Yangon, Myanmar

Baffling Burma, Magical Myanmar

I loved my visit to Myanmar, it’s a beautiful country full of surprises.  I went without knowing much beyond there were a lot of pagodas. What a wonderful surprise to discover such a diverse and fascinating place.  It’s magical and mystical, but at times completely baffling.

Myanmar has a fascinating history.  With lots of natural resources it was once the wealthiest nation in the region.  However the military took charge in 1962, and now it is one of the poorest countries in the world.   In the 50 or so years that the Generals were running the show, Myanmar was also completely cut off from the rest of the world. Is it this isolation which is why the country is at times completely baffling?

I arrived very late to Yangon from Laos, around 11.00pm. So driving out of Yangon International airport I was ready for bed and bleary eyed.  I sat in the back seat, and noted that the driver was in the right hand side, as I am used to.  It took me a few minutes to realise however, that in Myanmar the cars drove on the right hand side, not the left.  So the drivers are on the right side, near the edge of the road.  It was completely bizarre!  At first I felt quite discombobulated.  Then I was worried as I realised that the driver couldn’t see the road properly.  Then I realised that all the drivers are in the same boat.

The cars were modern, so I thought perhaps that the road rules had recently been changed.  But no, I later learned that the Generals decided to change the driving from the left to the right in the early 70s, but didn’t allow for left-hand drive cars to be imported.  So now all the drivers are completely used to it.  It would possibly be more confusing to change, however completely baffling for me.

The Generals also decided that motorcycles in the city are dangerous, so unlike every other bustling Asian city that I have visited, the roads have zero motorbikes.  The whim of the Generals!

Yangon itself is busy and traffic-clogged, however there are two huge lakes in the middle of the city, surrounded by lush parklands, that offer a green respite from the city smog.  That is if you can handle the heat and the humidity, and don’t don’t put your foot through the rotting wooden balconies overlooking the lake.

Yangon, Myanmar

Royal Lake, Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar

Downtown Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar

Downtown Yangon

However the main attraction in the city is the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda.  The largest, and most sacred religious site in Myanmar, it’s a massive structure with a huge gold domed pagoda sitting above the city. Apparently there are nearly 22,000 gold bars covering the structure, which is 99 metres high, and precious jewels  are studded at the top. It’s existed in one form or another for more than 2500 years.  It was really huge, much larger than I expected, and a spiritual place for the Burmese.  However despite the crowds it was still possible to find a quiet place for contemplation.  I saw some pink-robed Buddhist nuns praying under a large shady tree. It’s a place for tourists, but obviously still very much for worship, and it really did feel quite magical.

Yangon, Myanmar

Pink-robed nuns, Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

However while most in Myanmar are Buddhist, it’s an incredibly diverse country. There’s the Sule Pagoda, located on the unlikely location of a busy roundabout, plus the Hindu temple, Chinese temples, churches, mosques, sikh temples…… In parts of Myanmar there are even still tribes that practice animism, which considers that everything, from animals and plants to rocks, rivers and anything you can think of, as animate and alive.  Every one of our guides took great pride in telling me that Myanmar was very diverse, both with religion and ethnicity, and that everyone was respected.  They all said “we have no discrimination here”.  I am not sure that the Rohingya Muslims would agree.

It was however quite baffling to find that the Burmese had an obsession with Astrology.  There are eight signs, one for each day of the week, with Wednesday being split between mornings and afternoons.  Even at the temples, there are shrines for each day of the week, where you could make prayers for luck.  As a Monday-born child, this is the day of the Tiger, and the east is my lucky direction.  Monday-born children are supposed to be ambitious, very bright and alert.  So far so good.  However apparently the Monday-born child has outstanding patience, so something is not quite right with the astrological world!  The day of the week even dictates what your name is.  The fortunes relating to your astrological sign and your name is critical.  One of our guides was given a new name after his father consulted an astrologist and advised his parents that his original name was unlucky.

At times it seems like Myanmar is a land forgotten.  Everything was incredibly manual, including the daily thanaka application.  Thanaka is a white paste made from ground bark and applied as a natural cosmetic on Burmese faces.  While most common on women, men use it as well. I had a go at making it from a thanaka log, wow what a workout!

Myanmar

At the markets……lady with Thanaka …. but the cat stole the show!

One of the weirdest experiences for most tourists was at the airport.  We took a few internal flights, and checking in seemed normal enough.  However once checked in we were given a sticker to put on our chests, and our boarding pass didn’t have a seat number.  It was a free for all – boarding was called and then it was run!  Get the best seat!  It turns out I wasn’t very lady-like in this endeavour.

Yangon, Myanmar

Boarding passes, Myanmar style

The Burmese are unfailingly polite.  We had to think for a moment when my guide said to me, “Please thank your driver” but after a second or two we realised he meant that we should tip him, as we wouldn’t be seeing the driver again. The guides were constantly reminding us to “please check your belongings”, or “please mind your head”.  Everyone we came across was completely genuine and sincere, and very kind. Was this because the Generals had been running their lives for so long and they had been so removed from the rest of the world?  Or maybe it really was an acceptance of the vast diversity of their country.

The country is changing rapidly, visiting now it felt as if the country is on the cusp of major change as more and more international visitors start coming.  It’s magical, it’s baffling, and I say get in quick!

Yangon, Myanmar

Sunset in Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar

Worshipping in Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar

Downtown Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar

Sule Pagoda, Yangon

Comments
2 Responses to “Baffling Burma, Magical Myanmar”
  1. Richard says:

    Really enjoyed this article Rachael. Would love to go there some day!!
    Don’t worry about the zodiac ‘patience’ inconsistency. It is a family trait!!!!
    Best wishes for a Happy Easter. Xx

    • Happy Easter to you too! Mum and Dad are here at the moment and we are enjoying the sunshine in Sydney. I hope it’s finally stopped raining over there, what terrible weather you’ve had. Hope all is well with you xx

Leave A Comment

%d bloggers like this: