For the next long weekend, choose Yangon! | brunch$feature | Hindustan Times
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For the next long weekend, choose Yangon!

Avoid the obvious holiday destinations and head to the capital city of Myanmar instead

brunch Updated: Jul 01, 2017 22:45 IST
Yamini Nair
The Maha Wizaya Pagoda has a majestic Lord Buddha idol
The Maha Wizaya Pagoda has a majestic Lord Buddha idol(Yamini Nair)

What do we know about Myanmar? Well. Politics for one. Atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. The friction between de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the military. Sitting in India, we don’t know much else.

But as a traveller who landed in Yangon for a trip of three days, I can tell you that the city offers much more – a refreshing stay, with considerable amounts of spiritual experiences and entertainment.

The city centre [in Myanmar] doesn’t resemble most metros. Heritage buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with modern ones.

Temple town 

For the average Indian traveller, it’s a delight to know that a foreign land has low-value currency. One Indian rupee is equivalent to 20 Myanmar kyats (pronounced ‘chaatts’). Step out of the airport, and it’s the familiar air of hot and humid South India.

Day one, my cousins and I hire a cab to go around. A deal is struck for an amount equivalent to Rs 5,000 for a vehicle for use from 8am till 5pm, with food, water and guide. We realise our first challenge then. The guide can barely speak or understand broken English. Still, we get by.

Our first stop is Maha Wizaya Pagoda, and we are awestruck by the majestic idol of Lord Buddha. A stroll around the pagoda, gazing at the innumerable idols of Buddha in different postures, has a soothing feeling, close to what a session of meditation would give.

Then we head for the Shwedagon Pagoda, Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda, The Great Tooth Relic Pagoda, and the list grows. The main attraction of the pagodas is the splash of colours. Beautifully arranged bouquets and sculptures adorning the central idol of Lord Buddha, in a form unique to that pagoda, are a visual relief from the mundane sights that just touch the eyes and leave. The colours stay on.

Beautifully arranged bouquets and sculptures adorn the central idol of Lord Buddha (Yamini Nair)

Devotees feed birds outside the Pagodas. You get a bowl of grain for 1,000 kyats. The moment you take the bowl in your hands, you are almost mobbed by hundreds of birds, mostly pigeons and crows. Outside the pagoda is a woman sitting with a cage stuffed with tiny birds, looking almost like mynahs. The woman gestures that we can free the birds – at a cost of 1,000 kyats per bird.

A humble meal from a roadside eatery offers us the taste of Myanmar. Vegetarians, be warned. Myanmar has mostly non-vegetarian items on its menu.

Road to Rangoon

Pagodas are not Yangon’s only tourist attractions. The next stop is Aung San House, where the General Aung San stayed for two years before his assassination in 1947. After that we head for the city centre.

The city centre doesn’t resemble most metros. Heritage buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with modern swanky buildings. The centrally located park is lined with trees proclaiming the arrival of spring. But yes, the traffic does remind that you are in a bustling city. Take a pause…and you can see Rangoon giving way to Yangon.

So, what do the people feel about the change of regime? “I don’t like her anymore,” says our guide about Aung San Suu Kyi. “Her present policies are not good. She has no power now; the power is with the military.”

It’s difficult to relate the humble and calm-natured people on the streets with the alleged human rights abuses, the uprising against the military and the separatist ethnic movements the country witnessed over the years. Go to a shop, the person at the counter accepts the money, bowing in gratitude. My cousin who lives there said it’s safe for even women to walk around in the middle of the night.

The Ye Le Pagoda is situated on an island in one of the tributaries of the Yangon river (Yamini Nair)

On day two, it is back to pagodas – this time Ye Le Pagoda, on an island in one of the tributaries of the Yangon river. Boats ferry devotees up and down from the bank near the main road, which is an overcrowded area of vendors selling flowers and other items to offer the deity.

 The water is unusually muddy and silt gathers on the steps on the bank, blocking the smooth docking of boats. Children, probably from underprivileged backgrounds, make a living by cleaning the steps. As the boat safely moves away with the next set of passengers, they resort to acrobatics in the river, unmindful of the dull brown water.

The sun provides no solace even at 8am, but the wind that reaches out to you over the water body offers some relief. Opulent meditation corners and prayer areas are all occupied. All pagodas provide drinking water for devotees, which is hard to find in places of worship back home.

After a relaxed round of the pagoda, we set off for National Races Village, near the Thanlyin Bridge. At the entrance, you are clueless as to what’s inside. Walk in and an info board explains the park and you are excited to explore it all, including a bird sanctuary, crocodile farm, local villages and mangroves. 

With the sun beating down relentlessly, walking around the entire area seems near-impossible. A bicycle counter with vehicles at nominal costs provides reprieve. Hop on to a bicycle and the breeze comforts you on the sunny trail. First stop is a clock tower where you get a bird’s- eye view of the entire area with its neatly manicured gardens and soothing water bodies.

A visit to the water ball park at the Yangon Zoo is a fun day activity (Yamini Nair)

As you move on, villages are recreated with kitchen gardens and traditional houses in wood with thatched roofs. One of the houses, unique to the particular race that occupied them, is on stilts to rear cattle beneath. Traditional utensils and musical instruments are displayed inside the houses, telling about the culture of the people who used them. 

The mangrove area offers the much-needed cool break with its lush green sprawl. Crabs of different hues and sizes, lizards, fish and birds take you to a totally different world. A 1980-built ship docked in the river provides you a peek into the history as well as some photo opportunities. 

You can also explore the office of U Thant, the first non-European to become the Secretary General of the United Nations (Yamini Nair)

Beyond the obvious

Our cabbie’s knowledge of English is limited to a few words, so we have to leave it to him to decide where to head next! We end up at the U Thant House after a failed attempt at the National Library, which is closed for the day.  

The two-storey house in its serene green surroundings resembles old Indian architecture with its tiled roof and wooden ceilings. The office room of U Thant, the first non-European to become the Secretary General of the United Nations, is preserved the way it used to be. His life since childhood till the last days of his fight with cancer is all displayed on the walls, and you are taken back in time, with his speech playing in the background.

People’s Park surprises you with a sprawling area in the heart of the city. Amusement park, waterbodies, entertainment shows, tree houses and garden provide entertainment options for all ages.

Day three, we limit our trips to the Yangon zoo and Aung San market. The zoo doesn’t have many surprises but for the majestic rare hornbills. The market, however, doesn’t disappoint us. It has everything from handmade souvenirs to longyis, the traditional wear of Myanmar, and rare gem collections. Passers-by are willing to help when you struggle while communicating with the shopkeepers.

Next time you plan a vacation, do as I did. Look beyond the obvious choices. 

The Brunch insider’s view
  • Visit the stylishly designed Rangoon Tea House, which is popular with locals and travellers both. It serves traditional Burmese cuisine, cocktails, curries and biryanis. (Source: Lonely Planet)
  • A great way to see the city in three hours is through the circular train trip. Tickets costs about 200 kyats. (Source: TripAdvisor)
  • The Yangon Drugs Elimination Museum is a great place to see the evolution of the country and its people. (Source: Conde Nast Traveler)

From HT Brunch, July 2, 2017

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