“Mingalabar,” said our local host in Yangon welcoming us to his country Myanmar. Mingalabar means “auspiciousness to you” and is the traditional Burmese greeting, one that can earn you a warm welcome anywhere in the country, he told us. I was in Yangon for a week to attend a conference.
To many of us pre-millenials, Myanmar may be better known as Burma and its former capital Yangon as Rangoon, once the eastern limit of the British empire in the Indian subcontinent.
Myanmar, one of the South-east Asian nations practising Theravada Buddhism, is renowned for its pagodas in glittering gold. And the crowning glory of Myanmar’s rich tapestry of pagodas is the Shwedagon, the gold-plated pagoda on a hilltop that has benevolently watched over Yangon for 2,600 years.
Legend has it that two men from Okkalapa land (present-day Yangon) visited Gautama Buddha shortly after he received enlightenment in 588 BC. They gave him alms and in return he gave them eight strands of his hair as blessing. When they returned to their land, they were received with much fanfare by King Okkalapa and his people. The King had the Buddha’s hair enshrined along with the relics of three other Buddhas before him – the staff of Kakusanda Buddha, the water filter of Kawnagamana Buddha and a piece of the robe of Kassapa Buddha. Since the stupa contained the relics of four, it was called Shwedagon (Shwe-dag-on, as they call it) or the Reliquary of the Four.Standing on Sanguttara Hill in Yangon, the gold-plated Shwedagon pagoda today commands a height of 326 feet, up from its original height of 66 feet thanks to its careful nurturing and maintenance by successive kings. It is the bejewelled crown of Yangon, lighting up the night sky with its golden brilliance. Be it against the dark clouds with the sun playing peeping Tom or the calm night sky, the pagoda dazzles in its golden splendour. It is also the last visual to leave your gaze as your aircraft soars away from the city and into the clouds.
Sprawled on 114 acres of land, the pagoda has entrances on all four sides, each facilitated with escalators, elevators and stairways. Foreign nationals pay an entrance fee of $8 or 8000 kyats (pronounced chyats). One has to be barefooted inside the pagoda complex – one could either leave footwear at the counter near the entrance or carry it in a bag provided free of cost.
The crowning glory of the pagoda is a diamond-studded orb at its zenith – it has 4,351 diamonds in all and the apex diamond weighs 76 carats. Just below the orb is the vane studded with assorted gems, and then comes the umbrella or hti in gold with over 4000 gold bells. The umbrella is a distinctive and auspicious feature of Burmese pagodas – which also explained why devotees carried little golden paper umbrellas along with flowers and candles to place around the main pagoda.
Open from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., the pagoda is a rallying point for tourists and pilgrims alike. Tourists are advised to wear modest clothing or loan from the reception a longyi to cover half-bare legs; the local pilgrims could be seen in their colourful longyis (one-piece cloth wrapped around the waist and reaching the feet) and tanakha (a cosmetic paste made from ground bark) smeared on their faces. For many Burmese, the pilgrimage is also a picnic – some of them could be seen resting or having a packed breakfast in the pavilions around the pagoda. The scene was reminiscent of that in a huge Hindu temple complex in south India. Interestingly, Yangon also has Hindu temples for its remnant Tamil and Bengali population, who had made it their home during the British Raj of Burma and India.
Bodhi trees — the first of them reportedly brought from Bodhgaya in Bihar — at the peripheries of the sprawling complex shelter the weary-footed for a while. There are two smaller pagodas – the Naundawgi and Htidaw pagodas – apart from a replica of the Shwedagon in gold, as many as 16 images of the Buddha, two humongous bells commissioned by King Singu and King Tharyawady in 1778 and 1841 respectively, and a museum.
One could spend half a day studying the whole place but looming rain clouds and the prospect of shopping bargains at Scott market make me wind up my circumambulation of the pagoda.
Driving me and my Filipina friend to Scott market, our loquacious taxi driver informs us that it would take four hours by road to reach Naypitaw, the capital since 2005. Unlike Yangon, bustling with life, taxis and an old-world charm, Naypitaw is believed to be an empty city, devoid of people and a soul. “Naypitaw means palace,” the driver tells me. Mia-maa, he sings out his country’s name. Most of the taxi drivers in Yangon, which seems to have more taxis than private vehicles, use a smattering of English.
There is a curious discrepancy in Yangon’s road traffic system that makes it look chaotic and dangerous. While the taxis, mostly imported Japanese cars, have steering wheels on the right, the buses have steering wheels on the left and all chaotically try to follow a right-hand drive. The country, which followed a left-hand drive just as most former British colonies, had shifted to right-hand drive in 1970 on the whim of General Ne Win, the military dictator who ruled the country from 1962-88.
The traffic snarl makes the short distance to the tranquil Kandagwyi Lake painfully long. Just as at the pagoda, an entry sticker ticket is stuck on my sleeve leaving me free to wander around the souvenir shops and the boardwalk. The lake, which was originally a reservoir built by the British, had a teakwood boutique hotel that once housed the British rowing club; it was destroyed in a fire two years ago. The Karaweik Palace, a huge barge-shaped restaurant, is an eye-catching piece of Burmese architecture on the lake. Two mythical karaweik birds appear to float in the lake as they support the golden structure.
A few kilometres away is the covered and cobblestoned Scott market — built in 1926 by the British — now known as the Bogyoke Aung San market (after General Aung San, the architect of Burmese independence), and is your one-stop destination for clothes, paintings, handicrafts, lacquerware as well as semi-precious stones especially jade in hues from dark green to yellow. There are eateries and also carts selling jackfruit or durian by the wayside.
China Town is another must-visit place for those who enjoy gastronomic adventures. It is famous for its street food, but it definitely is not for the faint-hearted. The cuisine on offer includes barbequed squid, chicken and pork offal like the pig’s tongue on skewers.
Traditional Burmese food can be spicy and oily; rice is the staple with side dishes involving fish and meat, often fermented. At breakfast, our hotel often served the national food mohinga, a broth of rice noodles in fish sauce and topped with fried lentils and other condiments.
Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate, quite like Kerala’s. The rains come between May and November, following a short winter and summer, and explain why the whole country is so verdant.
I left Yangon on a rain-drenched night in October. The Shwedagon, glowing in the dark, watched us go.