After the shining gold, the fascinating architecture, carvings and decorations of the Shwedagon Paya, we came back to reality in downtown Yangon, a city that, until the last few years, was the capital city of the country.
I realise that many of you like to ‘know where you are’, so let me pin point some of the main features on this map that comes from the Air Mandalay magazine.The city was rebuilt by the British after the destruction caused by the second Anglo Burmese war in the 1850s. As they settled themselves in for a long period of colonialism, the British built a city of wide entry boulevards leading to a central area, close to the harbour on the Yangon River. The CBD of Yangon, centred on Sule Pagoda has wide streets going east west joined by narrow streets going north south. Most of the narrow streets are named by a number. The main streets have either British names, like Strand Road beside the river, or they now have Burmese names, like Maha Bandoola Rd. At the top of the grid, where Scott Market is still the main city market, is Bogyoke Aung San Rd, named after Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous father. Our hotel, The Governor’s Residence, marked with an H, is set in the Embassy area just north of the city CBD near the National Museum.
So, now that we have our bearings, let’s go and explore downtown Yangon.
But thankfully we can get around the city in the comfort of our coach, not sitting in the back of a ‘ute’ or clinging by our toes to the back of an already overloaded truck!
In this hot, humid climate, mould takes over very quickly. Many buildings need a good wash down – or rebuild.
Some old apartment blocks are being knocked down to be rebuilt for the new era of this growing city.
Yangon is known for its many colonial buildings. Unfortunately, some, like this Government Press Building, built in 1912, may have been left too long to be safely renovated. In a busy growing city where space is at a premium and land prices are sky rocketing, they may face the demolition hammer to make way for the new.
The old Railway Station looks too far gone to be renovated – but it is an important buildings and may survive.
There are many narrow north – south streets joining the wider main streets. These are always a hive of activity.
This photo tells a story of apartment life in a big city with the washing, TV aerials, the satellite dish, the air conditioning – and the spiky security mesh. Reliance on electrical appliances depends on an unreliable supply of electricity. The only Burmese city guaranteed electricity 7/24 is the new capital city of Naypyitaw.
Scott Market is the main market in Yangon and is an interesting place to spend a bit of time. But it’s rather overwhelming in the sheer quantity of things available in each area, and that includes jewellery shops!
Burma is renowned for its gem stones, especially rubies (pigeon blood rubies being the best) but there are an enormous number of jewellery shops – and you have to not only choose but bargain as well. We were told only to look and buy from reputable shops registered with the government. Did that mean that the government gets a ‘kick back’ on sales or that the quality of gems was guaranteed? Although we were invited to look, no-one pestered us to buy, thankfully.
A little aside here: While on the question of buying things, one more traveller’s tip: The only currencies used are the Burmese Kyat (said chat) and crisp new US Dollars – nothing else was acceptable. There were, at the time of our visit, no ATMs; travellers cheques were not acceptable; and even credit cards were unknown except in some major hotels like “The Governor’s Residence’ and then only by management.
When we returned to Yangon at the end of our tour, we were booked into a very large hotel where we had a day room for several hours between flights. David and I booked in for a massage and asked to pay by credit card. When the spa staff looked a bit bemused, David showed them his credit card. The response was sheer, utter amazement on all of their faces followed by the comment, “That’s money?” We did eventually have our massages after discussion with management.
And while I was having my massage, I learned something else about this country. My delightful masseur, Cho Mar San, was amazed to learn that I was over 70 years old. Life expectancy for women is about sixty. Both her parents had already died, as had her grandparents. She hugged me and asked if I would be her Grandmother and continued with the rest of the massage calling me Grandma and treating me very gently as if I might break! She asked me how someone of my age could be travelling the world – and I guess in their terms it is amazing. When she walked me to the lift, she hugged me warmly and warned me not to fall over, because “old people fall you know.” It was my turn to be amazed, but also very touched by her gentle caring for a perfect stranger.
Now back to our visit to Scott Market – where there a myriad of aisles and hallways to negotiate. There were mountains of thongs (slippers) in very colour and size and aisle after aisle of the local traditional longy – one size fits all! Longys are simply a tube of material often embroidered around the bottom. Women’s longys sometimes have darts at the waist to help the material to sit better over the hips. To put on a longy, you simply step inside the ‘tube, and secure it in front. Men usually tie it in the middle, women tuck it in to one side. They are very elegant, on the slightly built Burmese women… but not on me, so I didn’t buy any of those.
There’s also an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables at this market and at smaller markets along the street.
Everywhere along the streets, the pavements are bedecked with brightly coloured umbrellas for shade.
The Burmese love their street snacks from vendors such as this woman. At least there is no Big M or KFC etc here yet.
Cooking over small braziers such as this one makes sure that the snack food sold is fresh and hot.
And this is a common way for ladies (and men) to meet for a cuppa and a snack.
Unfortunately our stomachs don’t have the flora to be able to enjoy the road side snacks like the locals. We were taken to a place much safer for our western tummies – the rather posh, beautifully renovated “Strand Hotel”.
And this is what we were served. And yes there were tiny squares of cucumber sandwiches. None of it, I guess, was very good for our health but it was yummy!
Faithfully restored, “The Strand’ today retains the charm of its British Colonial pucker days. I just love the car in this photo … and not another one in sight!
Today, Strand Road is a very busy road indeed. Then, it would have been a wonderful place to go for a quiet stroll.
There is so much traffic now that motor bikes and bicycles are banned in Yangon – except for a few delivery bikes. I love the reflectors on the back of the bike – very inventive. And the T shirt slogan “BE THE BEST”!
After a long, hot, very full day of exploring Yangon, it was delightful to go ‘home’ to The governors Residence and rest those tired feet. Later, we enjoyed dinner served by the ever smiling head waiter,Tai Piang. During dinner, we were treated to some Burmese style dancing accompanied by traditional Burmese music.
Believe it or not, this dancer was a man. He was very agile yet graceful and had us all guessing for awhile!
It was a great finale to a really good day in Yangon.
Jennie and David
Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels