Feb 21, 2016 – Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma)
The Volendam is docked about an hour’s drive south of Yangon in the port city of Thilawa, which is as far up the shallow Rangoon River as ships dare go.
My shore excursion into Yangon takes most of the day. Our bus is a bit dodgy, but our driver and guide are great, and the driver has a helper, so we are well-served, and we are offered lots of bottled water in order to stay hydrated in the heat. The drive from the port to the city takes almost two hours each way through very heavy traffic. As we leave the port through Thilawa, we encounter early preparations for a pagoda festival. There are circus rides, lots of food stands, and people everywhere despite the festival not starting for several hours. We cross the Rangoon/Bago River over the bridge into the city of Yangon, where we pick up a police escort. So for the rest of the day, we arrive at each location like rock stars!
Our guide explains that the change in spelling for the city of Yangon (from Rangoon) and the country of Myanmar (from Burma) was done by the past military government to correct historical misspelling of the two place names into English. She tells us land is very expensive in Yangon, development is sporadic, and is dependant on foreign investment and (in the past) sponsorship by the military regime. There are lots of homeless dogs, who obviously have to scrounge for food, however some are fed and adopted by the Buddhist temples, so they are referred to as “wat dogs”, after the Burmese word for temple.
First stop is the Sule Pagoda, which is right in the center of the city. We don’t actually go into the pagoda, but we get to hang around Mahabandoola Garden for a few minutes, where there are lots of street food vendors. Next is the Bogyoke Aung San (Scott) Market, where we have some time to shop or just look around this massive market right in the centre of the city. There are clothes, shoes, precious and semi-precious gems and jewelry, inlaid wood, fabric, cosmetics and all sorts of handicrafts.
I’m glad to get out of the market, and go for lunch at the very elegant downtown hotel, the Sule Shangri-La. We are served (family style) a lovely Chinese meal with our choice of beverages, including beer or wine. I have a very nice lager-style local beer, and dine with several of my fellow passengers at big round tables. After lunch, our police escort takes us to the National Museum for a quick look at several interesting exhibits, including the 8-metre-tall golden Lion Throne used by the last Burmese King. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed in the museum.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the highlight of a very full day. One of the wonders of the religious world, this Buddhist spectacle was built more than 2,500 years ago. The pagoda is located on the top of Singuttara Hill, so it is visible from all over the city, since the golden stupa is 100 metres tall. It is topped with more than 6,500 diamonds, rubies and other precious stones; the largest diamond is 76 carats at the apex! The top three components (the Diamond Orb, The Vane and the Umbrella) consist of some 86,000 jewellery items weighing over 5 tonnes. The decorations on the main stupa were recently redone, with the precious stones coming completely from donations. The pagoda is covered in gold plate (not gold leaf).
Everyone, including tourists have to take shoes and socks off and be modestly dressed before taking the elevator from the entrance to the main plaza that surrounds this huge pagoda. Since it is the middle of the day, the tiles are hot in the midday Sun, however since they are marble, it is tolerable providing you don’t step on the black ones! I work my way around the plaza, which has huge numbers of temples and shrines on both sides of the plaza.
The faithful walk around the pagoda in a clockwise direction (as do we), stopping at shrines and temples along the way. In particular, there are Planetary Posts, or shrines for each day of the week (two for Wednesday), just like there are buddhas for each day of the week. Speaking of Buddhas, there are worship halls and temples for the many different images of Buddhas surrounding the main stupa. Free wifi is available in the southeast area of the plaza, near the south stairway entrance.
Our last stop of the day is to see the Chauk Htat Gyi Reclining Buddha. Again, we doff our shoes and socks before entering the compound. This statue is 68 metres (223 feet) long. Buddha’s feet are decorated with astrology and other symbols. There are lots of wat dogs and their pups lounging around the compound.
Our trip back to the ship uses back roads after we cross the river, since our guide and driver want to avoid the local pagoda festival being held on the main road in Thilawa. I hear later from other passengers that they were caught for almost an hour in the festival congestion. Although the back road we took was a bit rough, we were back onboard the ship by 5PM.
Feb 22, 2016 – Monday – Yangon, Myanmar
I spend most of the day aboard the ship at the dock, and leave at 4:30PM to see the Shwedagon Pagoda at night. The traffic is very congested south of the main bridge across the river, but we arrive at the pagoda in time for sunset when the lights illuminate all the gold on the structures. One benefit of visiting at night: the marble tiles on the plaza around the pagoda are cool. Yesterday, I was burning my bare feet as I walked around the pagoda in the midday Sun. The Moon is full, making this evening even more picturesque.
While walking around the pagoda, a young Burmese man strikes up a conversation with me, asking about my country, how long I am staying in the country, how I got here and where I’m going after leaving. He speaks very good English, so we have quite a conversation. Two monks also approach me later on, although they speak poor English. They have similar questions as the young man posed, but they also want me to go with them for some reason. Of course I decline, since I have no idea what they want, and I have no intention of finding out!
This evening, the Thilawa Music & Dance troupe perform traditional Burmese music, dance and acrobatics onboard the ship. Their music is kind of screechy, but the performances are very interesting and the costumes are ornate and colourful. The last number involves two guys inside a giant elephant costume! I take video of portions of the performance.
Myanmar is going through dramatic economic and political change. As a privileged traveller, I only saw hints of the poverty and bad labour practices as we whizzed by in our bus. Here is an article from a reputable news service that describes the darker side of their economy, struggling to emerge from being one of the poorest countries in the world.The Dark Side of Liberalization: How Myanmar’s Political and Media Freedoms Are Being Used to Limit Muslim Rights – Taylor & Francis Online