Inle Lake by Boat, and the Time I Got Sick in Burma

Waiting for Keala to get her sunnies from the hotel I talked to a guy who offered me a boat. “Where you from?” “USA.” “USA very nice country! Obama!” “Obama visit?” “Obama visit a few time, go Yangon visit Aung San Suu Kyi.”

We had a boat arranged already, however. We settled down in one of the typical long, skinny wooden motorboats, armed with blankets to protect against the cold morning air. After a trip down a canal, we were gliding over massive Inle. Fishermen were out in their smaller wooden boats, rowing in their distinctive style: standing up and rowing with one leg. This is to improve visibility, so they can see more and avoid reeds. Strangely, the boat driver would slow down for fishermen photo ops, leaving me amused but slightly uncomfortable. One guy actually posed for our cameras! And didn’t even ask for money!

One-legged boat rowing, Inle Lake

The long journey across the open lake brought us to a large, wild canal, which eventually led to the inland village of Inthein, which was hosting the rotating market that day. After clearing our way through initial rounds of tourist stalls, we found a large gathering in a dusty field. The women and men wore some kind of head wrap in addition to their longyi. Some ladies sat in rows with fresh fruit for sale out in the sun. Past them was a collection of covered stalls selling everything from jeans to toiletries to traditional woven scarves and bags and jewelry to jade and souvenirs. A proper bazaar, I think.

Inthein market

Noodle soup, Shan tofu with chili sauce and rice crackers. May have gotten me horribly ill but totally worth it.

Eventually under a bunch of tents we found all kinds of food hawkers. First we had two sweet doughnuts, one pale and ricey, the inside lined with shredded coconut, the other like an undercooked malasada, very soft on the inside. Then we caught our first glimpses of Shan tofu dishes, a mix of soft tofu, shredded tofu and fried tofu topped with cabbage, puréed cauliflower and all kinds of chili sauces, which men were scooping with large crispy rice crackers – like tofu nachos!. The tofu, unique to Inle Lake, is made out of yellow split peas and has a strange consistency. A smiling old lady directed us to sit down and helped us order. Another girl gave us noodle soup, very thick and mauve in color (more mohinga?), which was wonderfully comforting and delicious. The tofu nachos were creamy and a nice mix of textures, great with a bit of chili.

The lady talked to us, asking if we were sisters and where we came from. She spoke bits and pieces of English, more than most of her brethren; she had devoted herself to learning the language throughout school. I was surprised to meet an elderly person with any English skills and she told me she was 67! “Birthday? 1946, same year as Aung San Suu Kyi.” They all work Aung San Suu Kyi into the conversation here, and her image is everywhere, as if some Uncle Ho figure but the idolatry is totally voluntary. Then, of course, she wanted us to look at her jewelry shop, but she didn’t have anything that appealing. “OK maybe come back later,” she said. Sellers of goods and services in Burma are never pushy, ending their sales attempts with “maybe later.”

We walked into residential Inthein a bit, past some ruined, crooked stupas. The town also has a hilltop monastery. The houses here were all brick and mortar; this place must have been comparatively prosperous.

Next stop: a pagoda housing a few Buddhas which transformed into amorphous blobs over years of Buddhists covering them in more and more gold. Women were barred from the central amorphous blob Buddha circle.

Amorphous blob Buddhas

Then, a series of handicraft stops. This annoyed me slightly as I dislike a forced shopping tour, but the workshops were generally interesting: For example, we saw a teak workshop where they made the long Inle boats, both motorboats for toting tourists and smaller fishing boats. After the fitting and sanding is done, the boats are slathered in tar. Inside ladies were rolling cheroot, the local cigars. Also, at a large weaving factory, women were spinning silk and lotus thread and weaving at looms which made loud smacking sounds. Apparently lotus thread is six times as expensive as silk and unique to the region.

Spinning lotus thread

We made our way through the floating gardens, where the Intha have painstakingly built up beds on which to grow tomatoes and all kinds of crops. This practice will have deleterious long-term effects on the lake, as the beds will become solid ground, but it was peaceful to float by with the farmers through this other-worldly place.

Our final stop was the famous “jumping cat monastery”, a wooden monastery on stilts where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops. Unfortunately the cats were relatively dormant when we arrived, but I liked sitting in the comfy teak recliners in sunbeams next to tiny kittens! The place was full of foreigners trying to photograph cats on their SLRs, though a monk was speaking wisdom to a couple Burmese. This monastery also boasted a large collection of golden Buddhas from several different styles (Bamar, Shan, Intha etc.). Our driver came in to pray at one of them.

We were dropped off in the late afternoon, and that night I dined on a curry fish. As I was trying to sleep I heard a procession of children singing in harmony outside at about 10 PM. What a sweet place, I thought. Later, however, I felt the peculiar need to vomit, and ended up throwing up and having diarrhea in countless episodes throughout the night. My stomach hurt terribly, and I felt various lower abdominal cramps as well. Worse, I became increasingly dehydrated but could not hold down water! Only with some electrolyte drink and Advil at about mid-day the next day was I able to gain the strength to even rise from bed.

So we had to abandon our plans for a long trek that day. Food poisoning in one of the world’s least developed countries after subsisting for six days on primarily street and market food?? Crazy! But I wanted to walk it off. So that afternoon we hiked down the road going east from Nyaungshwe which led into the hills and into a tiny village where kids were playing soccer and bathing at a concrete public shower. Up some stairs young monks (here in burgundy) were wandering around at a small monastery. We walked into a small cave, where a smiling monk gave us a flashlight and another one led us around in the dark up and down stairs, pointing out Buddhas and cave paintings. “No oxygen,” he’d say when we motioned to go in certain directions. At one point he had us meditate in a hot cavern in the dark. A little sketchy, a little awkward but definitely an amusing exchange.

Took a walk to this monastery, cave and village

The next morning we drove through white mist so thick you could see no distinction between the lake and the sky, noting a peculiarly orange and circular sun before it rose higher and the mist cleared. On the exact same Air Bagan flight, which seems to just go in a circle around Burma, we flew over dry mountains to Thandwe, where we landed right next to the rippling ocean, and finally to Yangon, where gilded stupas glinted in the sun.

I had low expectations for Burma. After the irritating visa process, suspicious Air Bagan reservation system and crappy hotel selection, I was expecting a real shithole. Moreover, I was expecting the poverty level to be stressful. But, maybe because I flew instead of taking slow buses and trains, I found traveling in Burma totally manageable, less stressful than in Cambodia. The food was delicious and cheap; I want to go eat some Burmese food right now, or perhaps learn to make mohinga! The sights were unique and off-the-beaten path. Yet, I’d agree with Lonely Planet: the best thing about Myanmar is the people! The Burmese are friendly, happy, curious about you, honest, full of optimism. I’m so glad I went there, as their optimism and spirit gives me hope for the whole world. 🙂


Inle Lake by Bicycle

The banks of Inle Lake

My final stop in my Burmese journey was to Inle Lake. We were dismayed to learn that Inle Lake is freaking cold, with lows in the low 40s and highs only in the 60s. This meant we would be forced to wear our dirty pants for three more days, and I didn’t even have a coat! The drive to Inle Lake took about an hour, driving through some windy roads through low mountains, plus straight ones through small towns. We stayed in Nyaungshwe, a small grid of a town with lots of hotels and English. The banks of the lake are covered in long, parked boats and men asking us if we needed a boat. We passed a couple of golden pagodas and people’s small homes in the marshes of the lake.

For our first day, a nice sunny though fairly brisk one, we rode bikes all around the lake, renting a couple of cruisers from our hotel. At first we kept making wrong turns and would go far down dusty paths but then have to backtrack. But this brought many interesting sights – a strip of market in Nyaungshwe with some delicious-looking samosas, small villages of houses with woven walls on stilts in the marshy land. Lots of chickens and dogs roaming about. Again, the locals–mainly Intha people, an ethnic group found primarily around this lake–were very smiley and greeted us with a “Mingalarba” or hello. The kids would wave at us or even try to high-five us as we passed on our bicycles. The kids are so cute, happy and friendly; they must be well-loved.

The road going east-west along the northern edge of the lake was brutal as it was unpaved but reinforced with bumpy rocks, and occasionally uphill. Motorbikes and trucks kept passing us, blowing dust in our face, all over our already dirty pants and sweaters. This road went mainly through shady trees.

After about 3 km we turned on the western road going north-south, a big improvement as this was paved and in the sunshine, going along the mountains. We passed a school full of kids in forest-green school longyi before arriving at the hot springs. These were lamer than expected, actually lukewarm pools run by a couple of spas. We paid $5 each for entrance to the public pool which had dirtier water but no tourists. We lounged and half-napped on the deck in the warm sun, very relaxing after the long bike ride. Two puppies were sleeping in the shade of one of the chairs. Their mischievous brother came to nip at them. In a plastic chair restaurant nearby, a middle-aged lady gave us lunch of Shan noodles – chewy, spicy and delicious.

A guy offered to ferry us and our bikes across the lake for 8000 kyat, so we followed him to the jumping off point and settled in our long wooden boat. We first traveled down some marshy canal for a while before entering the big open lake! Speeding across it for the first time, with the mountain backdrop and bright sunshine, brought big smiles to our faces. Apparently the lake is only 12 feet deep at its deepest point. Reeds are visible all over Inle Lake’s inky waters.

Kids going home from school in green longyi

On the east side, mothers were paddling in their own boats to pick up their children from school, the kids walking merrily down the pier. Biking up north alongside the mountain we passed lots of agricultural lands, including these tall pale pink cat tails (might have been rice?) while lots of vehicles passes us on our bikes: little Chinese-made trucks carrying crops or gravel or wooden planks, motorbikes, little open buses with lots of locals piled in. They would smile and wave at us. This road was mostly paved but was heavy with truck traffic at this hour, so I got lots of exhaust in my face. They were doing work in it in some places, though no road crew was out at this twilight hour.

Our final stop for the day was Red Mountain Vineyard, which required biking and hiking up a hill covered in grape varietals, numbered and labeled. The restaurant at the top of a hill had an amazing view of the mountains, valley and lake, all bathed in late-afternoon sunlight. We paid 2000 kyat each for a tasting of four wines – one Cabernet, one rosé, one Shiraz-Tempranillo and one sweet late harvest. They were all actually quite good – at least, better than the crap I usually buy. Wine in Burma – awesome!

Enjoying some wines at Red Mountain Vineyard

So far I loved Inle Lake, and could see why it continues to be a major tourist destination. The setting is enchanting and unique–floating villages, watery life, mountain backdrop, strange pink plants– and the locals were so charming and friendly. I don’t mean to romanticize poverty and I’m sure the situation is much grimmer outside of the tightly controlled tourist areas in Burma, but the residents near Inle Lake honestly looked truly happy, which is all the more impressive given the level of development. The next day we would go on our typical Inle boat tour.

The Temples of Bagan

The mighty Ananda Pahto in Bagan

Almost every tourist who visits Burma goes to view the temples of Bagan, the leftovers of the Bagan empire which unified and ruled the country in the 9th through 13th centuries and, in its piousness and prosperity, built over 10,000 temples across the Mandalay Region. Better than the temples of Angkor? SPOILER ALERT: yes I think so.

The flight on Air Bagan to Nyaung-U was kind of hilarious. When the staff finally arrived at the check-in counter at 5:15 AM, one hour before our scheduled flight takeoff, they simply looked at my printed confirmations without even checking our IDs or the manifest, giving us a sticker to wear and a boarding pass with all the info rubber stamped on it. Needless to say, they lacked computers. When it finally came time to board (not on time obviously lol), they notified us by having a person walk by with a sign that said W9-141, our flight number. The flight on the tiny ATR 72 was fine, though only half-full so I’m not sure why I paid so much. They brought us orangeade, tea and coffee and bread snacks. Air Bagan may be owned by a government crony but the service sure beat American Airlines’.

From the tiny Nyaung-U airport, we took a cab ride from a guy who spoke good English (he learned from his father, a headmaster) to Aung Mingalar Hotel. The girls with their painted yellow faces weren’t too friendly but they let us check in early. We picked out some rickety bikes and first stopped at a local restaurant nearby, enjoying some fried dough and Shan noodles, chewy noodles reddened by this spicy gelatinous sauce made of rice flour gel. The TV was showing the SEA Games in which small teams squared off at a badminton net but were kicking over a small ball as if in some combination of soccer, hackey sack and volleyball.

We were pretty disoriented after rising at 4 AM but started biking toward Bagan anyway, with no real idea of where we were going and no English signage. First we hazarded a stop at this strange amusement park built around some stupas, both gold and brick, probably not original, with Buddha spots for meditation but also loud music and a Ferris wheel. Then we turned down the first random dirt road that looked promising, and eventually encountered a brick temple complex with no one around, my feet in flip flops getting dusty. The temple was nothing special but it was cool wandering around the interiors of these deserted places.

Just a stone’s throw away a huge temple stood inviting us to explore. We tried to walk over there but found it was surrounded by tall plants. All of Bagan is quite dry, covered in tall grasses and cacti and strange trees. Some of them leave burrs all over you. We wandered down the dusty dirt paths with our bikes and encountered a field where women in longyi and straw hats were working, their big white oxen chewing the plants with airy green pods. One of them pointed down the road so we ventured that way and found the rectangular fortress we had seen people at the top of earlier.

Hunting for temples

The locals pointed us in the right direction!

A secret dark staircase led to the roof, where we caught our first glimpse of the sheer magnitude of Bagan’s plain of temples, with stupas dotting the green landscape as far as the eye could see. These ranged from big white ones with gilded spires to humble red brick ones restored inaccurately, some more rectangular and castle-like, some just a solid round stupa. Some were under construction, men on its levels working away. It was certainly a magnificent and unique sight, and super fun discovering it on our own.

Finally we found the old city walls marking the entrance to Old Bagan and we spent our two days in Bagan biking between all sorts of temples. Thatbinnyu, tall, white and castle-like. Shwesandaw, a big white pyramid with steep steps and an amazing 360 view of the plain of temples. Dhammayangyi, an imposing, mostly mortarless brick temple built by a ruthless king. You must always remove your shoes before entering a temple and walk clockwise around the stupa.

Enormous teak buddha inside Ananda Pahto

The most famous temple is Ananda Pahto. Ananda is huge and white with golden spires and features four gigantic teak Buddhas painted gold, as well as some original mural work and corridors filled with even more little seated Buddhas in rows of semicircles. The exterior was also quite impressive with its gilded spires and cool lion statues on the corners.

In another corner outside Old Bagan you can also see some decorative detail: The huge Htilominlo Pahto features ornate original carvings on the outside, while Upali Thein has original mural work, ranging from simplistic to depicting complex human scenes. In their heyday all of these temples would have been painted both exterior and interior; only now as a result of their haphazard restoration do many appear as red bricks.

Buddha and remains of wall murals

In Bagan we encountered a fair number of peddlers, mainly trying to sell us sand paintings for $3, but there were only a fraction of the ones in Angkor and mostly not pushy. No one followed you around. Also, few of the peddlers were children. Well, one kid did try to sell me “postcards” that he had drawn himself on white paper with crayons, which made me laugh. Also contrasting with Angkor, in Bagan only a few white tourists were visiting the place. Most of the visitors were locals there to meditate before the statues of Buddha and give donations to build their merit.

During these days of temple exploration, besides the amazing Shan noodles we enjoyed more mohinga with wide noodles for 50 cents, fresh grilled fish, Dagon and Mandalay beers and even Tibetan pita cylinders stuffed with lamb and veg (at the restaurant Wonderful Tasty which I definitely recommend!).

The highlight of many people’s visits to Bagan is viewing the sunset. We managed to find a horse-drawn cart in Nyaung-U to take us to and from the Buledi temple for 8000 kyat. We climbed in the back of the buggy and found amusement in the slow clip-clop of the pony-sized horse and the driver’s guttural vocalizations trying to speed the creature up. As we traveled, the driver talked to various friends on the street, such as women carrying full baskets on their head. Arriving just in time for sunset, we scrambled up the fairly tall stupa, where a small crowd of other travelers had gathered, attempting to snag some sunset shots. The bright orange sun sank slowly in the rosy sky over the vast plain of temples. My favorite part was actually after sunset, when the stupas were silhouetted against the sky at dusk.

Temples at sunset

We also biked to the bank of the Irrewaddy River, where a mama dog led around five puppies and the father kept watch around a deserted bit of temple. Our goal was to find a boat to take us across the river to Tan Kyi, the gold-tipped pagoda one mountain visible from all over Bagan. When we did find the jetty in Old Bagan, a guy found us offering a ride before we even parked. He quoted K15,000 for a ride to and from the place, just as Lonely Planet said it would cost. One thing I found really pleasing about Burma is that nobody tries to rip you off, always giving you the “real” price for things! We got on the half hour boat ride across the vast river, the temples of Bagan growing smaller and smaller in our view.

Tan kyi pagoda on the top of hill

The boat driver showed us the dirt road to Tan Kyi. To find the path, we first walked through a small village of wooden houses on stilts. Many of the houses had walls made of bamboo (or something) woven into interlocking rectangular patterns, something I had never seen before. I enjoyed this first glimpse at local life off the tourist track. The villagers smiled at us with a “mingalarba”, and some workers building a pavilion pointed us in the right direction when we made a wrong turn. At one point we encountered the railroad track snaking around the mountain, a natural gas pipeline and some basic drainage infrastructure. The hike up to Tan Kyi proved harder than we expected, with a couple hundred steps up to the pagoda. Sweating in the sunny heat, we regretted not wearing shorts (but I learned the hard way about attempting to wear shorts to temples!). The view from the top showed more Irrewaddy and dry mountain than temples, but we felt accomplished having made it to the top.

Our time in Bagan was a mystical adventure, with not too many tourists, full of special sights and moments of discovery. With not too much set up for visitors–for example, very few romanized signs–you had to figure it out on your own, often wandering through deserted temple complexes set among tall grasses and cacti. And so many Buddhas!

A plain of thousands of stupas

A Day in Yangon

View of Shwedagon Pagoda from Taunggyi Lake

I came to Myanmar largely in the dark about the country. Before deciding to travel there, I knew vaguely of the country’s authoritarian military junta, which had been exposed to the world during 2008’s Cyclone Nargis; of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and election into parliament during a recent liberalization of government; and finally that the country was opening its borders due to the removal of sanctions and that the big ad agencies were already swooping into the city. I knew it was a place that was on the brink of change, and I always like to travel to dynamic places to observe this energy. I read up a bit about the country’s violence and human rights issues, related to a rather cacophonous ethnic situation in which Bamars comprise 68% but not all of the population, about heroic stories during the China Burma India Theatre of World War II, and a bit about the Burmese empires of old.

Yet my first dealings with the country were with the embassy in Canberra while acquiring my visa. To illustrate this country’s “backwardness” and isolation, the embassy did not even have a functioning website and I had to find the PDF visa application from a random unofficial host. The embassy in Australia was inundated with visa applications (we’re talking high hundreds at a time), which it can only process by mail, and it was a real nail-biter trying to get my passport back in time. After one tense phone call with an administrator who yelled at me for not allowing 8-12 weeks for processing and a few weeks wait, I received my passport with Myanmar sticker in it exactly one business day before I was set to fly to Malaysia. Meanwhile, I was in charge of booking hotels and airfare in this country.

The hotel situation was dire. Despite being a country of such low development, the hotels were in such short supply that they were actually quite expensive, while any cheaper options just looked a bit too Third World for me. I also had to get my sister to bring fresh crisp American money because allegedly Burma has no ATMs accepting international cards. After these headaches, I barely even wanted to go.

But I got my visa and passport, made the bookings successfully and after two days traveling overland from Phnom Penh via Battambang, I was flying from Bangkok to Yangon! I was so glad I did, because Yangon turned out to be one of my favorite cities that I visited in Southeast Asia.

Arriving in Yangon was nothing out of the ordinary and there were in fact some ATMs dispensing kyat. Ladies at a taxi booth wrote out instructions, specifying the price, and a driver in a green checkered longyi retrieved us with a toothy smile. What is a longyi? Everyone in Burma, man and woman, wears a wrap skirt called a longyi. Yes, Burma is a land where men wear wrap skirts, chew betel leaves and drive right-hand driving cars on the right side of the road.

We exited to find a rosy sunset over a forested area and a small village of restaurants. The road was dusty but paved and containing only cars (no motorbikes!). After 45 minutes or so of driving through increasingly dense suburbs of Yangon we arrived at MK Hotel, which turned out to be clean and featuring a brand-new German elevator and Chinese appliances. I peered out the small window to notice a crowd of people gathering around a barbecue and steamers outside.

On the hunt for some street food, we ventured into the slightly dusty streets illuminated by yellow street lights. We walked along the elevated sidewalk of Bogyoke Aung San Rd and saw for the first time that everyone was wearing longyi, the men wearing button-downs to accompany their longyi, the women an assortment of shirts. And another unique tradition: the women and children painted their faces with circles of a yellowish plant substance called thanaka, thought to be a natural sunscreen. On this Sunday night, the urbanites were all out on plastic furniture on the sidewalk, gathered around plates of meat and veggies with rice. Some food was made fresh, some sat out in vats. Men were swigging draft Myanmar beer while watching a SEA Games soccer match on TVs (Burma was hosting the SEA Games during this time). We wandered down an alley where women were sitting with produce for sale in the dark. Young men filled up the nearby gaming parlors, which had TV screens and X-Boxes.

Pork skewers with broth for sale on the street

We settled at a little cart where a girl had a grill and meat skewers lined up in a semi-circle around a bubbling vat of broth. She handed us a little bit of broth and a sauce for dipping. We didn’t know the protocol but then a man, wife and child sat down next to us, started taking skewers and immersing them in the gravy-like broth, so we did the same. At another cart, we had a pancake topped with a layer of sweet egg mix, and then made our way to the popular BBQ stand serving a host of young people all chattering on the chairs. We picked out three pieces of fried crab and three fried shrimp rolls, which together cost 1000 kyat, just over $1. We mainly ordered with pantomiming and pointing, and to my surprise, people seemed to know how to count in English.

Trying to sleep downtown on this Sunday night I heard some males chanting by mic and also a female vocalist blasting tunes from a party tuk tuk brigade.

For our full day of exploring Yangon, first we broke our fast with watermelon, banana, coffee and mohinga. The hotel’s version of the popular local dish featured medium-thickness egg noodles in a coconut fish broth with chicken and topped with crunchy fried pounded rice. Love crunchy toppings on my noodles! I wish I could eat this amazing dish more often.

Mohinga for breakfast

We headed out down Bogyoke Aung San Road, a major thoroughfare. After the other occasionally inscrutable cities I visted in Southeast Asia, Yangon was a treat as it has a modern grid for a city plan! The downtown actually resembles Melbourne or any British colonial city, a wide rectangle on top of a river, but it further benefits from numbered north-south streets. Also, traffic lights! However, street signs were scarce, and the ones that did exist were sponsored by Seiko.

We passed an old brick church and soon turned toward central Yangon, observing its British colonial architecture. Yangon is a bit lighter on shophouses compared to say, Vietnam or Malaysia, but it contains many large apartment buildings, often with balustered balconies, usually painted sea foam or white but dirtying quickly. Everything is a bit taller than in other colonial cities, with most apartment buildings at least six stories.

Apartment buildings Yangon

We easily found Sule Pagoda, a large elevated stupa in a roundabout right at the center of town–a helpful landmark–but I couldn’t enter wearing shorts and clothing shops weren’t open yet. So we started wandering west. We entered Little India, marked by ladies with bindis or hijabs, a few bulbous mosques and tons of fried street eats like samosas and dosas, in addition to the noodle stands all over the place. I had a terrific samosa for about 10 cents. We wandered up and down the smaller numbered streets passing by stores displaying sewing machines or blue PVC pipe out front on the street, or even cutting commercial signage. We ventured through Chinatown as well.

So far Yangon was quite walkable, which I really enjoyed. Because of a longstanding ban on motorbikes, everyone either walks or is in a car or bus, and obviously most cannot afford a car and who likes taking the bus anyway. So the streets are nicely bustling with people. We encountered long ribbons of novice monks traveling; the young ones are marked by pale pink robes with an orange sash as opposed to the adults’ burgundy. Plus, the streets are all turned into a giant market. Besides the stores displaying their wares, people have colonized most spare sidewalk space to sell jeans, wallets, electronics, rubber stamps, you name it. Even a pedestrian overpass was covered in clothing for sale.

Market time

At one point we discovered a large open-air market, where sellers blanketed the street with produce, butchered meat, still-moving fish and cages full of chickens. A few vendors were serving up fresh snacks and dishes as well. Next door was the big market hall. Inside this tall, mid-sized hall with wooden rafters, vendors were setting up, stacking heaps and heaps of folded textiles. I decided to look for a potential longyi, and came away with a white floral cloth. The girls laughed their asses off trying to tie it for me, and I got a lot of amused stares and finger pointing when walking on the street wearing it, tied basically incorrectly (because most female longyis actually include a hidden tie inside), exposing too much leg and accentuating too much waist for a modest Buddhist female.

We returned to Sule Pagoda, a gold stupa in full use, with locals sitting before the many images of Buddha, meditating and praying. We saw our first of what my sister called “psychedelic Buddhas”, which have flashing LED lights surrounding Buddha’s head. After Sule we cut across the street to Mahavandula Gardens, a big pleasant park with an obelisk across from Sule, City Hall and other administrative buildings. Many of these neoclassical government buildings could have been in any British colonial city, except they were often in disrepair, peeling, dirty, eroded.

Man meditating at Sule Pagoda

We would see more of these grand old buildings on our way to the river. Some were crawling with vines. I even saw one restaurant in a gutted old building where only the Corinthian columns remained. We also walked down Pandosan, where vendors sell photocopied and second-hand books, ranging from ancient Reader’s Digests to textbooks on data structures to Burmese popular fiction. This street is known as a sort-of open-air library; allegedly the Burmese love to read. On the way I also munched on a deep-fried banana and a deep-fried bunch of onions.

Books for sale on Pandosan Road

Rooms of gold in Botahtaung Pagoda

We marched all the way to Botahtaung Pagoda. The stupa itself was under construction but you could walk inside through triangular room after triangular room of gold! The grounds were quite large, good for a wander, with many rectangular pavilions housing Buddhas plus a large pond full of terrapin turtles.

We hailed a side-car cyclo back down Strand Road, Keala in the front and me in the back, kind of precariously hanging out there passing by cars and buses. We stopped in for cocktails at the Strand Hotel, a historic hotel from the days of old Rangoon that once saw the likes of Kipling and Orwell. Nestling into a pair of leather chairs in the dark wood and marble bar, we enjoyed some rum and gin cocktails, pricey at $7 but well-mixed. I flipped through the hotel’s large old History of Rangoon, bound in green leather and illustrated with full-page etchings, in which I learned such facts as:

  • Burma used to be a big exporter of ponies.
  • The British found the conditions difficult because they had no bread and butter.
  • Any merchant could set up shop in Rangoon due to an absence of competition from the East India Company.
  • The city plan was drawn up in 1854 after the old city centers had faded/been destroyed, designed by a surgeon who had served as magistrate performing similar duties under Stamford Raffles in Singapore. City planning not only involved drawing up plans for building but also the outlining of rules and regulations and the set-up of a postal service, sewers, etc.

Cocktails at the colonial classic, the Strand Hotel

We hiked back to Little India looking for Nilar Biryani House, which due to Yangon’s simple numbered grid was a breeze to find. Enjoyed some mutton biryani which cost maybe $1, and the staff understood English–at least food words.

We hopped in a cab where the driver was playing Akon and we finally arrived at the crown jewel of Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda (also known as Shwe Dagon Paya; the Rangoon book called it the Great Dagon). Built by the Mons back in the 9th or 10th century, this massive monument to Buddhism has endured for a millennium, through many changes of national leadership. At one point the monarchs started gilding the stupa so that now Shwedagon is one of the shiniest structures in the world. The pagoda is majestically sited up 120m so you must enter through one of the four grand covered staircase halls. We spent a while wandering the grounds barefoot on the white marble floor. The big gold stupa is surrounded by countless little rectangular pavilions, and has some big images of Buddha on the corners. More, larger pavilions are scattered throughout the complex, and there’s also a smaller, subordinate gold stupa, the spire wrapped with some bells which chime magically in the wind. The place has a few tourists but these are equally matched by locals coming to pray and monks in burgundy robes. Amazingly only about 10 white people were visiting at this time. Another thing I like about Yangon: no Western backpackers in hideous elephant harem pants.

Me in my makeshift longyi at Shwedagon Pagoda

After a brief nap we headed over to Taunggyi Lake, a big lake/park where young couples come to canoodle on benches. We strolled around, taking a bench break, until near-sunset, when the great stupa was reflecting on the water.

Back outside MK Hotel, we took a seat at a tea house where we had a plate of mini samosas and a puffy fresh naan-like bread, which was amazing though lacking the usual lentils for dipping. K asked for tea and a guy brought us cups of light-colored tea full of condensed milk in addition to the black tea in a pitcher. I like the Yangon tea house experience–drinks and snacks and chatting–though I noticed the majority of the patrons are men.

Yangon tea house

So that was my whirlwind 24 hours in Yangon, one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia next to Bangkok and Hanoi. Dilapidated but interesting buildings. A burgeoning energy. A great place to walk. Not at all touristy. Full of unique Buddhist and colonial sites. Yummy street food. Men in skirts in the city.

As they say in SEA, same same but different. VERY different.