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Posts Tagged ‘Yangon’

Just before we leave the big city of Yangon and head for the hills, literally, to experience some of the countryside in Shan State where life has not changed very much in many, many years – there are a few more  sites to visit, ones that give insight into the struggle for freedom being waged by the Burmese people today.

Square in front of Sula Pagoda (P1020129

The Sule Pagoda is central to downtown Yangon and is at one end of the square where many protests took place. Both Shwedagon Paya and the open square in front of Sule Pagoda had become rallying places for  a variety of protests.  Here, some thousands of students had been killed in a brutal crack down on protesting students on 8/8//1988. Other protests followed over the years, the most widely reported in the western media was the so called ‘Saffron Revolution” in 2007 (even though Burmese monks wear maroon robes.) This protest had begun in Mandalay when monks came out with their bowls turned upside down as a symbol of protest. Their protest soon gained numbers of lay people and spread to other cities including Yangon.

There are many reports of these protests on You Tube – just google ‘2007 Saffron evolution You Tube”.

The particular reason for these protests was economic distress right across the country. While the government generals and their families and supporters lived in luxury, the United Nations ranked Burma amongst the 20 poorest countries in the world.  Costs of fuel and basic food stuffs such as rice, eggs and cooking oil were rising at an alarming rate and the average income was something below $300 a year. While huge amounts of money were being spent on the military, the health and education of the people were being neglected.

As we walked in this square, we remembered those who had lost their lives here, who had been injured, who had been imprisoned and tortured under a brutal regime. We also hoped that the signs of change in the current regime are real and that the move towards a better way of life for these people will soon become a reality.

The renovated Yangon City Hall (P1020122

The British built city hall, on one side of the square is one of the colonial buildings that has been restored.

Baptist Church at end of the square (P1090814

At the other end of the square is a Baptist Church.  There are also several Catholic Churches in the city.

 

Burmese Independence Monument in Mahabandoola Garden (P1020127

On the fourth side of the square is a park with a massive obelisk rising 48m from the ground. It’s surrounded by five smaller columns and bronze lions. We were told that the people hope to be able to add a statue in this park to Bogyoke Aung San because he had dedicated his life to winning the  independence of Burma from the British.

Yangon British Secretariat Building (P1090832

Less than a year before Independence was granted, Bogyoke Aung San was assassinated as he chaired a meeting of the Governor’s Executive Council in the British Secretariat Building.  The building is now derelict.

Photo of Aung San (P1090936

Aung San Suu Kyi keeps a photo of her father on the fence of her home at 54 University Avenue. She was only two at the time of his death, but it is his dream of freedom for his people that is a real driving force in her life.

The gates at 54 University Ave. Yangon (P1090935

We stopped for a few minutes outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s home and reflected on her place in the history of Burma – and its future. She had just come back from a visit to the USA and a speech at the UN.  The people love her and are so proud of her. They pin so much of their hope in her. We can only hope that she has good people to support her as she moves forward in a better climate of co-operation with the current President, Thein Sein.

I have been reading a very good book titled “The Lady and The Peacock; The life of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma”. It’s written by Peter Popham, a respected English journalist who has been to Burma many times. The book is published by Random House. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about this amazing lady.

Dancing peacock symbol of NLD Party ( P1090935

The sign for the National League for Democracy and its symbol of the dancing peacock is on the gate post.

Frangipani and razor wire! (P1090930

I found this rather thought provoking – a young frangipani tree planted outside the razor wire fence. The values Aung San Suu Kyi embodies are the ideals of faith, love, caring for others, compassion and freedom as opposed to the enforced ‘law’, and often brutality, the people have endured under repressive regimes and colonialism.

A tangle of electricity lines (P1020085

Another thought provoking sight was this tangle of electric cables. It seemed somewhat symbolic of the complex and tangled history of this country. We were told that this sort of wiring, if that’s what it can be called, is a ‘left over’ consequence of Cyclone Nargis which struck this area with such devastation in May 2008.

Map of Yangon and the delta area (P1120822

When the cyclone came across the Bay of Bengal, it caused it’s estimated over 200,000 deaths. It was the worst natural disaster ever to hit Burma. And the generals initially resisted help from outside countries and emergency agencies. How many more lives were lost as a result of that decision is not known. But if you google Myanmar Cyclone 2008 in Images you will be horrified, as we were, by the scenes that people with cameras and mobile phones tried to get out to let the rest of the world know what was really happening inside this country. Eventually help was allowed.

We met a Burmese doctor who had responded immediately to people’s needs. His stories of the awfulness he encountered, brought us to tears. His bravery and compassion inspired us. Since the cyclone, he has continued with his compassionate work, setting up mobile health clinics and helping to build schools and provide teachers.  He’s an extremely dedicated man and we were very privileged to meet him and hear his story.

Damage to “Road to Mandalay” (P1120131

One of the casualties of Cyclone Nargis was “The Road to Mandalay”, the ship we travelled on for seven days on the Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwaddy) River. It was in Yangon for maintenance when the cyclone struck – wrong place, wrong time. Fortunately, it is now better than new and we had a wonderful time on board.

But before we got to that part of our journey, it was time to farewell the city of Yangon and fly to Heho in the Shan State and drive north-west into the beautiful countryside and hills around Pindaya.  This was a very different part of Burma and our journey became ever more interesting.

And on our wat to Heho, we flew close to the new capital city of Naypyitaw… but we did not stop by to visit!

Map of central Burma showing Naypyitaw (P1120821

When the military government decided to build a new capital, Naypyitaw, 320kms north of Yangon, they left behind a city which, they claimed, is expanding too much for the government to reside there. But they also left behind a city that had witnessed so many of the people’s protests and struggles for freedom. They built a new super highway from Mandalay to Yangon – eight lanes wide between Naypyitaw and Yangon. With that in place, the army can respond quickly to protests if need be! Within the city itself, there’s a 20-lane Boulevard, but like most roads in this new city, it’s usually empty – unlike the congested streets of Yangon that the generals left behind!

Construction of the city was begun in 2002. Since 2005, government ministries and military headquarters have gradually been moved to their respective ‘zones’.  Civilians are banned from entering those compounds.

We were told that in the Parliamentary complex of the new city, there are 31 buildings as well as the City Hall and a 100-room presidential palace. In the Ministry complex, all the  buildings are identical in appearance.

It’s estimated that almost a million people now live in the new city. Apartments in the Residential zones are mostly four story apartment blocks. They are allotted according to rank and marital status. The apartment roofs denote who lives there; green roofs are for employees in the Ministry for Agriculture. Ministry of Health employees live in blue roofed apartments. High-ranking government officials live in separate mansions as befits their status.

A huge pagoda / stupa called Uppatasanti Pagoda or Peace Pagoda was completed in 2009. It is similar in shape and just a little smaller than the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. It’s a show piece. 

This is not a visitor friendly city, not one that the general population can enjoy. And, it seems, that most Burmese are not at all happy that billions of dollars were spent to build this new city while so many of the population are very poor, and while housing, education and medical health provisions need so much improvement.

We were not disappointed that we did not visit this new city – we had the real Burma to explore. More of that next time.

Jennie and David

Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels

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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.

City map, Yangon [Courtesy 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.

Getting around Yangon! (P1090926 © JT of jtdytravels)

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!

A typical apartment block in Yangon CBD (P1020105 © DY of jtdytravels)

In this hot, humid climate, mould takes over very quickly. Many buildings need a good wash down – or rebuild.

A new apartment block under construction (P1090835 © JT of jtdytravels)

Some old apartment blocks are being knocked down to be rebuilt for the new era of this growing city.

Government Press Building; British era. (P1020110 © DY of jtdytravels)

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.

Old Yangon Railway Station (P1020099 © DY of jtdytravels)

The old Railway Station looks too far gone to be renovated – but it is an important buildings and may survive.

One of the many narrow north – south streets (P1090840 © JT of jtdytravels)

There are many narrow north – south streets joining the wider main streets. These are always a hive of activity.

Someone’s home (P1020086 © DY of jtdytravels)

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.

Inside Scott Market (P1020143 © DY of jtdytravels)

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.

Longyis for sale at the market (P1020144 © DY of jtdytravels)

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.

Fruit market in a side street (P1020154 © DY of jtdytravels)

There’s also an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables at this market and at smaller markets along the street.

Street stalls with colourful umbrellas. (P1020119 © DY of jtdytravels)

Everywhere along the streets, the pavements are bedecked with brightly coloured umbrellas for shade.

A snack stall on the pavement ( P1090849 © JT of jtdytravels)

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 fresh snacks on the pavement (P1020148 © DY of jtdytravels)

Cooking over small braziers such as this one makes sure that the snack food sold is fresh and hot.

Ladies enjoying a ‘cuppa’ and a chat! (P1090844 © JT of jtdytravels)

And this is a common way for ladies (and men) to meet for a cuppa and a snack.

Inside the colonial ‘Strand Hotel” (P1090867 © JT of jtdytravels)

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”.

Afternoon Tea at “The Strand” (P1020162 © DY of jtdytravels)

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!

A photo of “The Strand” in colonial times. (P1090876 © JT of jtdytravels)

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!

Quite a different era in Yangon’s history! (P1090877 © JT of jtdytravels)

Today, Strand Road is a very busy road indeed. Then, it would have been a wonderful place to go for a quiet stroll.

Delivering goods with pedal power (P1090925 © JT of jtdytravels)

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”!

Tai Piang – head waiter at The Governors residence (P1020177 © DY of jtdytravels)

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.

Dancing – Burmese style (P1020194 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Dancer with typical Burmese band (P1020183

Believe it or not, this dancer was a man. He was very agile yet graceful and had us all guessing for awhile!

Dancer in traditional longy and shirt (P1020208

It was a great finale to a really good day in Yangon.

Jennie and David

Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels

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This Shwedagon Paya and its precinct have much more to tell of the story of Burma than just its religious, Buddhist story. It holds an important place in Burmese history especially from the British rule until today.

Continuing our walk amongst the pagodas (P1090798 © Jt of jtdytravels)

As we walked, Sunshine explained not only the story of this stupa but also many facets of the Burmese way of life .. and of life here under British rule.

Doc Sue and David on the hot marble paths (P1090791© JT of jtdytravels)

Realising that we were all hot from our walk in the sun on those hot marble paths, eventually Sunshine steered us towards shady pavilions, just like sensible locals who know where the best shade is in the heat of the day.

A shady pavilion (P1090785 © Jt of jtdytravels)

The pavilion he chose for us to rest in was the home of a huge bell, the Singu Min Bell. But this was not the original bell. A much larger, 300-ton bell had been given to the Shwedagon Paya by King Dhammazedi in 1485. It was part of the scene here for over a century. Then, in 1608, a Portuguese adventurer called Philip de Brito e Nicote, plundered the stupa and its pagodas and took the bell. How his men actually managed to do that was not part of the story we heard! The intention of these men was to melt the bell down to make cannons. However, as the bell was being taken across the river, it fell into the waters and has never been recovered – nor has its place of resting been found. Myth or legend or history? Who knows.

The Singu Min Bell (P1090787 © JT of jtdytravels)

In front of us on a raised platform was a 23-ton bronze cast bell,  the Singu Min Bell, donated to the stupa by King Singu in 1779.  It suffered a similar fate, but this time at the hands of the British who had landed here on May 11, 1824 during the first of the three Anglo-Burmese Wars. They quickly occupied the Shwedagon Paya precinct as a fortress. They pillaged and vandalised, even digging into the stupa thinking that it was hollow and that it would make a great place to use as a gunpowder magazine. Of course, that was impossible. This stupa is solid, as are most Buddhist stupas. But one of the things the British did take was the Singu Min Bell, intending to take it to Calcutta. But it also fell off the ship into the river! This time they knew just where it was resting. The British tried but failed in their attempts to raise the bell. However, the Burmese said they could do it, but … they would only do it if the bell was returned to the stupa complex. ‘It’s not possible’, said the British. ‘If you can raise it, you can have it.’ And they did.

So how did the Burmese raise this huge bell and return it to this platform right there in front of us in this shady pavilion.  They did it by man power, persistence and some canny local knowledge! Divers tied hundreds of bamboo poles underneath the bell. The air trapped in the poles helped to float the bell to the surface at high tide. And then man power moved the bell back to its ‘home’.  (This was another clever and wonderful use of bamboo in a country that makes so much use of this plant in all areas of their daily life. We’ll show more of their use of bamboo throughout these journals.)

A place of prayer and offerings (P1020031 DY © of jtdytravels)

The British army left Burma but returned and re-occupied the  Shwedagon Paya once more in April 1852. Although the Burmese people were permitted to enter the area to pray and meditate, the stupa remained under British military control for 77 years, until 1929.

One of the many monks at the stupa (P1020060 © DY of jtdytravels)

British colonialism in Burma also upset the balance between king and monks in the order of things in Burma. Whereas the kings had been as ‘patrons’ of the monks and shrines, buying themselves some valuable good karma, the monks had taught both the kings and the population the tenants of Buddhist philosophy and way of life. When the kings were deposed by the British, the balance had to shift.  The monks needed to rely more and more on the general population for support… and the people, with no king to lead the way, more and more needed the teaching and example of the monks to support them through the repressive years.  This balance became more obvious to us as we listened to people willing to talk about their faith and to tell their stories. One thing neither the British nor the junta could take from these people was their Buddhist beliefs and hope.

At the beginning of the second era of British rule (from 1852), there was again much looting. Seeing this desecration of a place that meant so much to the people of Burma, Lord Maung Htaw Lay, the most prominent Mon-Burmese in British Burma, successfully appealed to the the British India Office in London to have the destruction and pilfering of the treasures of the stupa stopped. With financial help from Britain, he eventually restored this great Buddhist shrine to its former glory and status. He became the founding trustee of the Shwedagon Pagoda Trust which cares for the site to this day.

Rules for Foreign Visitors (P1010991© DY of jtdytravels)

The Board of Trustees don’t have to explain the rules to the Burmese pilgrims. They have been brought up to know the right forms of dress and behaviour in any religious precinct. But foreign visitors do need to be told.

No shoes. No socks. Anywhere. (P1020043 © DY of jtdytravels)

All Burmese pagodas and temples are bare foot areas. No shoes. No socks. The Burmese people have always removed their shoes to enter a holy place. In everyday life, they wear slippers, or thongs, and thus it’s easy to slip footwear off and on. For me, and others of our group, it was much harder. My poor old feet hadn’t walked on bare paths, and certainly not on very warm marble, for a very long time!  But I did it, as one must as a guest, respecting the customs of one’s host. Others chose not to enter these holy areas and I think they missed out on some great experiences and on seeing some fascinating Burmese architecture, craft and art.

Burmese are used to going barefoot (P1020041© DY of jtdytravels)

I shall digress a little here to give a few traveller’s tips for Burma / Myanmar as a destination.  We had been encouraged to make sure that we could walk two kilometres and walk up and down uneven steps unaided and without recourse to hand rails.  That was sage advice. What I would add, is that anyone unused to going bare foot should toughen up their feet and have plenty of practice on various surfaces and get used to wearing either thongs/ flip flops or open backed slip-ons. Throughout each day, it’s a shoes off, shoes on experience!

And while I’m adding a traveller’s tip or two, I’d also advise exercises in squatting down and getting up without aids… especially for we women folk. Even though we were often grateful to the British for leaving a legacy of western ‘sit-down’ toilets in many places, they are not everywhere. And public toilets are not common. Recourse to restaurants is invaluable. And,  I suggest, it is probably wise to go without, or at least limit, the amount of morning coffee and tea.  Need I say more!  At least the Shwedagon Paya has decent toilet facilities even though they are only available outside of the main precinct. I expect that many more ‘places of interest’ will improve toilet facilities as this country begins to be more and more ‘tourist conscious’.

Even the Spirit Nats are barefoot. (P1020033 © DY of jtdytravels)

Back to the “shoe question” which has always been a sensitive issue to the Burmese people since colonial times. At that time, visitors as well as British troops openly flouted the tradition.  Not until 1919 did British authorities finally issue a regulation prohibiting footwear in the precincts of the stupa. Even then, they made an exception for ‘government employees on official business’. This ‘shoes off’ question was indeed one of the things that stirred up the people in the beginnings of the Burmese nationalist movement.

An outer courtyard (P1010994 © Dy of jtdytravels)

Shwedagon Paya is not just a holy place for the Burmese people but it has been at the centre of their nationalist movement, of their struggle for independence and freedom. A few examples: In 1920, and again in 1936, University students held protest strikes at the Pagoda. In 1936, oilfield workers set up a ‘strike camp’ here.  In January 1946, the much respected General Aung San demanded independence from the British at a mass meeting at the stupa. On August 26, 1988, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, so beloved by the people, addressed another mass meeting of 500,000 people at the stupa, this time demanding free and fair elections to free the people from the repressive ruling military junta.  This struggle for freedom is still in the balance, but the people now say that, with the new President having talks with Aung San Suu Kyi,, they have more hope in their hearts.

One last look at the golden stupa (P1020048 © DY of jtdytravels)

Far too soon, it was time to go back into the city of Yangon. It was time for lunch. There was just time for one last look, one last contemplation of the great, golden stupa before we had to leave.

Our walk here had introduced us to many facets of Burmese architecture, thought and culture and, although very hot, foot sore and weary by the end of our tour, I was so very pleased that we’d had the opportunity to experience this amazing place and take in some of its history and stories.

Jennie and David

Photography © Jennie Thomas and David Young of jtdytravels

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Our first day out and about in Yangon began with a visit to the Shwedagon Paya, the most sacred religious building in Burma / Myanmar.  Over the years, we have stood in awe of the majesty of cathedrals in Europe, of Abbeys such as Melk Abbey on the Danube, of mosques like Hassan 11 Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco and the wonderful Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.  But this experience was different.

The great golden Shwedagon Paya  (P1020048 © DY of jtdytravels)

This golden stupa dominates the Yangon skyline as it rises from Singuttara Hill, its brilliantly shining spire thrusting 99m into the air. We had seen its photo in books and on the web but nothing really prepared us for the experience of actually being there. It was awe-inspiring. It’s huge and that’s gold – real gold, up there!

A small city of spires (P1090779 © JT of jtdytravels)

The stupa is not a building that you go inside and marvel at the architecture, the sculptures, the art works, the stain glass windows. It’s a mighty, magnificent structure surrounded by a small city of a myriad golden and painted, carved and sculptured stupas, pagodas and temples. It’s almost overwhelming in its scope – and even more so in trying to understand why it is there at all.  I find that when I visit such places it is best to put aside my own belief structures and ‘way of life’ philosophy and allow myself to contemplate another way of looking at life. And for this, our guide Sunshine was an excellent instructor and I have followed up with a good deal of reading.

Let’s begin with why.

The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture. Its basically a solid, bell shaped structure that is built as a tomb for Buddhist relics. And this stupa, the most important in Burma / Myanmar is said to contain some of the Buddha’s hair.  In a country whose people have been steeped for centuries in the Buddhist faith, this stupa is a focus for religious contemplation and meditation as well as for bringing offerings, often in the form of flowers or of gold leaf to maintain the beauty of stupa and pagodas.

Pagodas and temples surround the stupa (P1020011 © DY of jtdytravels)

Everywhere you walk in this huge compound, the central stupa is seen through other gilded and decorated stupas and beautifully carved plaster and wooden pagodas and temples. These have been added over the centuries, often by the old Myanmar royalty and wealthy believers.

The origins of the main stupa, Shwedagon Paya, are lost in ‘the mists of time’, in legend and folk lore. Its age is unknown, but Singuttara Hill, where it is located, has been an ancient sacred site for thousands of years. The  Burmese believe that the relics of three previous Buddhas were buried here.  Legend has it that the current Buddha gave eight of his hairs to two Burmese merchants who had given him some food as he sat meditating under a tree in Northern India. On their return to Burma, the merchants gave some of the hairs to their king who decided to preserve them in a huge stupa. That stupa is said to have been made of multiple layers of silver, tin, copper, lead, marble, iron and gold, each built one on top of the other, to a height of twenty meters.

Legend meets history only in about the 10th Century. Archeologists believe that the building was begun by the Mon people, the ethnic group who dominated this area at that time. It may well have been built over a former building that housed Buddha’s hairs and that is the belief of the Burmese people to this day.

The stupa fell somewhat into disrepair until the 14th Century when the then Mon king had it rebuilt to a height of 18m (59ft).  Earthquakes have caused problems for the stupa over the years and it has had to be rebuilt several times. Over the centuries, kings and queens of Myanmar visited the shrine and many donated their weight in gold to be added to the structure.

Way back in 1586, an English man, Ralph Fitch, visited the great pagoda and wrote:

“….it is called Dogonne, and it is of a wonderful bignesse, and all gilded from the foot to the toppe…it is the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in all the world; it standeth very high, and there are foure ways to it, which all along are set with trees of fruits, suchwise that a man may goe in the shade above two miles in length….”

Shwedagon Paya sores into the sky. (P1090753 © JT of jtdytravels)

The 17th Century was a particularly bad century for this stupa… it suffered damage on at least eight occasions.  Then in 1786 the entire top half came crashing down. It needed a big reconstruction. And that happened in the 18th century when it was rebuilt to the present height. The lower part of the structure we see today is solid brick, over which, it is claimed, the builders used 8,688 ‘plates’ of solid gold. The upper part is said to be clad with another 13,153 smaller plates of solid gold. I’m not sure who counted them, but its a lot of gold.

The glittering top of Shwedagon Paya (P1090758 © JT of jtdytravels)

The top of the stupa is far too high up for the eye to discern any great detail.  I’ve magnified the photo to try to give a sense of its beauty. The crown or umbrella is claimed to be studded with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, sapphires and other precious gems.  On the very top is a 76 carat diamond – that’s 15 gm of diamond.  And 1,485 golden bells hang from the edges of the umbrella .  The whole building is truly stunning; it’s breathtaking in its golden glow. One can only stand in awe of the craftsmen who built it – and those who maintain it. Every four years the stupa is shrouded by bamboo scaffolding as it is checked and maintained with loving care. We were fortunate to see it without scaffolding and in all its majesty.

But there’s so much more to see here than ‘just’ the main golden stupa, although it is always there in every view as you circumnavigate its immense base. There are Pagodas and temples made from wood (teak), from plaster, from brick. Some are covered in gold leaf; some painted with gold coloured paint. There are many shrines containing buddha statues of every size, shape and description, together with smaller shrines housing Buddhists sprits, called Nats.  There are ‘miracle working’ images. This is a place of pilgrimage. A place that Burmese Buddhists revere above all others.

I know that many of you will never get to see it for yourselves so let’s walk (via photos) and get some idea of the magnitude of this amazing place. I also hope that our photos might inspire others of you to make the journey. This was only the beginning of our trip and already we knew we were experiencing something very special.

Soaring, decorated spires of a pagoda (P1020037 © DY of jtdytravels)

Let’s begin with some of the Pagodas, tiered-towers with multiple eaves with decorated finials, often with a symbolic Buddhist meaning, for example, a lotus. In Burma / Myanmar the term “pagoda”, in general, can be used for any kind of Buddhist edifice without specific difference between architectural appearances. (The word stupa comes from India and defines the bell like solid structures.)

Carved teak pagoda (P1020052 © DY of jtdytravels)

Teak is/was one of the predominant timbers of this country and is used in many pagodas across the country. It has been logged far too extensively mainly for lucrative export and now needs protection. Only the government can permit the logging of a teak tree and gain it’s revenue. More about that later. Here, let’s just admire the beauty of the carvings on these beautifully proportioned buildings.

Pagoda decorated in colourful bas relief (P1090797 © JT of jtdytravels)

Perhaps my favourite pagoda was a square one, decorated with colourful bas reliefs. I was so surprised to see such a structure. It’s so different but it’s pictures tell stories to those who come here to meditate.

A prayer and meditation shrine area (P1090777 © JT of jtdytravels)

Throughout the complex, are many prayer and meditation shrine areas where devotees can enter to pray and can observe educational and moral knowledge from paintings and Buddha images placed inside. This one had added modern sparkle with coloured lights flashing on and off. I’m not too sure how that helps meditation! There are no chairs, just mats on very clean polished marble floors. No shoes are worn in the whole compound. The material cloaks worn by some of these Buddha statues are gifts from the faithful.

Another meditation shrine area (P1020056 © DY of jtdytravels)

The golden face of one Buddha statue (P1090741 © JT of jtdytravels)

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Large reclining Buddha (P1020055 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Internal ceiling of one prayer area (P1020021 © DY of jtdytravels)

Each ceiling in the many prayer and meditation areas is different – and all are beautifully decorated.

Many of the floors are also ornate (P1090745 © JT of jtdytravels)

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The Tuesday shrine (P1090726 © JT of jtdytravels)

For the Burmese, the date of your birth is far less important than the day of the week on which you were born. At various points around the base of the stupa, in order, are shrines dedicated to the days of the week – with two for Wednesday, one am and one pm. This one is where Tuesday born people come to pray, burn incense and add offerings.  Aung San Suu Kyi is Tuesday born, so this is where she comes to give special thanks for her birth and life. It’s a happy shrine so I’m glad I, too, am a Tuesday born girl.

At my Tuesday shrine with David (P1090729 © JT of jtdytravels)

With this happy snap, we’ll leave the Shwedagon Paya now until next journal because there is so much more to learn here . It’s not just about the buildings and their ancient and religious stories, but also about the modern history of this country for this compound is also particularly redolent of Burmese / Myanmar secular history.

Jennie and David

Photography © Jennie Thomas and David Young of jtdytravels

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We had what can only be described as a ‘soft landing’ in Burma / Myanmar! And I don’t mean at the airport. I mean at our hotel – our home away from home for the first couple of nights. We didn’t stay at one of the large, rather impersonal hotels you can find in any big city centre anywhere in the world. No, we stayed out in the quiet, tree lined streets of the Embassy area. In fact we stayed where the British Governor lived when this country was a province of the British Empire, ‘The Governor’s Residence’. Thank you ‘Captain’s Choice Tours’ – this was a really good choice.

This imposing teak mansion, beautifully restored and set in a tropical garden, is a truly delightful, small hotel.  There are no ‘plastic smiles’ here. This is a place where you are instantly made to feel at home, part of an extended family. Here we were introduced in a very special way to the genuine warmth and hospitality of the Burmese people. How lucky were we!

Path to some of the rooms (P1090668 © JT of jtdytravels)

After a refreshing drink and warm welcome, David and I were taken to our room by a very friendly man called Thomas! Well he would be friendly with a name like that, wouldn’t he!  It turned out that Thomas, a Belgian, is the Manager of the hotel, and an excellent hands-on Manager at that. He’s well respected and liked by all the Burmese staff and instantly liked by his guests. It did not take us long to learn what an excellent establishment he runs. Thank you Thomas.

Our room at ‘The Governor’s residence’. (P1090512 © JT of jtdytravels)

Our room was nothing like the usual city hotel room… this one reflected the country we were in with teak walls and floors and Burmese carvings and decorations.

Pagoda abstract art work (P1090524 © JT of jtdytravels)

The bedside lighting was stunning.  Soft lighting surrounded an abstract art work that represented the many Pagodas we were to see in this mainly Buddhist country.

‘Abstract: when hot meets cold’  (P1090515   ©  JT of jtdytravels)

The view through the balcony door was ‘abstracted’ by condensation – the cool inside air condensing the hot, humid outside air.  Delightful – and so was the cool air after the heat outside.

Wall hanging of Burmese language  (P1090522 ©  JT of jtdytravels)

All the room decorations were of Burmese origin, this one introducing us to the Burmese language script.

Orchid in the bathroom   (P1090530 ©  JT of jtdytravels)

A lovely touch – in many Asian hotels, orchids feature in main room displays, but this was the first time we’d had a magnificent orchid like this in our bathroom!

Fruit of Snakefruit or Salak;  Salacca zalacca ( P1010972 ©  DY of jtdytravels)

In the bowl of fresh fruit in our room was this rather interesting one that neither of us had seen before. It comes from a very short stemmed Palm Tree, native to Brunei. The leaves of the tree are up to 6 m long. The unusual, scaly skinned fruit grow in clusters at the base of the stem. The flesh of the fruit is both sweet and acidic and, to our tastes, it’s not very nice.

Lush tropical garden from our porch  (P1090533 ©  JT of jtdytravels)

One of the very special features of this boutique hotel is the lush tropical garden. We were able to meet some of the gardeners and thank them for their work. We got smiles all round when we greeted them with the words ‘Mingala ba’ which is the everyday general greeting meaning something like Hi or “Good-day!”   We’d also learned the word for ‘thank you’ which we translated phonetically as “Cheese Zoo” . They all seemed to understand – and smile!  They are very proud of their gardens and were delighted when we took so much time to inspect the plants and photograph some which were new or unusual to us. In fact, the garden was totally tropical, unlike ours in Canberra, so there was much to enjoy.

Part of the accommodation complex  (P1090566 ©  JT of jtdytravels)

David deep in the garden looking at a ‘bat flower’ plant – something I had never seen before, nor had many of our group.

Bat Flower; Tacca chantrieri  (P1090595 ©  JT of jtdytravels)

I was totally fascinated by this flower. There were many in the garden but this one shows all the various stages of the seed heads in one shot… new unopened ones, full heads with their clusters of seeds nestled in a ‘cup’, and some that have dropped their seeds and are finished, hanging down. And  those ‘whiskers’ were a real delight – far longer than I could get into this photo. The plant is also called dracula-flower, but I think bat flower is more descriptive although, when we showed the plants to others in our group, they renamed it ‘cat flower’. It comes originally from Thailand.

A member of the ginger family in the lily pond (P1090562 ©  JT of jtdytravels)

In the lily pond below our room, was this water loving member of the ginger family. We don’t know what it’s name is but, apart from being a delightful vertical addition to the usual pond plants, it has the most amazing ‘fishing rod’ flowers.

Flower of the unidentified ginger (P1090553 ©  JT of jtdytravels)

It was difficult to get a good photo of this delicate, unusual flower with so much light behind it, but I tried!

Water Lettuce or Shell Flower  : Pistia stratiotes (P1090589 ©  JT of jtdytravels)

I just love plants that hold drops of water and there were many of those in this hot, tropical garden. These water lettuce were growing on the top of water in a decorative pot of which there were several dotted throughout the garden.

Water lettuce in typical garden water pot (P1090584 © JT of jtdytravels)

Water pots are very important throughout this country. In the villages and some towns where water is not ‘on tap’, water is put into pots, the sediment allowed to settle to the bottom and the water on top is then used for drinking water. We were to visit some pot making families later in our trip.  Here, the pots were decorated and used as garden ornamentation.

Crape Ginger : Costus speciosus ‘Variegated’  (P1010933 ©  DY of jtdytravels)

We were lucky to see flowers on this ginger – it had almost come to the end of its flowering period. A fascinating plant.

An inviting cool pool  (P1090621 © Jt of jtdytravels)

A popular place in the garden is the pool. It winds around the verandah and under the entrance bridge.

Light through red shade umbrella  (P1090624 © JT of jtdytravels)

The intricate workmanship of these garden umbrellas is all hand made!

We saw them being made later in the trip.

Hand made bamboo shade hats  (P1090620  ©  JT of jtdytravels)

These bamboo hats were available for those who wanted to sun bake.

Not for us in that force, hot sun! We chose the cool of the verandah.

Dining by the pool  (P1090625  ©  JT of jtdytravels)

And now, can I invite you all to have a refreshing lunch by the pool in the cool of the verandah of the main ‘residence’!

Banana flower salad for lunch! (P1010959  ©  DY of jtdytravels)

The food served in this hotel is exceptionally good – fresh and beautifully presented. This was David’s lunch. The head chef, Ian Murray, hails from Scotland and runs an excellent kitchen providing both Burmese and western food.

Me Me and Me! (P1090641 ©  DY of jtdytravels)

And the smiling lady in charge of the restaurants is Me Me. We had an instant rapport with this delightful, gentle Burmese lady.  The way her name is repeated is common in Burma. Why? It’s more rhythmic and sounds better, she says. And the use of a surname is not common at all. Each person has their own name. (What a nightmare that would be for family historians trying to trace a family tree.)

From Me Me we began to learn something of the Burmese philosophy of life – grounded in Buddhism but developed into a daily way of life that emphasises ‘we’ rather than ‘me’ and that promotes good karma and well being between all people. She emphasised the need to suppress emotions such as hate, anger, revenge – to let them go, as they only hurt the person who harbours them rather than the person or persons targeted. This seems to have been the Burmese way of dealing with the hated junta and explains why, after so many terrible years of fear and  repression, they can still smile and be so gentle and friendly.  What a lady! We felt so privileged to meet her – and this hotel is fortunate to have her on its team.

Burmese breakfast cooking table (P1090675 © JT of jtdytravels)

The food provided at TGR is always fresh and varied. For breakfast you could choose from an incredible array of a the more usual ‘western fare’ or you could have, as David did,  a Burmese breakfast cooked fresh right here beside a lily pond.

Clay pot fires keep food hot (P1090674 © JT of jtdytravels)

Very effective clay pot fires kept food hot at the omelette making table.

Suzie and Jennie  (P1010965 ©  JT of jtdytravels)

Another delightful lady we made special friends with at this hotel was Suzie – a PR person in the hotel. Suzie is a young lady I could cheerfully smuggle out of Burma and bring home with me. She speaks excellent English and has a well credentialed University degree in Physics. So why is she a PR lady in a fine hotel in Yangon? There are just no jobs for her in her chosen field here – yet!  She did go to work in Abu Dhabi for two years but found life there too impersonal and empty after her close knit family and community life in Yangon. She couldn’t wait for her two year contract to be up so she could come home.  And that’s lucky for TGR because she is a superb PR person.

To get to work from home, she could take three buses – one and a half hours each way. Having seen the buses, I’m so pleased that her brother brings her to work by car and comes again to pick her up after work. I just know that she’s a very cherished person in her family, and a very special part of the TGR Team.

As are all the members of ‘The Governor’s Residence’ team – an Orient Express Hotel, ably managed by Thomas.  Our stay with them was a wonderful introduction to our ‘Captain’s Choice Tour’ on which we would see some very different facets of life.  We both highly recommend TGR as a starting point for any journey to this country. It prepared us, in a very friendly, gentle way, for the long, hot days of exploration ahead and gave us a first hint of the wonderfully warm welcome that we were to experience everywhere we went in this country of Burma / Myanmar.

Jennie and David

All Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels

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Our Thai B777 jet whisked us away from Melbourne towards Bangkok on the afternoon of Wednesday 3rd October, 2012.  As we flew over central Australia, visibility was good with photo opportunities looking down on some salt pans.

Crossing a salt lake in Central Australia    (P1010868 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Looking down on a salt lake, Central Australia (P1010872 © DY of jtdytravels )

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Abstract- islands in the salt, Central Australia (P1010875 © DY of jtdytravels)

Apart from gazing out of the window, we were fed during the 8½ hour flight to Bangkok; twice actually.  Of note was the cutlery, most of the pieces were date stamped.  The oldest piece David found on his tray was a fork with ‘07’ on it.  He wondered how many kilometres it had flown and how many mouths it had been in and out of!   I suppose there’s not much else to do on a long flight but to do a little wondering.

We had a few hours sleep in the airport hotel before getting up at 05:30 to be ready for our flight to Yangon at 07:55.  As we left Bangkok, the views down over the city showed a fast growing metropolis with increasing transport infrastructure.

Looking down on the River in Bangkok (P1010881 © DY of jtdytravels )

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Major traffic infrastructure in Bangkok (P1010883 © DY of jtdytravels)

In only 1½ hours we were flying over Burma / Myanmar and  looking down over Rangoon – now called by its Burmese name of Yangon.

An unexpected sight – a golf course! (P1010891 © DY of jtdytravels)

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Something more expected – a golden pagoda. (P1010892 © DY of jtdytravels)

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And then we had arrived – Yangon Airport. (P1010894 © DY of jtdytravels)

As we travelled by bus into the city, we found that the transport infrastructure here often grinds to a halt as more and more cars join a road system not meant for such numbers… and there appears to be no suburban train or tram system to relieve the situation. A few years ago, the trip from airport to the city centre took half an hour. Now it’s over an hour. Sound familiar!!!

Ceiling of our bus in Yangon (P1010899 © DY of jtdytravels)

Our bus was Chinese made with floral carpet on the ceiling and chandelier like lights. It was air-conditioned – unlike the local buses – and our driver was very good in what looked to us like some rather hair raising situations.

We passed small buses with people jammed in like sardines. Amazingly they smiled at us in welcome as we sat in comfort in our air conditioned comfort! Their buses ae not air-conditioned. They are open windowed and open doored and we could only imagine the smell of bodies absolutely crammed together after a hot humid day. And just how do they get in and out of there? Some young ones even ride on the back board at times… perhaps the air is fresher there though the danger far greater.  Bicycles and motor bikes are now prohibited in Yangon because it’s just too dangerous for them to share the roads. Until fairly recently, most non-government cars were 40 to 50 years old. Now individuals are being encouraged to purchase Japanese and Chinese second hand cars of about about a mere ten years vintage.

Our delightful guide, Sunshine. (P1020243 © DY of jtdytravels)

To keep our minds off the roads, our Burmese guide, Sunshine, began to answer our questions.  It was easy to call this delightful young man Sunshine – he has an infectious smile, a great sense of humour, good idiomatic English and a passion for his country and his people. He became our first Burmese friend. Sunshine prefers his “English’ name to his Burmese name Nay Win – that’s just too close to the name of the infamous General Ne Win!

So what questions did we have?

First question – were we in Burma or Myanmar?  It seems that either name is acceptable with the locals.  We heard them used interchangeably.  But which is politically correct? That depends on a complicated history of the name and on your political point of view. Eventually, my guess is that the country will be called Myanmar and the people, Burmese.

Originally, Myanmar was the ancient name for a Kingdom. But there were many kingdoms and many wars between ethnic groups over hundreds of years as various groups jostled for power. Then outside powers wanted this country rich in teak wood and in gems and for its strategic position between the much larger countries of India and China. In the 19th Century, after three Anglo-Burmese wars in 1824, 1852 and 1885, the British named the country Burma on 1st January 1886. That was when the country was officially incorporated into the British Empire as a province of India, with Rangoon as its capital. The majority ethnic group were Burmans and the major language was, and still is, Burmese. In 1989, the repressive military junta changed the name to the Union of Myanmar. This was in an effort to appease smaller ethnic groups and also to distance the government from the growing popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father had been assassinated after he had made an agreement with the British to transfer power in Burma back to the people. Burma had lost it’s much revered and charismatic leader.  Instead it was one of the army generals, General U Nu, who assumed power at independence on 4th January, 1948. The rest has been a story of repression and isolationism.

There are many architectural legacies of the British time in the country – especially in Yangon which is really quite a nice city… even if it could do with a much needed wash down and expert renovation. The name may have been changed from the British Rangoon to the Burmese Yangon by the junta, but the city retains many colonial buildings (and thankfully for western travellers, British toilets!) and British designed wide tree-lined boulevardes and lakes. (Photos taken from bus.)

Tree lined Boulevarde and gardens. (P1090500 © JT of jtdytravels)

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One of several lakes we drove by ( P1090499 © JT of jtdytravels )

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Hotels are being built/ or renovated (P1090497 © JT of jtdytravels )

The number of hotels is growing to accommodate both tourists and business people bringing in foreign investment.

Shops and apartments line main city streets (P1090501 © JT of jtdytravels )

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Traditional small stalls still fill the narrow side alleyways. (P1090506 © JT of jtdytravels)

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Some lovely old buildings are being restored. (P1090498 © JT of jtdytravels )

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‘The Governor’s Residence” (P1010928 © DY of jtdytravels)

One of those restored original British era houses is ‘The Governor’s Residence’ – where the British Governor lived in colonial times. It’s now a delightful hotel and our home for the next two nights. More of that anon.

Jennie and David

All Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels

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