Myanmar Day 1: Shwedagon

We’re trying to hit as many modes of transport in 24hrs apparently. Yesterday we had a tuktuk, plane, train, taxi, longboat, and dinner boat. Today we’re adding in the bus system after we take the BTS to it’s northern most extent. That should drop as directly at the DMK airport that AirAsia prefers to fly out of in order to save on fees.

This time everything went to plan, we got on the BTS for like 2 stops, transferred to the other BTS line and took that to its end. From there we got off going the right way, found the bus stop, confirmed with the tourist police. This airport reminds me a lot of the airport in Istanbul on the Asian side of the Bosporus. I can’t ever remember how to spell the name though. We have to have our stuff scanned and go through security before checking in. Chuck just picks a lane and we have to call him off because the lanes don’t connect and we have to get our correct one listed on the monitor.

The immigration into Myanmar is incredibly slow. We were halfway through the line but as they kept adding lanes that were for ASEAN or Myanmar Nationals, they’d pull from the end of our lane, and we ended up practically dead last to go through.

I had read on TripAdvisor that the taxis from the airport are fixed price, but you can negotiate with the people at the door, but usually it’s cheaper to pay the 10,000 kyat (pronounced chat, as the ky is a ch sound as seen in Aung San Su Kyi’s name). I pulled the biggest amount listed out of the atm, but that was just over $100. And off we went.

Our hotel was ok, but they weren’t serving half the stuff for lunch we wanted, and the prices were high, as much as $2 for a coke. We got our room which was pleasant but not spectacular, with almost a view of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda.

Everyone was pretty tired, so we set a time and took a nap. I set an alarm, only I forgot that Yangon is 30 minutes behind Bangkok, and for some reason my phone isn’t connecting to the local phone network, not even in roaming, so it isn’t automatically changing time zones for me, so when I wake us up to the alarm it’s 30 minutes early.

Jenn is really tired and she gets fussy when she’s tired, me waking her up early? Not the best thing that can happen. She also gets annoyed by rules that seem to target what she can and cannot wear. In this case they’re actually the same for men and women. But with it hot, sleeves and bottoms that cover the knees aren’t especially appealing either. I let Jenn sleep an extra 30, but it took us a longer time than I expected to get going. I really wanted to see Shwedagon at sunset.

A long the way, we see some kids in a small courtyard playing a game I’ve seen on youtube before, but don’t know the name of. It’s like a cross between soccer and volleyball with a net about as high as a badminton net, and the ball only played with the feet. Strikes come from kicks higher than the net which makes the game look very acrobatic.

The Shwe in Shwedagon means gold, and Dagon was the name of the village that became Rangoon and then Yangon over the last millennia. The story goes that it was built at the time of Buddha’s lifetime when 2 merchants met Buddha in India, were convinced he had reached enlightenment, and brought back a lock of his hair as a relic. They then convinced the ruler of Dagon to allow them to create a small pagoda that was layered on top of century after century as Buddhism became the dominant local religion and more and more people began to practice there. At some point the entire thing was covered in gold, supposedly 20 tons of it, though I find even that number hard to believe despite it’s size.

Here we have to take off our shoes to go in, and my shorts aren’t long enough. Jenn wore capris so she’s fine. So I borrowed a Longyi with a deposit. In the meantime Pam and Chuck got a guide. I was worried a little about time, with the guide going so slow at the start, but we told him we had to be done by 6:15 so we could get back to the hotel, shower, and taxi to the restaurant by 7. In the end he was super helpful explaining these day of the week stations like “Tuesday” meaning it was a place of prayer for someone born on a Tuesday. At each of these stations around the giant pagoda. Each of these stations has a statue of Buddha, a protective spirit, and an animal along with a bowl of water being refilled by a hose. The prayer involves taking a cup of water and pouring it over each statue. The cool wet stone feels really pleasant against the feet, and the Buddhas are often given leys of sweet smelling flowers. There always seems to be a line.

I break off from the group briefly to try to get some nice shots while the sun is going down. The thing is truly amazingly large and really looks made of gold. Higher up, I can see some monks walking on some of the terraces, and it made me wonder how do you keep the thing clean?

At the top is an “umbrella” of gold with precious gems embedded in it. The biggest of the gems is a 76 carat diamond, which is hard to believe, but they have an exhibit with photos of the details of the umbrella, and it seriously is that large. There are also massive emeralds and rubies as well. Our guide tells us when the light is right you can see the light from the gems at the top, he keeps asking us if we can see it. We’re shown some large jade statues, and various temples to Buddha. Then as time is running down he takes us to a place and asks us if we can see the light at the top. We say no, and he moves Pam like 1 foot to the left and then suddenly “oh my god it’s so bright!” We each take turns and sure enough one inch and you see nothing, then suddenly a super sharp bright point of light, brighter than mars in the night sky is there. We’re taken back to the entrance, the tour at an end and our dinner time near, but he stops us and puts us in another spot, and again from nothing to suddenly a bright green light appears at the top of the umbrella. Then he has us walk a few steps back and it fades to white and then red and then white with each step. Now that is cool.

You can tell Shwedagon is the center for culture in Yangon with so many local people visiting, making their offerings and walking around.

Our dinner was at this restaurant Le Petit Comptoire. I had found it on TripAdvisor and the menu looked affordable, unpretentious, and delicious. I’d messaged the owner on facebook (I didn’t know until now it shows business response times when you message them now), and was told they might be doing a private party, but that in the end fell through and I’d made a reservation. I apparently didn’t need it though, once we finally found the place, there was just 1 other couple there, taking 1 of the 5 tables. The owner, a French lady greeted us and showed us the specials of the day on her phone. It’s a bit of a hole in the wall in that it’s tiny, and poorly marked down a bit of a side street, but wow was everything good. Jenn and I ordered 2 different kinds of lamb, Pam had the chicken cordon blue, Chuck the risotto. We then shared each of the 4 deserts on the menu and a few drinks. The total damage was like $60 US for the 4 of us which was cheap by US standards, a bit more expensive than I thought we’d pay in Myanmar, but totally worth it. Everything on the menu looked terrific too.

We then caught a taxi home, though it took us a while to figure out how to communicate our location until Pam remember she had the room card sleeve in her purse which had the address. We went to bed early because tomorrow we have a 7:30am flight to Bagan, and have to check out of our hotel by 6.

What a cool Christmas with a giant gold pagoda, glowing gemstones, and a wonderful French dinner. Belly full, we passed out.

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