When we arrived in Yangon, the biggest city and the former capital of Myanmar, it was already dark. Traffic was pretty chaotic. Even local people didn’t seem to know how to cross the street, they were randomly running amongst cars. Cars didn’t necessarily slow down when they noticed a person crossing. There was some fluorescent tubes performing as street lights but otherwise city felt way different than other capitals in South-East Asia. Couple of hours later we went to search cheap street dinner. I noticed some familiar things; scent of betel nut and men wearing longyis made me feel like being back in India. Street vendor woman selling us a typical burmese style salad was very friendly and taught us how to enjoy these new flavors even we didn’t share the same language. People were telling ‘hello’ or ‘min-ga-lar-par’ to you from many directions. Friendly people and indian influences were my first impressions of Myanmar.
There is many British colonial-era buildings in Yangon. Everything is little bit shabby but that’s what makes it charming. Even guesthouses have this authentic feeling. Our guesthouse, Mahabandoola GH, was situated in typical colonial block. Rooms were mint green with no-smoking signs written on the wall, floors were covered with flower-patterned, soft vinyl and rooms had claustrophobic feeling since they had no windows. Our hostel-keeper was smoking through window when he had free-time and his employees (three young guys) were reading buddhist prayers or studying. Mahabandoola didn’t have any air-con (during the day-time it was almost 40 degrees in Yangon central!) but lousy-working fan. I hadn’t been swetting this much during our travels so far. It was as if my face was melting!
Rules in Garden Guest House
Luckily during our first day we came across very burmese relieving thing against the heat. They call it thanaka. A girl in the street stall made thanaka to us. Thanaka is a natural plant-derived paste that Burmese women (sometimes men as well) use as natural sunscreen or ‘make-up’. Other burmese thing we did during our first days was buying longyis. Longyis are long skirts both men and women wear. We bought ours in the main market, Bogyoke Aung San.
I would rank Yangon high what it comes to characteristics or uniqueness of a city during our travels so far. Compared to metropols like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, Yangon is way behind. It has zero percent westernized atmosphere. You need to do some effort to find a pharmacy or a decent mart for example as they are more difficult to notice in Yangon’s busy street view where you don’t understand a thing about the signs as they are mostly written in burmese letters and shops are not branded. It was funny – my phone broke during one night. I spent the next afternoon searching a repair shop. I had to go to three places before I found a right one. Luckily people are friendly here and they come to show the place to you themselves if they can’t advice you in english about the directions. Local young guy who didn’t speak any english dismantled my phone to bits and pieces to solve what was wrong. After one hour my phone was working and I was 10 dollars poorer. I felt like hugging that guy!
Our third day started desperately. We both had been sleeping like nothing in Mahabandoola. We felt no hunger and even a thought about eating more rice or noodles gave us shivers. After dodgy breakfast of sweet and sour potato (because we just felt like having potatoes and that was the option we came across) enjoyed in a chinese restaurant, we decided to go to see Shwedagon Pagoda in the afternoon. Shwedagon is the most sacred buddhist shrine in Myanmar. According to the legend the shrine encloses relics of four buddhas, including eight hairs of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. We booked a guide which turned out to be an excellent decision. Our guide pointed out many things we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise and told many interesting stories about the pagoda. Especially interesting was to see and participate worshipping of deities in planetary posts which corresponds with one’s day of birth. In Burmese astrology there are 8 days (Wednesday is divided into two, morning and afternoon). In each planetary post, there were a Buddha statue with a larger guardian spirit statue behind it. Each day is associated with different animal and this animal is represented beneath the statue. I am born in Wednesday so I worshipped Wednesday’s planetary post. Animal for Wednesday is an elephant, with tusks for morning and without tusks for the afternoon. You worship by offering water, flowers, paper umbrellas or incents to the Buddha statue. Most people pour water to the statues, different times for Buddha, for the guardian spirit and for the animal. (Our guide was excellent and also told that he is living in a monastery and welcomed us to visit for a night or two in case we wanted.)
Worshipping at wednesday morning planetary post
Our last day in Yangon surprised us. We were walking aroung Sule Pagoda which is situated in the very centre of Yangon. In fact, the main traffic circle is formed around this round shaped pagoda. Suddenly a monk started to talk to us. Monk was 27 years old A Shin Candimar, who had been a monk since he was 20 years old (before he had been a novice since the age of 13). After maybe 10-minutes smalltalking he told us that he was going to his english lecture and asked us to follow. We followed him with excitement to a narrow stairway which led to the second floor of a shabby block. There were maybe 10 students in the classroom, half of them monks. Most of the students were between 20-30 years old and had already finished their studies. Teacher Uma advised us to talk with students as he thinks talking to foreigners is important part of their english learning. Students told that they pay for these lectures and that they come almost everyday between monday and friday after their other duties (school or job) to study with Uma. They think it’s important to know english now when their country has become more open to the world. (Before that Myanmar was led by communist military junta who basically isolated the country from other countries in the world.) We were talking about our countries and cultures, how education system works, about our jobs and families and about buddhism for example. We told about our journey in Asia. Many of the students wished to travel or work abroad in the future but they also seemed to be very content and happy being Burmese. Auli asked some monks to come to Finland during winter and learn to ski!