“This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about…”
The second largest country in Southeast Asia, Burma (Myanmar) is not a place where people normally spend their Christmas and New Year holidays (that is, unless you’re Burmese). Many people have no idea about the majestic sights found in this isolated country, despite its proximity to Singapore or to my home country. Because of Burma’s relative isolation and calls for tourism boycotts, the country only gets about 500,000 tourists a year – a trickle compared to neighboring Thailand. This time, I was again bombarded with questions by friends on why I was going and whether there was “anything noteworthy to see there.”
mother and child – on the streets of rangoon
As Burma was in my Top 3 countries to visit, I decided to finally push through with this trip last month. I had arranged with a travel agency based in Burma for domestic plane tickets and accommodations as it was cheaper that way. After months of going back and forth on plane schedules and suitable places to stay, we finally landed in Rangoon (Yangon) on a misty morning during Christmas Day. The first thing I noticed as we exited the airport was how most men wore skirts. Burma has been relatively isolated since it gained independence from Britain in 1948 so the people still maintain their traditions. The skirt is called longyi and it’s actually a versatile form of dress worn by both men and women. The second thing I noticed was how green Rangoon was compared to many other Southeast Asian cities. The roads are tree-lined, and there are many parks dotted around the city. In Downtown Rangoon, the streets are also laid out on a grid so it’s easier to find your way around.
strand hotel – the poshest in burma (myanmar)
a trip to rangoon is like a trip back in time – many colonial buildings remain intact such as this one
Although home to about 5 million people, Rangoon itself does not feel like a big city. The pace is quite relaxed and there’s not a lot of cars on the roads. Neon lights are a rarity here. The trade embargoes are very much evident with the lack of international brand names – for some reason though, Bossini is very popular in Rangoon. Most cars are disheveled and are literally falling apart. The taxis consist of outdated models such as Isuzu Gemini and Toyota Corolla from the late 70’s to the early 80’s. Needless to say, there’s no airconditioning. It’s practically a miracle how they manage to run these contraptions after several decades of use.
shwedagon paya is considered to be one of the most sacred sites in burma
That day happened to be Christmas Day so most shops were closed. We started the day by having a walking tour of downtown Rangoon, which still has a lot of buildings dating from British colonial rule. This include the Strand Hotel, which is Rangoon’s version of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel or Manila’s eponymous hotel. In the afternoon, we visited the Chaukhtatgyi Paya with its famous reclining buddha as well as the main attraction – the Shwedagon Paya. It was truly an amazing sight, and I was at awe with the gold-encrusted main pagoda that stood out even from a distance. The place was packed with tourists and locals alike, and it was a great way to just people-watch. It was a hodgepodge of human activity. In one corner there would be people praying and bowing their heads to the Buddha while in another, a group of German tourists would be taking snapshots of the fine architecture. Shwedagon was a relatively big complex so we spent some time circling it – there were several other altars and mini-temples with dozens of Buddhist images. There were a couple of notable banyan trees near the edges that were supposedly transplanted from the place in India where Buddha gained enlightenment. Gold was the prominent color and it was evident in almost every structure that made up the massive complex.
the majestic shwedagon paya
We had dinner at this Chinese restaurant owned by a Singaporean. The owner told us how he ended up starting a business in Burma – because it was extremely competitive in Singapore and it was difficult to make money there. What he said was true in a sense – this is why most Singaporeans end up in the corporate world rather than set up their own businesses. Those who do set up their own gig find themselves facing head-to-head competition, especially in the food and beverage industry. But I digress. Moving back to Rangoon.
rangoon city hall – with a fresh coat of paint!
The next day was spent walking around Downtown Yangon. We started at the Strand Hotel, a fine colonial building that’s reminiscent of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel. We walked towards Sule Paya, an attractive Buddhist pagoda right smack at a roundabout. This walking tour ended at Bogyoke Aung San Market, where all sorts of handicrafts and Burmese souvenirs were sold. There wasn’t anything we particularly liked, although shops selling rubies, diamonds and other precious and semi-precious stones were in abundance. We also found this market to be a good place to change Kyats (Burma’s local currency).
rangoon during rush hour
We had nothing to do that afternoon so we decided to visit the Gems Museum. Among the things they had for display was a sapphire measuring several hundred carats, rubies, emeralds, diamonds and all sorts of treasures that attested to Burma’s wealth in natural resources. Interestingly, the display was also a sad reminder of how a country can at once be rich and extremely poor.
Looking back, the 2 days we spent in Rangoon was excessive. One full day should have been enough, and the extra day could have been better spent elsewhere in the country. But it was a great introduction to Burma nonetheless.
How to get there: Most popular method is to go through Bangkok where Thai Airways and Air Asia have direct flights to Yangon. An alternative is to go through Singapore where Jetstar Asia and Silkair fly to Yangon.
Best time to visit: December and January are supposed to be the most pleasant months to visit Burma. In Yangon however, we found the heat to be unbearable from noon up until 4pm. Temperatures vary considerably within the day. Normal morning temperatures in December average at a cool 16 to 18 degrees celsius, while afternoon temperatures reach 32 to 35 degrees celsius.