March 10: Yangon, Myanmar.
This morning we docked at the port of Thilawa, about an hour’s drive from Yangon (formerly Rangoon), in the country of Myanmar (formerly Burma). We were greeted by musicians and dancers and other people who waved to us as the ship eased into her berth. The cruise terminal seemed to be two shipping containers stacked one on top of the other, with a canopy erected in the front. We boarded the bus for our tour, Introduction to Yangon, and were told that the buses would be traveling together with a police escort, again for traffic control. Unlike our previous experience, this police escort did little to get us through the thick of the traffic, which was heavy no matter when or where we were driving.
During the tour, we stopped at three sites: the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Scott Market, and the square in city center. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the major tourist attraction in Yangon, not only for cruise passengers but for faithful Buddhists as well. The pagoda is the resting place for relics of various Buddhas and was first built about 2,500 years ago. It has undergone renovations over the centuries, and today the pagoda complex contains numerous temples each with its own statue of Buddha or something else used in worship. The grounds were crowded with Buddhists and tourists today, and since we all had to remove our shoes and socks before entering (there was no efficient method of coping with so many people and their shoes and socks), we spent quite some time waiting before we could enter. Inside, the gold structures and statues, the LED light displays in some of the temples, the incense, the heat, and the crowds of people and monks made a feast for the senses.
Our next tour stop was at the Scott Market, a 70-year-old market featuring more than 2,000 stalls. Denise braved the heat and the crowds and said it had a lot of attractive goods, especially jewelry, textiles, and lacquerware. The market is frequented by both locals and tourists. The bus tour continued to the square in the center of the city, where we made a photo stop. An imposing city hall, another Buddhist temple, and an independence monument were three of the attractions. On the way out of the city, we stopped at the Strand Hotel, built in 1901, which is said to be one of the “grand hotels” of Asia. It might have been interesting to see inside, but we weren’t given the opportunity.
Additional notes about Yangon:
-Both men and women wear sarongs, including road workers, children, taxi drivers, almost everyone. The style is different, depending upon gender. The men’s generally are tied together in the front, making an obvious knot. The women’s must fasten differently because the fabric around the waist is smooth. Flip flops are the most common footwear, for both men and women.
-Road traffic is dominated by cars, especially taxis. There are also motorbikes (few helmets), bicycles (no helmets, few lights at night), horse-drawn carts, hand carts, bicycle rickshaws, and buses (not air conditioned and generally packed with riders). They drive on the right, unlike Thailand and Malaysia, but cars can have either right-hand or left-hand steering. And there are all different makes: Toyota, Lexus, Ford, Honda, Nissan, and many others that I didn’t recognize. Jaywalking is the common practice, even on busy highways.
-Ornately decorated Buddhist temples seem to be in every block of the city. Generally, there’s an imposing gateway which leads down a road (often dirt) to the temple complex. We often saw robed monks walking along the roadways carrying their alms bowl, which they use in begging for food.
-English and other languages are not seen much. The language script used here is incomprehensible to me, but I did see a few words I knew, such as BANK, TOYOTA, TAXI, and TOURIST POLICE.
-Even though we went to the center of the city on our tour, there were no skyscrapers, not even any apartment buildings over ten stories, and no one was wearing what I would call business-appropriate clothing. So I don’t know where business is done.
-During our drive today, we saw several construction sites, but there was no machinery in evidence. Moving dirt or rocks was done with a shovel, sometimes into a cart, sometimes into a dump truck; digging was also done with a shovel; fist-size rocks were being carried by hand from one place to another, sometimes by women or children.
-We found the level of poverty to be almost overwhelming. Substandard housing, unsafe living and working conditions, uncontrolled garbage, crumbling public buildings, and traffic chaos seemed to be the norm.
Our understanding is that Myanmar is just now coming onto the world scene. While it’s true that emerging countries often have difficulties in bringing their infrastructure and social programs up to date, the guides and other people that we spoke to were lovely, and everyone seems to want tourism to become an increasingly important element in their economy. Myanmar has had a long and distinguished history and can offer the Western tourist a unique perspective on life in Southeast Asia.
March 11: Yangon, Myanmar.
We had a relaxing day today on the ship, but for dinner, we had an excursion to a restaurant in Yangon, Le Planteur. Supposedly an extraordinary French restaurant, we thought the food was not so great. The building is the former Australian embassy, so the setting was pleasant enough: tables set up on artificial grass by a lake, Burmese dance show (very similar to one we saw on the ship last night), a warm and lovely night. One of the highlights of the evening was the women’s restroom (see Denise’s picture). But the ride to and from the restaurant was like yesterday’s: bumpy, with too much traffic, and too much poverty.