Guest blogger Jeremy Willinger just got back from a solo trip through Southeast Asia, where he visited Burma (aka Myanmar), Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. He was especially struck by Burma which, he warns, requires careful planning for even the most adventuresome of travelers. Here, he shares his experiences in Yangon (aka Rangoon), a 2000-year-old seaport that is the gateway to Burma.
Today’s Myanmar is a study in contrasts. The people can watch Fast and the Furious 4 at the movies but political oppression by the military junta still exists and the government controls all media outlets. In Yangon, which most travelers will use as an entry/exit point, the modern airport gives way to a worn-down city. Two years ago, the government moved the capital 200 miles north, leaving behind empty offices and failing maintenance. The city does not feature regular electricity or trash pickup. New cars are rare, and a taxi I took was devoid of an interior, leaving me to hold onto the door panel as we hurdled down the main street with our lights off.
The city’s contrasts are never more obvious than at sundown. The Shwezigon Pagoda’s gold-leafed exterior (pictured left) is resplendent in the sunset, and the jeweled top of the pagoda boasts a 76-carat diamond. The backdrop for this priceless treasure is a gritty area of British colonial architecture in disrepair and a roughshod row of sagging buildings.
The National Museum can only be seen with a guide and the expansive sections devoted to different parts of the country’s cultural history were immediately illuminating. One wing not to be missed is Dramatic Arts, with its many marionettes and costumes. The country’s contrasts were also evident in the museum, as half of the lights were off and we were the only guests, the quiet overwhelming the antiques.
You’ll find far more people at the massive reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi. It’s a great place to enjoy a steady stream of worshippers, and take part in local observances. The Buddha is as colorful as it is enormous with highly decorated feet, covered in 108 sacred symbols.
After working up an appetite, many locals celebrate a special occasion (along with a mix of tourists) at Karaweik Restaurant on Kandawgyi Lake. The massive structure looks like a temple but houses a stage that showcases a variety of dances, puppet shows, and music performances as you chow down on a buffet dinner. While the food won’t impress a sophisticated palate, many of the skits are culturally informative and the check won’t cause any heart palpitations.
Indeed, money goes a long way in Myanmar. The national currency, the Kyat, exchanges at the rate of approximately 1,000 Kyats to $1 USD. Most bills are notable for their various states of decay, mirroring the colonial buildings of downtown, and my guide said that any crisp new bills are immediately suspected as counterfeit.
To see more of Jeremy’s work, visit JeremyWillinger.com.