It was well over two years since I last left Thailand on a regional trip as part of one visit to the Far East. That tour of Singapore and Malaysia was bound to be in stark contrast to the one I chose on this occasion. Having visited all the other nations having a border with Thailand, that left Myanmar as an obvious choice. Yet with this nation only recently opening up to visitors after generations of isolation, there was bound to be concerns over infrastructure and comfort, taken for granted in other countries. Many have travelled to Myanmar since the improvement in international relations but reports coming back were not especially encouraging. Under this air of uncertainty, I was about to find out for myself how far the country had come in an effort to modernise.
Arriving at Yangon International airport, at least this facility was found to be modern and although small, had all the automated features I’d come to expect. From the airport, transport downtown by bus was straightforward, leaving us with just a short journey by taxi. However the chosen hotel was located in Bahan, which is one of the poorer areas of the city with too much evidence of decay and neglect. While Crystal Palace Hotel was pleasant enough, it stood out from its surroundings. I would just have to get used to it.
In terms of transportation, it didn’t take long to get used to that with taxis and buses readily available but the location of the hotel was nowhere near modern shops or international food outlets. This was to prove the single most inconvenience on this tour.
One of the reasons for choosing the hotel was the proximity of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most iconic structure in Yangon. However, by the end of the tour, it became clear that a better, well the only real option was to use the hotels nearer to Sula Pagoda where the infrastructure is more amenable. Visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda from there by taxi is not at all difficult of expensive. As it was we were able to visit the pagoda on the first evening and what a contrast it was from its surroundings. At risk up appearing unkind, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a most precious jewel sitting on top of a dung heap. I’m sure you won’t find it described this way in any tour magazine but the scene in the market below the pagoda is dismal with street carts servicing dingy street food vending amongst rotting vegetation in gutters visited by dogs. The squallor is indicative of what life must have been like in Medieval times but what sort of administration allows these conditions in the modern age+ By contrast, the pagoda is a most beautiful piece of architecture having been developed over more than two millennia. As the sun sets and artificial light replaces the natural, it’s hard to find words to adequately describe the most sacred complex.
The rather long paragraph concentrating on the Shwedagon Pagoda in what is supposed to be a brief summary and conclusion is well justified due to the importance of this holy site but also sums up what Myanmar in general seems to be about. You rarely see such contrast between wealth and poverty.
Over the next few days I explored many of the other sites in Yangon always having to use a taxi to get about. However, the desire to get out and about just wasn’t always here as I wasn’t feeling 100% but by the end of the 3rd day were had gotten our barings and had become more adventurous. That included an out of town bus and taxi journey to the important Htauk Kyant War Memorial Cemetery, a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery for those soldiers who perished in Burma between 1943 and 1945.
By the end of the fourth day we had made it to Bogyoke Aung San Market, a major tourist destination, dominated by antiques, Burmese handicrafts and jewellery shops, art galleries, and clothing stores. Finally we ended up at Junction City, a shopping complex that is modern built to international standards. For the first time it seemed we were no longer in an alien world and we could survive. On the fifth day we passed on more site visits downtown but visited more temples on the way to the airport taking a late afternoon flight to Bangkok.
The obvious conclusion is as expected, that Myanmar, assuming that there is political will straight away, is generations behind its neighbour, Thailand. Some evidence of modernisation does exist at the airport and in some downtown area of Yangon but there’s an awful lot to do. It's hard to see after my criticism that I would want to return to Myanmar but this country is so incredibly rich in history and has a unique religious heritage that goes back over 2,500 years that it’s hard to rule that out: At the very least, that should include Bagan, an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar with its 2,200 mystical temples. We will just have to see how it goes but it’s certain that the experience of visiting Yangon and Myanmar for the first time will go a long way towards helping to adapt to the Burmese way of life.