bagan and the fabled Inle Lake.
The decision to visit was not taken lightly given the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country at the time. We were very conscious to stay in independent hotels and eat at family owned restaurants. Part of the revenue generated from the trip was also donated to groups such as Hla Day and Girl Determined that are doing so much for good in their communities. This ensured small businesses and non-profit organisations there benefited from the trip.
Bustling Modern Yangon
Our Myanmar Floating adventure started in Yangon.
Today, Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar. It was known for many years as Rangoon, until 1989 and today remains Myanmar’s commercial and artistic hub despite the changes over time.
These changes have been significant. Interestingly in 1930 Rangoon was struck by a massive earthquake and tidal wave. Then during the second World War it was the scene of major fighting between the Allies and the Japanese and suffered extensive damage. The city was subsequently rebuilt, though by the late 20th century the city’s economic vitality had declined, largely because of the isolationist policies pursued by the Myanmar government. In 2005 government offices were transferred to Pyinmana, a city some 200 miles (320 km) north of Yangon. The government built another new capital, Nay Pyi Taw, near Pyinmana. Neither of these have ever come close to the scale and energy of Yangon, despite the government’s best efforts.
We stayed at The Classique Inn. From the moment that you step in you feel at home in this warm traditional Myanmar family’s boutique guest house. The Inn houses many time honoured Myanmar artifacts, paintings and sculptures and has a small quiet garden and shady patio where breakfast is served each day.
We just managed to shower and unpack before it was dinner time. Eating would become a main attraction during our time in Myanmar. On our first night out, we had dinner at The LinkAge Training Restaurant and Arts. The LinkAge is a very novel eating concept. Called a vocational training restaurant, it’s a unique social project linked to
the Forever Humanitarian & Development Projects, founded by a volunteer group in 2010. Here we sat among a good collection of Myanmar Fine Art and ate delicious food prepared and served by enthusiastic young adolescents, mostly previously homeless.
The food was exceptional. Indeed, the eggplant salad was hands down the best I have ever eaten.
Temples and more…
Early the next morning we hit the road. Literally. A jump start on some old rickshaws gave us a close-up view of the city and allowed us to pace the day before we started the serious business of visiting some of Yangon’s famous Buddhist temples.
Yangon is the site of several major religious edifices, including the World Peace Pagoda and the Sule and Botataung pagodas.
We began with a visit to Botataung pagoda early in the morning. It was pretty quiet as it is not as well frequented by tourists, but is popular among locals. We also got to see the giant sized reclining Buddha Chaukhtatgyi. All other reclining Buddha’s you may have seen or will ever get to see in Asia will pale in significance to this one. Personally, I found it surreal and almost gaudy and preferred the more ancient version – there are pictures showing what it used to look like before the very glossy make over.
However, it is difficult not to admire the sheer audacity and scale of this Buddha.
These sights were merely a taste of things to come. Most notable of all the temples we would visit in Yangon was the Shwedagon Pagoda – the masterpiece of Buddhist temples in all of Myanmar and well beyond words.
Rudyard Kipling wrote “As it stood overlooking everything it seemed to explain all about Burma.” And he was right.
The Shwedagon is more than a national symbol. It is Myanmar’s Fort Knox. Its main stupa alone is plated with nearly 22,000 solid gold bars, and estimates of the pagoda’s total gold range from 9 to 60 tons. The estimated value of that umbrella atop the US$3 billion, or at least 5 percent of Myanmar’s current annual gross domestic product. It’s also set with over 5500 diamonds – the largest of which is similar in size to one that Sotheby’s auctioned for $10-12 million. Its main spire boasts 2300 rubies, sapphires, and other gems, and 4000 golden bells. And none of this includes the gold, jewels, and 21st-century LED displays that swirl around many of the Buddhas’ and hundreds of other buildings on the pagoda platform.
I was so taken with this temple that after dinner my son and I returned before it closed. And if during the day this temple is spectacular, at night it has a supernaturally serene air to it that is far more compelling.
We wandered around the temple under the stars, our bare feet still able to feel the warmth of day on the marble. A soft cool breeze wafted through the passageways, tickling the hanging bells, so soft happy tunes filled the air. There was hardly a soul around, except for the few monks at work and stray cats. It’s a memory that will forever remain etched on my mind.
Happiness is Hla Day
The next morning, we stopped in at Hla Day. This is another unique project in Yangon. The Hla Day team work with Myanmar artisans, disadvantaged groups and small local businesses to design, develop and sell quality handmade products with a contemporary twist. Hla Day provides a sustainable market place, business and design training to support the livelihoods of local producers, many of whom are struggling to overcome disability, exclusion and poverty.
After buying gifts, we took back to the streets. Walking the streets of Yangon, you really get a sense of the old colonial history. Many of the ancient buildings remain, some updated, most not (yet). I marveled at the gracious old buildings, many have ivy and even bushes pouring out of every brick and corner. We stumbled upon a delightful gallery, called River Gallery down an side street and also stopped in our tracks to watch an old man type out letters for a queue of customers on an antique typewriter on the payment. It was as if they had been suspended in time. No Apple Mac. Just a good old-fashioned typewriter and paper. Yes, it still works!
We made a quick visit to the Bogyoke Aung San, a museum dedicated to General Aung San, founder of modern Myanmar. Established in 1962, the two-story museum was Aung San’s last residence before his assassination in July 1947. It is a colonial-era villa, where his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi grew up and sadly where one of his son’s drowned in the large garden pond. The house exhibits show his life story and general memorabilia which includes clothing, books, furniture, family photos and the late general’s car. I found the house a little disappointing and while it is of interest, it would not be on my top ten places to visit if time strapped.
But our next visit would be.
If you love antiques, Mr. Kyi – pronounced Mr. G. has a veritable antique collection and is
one of the most memorable characters in the book Floating. He certainly lived up to the persona in the pages. Mr Kyi’s passion for antiques was irrepressible. He took out one beautiful treasure after the next to show us and the only challenge we had, was how to fit all this stuff in our luggage. Luckily, Mr Kyi ships items.
After a successful afternoon tea, he offered to take us all to dinner, which was extremely generous. And dining with the locals is joyful. Food is chosen for you and shared around, so we got to taste a little of everything.
And with that our whirlwind tour of Yangon was over. We were heading for Bagan and looking forward to our next adventure in Myanmar.
How to get to Yangon, Myanmar
The country is accessible by air from many travel destinations. We flew from Johannesburg, South Africa, via Dubai directly into Yangon on Emirates.
Travelers can apply and pay for Visas in advance on-line. It was a very easy process from start to finish and should be attended to within six weeks of the travel date to to Myanmar.
What to Pack
Packing for Myanmar was more challenging than usual. As well versed as I am at traveling, this time I had to really give extra thought to what I included.
Luckily my hard case luggage is super-light in weight, durable and easy to maneuver with four wheels each. It travels best over long distances and as the weather would vary from place to place.
I packed a good travel umbrella (and it would be a lifesaver many times when my hat even failed to provide relief from the sun) as well as some rain. I also took a lightweight smart compact leather Samsonite backpack for the daily excursions.
Some Helpful Luggage Tips For Travelers
If you take care of your luggage while you travel you can extend it’s longevity.
Hard side care
To clean hard side luggage, use a gentle soap and warm water, rinsing well. When you return from your travels you can also wax the case after cleaning. Any good silicone-base automobile or furniture polish will preserve the lustre and add resistance to the covering. Do not try to clean the luggage with a combination cleaner-polish.
Soft side care
To clean soft side luggage, spot clean it rather with a mild soap (i.e. dish soap) and water. If this is not successful, try a product used for spot removal on clothing, or using a foam type cleaner used to clean car mats or automobile carpets. If the luggage has an offensive odour, use a vinegar (1 part) and water (5 parts) mixture. This may take the odour out but it will then need to be aired out for a few days. Also, place charcoal in the bag for a day or more (depending on the strength of the odour) and close the bag. The charcoal will absorb the smell.
To read the previous entry in Gisèle’s travel diary where she shares tips on how to pack like a professional traveler, click here. If you’re interested in learning more about Myanmar, the places, and people, follow Gisèle on Twitter and Instagram, where she has been chronicling her journey.