Myanmar – Day Two: Yangon

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.

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Journey begins

Travelling to new places has always been as much a journey of the mind as the body, and visiting somewhere new remains one of the most exciting experiences that a person can have. And yet there is an irony in this – the more one travels, the more aware we become of just how much there is still to explore. The list of places still to see grows longer, not shorter.

Myanmar has always been on my personal list, a mysterious, deeply evocative country with an astonishing history, yet one that has had restricted opportunities to visit in more recent times. No longer. With air connections now excellent, and a burgeoning tourist industry, it may be off the more familiar beaten tracks, but it is both accessible and inviting to visitors.

The secret to arriving in a new country is to do so without preconceptions, for every country has the capacity to surprise, and an open mind has always been the most rewarding way to travel. But not even in my most far fetched thoughts did I anticipate that the immigration officer would be quietly singing to herself as I arrived into Yangon. As welcomes go, however inadvertent, this one possessed a charm entirely unique in my experience. ‎ It is a rare thing Indeed to be smiling to oneself going through the formalities.

‎On day one of a ten day trip, the first day is one of familiarisation. Yangon’s traffic congestion is rightly renowned yet the patience of the people is what strikes initially – there may be queues on the roads, but they are handled without rancour, and my mind kept turning to the frustration I would be feeling at home in the UK. A relaxing traffic jam – there’s a first.

The other immediate impression concerns the striking colonial architecture of the city. Building after building is passed by, but this is no past time frozen in aspic, it’s a modern thriving metropolis, where past and present co-exist, and the structures are there to be used, not merely admired.

‎Tomorrow is when the exploration truly begins, and each day I shall be providing an update that will hopefully provide some kind of flavour of the journey. I have no idea what to expect, so since it is always better to travel in company, perhaps you’d like to join me on my exploration.

Until tomorrow then…‎