18 APR 2012: At the Shwedagon Festival in Yangon, the anthem of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy blasts from a booth where good-looking youth wearing red headbands, sell t-shirts adorned with the face of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is February and the walkway to the Shwedagon Pagoda, burgeons with vendors offering everything from bowls of Mohinga to cell phones; there is a cacophony of voices and music, and the aroma of spicy food tinges the dusty, hot air.

The festival celebrates 2600 years of the Shwedagon Pagoda - an amazing collection of gold gilded spires and stupas, decorative alcoves, bejeweled Buddha and dazzling, marble walkways all dominated by a massive, golden, sky-reaching dome.

Even when it is not a fest, crowds swarm here at day’s end -- chattering families, young and old Buddhist monks, and weary travellers, all barefoot, watch the sun perform its last brilliant act of the day. As candles are lit, a hush falls over the crowd. However, even in this tranquil moment, you can feel the hopeful excitement that pervades Myanmar, a country in the midst of change.

Take this festival. The fact it is taking place is cause for exhilaration, as it has been banned for some twenty years by the country’s military government. After decades of dictatorship and insurmountable hardships, an election in the fall of 2010 saw the first civilian-run government put into power.

Fast forward to April 1, when the national heroine and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, along with 39 other members of the Democratic Party, were elected to government. True, they are a small part of the government but their success ascertains that change is indeed taking place.

This is good news for tourism; until now visitors to this country of roughly 55 million, faced an ethical dilemma as coming here could be seen as support for the corrupt government and a disregard for the sanctions many countries, Canada included, have placed upon it.

All this is easing, as the world is recognizing the attempts at change and, just one example, both the United States and Canada have recently paid official visits to Myanmar, also known as Burma. In 1989 the country was renamed The Union of Myanmar. While this was accepted by the United Nations, some countries, including Canada, refer to it as Burma.

No matter what you choose to call it, prepare to be impressed, as Rudyard Kipling was when he stated: “This is Burma. It is quite unlike any place you know about.”

As well as the grandeur of its monuments, Myanmar is full of surprises. Vehicles are right-hand drive but are driven on the right side of the road. Locals, mostly women and children, wear thanakha, a yellowish paste on their faces from the bark of a tree by the same name. It is said to improve and protect skin.

Chewing betel nut is a national pastime, so don’t be surprised by red stained teeth. It is common for men to wear longhyi, the traditional skirt that wraps between their legs.

While the Burmese are welcoming, this is not a country set up for tourism.

Credit cards are not accepted, the few ATMS do not take foreign cards and you must arrive with new, unmarked US bills. I changed money in a backroom of my Yangon hotel; bank rates are apparently atrocious and it is a slow procedure. When you convert say US $100 to Kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) you have a wad that would choke a horse. Prices, especially in cities, are quoted in both Kyat and dollars but don’t be surprised if a pristine looking US $20 gets turned down because of a small mark on it as happened to me more than once.

However, any inconveniences are overshadowed by what you see and experience every day.

A two-week trip with World Expeditions (www.worldexpeditions.com) that begins and ends in Yangon, hops you around the country and captures the highlights.

Formerly Rangoon, Yangon is a bustling city where office buildings, new and old, meld with ancient Buddhist temples and intriguing markets.

Our group of 14 were fortunate to have as our guide, Than Win Htut, known as Robbie, who as well as taking us to major attractions, such as the huge reclining Chaukhtatgyi Buddha and explaining the details of these historic monuments, led us down back alleys where the locals shopped (boar’s head, anyone?) and set us loose in Bogyoke Aung San Market, the city’s largest with more than 2000 shops.

For sure, the piece de resistance in Yangon is the Shwedagon Paya, described above, which is also the most sacred Buddhist site in the country. Interesting that even here, with hordes of people, many of them poor, we felt safe and, throughout this trip, saw no signs of a military presence.

We moved on to Mandalay. If ‘the road to Mandalay’ conjures up exotic images, you won’t be disappointed.

I was mesmerized as oxen pulled carts heaped high with produce and people along a dusty road bordered by tall trees. Fields of sunflowers, watermelon, wheat and sesame flourished in the backdrop completing the perfect rural picture.

A visit to this Buddhist country is a visit to temples so “shoes off please,” was a repeated phrase from Robbie and dirty feet were unavoidable.

In Mandalay, one of the many places we de-shoed was the Mahamuni Paya where the 2000-year-old Buddha is so laden with gold leaf, he has lost his shape. Being a woman, I had to be content to view it through a portal as only men are allowed in this Buddha’s presence.

Nearby we visited ancient cities, crossing the Irrawaddy River by boat to Mingun to be dazzled by the beauty of the white Hsinbyume Paya and the 1808 Mingun bell, the world’s largest bonze bell.

In Amarapura, at the Maha Ganayon Kyaung Monastery we observed some 1000 monks, in two long, silent lines heading to their dining hall. While this was a rather reverent experience – we had been told to be silent and ‘not interrupt the line of the monks’ – I heard a cell phone and saw an older monk answer it.

Also in this area, we walked the 1.2 kilometre, rickety U Bein’s Bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge that crosses shallow Taungthaman Lake where fishermen cast huge nets. The surroundings are verdant with peanut crops. Maneuvering past vendors to walk the bridge, a ‘companion’ joins each stroller -- mine was beautiful Ayenwe who spoke enough English to tell me her hardships and sell me bracelets. Later we returned at sunset to cruise the lake and view the startling sight of the stilt bridge where a parade of monks and villagers are silhouetted against a scarlet glow -- one of many remarkable Myanmar memories.

Tomorrow: More on Myanmar.

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Derrick Bloch

A regular contributer to Travel Industry Today, Derrick has been recognized by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 80 travel agents in North America. 

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