Despite the city being the largest in the country it is not actually the capital city. It was seen however, as the capital of British Burma after the Second Anglo Burmese War of 1852, being a port as well with connections to the Indian Ocean and the Ayeyarwady River (which goes deep into the heart of the country) the industrial hub for the country. After World War I the city also became a key location for the Independence movement in Burma (as it was then). The British were finally ousted during World War II and Japanese took occupation (when we sadly, in hindsight, did a lot of bombing across the country) until the allies retook occupation in 1945. During this period the city was known by the British as Rangoon but was returned to being called Yangon in 1989 under the military rule of the country.
There is a distinct lack of mopeds bombing around the city by which I was quite surprised. Remembering how much an average car cost in Vietnam, I had assumed that the prices would be similar but I will need to find out from our guide. (An average car starts from around $25,000) The downtown area of the city that we visited was mainly the colonial area along Pansodan Street with some wonderful colonial architecture and an esteemed decadence of a former time. As expected many of the buildings are in a severe state of disrepair yet striking none the less. The multicultural mix of the population stems from India, and China and there are also many Muslims in the country, many of them run the numerous sprawling street shops and food stalls on the streets of the city.
Our main highlight in Yangon and must not miss site was the fiercely impressive Shwedogan Pagoda. Known as THE greatest temple in Myanmar and one of the most majestic monuments dedicated to the Buddha, all Burmese endeavour to pilgrimage here at least once in their lifetime. Whilst it’s a temple the main stupa in the centre of the complex is actually more of a mound as one is unable to see inside. The centre of it is believed to have 8 strands of hair of the historical Buddha – Gautama – as well as a few other relics as well from his three predecessors (staff of Kakusandha, water bottle of Konagamana and a fragment of Kassapa‘s robe. All enshrined it’s not possible to view the relic itself, more the casing in which it is housed)
The original Shwedagon dates back to around 588BC according to local legend, which would make it possibly the oldest stupa in the world. It’s more likely to have been built between 6th to 10th centuries however. The height of the stupa was raised to 18m by the Mon king, Binnya U of Bago who ruled from 1348-84. Next, in the reign of Queen Shinsawbu from 1453-72, the height of the stupa was doubled to 40m, the old not destroyed but more built on top of again. It was at this time also that the terrace around the main stupa was laid out, the northern stairway to access the complex from street level was built and further land was acquired and slaves employed to look after the upkeep of the Pagoda and its growing complex. The Queen also started the tradition of gilding the main stupa by initially donating her own body weight in solid gold to do so.
During many of the conflicts in the country throughout the years, troops often looted from the Pagoda. In the 16th century the Portuguese carried off the 325 tonne Great Bell of King Dhammazedi with the intention of melting it down to make canons but that never happened as in transit it fell into the Bago river. The pagoda was also repeatedly rocked by earthquakes, the worst being in 1768 which caused the top of the stupa to collapse and the current stupa that you can see today was commissioned by King Hsinbyushin of the Konbaung dynasty in the late 18th century. The British seized it during the first Anglo Burmese War in 1824 and held it almost ransom so Buddhists could not visit it for two years when it was fortified and suffered a great amount of pillaging and of course vandalism. They also tried digging under the stupa to try and see if it could be used as a gunpowder magazine but did not succeed.
The pagoda became, during the 20th century, a key location for a lot of the political upheavals, using the location as a meeting point to plan protests and General Aung San addressed the masses from here in 1946 to demand independence from Britain. His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to a huge gathering in 1988 for the pro-democracy uprising. It was also the focal point of the 2007 Saffron Revoloution where as many as twenty thousand monks and nuns congregated and subsequently marched.
The site has four entrances from street level, we entered through the Southern stairwell which has a lift (which literally only goes up two floors!). As for all pagodas and religious sites, no socks or shoes are allowed and legs and shoulders must be covered. Shawls are available to borrow if you come wearing a vest top though. There is a little man in the lift who seems to sit there all day just pushing the buttons to go up and down up and down from street level to the entrance to the pagoda.
On our arrival into the complex we passed by the tree which derives from a cutting of the original tree Banyan (or Bodhi) tree that the Buddha found enlightenment under from all those centuries ago. The stupa complex is full of smaller shrines all of which have been added over the years. The main stupa itself was sadly covered in bamboo scaffold when we visited so the magnificence of it was a little dampened. None the less it was still a fairly impressive site as the gold shone through the bamboo pretty well. Standing at an impressive 99 metres high it was covered with the bamboo owing to it being in the process of being reguilded with literal tiles of gold. Buddhist followers see it as part of their religion to donate to Buddha and to pay for a new gold tile is a part of this and the cost sound $900 for roughly a 30cm x 30cm square. There was a title ceremony that was happening to one side where people were having their photos taken with their gold tiles before placing them in a sort of chariot which would then travel up the wires to part way up the main stupa itself where I guess they would be almost used immediately to replace the existing. Apparently the main stupa needs this work completed every 5 years or so as the gold becomes weathered and not so shiny.
We were explained by our guide about how Buddhist followers want to give clothing to the Buddha and often donate the robes to the monks however if every one did this to the Buddha statues then there would be piles and piles of clothes and so, instead, gold leaf squares can be purchased and these can be rubbed onto specific buddhas in the pagodas as their way of donating the clothing. We watched as Zar Zar put a piece on though so we could see what Buddhists actually do themselves. Buddhists also bang a large bell three times to tell people that they have done the good deeds, which we watched several people do. You don’t then have to say them or anything though, I guess you are meant to think of them in your head as you are doing do?
There were also several stations in the complex that are linked to the planets as, unlike the Chinese who take meaning from the year that you are born and it is linked to an animal, the Burmese take the days of the week and so the idea is that you visit the day on which you were born (Friday for me) and wash the Buddha at that ‘post’ and give donations of flowers and prayers. There is also an animal linked to each of the days – mine is a Guinea Pig. The rest of the days of the weeks animals are as follows (Wednesday is a little different though as it is split into morning or evening): Monday is a Tiger, Tuesday a Lion, Wednesday am is an Elephant WITH tusks, Wednesday pm is Elephant WITHOUT tusks, Thursday A Rat or mouse, Friday a Guinea Pig, Saturday a Dragon and Sunday is a Garuda Bird.
The Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda is another show stopper of a sight to visit in Yangon and a fairly impressive site, tho hard to take in the size from the photos. It’s a humungous reclining Buddha lying almost 66 meters long. A fairly feminine face that’s 7.3 meters long, despite all depictions of Buddha being male with amazing 33cm long eyelashes, a nose of 2.7 meters and 50cm high eyes with blue eyeshadow. He has a little bindi, a diamond encrusted crown pink fingernails and golden robes that are decorated with glass mosaics and golden markings. The soles of the feet are red with lots of different markings on them. Surrounding the drama of the giant Buddha are lots of individual Buddha images all in the various positions that he is depicted in. The building of this Buddha first began in around 1959 but wasn’t in fact completed until 1974 and it replaced a previous giant seated Buddha that was on the same site which was demolished in 1957. The name of the pagoda means six storey pagoda which is in reference to the original Buddha on the site, the current one now in place is only around 3 or 4 storeys high.
Our first meal out was our introduction to Burmese food where we were explained by our guide to the background of the style, there are a lot of curries which are heavily influenced by India to its left and there is also a Chinese influence with the country being located to the right of Myanmar. Essentially a lot of noodles and rice, morning glory, ladies fingers and everything else in between. The Myanmar beer, at 5%, was pretty much the order of the day and we all enjoyed the added ‘fun’ of the on bottle promotion where you had to peel back the plastic on the underneath of the bottle top to see if you had won a free beer or money. I was lucky on either my first or second (I can’t remember which) and won a free drink, a positive start to the holiday!!
Hotel stayed in – Panda Hotel
Restaurant ate in – Doreen
The last stop in the complex was the One Pillar Pagoda built to express the gratitude of Emperor Ly Thai Tong to his wife who had produced a son and heir for him. It’s built of wood and on a single stone pillar (unsurprisingly) and designed to resemble a lotus blossom – the symbol of purity rising out of a sea of sorrow as it is surrounded by a small pool. Sadly it’s not the original as the French destroyed it before they left Hanoi in 1954. Now there is a Buddhist shrine at the top adorned with offerings.
After finishing up at the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum Complex we visited the Temple of Literature which is also known as Confucius Temple. Not so much a just a temple in itself but there were a variety of things to see. All beautifully calm and serene whilst the scooters manically circle around on the roads. There is a rare example inside of early Vietnamese architecture which houses the honoured amongst Vietnam’s finest scholars and writes with literary accomplishments. These are all carved into stone tablets which are held on the backs of turtles – one of the three most sacred animals in Vietnam along with storks and lions/dragons. There are a number of impressive gateways and one of them is a symbol of Vietnam and Hanoi and is found in one of the many notes (of money). There are lots of bonsai trees everywhere in pots and many of them seem to have stories in them with pagodas and little people in. Something tells me it’s the story of Confucius himself but I didn’t get clarity.
From here saw our last preplanned stop of the day before a visit to the Water Puppet Theatre which we had booked tickets for earlier in the day. The infamous Hanoi Hilton or as it’s real name – Hoa Lo Prison Museum. Nicknamed as such by American POW during the war as many were brought here. There were parts only that still remain which exhibits relate to the use of rooms up until the 50s and even included a French style guillotine which was used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries back in the day. One of the notable American Pilots kept here during the American War was John McCain (once nominated as a candidate for presidency in USA in more recent years) and there was a hugely thought provoking exhibition on memories after the war. There were the remains of the sewer tunnels that several of the Vietnamese prisoners managed to escape though at times. Tiny, tiny gaps. Fascinating & thought provoking but thankfully not such a hideous outing as the jail in Phnom Pen.
The Municipal Water Puppet Theatre was something that a few people in the group had been told not to miss. It wasn’t expensive and lasted an hour and sounded a bit different from the norm and so most of us went o watch. Originally created by the rice farmers on the Red River Delta about 1000 years ago. The puppets are made out of fig-tree timber and is always performed in ponds or lakes and so on with the puppeteers standing waist-high in water with the puppets on long sticks that create the story in front of a curtain at water level in front of the puppeteers. The musicians accompanying were all live and it was dark inside and pretty easy to fall asleep in given our jet lag and so on. One of the chaps I was sat next to did – only to wake up every time the section ended and there was clapping. I’m not sure it’s a not to be missed event but it was certainly something different.
The other restaurant that we tried was called Home – recommended to us by Hung. I wasn’t overly keen on one of the others that was recommended which was just one choice of a sort of fish hotpot. Traditional and like street food but I just felt I’d avoid fish whilst I had the option so I took 4 others off here – no idea what it was going to be like but it was utterly delicious I must say. By far the most expensive of meals that we would eat in this country but not really expensive for UK prices. Everyone’s (well mine didn’t) meal came on a bed of fire as it sat in a sort of Balti dish in front of you as you ate your way through it with the sticky rice accompanying it.
The other experience I wanted to try was the fresh beer. It took a while to try finding it but we got there in the end with help from a very helpful man who could see we were a little lost aimless looking around and trying to work out where the f*** we were from the guide book to the street signs. We weren’t that far off. Bia Hoi is Vietnam’s own fraught beer or microbrew which is similar to a light bodied pilsner and was first introduced to the country by the Czech’s. It’s brewed without preservatives and is meant to be enjoyed immediately. We went to the local Bia Hoi junction and found a few establishments with small plastic chairs to sit on similar to those seen in a Reception classroom. It was served in recycled glasses which made it look almost green in colour initially. It wasn’t that bad but the others were adamant that it would give them dodgy tummies – none of us wanted this so we only partook in the one to say that we had done it!
It would have been funnier if the chairs had sides as well as Paul and Chris (quite possibly myself as well) would potentially have needed cutting out of them!