A Journey to the land of Golden Spires
If you have read classic novels about adventures to the Far East, you would have heard of Burma and Rangoon mentioned.. But whatever happened to Burma now, you might ask? The country has changed its name to Myanmar, and Rangoon, the former capital, is now called Yangon. For the few who have ventured to this Southeast Asian nation, you will have found a treasure that much of the rest of the world have yet to discover. The country is under strict military rule, and getting in is part of the excitement. The rules for visas can change very quickly from time to time, and it is always wise to check with the nearest embassy what the rules are.
When I was about to embark on this trip, I read somewhere that Visa on Arrival is now available in Myanmar, starting 1st of May 2010. I initially presumed it was all good, until I just had to ask a local travel agent in Myanmar about this visa on arrival scheme. Luckily I did ask early on, as apparently the government decided to scrap the Visa On Arrival scheme because the country’s elections are happening in November. The military regime wants to restrict the number of foreign visitors into the country for their security reasons. I won’t go into the politics side of things, and I should not mention Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her quest for democracy in this country (oops, I just said it, tough…) but in short, the government has its own ways of making rules, and you just have to adhere to them in order to be safe.
“So why Myanmar?“, my friends asked me. Well, it’s mainly 2 things that drew me to go there: Firstly, I have always been fascinated by the temples in Myanmar, particularly Bagan and the Shwe Dagon. The stories of Shwe Dagon, even from the first explorers in the 16th Century, have captivated my imagination of the grandeur and splendour of the temples of Myanmar. Secondly, I hardly know of anyone who has been to Myanmar apart from my brother-in-law, and it gave me a sense of excitement to visit a place that not many people have visited.
Is it safe to visit Myanmar?
This is one question I asked before I left, and I have read a number of travellers who have said that it is one of the safest places they have ever been. And I would have to agree totally! I felt safer in Myanmar than in other Southeast Asian countries. It may sound surprising considering what you hear on the news about the government’s oppression of the people, but in reality, life goes on like normal there, and perhaps the harsh punishment for crimes committed in Myanmar have played a big part in ensuring people’s safety. People are genuinely nice and helpful, and it’s really reassuringly safe there.
Should Tourist Visit Myanmar?
If you are one of the many people who are against the oppressive military junta ruling Myanmar, then you may have second thoughts of going there and supporting their country. Aung San Suu Kyi, the enigmatic Nobel Peace Prize winner and outspoken opposition of the regime, has been discouraging people to visit Myanmar to stop the flow of money into the government’s coffers. However, at the end of the day, the millions of ordinary and innocent citizens of this country also end up suffering if the tourism industry suddenly dies down. It is a much more difficult situation if the innocent citizens would lose their source of income and further cause them pain. I’m of the opinion that so long as you buy something direct from the people and not from a government institution, that I’m helping poor people get through the tough times and alleviate them from poverty.
How to Get To Myanmar
The easiest way to enter Myanmar with less restrictions (in terms of where you can go in the country) is by flying into the former capital of Yangon (Rangoon). Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and commercial centre, has the main international airport of the country, and is serviced by flights from Singapore, Bangkok, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, Chiang Mai and Kunming. Mandalay has the only other international airport, but the only international flight it handles is to Kunming in China (there used to be flights from Chiang Mai, but it got cancelled).
Flying into Yangon is a lot better than what it used to be. They now have a more modern international airport, and have turned their old crumbling international terminal into a domestic terminal. From Sydney, I found a flight via Silk Air and Singapore Airlines through the Zuji website. Though many airlines (even budget airlines like Air Asia and Jetstar) now flies to Yangon, I found that Silk Air offers the most number of flights to Yangon via Singapore. The other airlines that service Yangon are Thai Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Bangkok Airways, Vietnam Airlines, and China Eastern Airlines.
Yangon at a glance
The picture above is of a cat sitting on the second hand books of one of the many roadside bookstand vendors. I just can’t resist taking a photo of this cute cat.. I’m tempted to call it a Burmese cat (since I found it truly in Burma!). Anyway, Yangon, though it’s a slowly decaying city, has a lot of charm to it. The vendors on the street selling food, fruits, and second hand books (it is a book collector’s paradise for second hand hard-to-find books!) make the city so unique and colourful.
The city of Yangon is situated at the banks of the Yangon River. It has a busy port, and was one of the most important ports of the British Empire in the 17th-19th century. You will notice the great deal of old imposing colonial buildings around the city, a sign that Yangon was full of glory during the British colonial era. Some of the best attractions in Yangon are actually the golden stupas and pagodas that dot the city. There are 3 amazing pagodas that you must visit while in the city (and this is also according to Lonely Planet’s Myanmar travel guide, which happens to be the only travel guidebook I can find about this country):
1.) Shwe Dagon Pagoda
This is the MUST SEE of all the pagodas in the entire country of Myanmar. It is Myanmar’s most sacred site, and truly a sight to behold! The Shwe Dagon pagoda is stuff of legends. It’s been mentioned by a 15th Century British explorer as the most beautiful structure ever seen on earth. Even Rudyard Kipling is so impressed by this towering golden structure. Its imposing spire glistens by day and radiates with great luminescence at night. The Shwe Dagon pagoda is 98 meters tall and sits on a hill near Kandawgyi lake. It towers above all structures, and can be see from a distance in the city centre. The huge complex where the pagoda sits has so many spires and small temple buildings around, that you can easily spend half a day just wandering around the temple complex. The best time to visit this temple is at sunset, when you get great lighting from the sun, and also a spectacular view of the setting sun behind the temple.
2.) Botataung Pagoda
The Botataung (or Botahtaung) Pagoda is regarded as the second most important Buddhist site in Yangon. This pagoda literally means “1,000 military officers”, as historically, a thousand military officers of the King were drawn up to welcome the arrival of Buddha’s relics from India to this riverside site. The pagoda was completely destroyed during the Second World War in 1943, but was rebuilt in 1948 when Burma (as the country was then known) gained independence from Britain.
The unique thing about the Botataung pagoda is that it is the only pagoda where you can actually go inside the dome to view the relic. Most, if not all, pagodas in Myanmar are enclosed and you cannot enter into them. The pagoda is by the banks of the Yangon River, and it is next to the jetty, where you can see some locals taking the ferry across to the other side of the river.
3.) Sule Paya/ Sule Pagoda
The Sule Paya (or Sule Pagoda) is located right in the heart of Yangon’s CBD. It is in the middle of a roundabout along the Sule Paya Road, and acts like a centrepiece of the central city. This pagoda is thought to be built before the Shwe Dagon pagoda. It has become an important part of the economic and political life in Myanmar, as protests in 1988 and 2007 against the government have started at this point. As with all the other pagodas, you are required to take off your shoes before entering the Sule Pagoda complex. There is a US$5 entrance fee for tourists with cameras.
I will break this post for now, but watch out for more information about Yangon and the rest of my experience in Myanmar.
Til then, have a Fabulous Journey ahead!