Thursday, 9 June 2011

Untouchable Utopia: Yangon, Myanmar

Motherland Inn 2- Free pickup from airport, able to book buses/flights, currency exchange from dollars; fan, shared bathroom- $13 was $10 at the time. Dorm rooms also available for $8

Places to See: Shwedagon Pagoda can be seen via taxi for $2-$5 or you could attempt to walk however you may need a map, Bogyoke Aung San Market, People's Square Park, not to mention her (Aung San's house)

Getting to and from Yangon: From Bangkok, via AirAsia from £40

Transport: Walkable mostly, otherwise taxis are relatively cheap

Well, I finally made it to the solo leg of my trip aka venturing through the relatively untouched lands of Myanmar/ Burma via Bangkok. So I was constantly warned about a militant government, censorship and general guerrilla behaviour; I took it in my stride to prove that there was more to this small country. As I watched the desolate earth from the plane, I noticed hundreds of glimmering pagodas outlining the horizon, one in particular was the Shwedagon Pagoda- Myanmar's largest Buddhist Temple. The sun reflected into several directions, bouncing off the gold leafed structures as we (several other travellers) finally touched ground level. Out to meet us were several happy staff members from Motherland Inn 2, ready to whisk away a group of tourists in a rather broken down minivan. Thoughts of Mongolia started creeping in, but thankfully the journey lasted half an hour and not 16 hours.

Eventually I made it to the happy haven of Motherland Inn, greeted by a group of smiling faces painted with their traditional wooden sun screen. Everything was conveniently arranged within half an hour. A room, money exhange, buses, flights (however much I protested against it) and further accommodation on the way back despite all evidence to the contrary by various news mediums. Yangon already seemed to be a welcoming, congenial town- but I guess it wasn't them however we were worried about. After a 3 hour nap from a relatively early start, I ventured off through the dusty streets of Myanmar, getting customarily lost in 10 minutes. But this wasn't Vietnam, and there seemed to be less charm to foreign tourists by the local authorities. Surrounded by armed military, certain areas throughout the city were closed off, and an abrupt foot soldier halted us immediately as we realised we had taken a wrong turn.

He ushered us towards the right direction of the pagodas, located centrally. I think being foreign still had its perks even in an authoritarian oppressive country such as Myanmar. So first encounter with the military, and phew we had made it completely intact. On our way, it was unexpected to see a mishmash of several faiths and cultures. If it wasn't monks trailing along the pavements, there were mosques, churches and various other religious areas. The people resembled both South Asians and Eastern people, including wearing their traditional attires. They smiled and contently gestured as we walked for miled on end through Yangon.

The Lonely Planet map was quietly deceptive, and what should have been a 20 minute walk ended up with us roaming around for an hour or so, still without reaching our final destination. The spot we were so desperately trying to head to apparently had amazing night views of city, including of the mammoth sized Shwedagon Pagoda. I say 'night' views, because we were well shot of the dusky sunset by the time we had arrived. Succumbing to a taxi ride wasn't in the itinerary, but with our desperately lacking sense of direction, it was essential.

It was the first glimpse of Myanmar's ambivalent circumstances, as I gazed upon the glittering pagoda from what seemed to be a foreign five star restaurant, on top of a skyscraper. Confused? So was I. It took literally one beer to head out of the location, too befuddled by what I had experienced. I kept my feet firmly on the ground, as we went in search of the next destination- something that supposedly resembled a local Burmese bar. Having kept schtum about it being by birthday the entire time, I finally blurted out that it was- which seemed even a better reason to have a drink and celebrate. Despite all our wanderings about, we were officially lost and starving by this point. So what was local Burmese cuisine? It truly reflected the cultural mixed heritages that had grown to live in the country. Bordering Bangladesh, India, as well as China, the food was an amalgamation of all countries surrounding the lands.

The first meal was unforgettable. It resembled my days of entering the local fooderies in Kolkata, except this was Yangon. For a mere $2, out came a thali (large steel plate) with oodles of different kinds of curries, vegetables, rice, lentils- did I mention the free refills? Satisfied like I had died and gone to heaven, we were still determined to make our way for a drink. And what did we see to our disbelief? An Irish Pub carefully placed under the drinks section of the Lonely Planet. That was absolutely where we heading to next. So it's safe to say, I spent my 23rd birthday in an Irish Pub in Myanmar. Awesome. Though it wasn't as grimy as we would have imagined. Clearly the local Burmese have a rather upmarket view of what an Irish pub entails.

After being sufficiently hungover I headed to Bagan the next day. However, a week later or so, I returned for one day to Yangon in order to truly experience the goliath pagoda. Shwedagon consists of 88 mini golden temples in its construct, not to mention hundreds of Buddha statues and followers aimlessly roaming around the giant complex. My eyes are still blinded by the sheer amount of gold paint used on the temples that's for sure.

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