Note: I've struggled with how to talk about Yangon. I'm doing my best not to sound like a privileged, colonial-minded douche. My apologies if anything I say comes across that way. I'm certainly open to critique and/or suggestion if someone has value to add.
Yangon felt dangerous to me
It felt dangerous, but not in the typical way I'm used to a city feeling dangerous. I mean, the type of danger I'm used to coping with is the idea that someone might shoot or stab me for my wallet, phone, or camera. In other words, I'm used to fearing my fellow American citizen. In Yangon, I never once felt endangered by the people; the people are wonderful, honest, and very friendly. In Yangon, it's the infrastructure — or really, lack thereof — that felt threatening. Yangon is the type of place where you could scrape your knee and end up dead.
The city faces some very real sanitation issues. They're working on it, but the plans are still in the formative stages. Access to clean water is difficult. Open sewers line each side of the streets — you step over them to enter most every shop and restaurant. There is no municipal trash service so waist-high piles of rotting garbage are located at the end of (approximately) every other block. I saw rats the size of possums running in and out of the trash heaps. Street dogs are everywhere — well, perhaps it's more accurate to describe them as semi-feral dogs; they coexist with humans but are definitely not pets. At night they run in packs and howl, en masse, while defending their neighborhood turf. I'm told rabies is quite a problem, and the dogs apparently will get food aggressive with people sometimes (though I saw no evidence of either). Electricity feels tenuous; blackouts and brownouts are frequent. Cut and exposed wires randomly dangle from above the sidewalk, well into head and shoulder height.
A five-minute read on the history and current state of Burmese politics:
And in the midst of all this: happiness, love, joy. I saw teenage couples walking hand-in-hand, looking at each other all googley-eyed, like only teenagers in love can do. I saw old couples lovingly fussing at each other. I saw parents smiling while they watched their children play. Humans are amazing creatures and the residents of Yangon are living rich, full lives. In fact, they've never had it better than they do right now. After 50 years of living under a harsh military dictatorship, things are improving rapidly for the Burmese. They are literally rising up from the past at an astonishing rate, hurtling towards the future with open arms. Construction is everywhere. Mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous. Western-style coffee shops are sprouting up. And, of course, KFC.... SE Asia loves KFC.
Yangon is a working town, and the Burmese work hard. Everybody's got a hustle. Throughout downtown, people set up shop on the sidewalks, pulling tarps out from buildings, propping them up at the edge of the street, tent-like, in order to cover their wares. In some places, the shops are packed so tightly as to leave room for only a single-file passage on the sidewalk. This pushes pedestrians out from the sidewalk and into the already traffic-clogged roads. (All the infrastructure in Yangon is overburdened, not just the water and electric systems.) This doesn't mean the sales pitch is aggressive, though. Walking down the sidewalk is a relatively hassle-free experience. People smile, children stare and giggle, and when I greeted people with, "Min-ga-la-ba," (the polite, general greeting in Burmese), I always got a big smile and enthusiastic, "Min-ga-la-ba!" in return.
Courtesy of my friend Victoria's guidance, I'd chosen an apartment that was downtown, pretty much at the midpoint between Bogyoke Market, Yangon Central Railway Station, and Sule Pagoda — the three main activity points of downtown Yangon. (About accommodations: Airbnb isn't yet legal in Myanmar, though you will find listings available. However, in order to obtain a tourist visa for Myanmar, you must provide the government with the address of a state-recognized hotel or hostel. In my case, since I was splitting my time in the country between Yangon and Bagan, I simply listed my hotel in Bagan on my tourist visa application.)
Sule Pagoda is gorgeous and occupies the entirety of a traffic circle right in the center of town. It also occupies a special place in the Burmese consciousness since the pagoda has been the gathering place for many rallies and demonstrations. While not the largest pagoda in Yangon, it's essentially the symbol of the city. From pedestrian bridges to up-close sidewalks, there are multiple spots to get great photos from all around the pagoda. And it's quite a sight to see the clean, gold, gleaming pagoda framed so tightly by the rest of the city.
Officially it's the Yangon Circular Railway
but I think most English-speaking folks just call it the Circle Train. It's the commuter rail that rings the city and connects it with many of the northern suburbs and satellite villages. It's a great way to see a wide cross-section of the city and its surroundings. There are air conditioned cars available but if you choose one of the old, open-air cars, you'll find the breeze is plenty to stay cool plus you'll have the added bonus of being able to hang out the side of the train to get photos. The cost is K200 (about 17¢ at the time this article was written) for the full 30-mile, 39-station, 3-hour loop.
We took the train clockwise out of town because my friend Victoria said this was the more picturesque route. This western route also took us past Insein Prison where political prisons were held during the military's rule, often in horrific conditions. Myanmar's current Prime Minister, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, was incarcerated there three times during the military's rule. Despite the reforms that are ongoing in Myanmar, there are still Burmese journalists and other political dissidents being held there today.
After passing Insein, we disembarked, grabbed a taxi, and headed back south, into town, to visit the most dramatic site Yangon has to offer: Shwedagon Pagoda.
Let me first explain to you what you're seeing in the photo above. That huge gold pagoda is 34 stories tall. That's twice as tall as most buildings in DC. That's another ten stories taller than the Flatiron Building in NYC. That's about half the height of the Golden Gate Bridge. In other words, IT'S BIG. And it's covered in gold — real gold — not gold paint. The top of the stupa is encrusted with 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies, sapphires, and other gems, mounted with 1065 golden bells and, at the very top, a single 76-carat diamond. Shwedagon Pagoda is awe-inspiring and otherworldly. (Learn more about the architecture here.)
The air around the pagoda glows. It was the oddest brightness I'd ever come across. I was squinting the entire time, despite a pretty thick cloud cover, simply because that much gold reflects even the smallest amount of light. And the grounds were clean! Immaculate! This stood out in such stark contrast to the rest of Yangon.
In Burmese astrological tradition, the day of the week is the most important determiner of one's fate. From the old Hindu traditions (when 8 days of the week were counted instead of seven) there are eight astrological signs, with Wednesday being split and given two signs. Each day of the week has a shrine at one of the eight corners of the octagonal base of Shwedagon Pagoda. Above, people born on a Tuesday can be seen pouring cups of water on images of the Buddha, and leaving flowers and prayer flags, all of which are said to bring good fortune.
The grounds of the pagoda complex have numerous other shrines, temples, prayer halls, and stupas. I can't find a list or a count of them all, I suspect because there are just far too many to count. Since Shwedagon is the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar, and a living, functioning temple, you'll find lots of visitors, and no shortage of monks and nuns.
The admission fee (for foreigners) to Shwedagon Pagoda is $8.00. Hours of operation and more info can be found here. And all visitors would do well to familiarize themselves in advance with what constitutes acceptable behavior and dress while on holy ground.
Leaving Shwedagon and heading back into Yangon was depressing. Having been surrounded by the perfumed air, and clean, well-tended grounds of the pagoda, the dirt, trash, and noise of Yangon seemed magnified. Fortunately, I had only a few hours left in Yangon before I boarded the overnight JJ Express bus to Bagan.
Easy Café & Gentleman Coffee Roasters, 30A, Bo Yar Nyunt Street.
Delicious coffee, great music, and exceptionally fast wifi, with a very courteous staff.
Nilar Biryani & Cold Drink, No. 216, Anawrahta Road 11141.
Delicious Indian food in a diner-like setting with great air conditioning.
999 Shan Noodle Shop, No. 130 B 34th Street.
Great air conditioning (upstairs) and fantastic Burmese (Shan-style) noodles and rice, served by a sassy, quick staff.
The Brunch Society, 143/149, Sule Pagoda Road, Sule Plaza, Ground Floor.
Decidedly Western ambiance, food, and drinks, served by an exceptionally polite, aware staff. Two large, flatscreen televisions were showing BBC News and CNN, which made this a great spot for me to keep up with the news of the mass murder at Pulse Nightclub, in Orlando, which was home for 15 years.