Sunday, December 7, 2014

Yangon: Pagodas and Street Food

On Wednesday, we touched down in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), sailed through customs, and, a short taxi ride later, found ourselves sipping fresh juice in the shady garden of our hotel in the city suburbs.  Given the unexpected half-hour time change and the lack of problems with our hard-earned visas, we had plenty of time to begin our explorations of the city. 

First on the agenda was the Shwedagon Paya, or pagoda, one of the holiest sites in Myanmar.  En route, we noticed something odd in addition to the unexpected time change.  Despite the fact that all cars have the steering wheel on the right side (the wrong side), all driving is also done on the right-hand side (the correct side) of the road.  From what our taxi driver told us, the government decided to switch the side of the road everyone drove on sometime in the 70s, but no one bothered to switch the cars that were being imported.  And since only the well-to-do with strong ties to the government had cars, no one seemed to care.

Our taxi dropped us off at the pagoda’s north gate, where we were instructed to take off our shoes prior to ascending the elevator to the main level.  We were soon strolling through the numerous smaller shrines surrounding the massive gilded and diamond-encrusted zedi, or stupa.  The massive gold-covered structure was designed to house four hairs of the Buddha.  Even though much of the zedi was covered, presumably for some sort of renovation work, everything around us glittered – there were gold Buddhas, columns of crystals, flashing electric lights, and, of course, the gilding of the impressive central structure.

Both locals and tourists filled the pathways.  Monks and nuns offered prayers before the many Buddhas, young couples walked hand in hand, and men and women brought offerings of flowers.  Surrounding the zedi were signs noting different days of the week.  At first we weren’t quite sure what these could mean, but we later learned they designate the eight different locations to offer prayers depending on the day of the week you were born.  (Wednesday is mysteriously divided into morning and afternoon.)

Afterwards, we strolled through the neighboring People’s Park, an immaculately kept and tranquil large green space in the center of the bustling city.  As dusk closed in, a man started following us and urgently ringing a bell.  What did it mean?  Were the park gates closing at sunset?  Apparently so – we quickly followed the other visitors out of the gates, thereby missing what we considered to be the park’s main attraction: an old Fokker that visitors can climb through.  We had to settle for views of a pretty pagoda in the middle of a pond.

Exiting the park gates, we stopped to consult our only somewhat trusty Lonely Planet for dinner suggestions.  It’s always risky to rely on the Lonely Planet, which once directed us to a restaurant in Budapest serving whipped cream soup garnished with raisins.  Regardless, we decided to take our chances since we didn’t want to wander the city streets aimlessly in the dark.  We chose a destination that we thought would be a straightforward walk and set out with the assistance of our city map and iPhone compass (an app that luckily works despite the lack of cell service). 

We successfully crossed two or three major streets by dodging in and out of traffic and had an easy trip with plenty of actual sidewalks (a nice change of pace from Phnom Penh).  After about a mile, we arrived where the Lonely Planet indicated the restaurant would be to find nothing but a wall and darkness.  Maybe it was down the street we had just crossed?  No such luck.  We peered down the various intersecting streets, but didn’t see any lights, let alone anything resembling a restaurant.

Not wanting to continue wandering aimlessly in the dark in an area seemingly devoid of restaurants (just the situation we had been trying to avoid), we decided it would be best to just take a taxi back to the hotel.  This course of action was also a bit more complex than we had imagined.  Due to the language barrier, our requested destination in the suburbs, or both, two taxi drivers flat out refused to take us anywhere.  One actually laughed at us when we attempted to show him our destination on our iPhone.  After we showed a third driver various maps and said the name of the street in Burmese, he agreed that yes, he knew where the Alamanda Inn was located and would take us there for the equivalent of $4.  However, our new friend was perhaps a bit overconfident in his sense of direction.  Once we were in the general vicinity of the hotel, he asked several passersby for directions as we drove in irregular circles around the windy roads.  Giorgio saved the day by deciphering the exact location using both the map provided by the hotel in conjunction with what had previously loaded on Google maps and we made it to our destination after much confusion.  Thankfully, the fare was negotiated in advance and we did not have to deal with a meter.  Imagine what a 45-minute cab drive would cost in NYC – probably more than $4!  Next time, we’ll have someone write the address for us in Burmese.   

In the morning, we set off to explore the city further with the following itinerary: visiting one of the local markets, marveling at another gilded pagoda, eating delicious noodles, wandering through a second pagoda along the river, and relaxing with cocktails at the colonial-era Strand Hotel.  A taxi dropped us off at the market, located downtown in the middle of the organized grid of streets created by the British.  We passed stalls selling everything from colorful bolts of fabric, to piles of unusual fruits, to intricate jade and gold jewelry.  Stickers advertising that the vendors accepted Visa were everywhere – clearly the Myanmar where only cash was accepted is already a thing of the past.  We enjoyed perusing the wares on offer, but didn’t purchase anything except for a pair of fake Raybans to replace the actual Raybans Steph had recently misplaced.  They were a steal after Giorgio bargained the price down to only about 1% of the cost of a real pair.  And they look exactly the same as the old ones!

We traded the busy alleys of the market for the busy streets of the city, heading in the direction of our next destination, Sule Paya.  Cars, pedestrians, and vendors all fought for space along the narrow downtown streets.  Regardless, without the ubiquitous tuk-tuks and scooters we had seen in other cities, Yangon seemed surprisingly orderly.  Each street was dedicated to selling one specific product.  At the end of the thoroughfare dedicated to paper sales, we found a vendor selling various fried delicacies and were quickly in possession of a bag of samosas for a grand total of five cents.  Without Lala to ban us from purchasing street food, there was no stopping us.  Not surprisingly, they were delicious.

We found Sule Paya where several streets converged into a busy traffic circle – the perfect location for a temple!  We traversed the pedestrian overpass and found ourselves in an oasis of calm amidst the frenetic traffic.  The brilliant gold zedi glinted in the sun, groups of young nuns clustered around the shrines to pray, and there was even a small trolley to take wishes to the top of the structure (for a fee, of course).  We relaxed in the shade to admire the scene, refusing various offers to “free” sparrows from cage-like baskets (also for a fee).  Apparently, if you purchase the birds and subsequently release them, you will acquire merit.  However, most of the birds are actually trained to simply fly back to their handlers, so we were understandably skeptical.

From the peaceful temple, we darted across the traffic circle to the neighboring park.  After much searching for the entrance, we were able to enjoy the tranquil green space, as well as the accompanying large Fu dogs and sprinklers dotting the lawn.

After spending the morning exploring downtown Yangon in the heat, lunch was in order.  Trusting the hopefully more reliable joint recommendation of the Lonely Planet and the New York Times, we headed to a locale behind city hall that specializes in noodles.  Although we weren’t quite sure what to order, our meal in the busy restaurant filled with both tourists and locals was absolutely delicious.  Plus it cost less than $5.

Rejuvenated, we next tackled a longer walk to Botataung Paya, closer to the river.  We continued to be easily distracted by several stalls selling various unidentifiable, but delicious looking, fried delicacies.  When we stumbled across one vendor frying what looked like quail eggs and serving them along with some sort of Burmese garbanzos, Stephanie insisted that we stop to buy some.  Never mind that we had just finished lunch.  When Giorgio asked for the price and repeated what he heard to confirm the amount, we inadvertently ended up with 10 for 30 cents.  It’s unclear whether we overpaid or bargained the price down and we certainly never intended to purchase so many, but regardless of our miscommunications, the fried snacks were a treat that we highly recommend.

After braving the crossing of an expected toll road, we arrived at Botataung Paya.  Shoes in hand, we entered the temple, following the crowds of pink-clad nuns into a refreshingly air-conditioned and magnificently gold-covered room.  We were inside the zedi itself, which is unusual for a visit to a pagoda in Myanmar -- most of these structures can only be admired from the outside.  Inside the gold edifice, we were able to view the elaborate shrine apparently containing a few hairs from the Buddha.  After battling the crowds venerating these relics, we roamed through the rest of the maze-like structure inside the zedi, constantly surrounded by the intricate gold work and filled with a sense of peacefulness in the unique location.  We are wondering, however, how many Buddha hairs there can possibly be since we have already seen so many in our short time here. 

From the serene temple, the congested highway outside was a harsh return to the heat and chaos of the large city.  We determined it was closing in on 5 pm somewhere in the world, so we headed to our next and final stop  the bar at the colonial-era Strand Hotel.  The wood-paneled (and air-conditioned) bar provided a welcome refuge from the hectic metropolis.  As we sipped our Mandalay rum sours, we felt as if we had stepped back in time.

Following the refreshing interlude, we found a taxi driver who actually knew where our hotel was located and headed back to the suburbs to rest up prior to our early morning flight north to Mandalay.  As we became snarled in Yangon’s rush hour traffic, we hoped to catch a glimpse of the city’s newly-famous traffic cop, but we weren’t so lucky.


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