Myanmar has had empires and been attacked/occupied by others building empires themselves, including: Mongolians, Chinese, Japanese, and the British. Myanmar has also experienced significant cultural influence from India, has had interaction on the border with Thailand, and from time to time been on trading routes in the ancient world. Homo Erectus may have been in the region as long as 750,000 years ago, bronze age technology in 1500 BC, and first city-states in the second century B.C. Independence from the British was gained in 1948, but the military took over in 1962. Modern day Myanmar is a federation of the British occupied Burma as well as many adjacent tribes/states; the adjacent tribes have often been the scene of civil war. “These wars are predominantly struggles for ethnic and sub-national autonomy, with the areas surrounding the ethnically Bamar central districts“. Some states have there own armies. The country is currently on a path to fuller democracy and a single national army, but there are many hurdles to be navigated.
The old colonial British capital of Yangon is a mixture of architectures and experiences. It is modern in someways, while looking tired in others. There are places where you can see Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu temples in close proximity. Muslim women appear to walk around the city without care – there are nuances of course. It was raining the day I was there, so I quickly switched to flip-flops as taking shoes and socks off to enter / exit temples became laborious, and also messy in the mud and rain. The highlight of the day was the Shwedagon Pagoda (AKA: Shwedagon Zedi Daw [official Burmese name], Great Dagon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda) , which in addition to being large and the holiest pagoda in Myanmar, is surrounded by an amazing and open array of other structures.
The first night I arrived in Yangon it was dark and rainy. As I was being driven to my hotel, the outline of structures I saw did not look inviting. I wondered a little what I might have gotten myself into. Bad enough that there are mixed feelings about being here given the international outrage over the Rohingya people in the Rakhine state, but was the experience going to be a nightmare a well.
I checked into the Taw Win Hotel, which is comfortable, but not luxurious. The people are extremely attentive and polite. They may always be this way, but of course, they are seeing far few tourists this year as well. There is an unfamiliar fragrance in the lobby. In Saudi Arabia I came to love the unfamiliar smells. Not sure about this one.
The bed is rock hard, an experience that would become familiar. The shower did not work so well in the morning, but it is OK. Things could be much worse. The no-charge breakfast was fairly good with a variety of Asian and Western foods to choose from. I did a bit of a mash-up. Coffee is not great by even American standards, almost everywhere in Myanmar, so I switched to tea, which seems to at least taste true to what I expect.
Picture: Breakfast at the Taw Win Hotel
It was rainy the day I was in Yangon. The practice of removing shoes to enter temples and pagodas is easy for the flip-flop wearing locals, but laborious for me as I turned up in shoes and socks. The rain meant for slippery and dirty feet, which also made the experience messy, eased a little by the provision of moist wipes at many places, and by my tour guide. Nonetheless, at lunch, I went to the market and bought some flip-flops; ever so much as I tend to avoid the tourism oriented markets.
Picture: Shwedagon Pagoda
I saw multiple temples in one day, as well as old colonial buildings and a building still showing the damage from Japanese bombing during WWII. The large Shwedagon Pagoda was the highlight. It’s size does give it a certain grandeur of course, but it was as much about the entire complex, which has many buildings and is well maintained. To Buddhists, it is the holiest site in Myanmar due to the many relics it houses.
Picture: The burning of incense is everywhere, here at the Shwedagon Pagoda
When I returned to Yangon a week later, I could see the pagoda from the window of the hotel restaurant. The sun was out, and there was a golden reflection. It occurred to me, that in days gone by, before modern buildings went up, such a sight would have been awe inspiring for devout Buddhists. It is still somewhat impressive, even today, despite the bamboo scaffolding that is common to many monuments under maintenance.
Yangon appears to be a reasonably modern city, tolerating people of different faiths, as evidenced by the proximity of different temples, as well as the people walking on the street. There are many nuances to this issue of course, including the radically different world views of different faiths, which I will get into in another blog, as it relates to Myanmar.
Picture: Christian church in proximity to Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu temples
There are some lakes and parks also that are nice, there are modernish shopping centers, a relatively new international airport, and the signs of foreign investment all-round (mostly China these days). The entire Shwedagon complex as a whole is impressive, and as you will likely pass through Yagon on your travels, it is worth a look. No doubt, there is more colonial history I could have delved into if I had stayed longer, and for some, that will hold interest. For me though, the old Pagan Kingdom capital Bagan, was to be where the really interesting stuff was. Bagan was my next stop after Yagon.