RANGOON | BURMA
“BURMA’S A WARZONE”.
THE OMINOUS WORDS OF RAMBO STILL RUNG IN MY EAR AS THE CITY OF RANGOON CAME INTO VIEW FROM THE AIRPLANE WINDOW. IT STRUCK ME THAT IN A FEW MINUTES I’D BE SKIDDING TO A STOP IN A CITY I DIDN’T KNOW A LOT ABOUT. BUT THAT’S WHY I’M HERE RIGHT?
And speaking of questions the obvious ones spring to mind. Is it Burma or Myanmar? Rangoon or Yangon? As always I don’t pretend to have a definitive answer. I guess the short answer is : all are valid and recognised. The official government name has been changed to Myanmar, however seeing as military juntas aren’t the most popular, many don’t recognize it’s legitimacy in changing the name from Burma. The culture and the people themselves are described as “Burmese”. While the UN officially refers to it as Myanmar, many countries in the west still refer to it as Burma – including the UK. The reason for this is that the word Myanmar isn’t an inclusive name for the country and the many tribes that still live there – although they claim it is. It’s confusing and it seems to come down to personal taste. Having digested so much UK media growing up I always knew the country as Burma, and so it’s my preference for this blog. It’s not a political statement. I just think it sounds cool. Feel free to comment at the bottom of the page if you’d like to weigh in. Unlike Burma this is a democracy. Oops that was political wasn’t it?
Immigration formalities were surprisingly quick and soon I was heading into downtown Rangoon. For me the name “Rangoon” summons images of old fashioned, swash buckling hi-jinks. It’s just one of those classic locations that inspires adventure. These days Rangoon looks like a city struggling to catch up to the modern world. In a lot of ways it would be the most backwards major city I’d visit in South East Asia. But therein lies a lot of it’s charm. The streets look like they’ve been hit by the aftermath of a warzone – the pavements streaked and stained with red. Maybe Rambo was right? Maybe I’d have to tool up after all?
It’s because of an insanely popular chewing leaf called betel. It’s users look like horror victims as they walk the streets, their mouths foaming with scarlet juice right before they spit it on the ground.The spitting in Burma is like China turned up to 11. “China turned up to 11” isn’t how I imagined myself describing anywhere.
Not date night material then.
Everyday life here still feels very traditional. Most of the men still wear their longyi. It’s a man dress basically, like a sarong, tied around the waist. The pavements are crowded and bustling with markets and small stalls selling everything from local fruit to knock-off electronics. Bizarrely I bought the best pairs of earphones I’ve ever owned from a stall here for €6. Or however many kyats that was. Kyats (cats) are the currency here. It feels a bit odd asking how many kyats you need to buy something. It’s like a fantasy world where dogs have taken over and enslaved their arch enemies. I had stocked up on some kyats at the airport ATM. I felt kinda patronising by thinking that in some ways Burma surprised me with how modern it is some times. The ATM in my home town back home doesn’t work half the time but here it was flawless. But I guess those are the surprises that await you in a country that up until recently was off limits to travelers. For someone who doesn’t read any Lonely Planet, it was uncharted territory.
Rangoon is a lot like The Land that Time Forgot : City Edition. As the major colonial city in British South East Asia, Rangoon was known as the “Garden City of the East” and had infrastructure on a par with London in the early 20th century. How times change. Now the decaying shells of so many magnificent colonial buildings litter the city. A few blocks from my hotel lay a huge red brick building, like a school or hospital. It’s towers visible from all around. Up close though, it reminded me a little of the temples of Angkor, slowly being reclaimed by bushes and trees and strangled by vines. It was a ghostly sight repeated several times over. I guess you could say Rangoon still has infrastructure comparable to early 20th century London.
Near the Shwedagon Pagoda is a lush green park called Kandawgyi Royal Park. From here you are afforded great views of the golden pagoda as it rises above the trees on the far side. It’s also home to the jaw dropping Karaweik. This is a reproduction of the royal barge. It’s a palace. A floating palace. The craftsmanship on display here is incredible. Designed to be a mixture of a royal residence and a mythical bird, the Karaweik sits proudly by the lakeside, sheltered in it’s own little bay. It’s quite a feat of engineering to design a palace that doesn’t sink like a stone but yet here it is, and you can even have dinner and a show in here on certain nights. I couldn’t afford it though so don’t ask me for thoughts on it. Like I said before – worst blogger ever. I did walk around it though, looking inside longingly like a pale itinerant. So there’s that.
The ancient city here was known as Dagon, and before it was corrupted into an unholy place of human sacrifice in H.P. Lovecraft literature it was a small Burmese village centered around the Shwedagon Pagoda. The “Great Dagon Pagoda” is the Rolls Royce of pagodas. Containing relics from four previous Buddhas, it is the most holy structure in Burma, and tops off at and incredible 368 feet high. Many believe it’s actually the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. According to them a stupa has stood here for over 2,600 years. I didn’t realise Buddhism was that old. Either that or it’s creating a Butterfly Effect type time paradox whereby Buddha can travel backwards into the past placing himself at events happening before he was born. And that still makes more sense than Terminator Genisys.
I ended up walking all the way to the pagoda, although I hadn’t intended to. My plan to hail a taxi on the way didn’t work. It’s not a good idea to walk here after dark. Not because it’s dangerous per se, but mostly because the pavements just disappear into huge gaping holes, or piles of rubble and electrical wiring. I made slow progress with my phone held out in front of me as there were no street lights at all in a lot of parts. Looking back it was a miracle I was neither mugged or ended up in traction with my knees having turned to jelly. After way too long I arrived at the entrance to the temple. Like all Buddhist temples and pagodas you must remove your footwear before going inside. After paying the entrance fee I marveled at the two enormous Burmese lions standing watch as I padded my way inside and up one of the long pavillions leading to the central structure. As I left the corridor behind and walked outside into the balmy night air my gaze was immediately drawn upwards to the central stupa. It was ginormous. Like a giant golden nipple piercing the sky. And not a regular nipple either. A pierced nipple. Pierced with jewels and smothered in gold. Like I imagine Kim Kardasian’s are these days. All around it were smaller shrines to various deities, there must have been hundreds of them. People were praying, bowing and lighting candles all around me. I felt like the insignificant lost tourist that I was as I slipped and slid my around around the circumference. Not only were there hundreds of little shrines attached to the central pagoda, there were also several fully fledged temples facing the stupa all around the outside. Each temple as lavishly decorated as the last. It was a true feast for the eyes, each corner like Christmas for my retinas. I followed around to the left, there were little pathways of rug so that you didn’t slip (the floor is marble and can get very slippy when it rains) It was easy to get engrossed in the multitude of shrines and temples here, after about two hours I’d finally made a complete circuit around the stupa and found myself at the entrance I’d come in – I thought. The complex is so large that several large corridors spiderweb out from the central pagoda, each leading to a different part of the city. Like driving on a motorway it’s advantageous to know your proper exit.
Rangoon had surprised and amazed me more than expected. Sometimes it’s nice to immerse yourself in a place relatively spoiler free. There was the small matter of heading north to Bagan left, the city of temples, and celebrity of many a travel calendar. When I first arrived in Rangoon I’d visited a travel agency recommended to me by my hostel staff. The original intention was to take the train to Bagan, the infamously long and rickety Rangoon to Mandalay line. Fortuitously as it turns out the train was booked out and my spine let out a sigh or relief. After the nightmare that was the Cambodian sleeper bus I reluctantly agreed to book on the JJ Express night bus. A few telephone calls later and I had a return ticket in my trembling hands. I wasn’t looking forward to this. At all.
That evening as I was stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the way to the bus station my trepidation only increased. This was gonna be a long night. I consoled myself that it would “only” be around ten hours. It didn’t work. There are prison sentences back home that are shorter. I slithered out of the taxi and trudged through the mud to get to the office. “Hey those buses don’t look half bad”, I thought, “I bet the inside sucks though”. I had to blink when I finally boarded. What was this trickery? Huge lazy-boy style recliners? They recline all the way back? I have cup holders and charging points?! Had I been hit by a taxi crossing the road earlier and this was the cruel coma-induced dream that resulted? I sank into the comfortable leather, still with a level of disbelief that I’d lucked out so hard. Karma, I thought. After Cambodia, this must be a reward – nay, an apology – from the universe. Apology accepted. Despite not being a good sleeper on transport – trains, buses and especially planes – I found myself drifting off to sleep, dreaming about giant golden nipples.
That morning, despite having arrived in Bagan, I still didn’t want to get off that bus.
Next time: I’m threatened with deportation unless I leave the bus, the world’s best sunsets, and who needs feet anyway?