The morning sun is glinting off the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. We are driven to the lake/park in the center of Yangon and stop at a good viewing spot so we can get pictures of Myanmar’s most famous pagoda bathed in the morning light. Our guide pays for our entrance and we walk inside the gate, maybe 20M, stand on the edge of a boardwalk and shoot a couple of pics. This is totally ridiculous. The pictures are not great, it would have to be a perfect day to get good photos and I think, I did not go to check, I could have gotten mediocre pictures just outside the gate and saved the entrance fee. If you come here try just outside the gate first. If you have to get on to the boardwalk you can enter the park at any other gate for free and walk to this particular boardwalk to shoot the shot that every other tourist to Yangon has shot.
The driver lets us off at a street corner in Chinatown and we start our walking tour of downtown Yangon. Personally I like to do this sort of thing. This is the way to see how the people of the land live their day to day lives. Up and down the streets we walk. They are crowded with on the street type shops. Everyone has something for sale. Live eels squirming in a wash tub, live pheasants in a small wire cage, meat from some identifiable animals, some not so much, vegetables, cooking utensils, and whatever else one might need, all being displayed side by side in harmony. There is hardly any room to walk much less for a vehicle. The area is much the same as Chinatown in most cities of the world but there is a subtle difference I cannot identify. It may be due to the fact that the sellers are quiet, no yelling of what is for sale, merchants just sit by their goods and wait for a prospective customer to approach them.
We look to the other side of The Strand; a very busy street that runs parallel to the docks. Our goal is to get to the other side and visit those docks. As in most of the world the pedestrian does in practice not have the right of way. So with five of us trying to make it to the other side it is quite a chore. Mo, our Yangon guide, has to shepherd 4 Myanmar street novices across. Lane by lane we cross and stand on the line between the rows of moving traffic. The drivers are quite polite and do not take direct aim at us but in fact do steer around the human island. They do, none the less, continue on their journey and have no intention of stopping to let us across the next lane. We get to the center line and pause, waiting for the light on our left to turn red which would allow us to bolt between the stopped cars. Fat chance! The light turns red and it seems the red light is merely an indication there may be danger ahead, it does not mean stop as we had assumed, the traffic continues on. We wait. There is finally a small gap and we all rush across the last two lanes and arrive on the dock side of the street.
I am enamored by the docks. 25 years ago I visited Singapore. I had a romantic vision of the docks there. I had seen pictures of rusty old ships docked along the banks with gang planks the only access to the shore. The gang planks were alive with coolies walking up and down carrying heavy loads. By the time I had arrived in Singapore the cultural evolution to the cleanest place on earth had taken hold of the dock lands and the entire river bank was this lovely sterile walkway with high-end condos lining the length. Very beautiful but oh so disappointing to a traveller on his first trip to SE Asia.
Today I am astounded by what I see. There are many ships of all varieties docked at the jetty, as it is referred to. Docked there is a ship with a walkway leading ashore and there two lines of workers, one carrying 50kg bags ashore on their backs and one returning for another load. It took 25 years but right in front of me is that romantic vision I had conjured up on my first trip to a world much different than the one I live in.
The walk about town continues through the Muslim area. The scene is the same just a slightly different focus on what is for sale. We do not walk too many side streets but there is a lot of action on the main streets. If we had a few more days we would be able to strike out into the suburbs and explore the more mundane side of life but I get my fix of Myanmar city day to day life and it makes my day.
There are places where you will run into other travellers and there are areas where you won’t. The first tourists we see after we got dropped at the corner of Chinatown is when we get to our lunch spot. It is funny but the guides tend to lead us to the restaurants that are totally set for foreigners. The food is good but somewhat boring when the first thing on the menu is pizza.
After a short drive around the area where the grand colonial buildings are situated, most of which are in good condition and with a small amount of work could be spectacular, we head to Myanmar’s most famous pagoda. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the center piece of thousands phaya throughout the land. The tall spire is almost 100M high and the top ¾ is faced with gold plated tiles. The bottom quarter is covered in gold leaf. The group responsible for care of the stupa maintains 3 metric tons of gold adorning this most spectacular religious symbol.
We arrive at the Shwedagon Pagoda just after 4pm, the perfect time to hang out and wait for the evening sun to light the golden spire, providing an opportunity to get a good photo or two. The morning light was only OK, and now the clouds have gathered in the west and stifle our hopes to get that once in a trip pic.