If there’s one variable we would all like to control when travelling, it’s the weather. So the sight of fluffy white clouds and rays of sunshine when the curtains were pulled back meant that the planned sightseeing was well and truly on.
Where to start is easy – the Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline both because of its imposing height and also because of its appearance. For the uninitiated, it’s gilded with 20 tons of gold leaf – in the sunshine it is so bright as to be painful to look at when close up. In addition, that Yangon is still largely a low rise city means that orientation is straightforward.
The Pagoda is sited on top of a small hill, further raising it above the city. Of course, when seen from afar, a small part of the brain is trying in vain to point out to the rest of it that if it is that dominant from a distance, it must be simply enormous close up – but it still comes as something of a shock on approach to realise just how massive the structure is.
At 2,500 years old (according to tradition – spoilsport historians and historical architects insist it’s more like 1,200 give or take a few centuries) it has also had time to generate impressive numbers of surrounding shrines; they in themselves are a startling sight, both in number and the degree of opulence. A walk around the pagoda takes some considerable time, even without taking into account the regular stops to admire a particularly impressive view.
Despite this, access is straightforward. In recent years a lift to the site has been installed, saving visitors from having to climb the steps to reach it.
No matter how cynical and world weary the traveller, a visit to Shwedagon is one that will leave the visitor stunned. It is, quite simply, a global must-see.
If that were all there was in Yangon, it would still be worth coming, but of course there is far more. The National Museum of Myanmar is essential for any student of history, while Inya Lake provides welcome relief in the shape of cooling breezes from the heat of the day.
Yangon is famous for its collection of colonial architecture, possessing greater numbers of colonial buildings than any other city in South East Asia. Context is always key, and it is their presence in the downtown area at every turn that marks them out. Maintaining them is proving a challenge and as the city develops some are inevitably lost. But the conjunction of spectacular historical architecture in a city that is developing at an astonishing rate provides a contrast that is well worth seeing.
It’s not just sights either, for lovers of a bargain Scott’s Market (or Bogyoke Market as it is now known) is the place to fill up with local souvenirs without coming close to breaking the bank.
It’s been a short visit, a day and a half in which trying to fit everything in has proved a challenge. Yangon is changing quickly, and there are no guarantees that some of its particular attractions won’t be lost in the years to come. If in doubt, book sooner rather than later.
Tomorrow, it’s Bagan, a place on the Bucket List of huge numbers of travellers. I’m looking forward to it.