Monks, Pagodas and the Black Market
Yangon Travel Blog› entry 236 of 658 › view all entries
People i met here who contributed to, and improved my trip: Julia (Russia), Zach (Canada)
Having not slept the previous night, we arrived into Yangon airport somewhat 'zombified' and were only too happy to take up Motherland Hotel on their free airport shuttle service, as we didn't really have a clue where we were or what was going on! For an international airport, the atmosphere was rather subdued and orderly, which really surprised me, but we did get our first opportunity to experience the local banking system.
Several years ago with the military junta on one of its regular rampages, and the countries economy collapsing at a rate of knots, pretty much all foreign investment was withdrawn from Myanmar, with the result that there are no longer any banks, ATM's or credit card facilities left in the country! This poses the problem for any traveller of how to acquire the necessary funds when travelling there.
So when a guy with a large plastic bag walked up to us offering his money changing services, i figured it would be a good idea to get $100 changed to at least have something to be going on with. Expecting to get back maybe 20 large denomination bills, i couldn't believe it when he started counting out 1000 kyat bills. I explained that this really wasn't very convenient as i had nowhere to put 120 large notes, but was then informed to my horror that this was the largest denomination available within the country! Knowing that i would be changing another $300 in the near future left my head spinning with the logistics of what to do with nearly 500 notes and inquiring as to the services of dumper trucks that may be available to transport the cash around the country for us!
My first impressions of the capital were positive as we passed through some local gardens and wide boulevards on route to the hotel.
Canadian journalist Zach joined us on our first venture into the centre and was keen to be taking photos of anything that moved.
Having come from Bangkok, it was like stepping back in time to be walking the streets of Yangon. The sidewalks were filled with small plastic tables and chairs, where locals were gathering to drink tea and eat cakes. Both men and women wore longyis instead of trousers, which are long pieces of cloth that are shapeless, until wrapped around the waist and tucked in at the front, to create a loose fitting long dress almost. The cars that were zooming around resembled something from a distant yesteryear and the methods of public transport were crammed little buses, which appeared to have done more than their fare share of work over the years.
I was wandering around trying to let it all sink in, this was a country that i could easily fall in love with. The locals watched you walk past and it felt like they didn't get many visitors in some areas, as they often didn't seem to know what to make of us. It was all friendly enough though and if you smiled at them, they would also issue a big grin back to you.
Our path firstly came to Sri Devi Hindu Temple and i was not surprised to see this, as there was a strong Indian influence in and around the downtown area, as families remained after the British ended their period of colonisation. As we continued down one of the main thoroughfares we spotted 2 towering steeples and went to investigate. The imposing St Marys cathedral was the culprit and it was a real beauty of a cathedral. We were invited in to take a look around and enjoyed spending 20 minutes within the church and the surrounding grounds.
Sadly the market that we had been heading towards was closed when we arrived, something to do with a public holiday, but nearby was the Sakura Tower, which we ascended in the lift and offered spectacular views across the city below.
My belly was rumbling again and the decision was made to go and try out the local cuisine, so we headed to a little cafe and ordered a large portion of Biryani with chicken. It was in this restaurant that i also got my first taste of Star Cola, Myanmars answer to Pepsi. To be honest it tastes like a cheap ice pop, but when the sun is beating down and you are dying of thirst, they really hit the spot!
Sule Paya was the next destination and it is what i would describe as the real town centre. The golden paya is located in the centre of town and is surrounded by the crumbling yellow Town Hall, a Baptist Church, Mahabandoola Gardens, which contains the Independence Monument and an array of cheap and tacky hotels.
After our discussion we decided that we would try and change some more money and managed to get offered a very healthy 1250 kyat to the dollar, on a crisp new $100 bill.
Heading away from the centre and down towards the docks, we passed by the customs house on the way to Botataung Paya. Zach decided to leave us for the time been and instead we were joined by a little boy trying to sell postcards. I felt sorry for him at first and said if he would sell them individually and not as a pack of 10 then i'd buy a couple, but he didn't want to do this and i didn't want a load of useless postcards.
Botataung Paya maintains a healthy flow of local worshippers and international tourists due to its claim of housing ancient Buddha relics. Supposedly when the RAF blew up the paya during the Japanese occupation in the second World War, the said relics were found at the bottom of the rubble, still in their protective casing and thus the legend continued and a new paya was built to protect them once again.
The ticket collector at the paya also gave us our first insight into what a hassle we could have using certain dollars in the country, as he wouldn't accept our $1 bills and wanted a $10. We were told to come back after looking around the temple to collect our $6 change and when we did, he claimed that he'd never seen us before and we owed him another $4 for admission fees! I was gobsmacked and began to protest. He kept denying having seen us and eventually another woman came over and explained that we not only owed $4, but a further $2 for our camera fee! Now i was starting to get annoyed.
It was gone 3pm and both opf us were dead on our feet. It had been 30 hours since we'd last got some shut eye and our comfy double bed was calling. It was planned to take a 2-3 hour nap and i was therefore a little startled to wake up with my clock showing 10pm, still drowsy and unsure whether to go back to sleep or get up.
It was 11am when i finally woke Julia up, somehow she always manages to get to sleep first and wake up last, i often liken her to a cat who eats, naps and prowls around a bit. Luckily breakfast ran until 11am, so we darted downstairs to get a decent feed and prepare ourselves for the day.
Our first destination for the day was Kandawgyi Lake, where we took a pleasant stroll around for a few hours and enjoyed the tranquility of the place. We were walking around side by side but not holding hands, as we believed that it was disrespectful to show public signs of affection, but we soon realised this was nonsense.
Next on our agenda was Yangons star tourist attraction, Shwedagon Paya, a temple dating back more than 2500 years. Covered in gold the central stupa climbs 98 metres and is circled by 82 other buildings and is thought to house sacred Buddha relics, including 8 hairs and possibly a couple of toenail clippings (just kidding). Incredibly the main stupa is thought to have 53 metric tonnes of gold leaf plastered on to it and also has the pleasure of containing 5000 diamonds and 2000 other precious stones.
Slightly annoyingly were the shoe collectors who told us we needed to leave our shoes at the entry and couldn't take them off and carry them with us in our plastic bag. This was a blatant lie, as we saw the locals doing this once we entered, so we went back and got them to take in with us. At this point they started demanding a 'donation' for the service they had just provided. I smiled at them, explained i wouldn't be paying for their phony 'service' and went back to enjoy the paya. Equally surprising were the monks who were not coming with collection plates asking for donations, but ones who were just begging to Westerners. I was more shocked by this more than annoyed, but after already paying a $5 entry fee, which supposedly went to the up keep of the place and its resident monks, i didn't really feel it necessary to be paying out even more.
Less enjoyable was the local guide who cottoned on to us and kept following us around, even though we said that we didn't want a tour and would like to enjoy the setting in peace. When he asked us where we were from and we told him, he firstly claimed to speak Russian and secondly said he had an old English penny, which i really must see. His first claim was rather bogus as he only knew 2 words in Russian and his second claim wasn't much more accurate, as his penny really didn't interest me.
Even though it was dark, we decided to continue on the sightseeing tour and walked to nearby Maha Wizaya Paya, which was now prettily lit up and completely deserted. Normally we would have spent longer in such peaceful surroundings, but we were absolutely famished, so began to walk home, stopping along way for a well earned dinner. A cheap internet cafe was also on our way home, so we ducked in to use it for a couple of hours. When we emerged back into the city it was only 10pm, but the streets were deserted, with the exception of some kids playing football infront of the Baptist Church and a dog that wanted to take a chunk out of our legs.
After breakfast on Thursday morning, we decided that we would buy the bus tickets to Bagan, as we'd seen most of the things that we wanted in Yangon and would be coming back here at the end of our trip, to fly back to Bangkok.
Walking down to Sule Paya to catch the local bus to go to the station took around 30 minutes and we were exhausted when we finally made it. I was still in need of changing some dollars into kyat, so happily followed a guy who said he would change $100 bills for 1260 kyat.
Having met Ethel the day before, she mentioned she could help us change money, so we went and searched for her by Sule Paya. She eventually turned up and took us to her friend who supposedly wouldn't try any 'monkey business', this was her favourite saying! The guys weren't as bad as the first ones, but many of their stacks were short and some of the notes were also unusable.
The bus to the main bus station took over an hour and when we arrived a group of touts swamped us with offers of Bagan for 10,000 kyat. We followed them across the sprawling mass of whats meant to be a bus station, until we reached the Bagan terminal. Seeing we were white they immediately tried to make us pay 20,000, so we walked away.
There was 4 hours to kill until departure time, so we ate in a little restaurant and watched some tv in the ticket office. The journey itself was relatively ok with two exceptions. Firstly they put a prayer on as we left, which lasted nearly an hour! The words were just repeated, something about pissyor and pissya whatever that means! Secondly they woke you up at every stop for food and made you exit the bus and sit in the restaurant all together.