Travel Diary: From Here to Burma (Part I)

“Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.” – Babs Hoffman

Myanmar was the one country I was most excited to see in all of southeast Asia. I went out of my way to get a visa, and find the best flights to get through to the country. What made this particular country so special was the fact they have had heavy restrictions on tourism due to an ongoing civil war and militarized government. Certain parts of the country are still highly discouraged to travel to – with stories of kidnappings and lingering fighting.

The areas that are built up for tourism are noticeably different from the rest of the countryside. There are only three airports non-natives are allowed to fly in to which led me to start my journey Myanmar’s old capital city: Yangon.

Myanmar or Burma?

HISTORY LESSON!

(I will try to make this as brief as possible – but like every country, history happens to be vibrant and complex and not so easy to condense)

Myanmar is known by two names. The ruling party changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989. Although the United Nations recognizes it under it’s new name, the United States and United Kingdom refuse to recognize it by it’s new name and still refer to it as Burma.

Apartment building in Yangon

Like many previously colonized countries, there has been civil unrest in Myanmar since it’s independence from Great Britain in 1948. It remains one of the longest running civil wars in the world.

The fate of the country was held in the hands of eleven senior military officers known as the junta. This kind of rule lasted from 1988 to 2011, until the junta was dissolved and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) came to power through the 2010 election.  (Don’t fret – there was backhanded business going on and those who were a part of the junta still have much of the power through the USDP).

Here’s where it gets REALLY interesting: the 2015 general elections brought about a new change in leadership. Aung San Suu Kyi (who’s photo is cheerily displayed in businesses and homes). She is the leader of the National League of Democracy in Myanmar and serves as State Counsellor . She rose to the political public eye during the uprisings of 1988. Her party was formed with the help of junta leaders. They actually won majority of the Parlimentary seats with over 80% in 1990 – but the USDP refused to recognize the election results. And Aung San Suu Kyi was detained under house arrest from 1989 to 2010, making her one of the world’s most famous political prisoners. What else makes this lady so special? Well, her father happened to be Aung San, who is considered the father of modern-day Myanmar.

Luckily, after the 2011 party change, many political prisoners were released and ethnic cleansing slowed. Although Myanmar sadly has nearly the same story as most nations with civil unrest: ethnic minorities are denied rights, participation in government and access to land.  Groups such as Karen, Karenni, and Mon have been forced to seek asylum in neighboring countries leaving — people displaced. While the Rohingya people are denied citizenship – making life nearly impossible due to the fact they are considered stateless, yet not permitted to travel.

Ethnic cleansing and genocide are still largely prevalent in the every day lives of Burmese. Want to know more about the genocide in Myanmar? See here.

Yangon

A bus driver waits to take new passengers to their destination

The junta changed the country’s capital city from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2006. No one really knows why the capital city was changed – but everyone I met while in Myanmar who had visited Naypyidaw said it was beautifully built but eerily empty. There would be 8 lane highways without one single car.

I arrived in Yangon late. I scheduled a car pick up with my hostel – so I wouldn’t have to shuffle for money. I exchanged most of my Thai bahts for Burmese kayts at the hostel. Naturally I was starving, but by the looks of the surrounding area, I decided to bite the bullet and wait until sunrise to do some exploring.

The next day I had a fabulous traditional Burmese breakfast and set out to find the largest market in the city: Bogyote Market. After walking for far too long, feeling as if I would never get to where I needed to be, I broke down and took a taxi. Which was easy and cost efficient. For a traveler that does not speak the languages of most taxi drivers, I’ve been surprised at how successful I was at negotiations and directions!

One of the markets along the street surrounding inner Yangon

The Bogyote Market was a huge surprise to me and I believe it was here that I learned how different Myanmar was from every other country I had visited before. Instead of stalls filled to the brim with tourist souvenirs and to be honest, junk, there were stalls selling anything and everything someone would need on a daily basis. There was food, clothing, jewelry, small tea stalls, and children’s items. I was presently surprised at how authentic it all was!

For those who have no familiarity with Burmese culture, this country would be a complete culture shock. Travelling here felt like what travelling must have felt like when the world wasn’t as globalized as it is today. Nothing was in English – or translated to any other language for that matter. Few people even spoke English and I definitely stood out like a sore thumb, but everyone treated me kindly but indifferently. Many people still wear the traditional longyi (the skirts men and women are seen in – but trust me, they are made differently for each gender!) and women are typically seen with thanaka smeared on their faces.

I made the decision to get myself lost in this unusual city. Enchanted by it’s European architecture, I spiraled deeper and deeper into the heart of the old city.

Much of the architecture in Yangon is from it’s colonization days. With broken windows, discolored walls, and overgrowth, each of the long lost buildings of the past had a certain sad romance radiating from them. Like a Bronte sister novel.

Here stand the forlorn remnants of a gone and forgotten era.

I can’t say I accomplished much while in Yangon. Feeling worn from all the temple trekking I did in Siem Reap, I kept things lighthearted and chose to remain a stranger to most of the city.

The CAN’T MISS special of Yangon happens to be the Shwedagon Pagoda.

What is a Pagoda? I asked the same thing. Pagodas are strictly Buddhist. It has a shrine or stupa that is meant to be walked around clockwise (I didn’t know this and probably cursed myself walking counter clockwise around the Shwedagon stupa). What makes a temple different from a Pagoda (in the Buddhist sense) is a temple is meant for quiet meditation and is usually a place that can be entered whereas a pagoda is more open.

Shwedagon Pagoda lit up after night fall

The stupa at Shwedagon Pagoda is 99 meters (325 ft) tall and is considered one of the most sacred pagodas in all of Myanmar. Although historians believe the pagoda was built between the 6th and 10th centuries, legend has it that the pagoda was built over 2,600 years ago! It has been damaged and reconstructed many times throughout the centuries, but the most significant reconstruction happened in 1768, after an earthquake shook the top of the stupa down and the king order it to be rebuilt to its current height.

It truly is a stupendous sight to behold. Even from far away.

Shwedagon Pagoda from the rooftop restaurant, Vista

I left Yangon after four days to see the REAL reason I decided to spend the extra money to see Myanmar: Bagan. To find out what happened in that magical village – check out my next travel diary post!

 

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