Yangon in the time of monsoons

Locals stroll around the Shwedagon Pagoda complex. All photos by David Lozada
Locals stroll around the Shwedagon Pagoda complex. All photos by David Lozada

I woke up to the loud honking of bus horns and a blue-gray sky outside the window. My seat mate signals that we should go down so I walk towards the door of the bus still groggy from my 12-hour overnight trip.

I went down from the bus, welcomed by muddy streets and hordes of taxi drivers asking me to be their first passenger of the day.

I was in Yangon, former capital and largest city of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, known for its busy streets and towering temples, a mixing pot of the country’s diverse races, considered by some as a backpacker destination though obviously more expensive than Bagan and Mandalay.

My trip to Rangoon, as locals still call it, was badly-timed – it was in the middle of the monsoon season and rain clouds covered the skies during most of my stay.

The view from my hotel room.
The view from my hotel room.

I head to my hotel in downtown Yangon after getting another passenger to share the fare. I pay MMK 4,000 upon reaching Hotel 51. It was still 8 AM but the concierge didn’t mind an early check in – a courtesy, I learned, was common in most hotels in Burma. 

The “cuddle” weather made it difficult to start going around the city’s top attractions. I dozed off a couple of hours in my snug hotel room, waking up hungry in the late afternoon.

A walking tour of downtown Yangon

Walking around Yangon, if not for the muddy streets and random drizzles, would have been easy since the city’s major sites are found in the same areas. Downtown Yangon, for example, is home to many notable places like the Botataung and Sule Pagodas, and Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

Locating the tourist sites is also fairly easy as long as you have a map. The city is divided into blocks that are easy to traverse and the streets mostly have signs.

Inside and outside the Botataung Pagoda.
Inside and outside the Botataung Pagoda.

The first on my list was Botataung Pagoda, on the banks of Yangon river, since it was only a few blocks away from my hotel. I arrived at the crowded pagoda and paid the MMK 3,500 tourist fee, eager to see what the fuss inside was about. Well, the wet weather was worth what was inside the pagoda – a gold-coated interior housing what is believed to be a sacred hair of Buddha, among other relics.

After visiting so many Buddhist temples in Mandalay and Bagan, I felt it was about time I visited a Christian church. I headed to Saint Mary’s Cathedral near the town center hoping to catch the 6 PM mass. Unfortunately, the service was held in Burmese (the English mass is in the morning).

Saint Mary's Cathedral in Yangon.
Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon.

Still, my visit to the largest cathedral in Burma was fruitful as it showed me a glimpse of Burmese spirituality. Outside the cathedral are statues of Joseph and Mary – they seem like the typical Catholic figures until you see the smoke rising from the incense in their feet. For context, Buddhists use incense to extol statues of Buddha. This is Christianity contextualized and localized. I guess old habits die hard.

If you walk to the very center of Yangon, where the city hall is located, it’s hard not to see the Sule Pagoda, even at night. Legend has it that it was built before the Shwedagon Pagoda, making it more than 2,500 years old. One thing is for sure – this place has been a critical point for the country’s politics and history, being the meeting point for many protests.

There’s really nothing special about the interior of the pagoda – and you have to pay MMK 3,500 to see what’s inside, mind you. It’s really the history that it witnessed that makes Sule Pagoda special.

Sule Pagoda is located at the very heart of Yangon.
Sule Pagoda is located at the very heart of Yangon.

THE Shwedagon Pagoda

Of all the temples and pagodas I visited in Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon, nothing compares to the beauty and complexity of the Shwedagon Pagoda. I, unintentionally, saved the best for last.

The majestic Shwedagon Pagoda.
The majestic Shwedagon Pagoda.

There are 4 stairways you can use to go up the hill, one in each cardinal direction. Like in Mandalay Hill, the wide stairways are lined with shops selling trinkets and religious items. Upon arriving at the top, you’ll be asked to pay MMK 8,000 to enter.

There are many tour guides on top of the hill looking to get customers. If you really want to understand the history behind of the pagoda, you’ll be better off hiring one. Each will ask around MMK 5,000 to MMK 8,000 for a 30-minute tour. If you’re traveling alone like me, hiring a tour guide isn’t such a bad idea – at least you have someone to take your photos.

One of the many temples in the Shwedagon complex.
One of the many temples in the Shwedagon complex.

There are many other structures inside the complex aside from the golden stuppa in the middle. Make sure you visit as many structures as you can because each has its own unique story and history to tell. It’s important not to miss the photo gallery showing a close-up of the pagoda’s top-most section. You’ll be amazed how much gold and precious stones are there!

Look for the spot where there’s a palm tree – I think it’s in the North Gate – that’s the best place to take a photo of the entire Shwedagon. There’s also an open area where you’ll see a lot of locals praying. This is considered a lucky wishing spot, where the royals used to pray before entering war.

Burmese spirituality.
Burmese spirituality.

You can hang out in the pagoda complex as long as you want. There are shaded areas where you can eat, sit and meditate – or even sleep. There are also money changers around the complex so you can easily change your foreign currency there.

Go green

The best souvenir to buy in Myanmar is jade. You’ll see it being sold everywhere. From jade rings to other kinds of jewelry, you can find so many trinkets made of jade in every place you’ll visit.

In Yangon, the best place to shop for souvenirs is the Bogyoke Aung Market, located near the Sule Pagoda. As in any Southeast Asian city, you can haggle for prices before purchasing them. The general rule is the more you buy, the bigger discount you can ask.

The Bogyoke Aung Market.
The Bogyoke Aung Market.

If you have more Kyats and USDs to spare, you can buy jewelry made of more expensive stones. Rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds – these can all be found in Bogyoke. Take note though that you should buy from a certified jeweler (1) so you can be sure that what you’re buying is genuine, and (2) so you can ask for a certificate of the jewelry that you might need to show the immigration.

Rainy goodbye

I left Yangon the same way I arrived – in a taxi amid bad weather just after sunrise. I had to pay MMK 8,000 for a ride to Yangon International Airport from my hotel. There’s really no other option so be sure to save some kyats for the ride home.

Though there were many departing passengers, it only took me around 30 minutes from check in to my boarding gate. The entire process, even the immigration, was smooth. Make sure you change your kyats back to USD or Euro in the airport since it’s pretty much useless abroad, even in nearby Thailand.

As I was waiting for my boarding gate to open, I checked all the photos I took in my 9-day Myanmar trip. From the hills of Mandalay to the thousands of pagodas of Bagan to my wet adventure in Yangon, Burma was really the best culmination to my adventures in my home region.

Myanmar is the last ASEAN country I visited. It’s an overwhelming feeling to realize that in just 3 years, I was able to visit all 10 ASEAN states – making lifelong friends and unforgettable memories along the way.

Yet, my Project 25 list is still incomplete and my travels continue. I think it’s time I visit another region or continent.

The PA system announces that my flight to Bangkok was now boarding. I go home looking forward to the next time I visit Myanmar.

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