My plane continued on with its descent, getting closer and closer to land. As I looked out the window, I thought to myself that I probably won’t be seeing much from my vantage point other than empty land, because Yangon must be a wide city with nothing but dirt roads and cows roaming the streets. I was expecting wooden shacks and old school charm. I was expecting to enter a time capsule, a world I’m not familiar with. Clearly, I haven’t done enough research about Yangon. As we approached landing, I began to see rows and columns of miniature concrete buildings. Nothing spectacular or high rise, just rows of ordinary buildings that I would later on realize are mostly disheveled and old. Though a bit disappointed with what I am quickly learning as the plane landed, it sparked my interest. Yangon, Myanmar. What exactly awaits me in this city?
It was right in the middle of May, the hottest month, when I went. I landed at 8 in the morning, and already I was complaining in my head about the heat. Later on, I’d learn that Myanmar is the hottest place I’ve ever been to, never mind the fact that I’ve lived in Las Vegas and the Philippines– two different types of hot climate, yet, Myanmar has surpassed both of those experiences.
The heat was dreadful. Until now, it’s hard for me to explain the heat as precisely as I could because it wasn’t like anything I’ve experienced before. It was different from the Philippines’ humid heat, where the sweat on my face would continue to drip and my skin remained sticky throughout the day. It wasn’t like Las Vegas’ dry heat where the heat of the sun hurts my skin. It was worse. It was like a mixture of both– dry and humid. Sticky, painful, and suffocating. My pores voluntarily produced sweat like I’ve never before. The sun pierced through my skin, similar to the feeling of entering an oven as what I would imagine. And the air itself made it hard to catch up to my breath.
I had no solid plan, no places in mind to go, so I thought I’d walk and go wherever my feet would take me. I realized as soon as I stepped out how ambitious that was because the heat was impossible to bear by lunch time. I walked for a few meters, looking for a simple meal to devour before making a commitment to tackle the heat the rest of the afternoon. I went with mohinga, a fine Burmese choice. A classic. It was delicious, humble, and satisfying. Regardless of the three digit weather, it still made sense to eat this while sweating my life away.
But apparently the heat was just the beginning of what I had to tackle. If there’s one thing that turned me off about Yangon, it was the traffic. The insanely, utterly unbearable traffic. I noticed the air-condition was working poorly to a point where the driver decided to just turn it off and roll down the windows. Neither made a difference so I sat there in the miserable heat. This, I thought, is what traffic jam in literal hell must be like. The traffic jam was unimaginable. Similar to Manila, but it was the heat that surpasses Manila’s juvenile traffic as compared to this. The roads are much smaller, not enough to accommodate all the cabs in the city. “Burmese people were excited about cars and brought so many here without thinking about the small roads”, my cab driver said, already aware of what I was thinking. Although they drove on the left side of the road,the vehicles were a mixture of left and right steering wheels. Complete disorder, I tell you.
Regardless of the chaos and disorder, it’s what made Yangon, Yangon. And as soon as I got out of that cab and traffic, I learned to appreciate the city for its authenticity and unique appeal. I didn’t see cows or dirt roads in the main city, but it was still a time capsule and it made so much more sense to me now. It wasn’t necessarily a step back in ancient time, but with every vintage building and every retro establishment, it was as if I was back in what an industrialized country must have been back in the 70’s. Yangon’ disheveled buildings may have poverty written all over it, but it’s also a living proof of the heavy history the city holds. It kinda had the similar vibe as Phnom Penh, but much less dark. However, I can make as much comparisons as I want, but it still comes down to one thing– Yangon is quite possibly the most authentic city in Southeast Asia. I’ve never been to a place with so much character. I strolled the streets and breathed in the city in all its third world glory the entire afternoon. And just like that, I was smitten.
Burmese people are instantly one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Smiles are often exchanged within strangers in the streets, and although not everyone speaks English, their warmth is universal enough. When they don’t understand me, they respond with a smile. From the lady selling tea leaf salad in a cart to the young boy who sold me the most refreshing sugar cane juice, we communicated in the unspoken language of kindness and humanity. We understood each other and no words were really needed to be said, so we exchanged our endless smiles with each other.
There’s so much culture and character to be said about those beautiful smiles too. The distinctive thanaka cream on their faces, for instance, is a cultural practice that is believed to have great skin benefits. Majority of the women wears the said the makeup every day, yet it’s their warm smiles that stands out regardless of the thick cream that covers their faces. Men, on the other hand, flashes their big smile with red-stained teeth from chewing betel nut leaves, a cultural phenomena that also causes red stained floors and lots of public spitting. Regardless, they continue to smile.
If you’ve been to Bangkok’s Grand Palace, you know what it’s like to be blown away by grandiose temples. I’ve read up quite a good amount of blogs regarding the Schwedagon Pagoda, being it the core reason why I even included Yangon in my itinerary. You see, I’ve been such a big fan of The Grand Palace regardless of how crowded it gets, but the intricate details of Thai arts is so impressive that you really can’t skip it when in Bangkok. So when people started saying that Schwedagon IS better than The Grand Palace, I was intrigued right away.
Coming to Schwedagon Pagoda requires you to cover your knees and shoulders. Also keep in mind that shoes and socks are not allowed in Burmese temples so have some wet wipes prepared because your feet will get dirty by the end of the visit. (READ: Myanmar Travel, Tips, And Truths)
I was already expecting the Golden shining and shimmering pagoda that you’ll instantly see when you search it on Google, so it wasn’t really a surprise when I caught of glimpse of it when I entered. It’s quite hard to miss. I got there early and although there were a lot of people already, it was nowhere like the Grand Palace’s Disneyland like crowd. Even when it reached peaked hours, it was still a lot less packed, and most of the people are locals that are there to offer their prayers. I stood there admiring the Pagoda, took some photos, and then headed headed to a small jade colored temple right across it. I took my time lingering there too. It was very reminiscent of the small temples in The Grand Palace.
When I’ve finally had enough, I walked out and started looking for the exit, when wait a minute, I started seeing more and more temples. I grabbed the map that was handed to me when I bought my ticket and realized this is one huge place. I asked myself the same question that you’re probably asking now. “I thought you read up a lot about this place?!” Clearly, not enough, because I was definitely surprised to realize how much more there was to explore here. I had no plan the entire morning except this, so with a big smile on my face, I took my bare feet and happily explored the rest like a kid in Disneyland. I wouldn’t say Schwedagon is better than The Grand Palace, or the other way around. All I know is that Schwedagon Pagoda is completely underrated. And all I know is that I was okay with that because I enjoyed not being pushed around by strangers.
You’re Still Burma To Me
Myanmar is a beautiful name, but it’ll always be Burma to me. Though most of the tourists makes a beeline to the magical land of Bagan, I think Yangon is a great city to introduce you to its culture. There’s so much to be said and to learn just by being stuck in traffic, let alone by walking its corners and markets. Of all chaotic cities I’ve been to in Southeast Asia, Yangon stands out with its uniqueness. However, I was determined to see as much of Burma as possible and I couldn’t just stay in one region. So with my backpack and memories, I took the overnight bus to Inle Lake that evening. That was over a year ago, but my memories are as fresh as the morning catch of the day. It’s pretty hard to forget, Yangon. It’s a city that kinda stays with you. While you’re there, you kinda wanna hate it, but you can’t. And once you’ve left, the memories always leaves you thinking “Wow, I can’t believe I was actually there.”
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