Riding Out the Rainy Season in Rangoon

Shwe Dagon Paya 20 - Pagodas

The golden stupas of Shwe Dagon Paya

Beyond the heat and humidity of the sub-tropical climate and the numerous golden pagodas that comprise the city’s skyline, through the beige-colored thanaka make-up smeared delicately across the cheeks of most women and children and the red-stained teeth of betel-leaf-chewing taxi drivers, past the ever-present traffic snarls of a major metropolitan area that doesn’t allow motorbikes or the fact that most men seem to be wearing skirts, and after accepting the presence of an uncountable number of street food vendors or the cultural importance of the open-air tea houses, as soon as you set foot in Yangon, you’ll know that you’ve arrived in a place like nowhere else.  Formerly known as Rangoon during a previous period of British occupation, Yangon is both the cultural heart and largest city in Myanmar, a country that exhibits a variety of cultural influences stemming from its geographical location wedged in between the Indian subcontinent to the West, China to the North, and Southeast Asia to East.  It is a crowded and chaotic city, but whether it is a result of the soothing pastel colors of the city’s facades or the congenial and welcoming attitude of its citizens, the hustle and bustle here doesn’t create the same suffocating atmosphere that is present in many other major cities in the region — in fact, it is a beautiful city, unlike any of your expectations, that will open your eyes, take you by the hand, and suck you into its unique flow of life and humanity.

Further, and although I’m going to largely avoid the topic due to my intense allergic reaction to anything political, it is difficult to write about the country of Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — without at least touching on the recent events that have changed the face of the country (or are at least sparking the early stages of transformation).  Myanmar’s history over the last thousand years is, as expected, characterized by a rise and fall of a variety empires, dynasties, and competing clans and faction, many of which also ruled over or were greatly influenced by the cultures of now neighboring countries such as China, Thailand, India, and Bangladesh.  Then, from the early 1800’s through the mid 1900’s, the country was engaged in a series of wars with the ever-hungry British Empire that had already taken root in neighborhing India to the West, which finally resulted in a period of British Colonialization.  After finally freeing themselves from the British rule after WWII and making inroads towards a democratic government, the country’s history then takes a darker turn, as intense competition from various political factions eventually led to a military seizure of the government.  Despite several partial revolutions over the next few decades, those in power maintained tight control over the country and its people, restricting any sort of influence from much of the outside world and allowing the country to stagnate, so to speak, without any way to move forward.  This left the citizens wanting for more and hoping for change, but gave them few options as far as how to pursue it.  As of the last few years, however — and largely due to the efforts of political activists such as Aung San Suu Kyi and pressure from the International community — changes are finally starting to take hold for the better.  Although there are still many problems inherent in the system and the road ahead is certainly a long one, it is a very unique time to visit from a cultural standpoint, as it is a country and people that have largely been isolated for the last few decades but that are now throwing open their doors and embracing the greater world at large, meaning that the pace of change is fast and fierce at the moment.  And taking a step back, I couldn’t ask for a better place to have as my final “new country” to act as a bookend to this crazy Round-the-World Trip that has consumed the last two years of my life.

It should be noted that the timing of my visit also coincided with the peak of the monsoon season here in Myanmar — meaning that it is not only going to rain, but it is going to rain a lot, and every day at that.  Whereas this usually deters most travelers from visiting at this time, I see it as just another opportunity to observe a different side of the culture and a different way of going about daily life, one that will work to color my own experiences in this beautiful country and hopefully not leave me too soaked in the process.  Anyway, enough of the introduction.  Onward to the city itself:

The streets of Yangon

The streets of Yangon, a colorful mix of India and Southeast Asia, but still completely Burmese

Whenever the rains would hit, the best course of action would be to simply pop into the closest tea house, order up a cup and perhaps a bowl of noodles, and wait it out

Whenever the rains would hit, the best course of action would be to simply pop into the closest tea house, order up a cup with milk and sugar, perhaps with a bowl of noodles, to grab a newspaper, and then to just wait it out

The colorful facades of the city's buildings

The colorful pastel facades of the city’s buildings

The Independence Monument near the center of town

The Independence Monument at the center of the Mahabandoola Garden, which is really just a city park

The Sule Pagoda, centered in a traffic roundabout, marks the heart of the city

The Sule Pagoda, located in the middle of a traffic roundabout, is one of the most important landmarks in Yangon, and also marks the center of the city

A monk feeding the birds

A Buddhist monk feeding the birds

A small child who was curious as to why there was a big Westerner walking around the market

A small child who was curious about the large Westerner walking around his market

Botataung Paya 12 - Streets

Open-air tea houses and tented street food vendors line the streets, offering passersby a chance to either escape the rain or simply to grab a quick snack

A shot of me attempting to navigate the city's bus system

A shot of me attempting to navigate the city’s hectic bus system

Sitting atop a hill to the North, overlooking the city proper, is the massive golden Pagoda (or Paya) that is Shwe Dagon.  The towering structure, which is supposedly 2500 years old, rises up 322 feet and is visible from almost any vantage points across the city.  Both due to its importance as a pilgrimage sight for the Burmese and the fact that it is easily the most photographed sight in the country, it has unsurprisingly become something of a National Icon, a symbol the represents the country to the outside world.  And it is indeed an impressive sight, especially when the clouds finally break and the sunshine glints off of the gold-leaf encrusted “Zedi.”

The crowded approach to the Shwe Dagon Paya

The crowded approach to the Shwe Dagon Paya

One of the four atmospheric staircases (one for each Cardinal direction) that leads visitors up to the top, where the Pagoda stands

One of the four atmospheric staircases (one for each Cardinal direction) that leads visitors up to the top, where the Pagoda stands

Shwe Dagon Paya 10 - Framed

A first look, upon reaching the top of the stairs, of the base of the Shwe Dagon Paya rising up amidst a veritable sea of smaller temples and shrines

Shwe Dagon Paya 8 - Orange Buddhas

Shwe Dagon Paya 56 - North Entrance

This gives you a bit more perspective on the scale of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda (i.e. — it is HUGE!)

Shwe Dagon Paya 26 - Perspective

The golden ceiling inside one of the smaller temples within the entire complex

The golden ceiling inside one of the smaller temples within the entire complex

The outer walkway that encircles the main pagoda

The outer walkway that encircles the main pagoda. The Shwe Dagon site is really more of a complex than a single entity, as there are dozens and dozens of smaller temples, pagodas, shrines, and altars scattered around its base

A monk taking relief from the intensity of the direct sunlight

A monk taking relief from the intensity of the direct sunlight

Shwe Dagon Paya 25 - Praying by Bodhi Tree

A short taxi ride away from the Shwe Dagon Paya lie two other unique — although relatively unknown — sights to Yangon.  The first is the Chauk Htatt Kyee Paya, which is essentially a large warehouse-like shed that houses an enormous reclining Buddha Image (that supposedly used to be a standing Buddha).  Additionally, across the streets and through a few small lanes lies another fascinating Buddha Image at the Ngah Htatt Kyee Paya.  This time it is a massive seated Buddha, adorned with a variety of precious stones and backed by an elaborately carved wooden backdrop.  These two alternate sights nearby offer a pleasant way to explore your inner Buddhist without having to fight the crowds and chaos of Shwe Dagon:

The reclining Buddha of Chauk Htatt Kyee Paya

The reclining Buddha of Chauk Htatt Kyee Paya

Chauk Htatt Kyee Paya 10

A small shrine set up at one corner of the reclining Buddha

A small shrine set up at one corner of the reclining Buddha

Chauk Htatt Kyee Paya 16 - Prayer by Feet

The hall the contains the stunning Buddha image at Ngar Htatt Kyee Paya

The hall the contains the stunning Buddha image at Ngar Htatt Kyee Paya

A closer look at the pure white Buddha

A closer look at the pure white Buddha

Ngar Htatt Kyee Paya 11 - View over Silhouette

Although Inle Lake in the Northeast of the country certainly draws the most headlines, the city of Yangon isn’t without a few gorgeous lakes of its own.  Inya Lake is the largest, located to the North of the Shwe Dagon Paya (and also where Aung San Suu Kyi’s house is located), but my personal favorite was the Kandawgyi Lake, a sprawling body of water whose fingers meander around to form a variety of small inlets and bays, many of which are fronted by a series of lakeside restaurants and tea houses.  As an added bonus, the roughly 5-mile circumference of the lake is enclosed by a wooden boardwalk, giving visitors the chance to get out and exercise a bit, all while watching the scenery change as your location on the lake shifts:

The boardwalk the encircles the ~5 mile circumference of the Kandawgyi Lake

The boardwalk the encircles the ~5 mile circumference of the Kandawgyi Lake, where the Shwe Dagon Pagoda can be seen just peeking out over the top of the trees in the distance

The unmistakable (and quite gaudy) Karaweik Palace that sits near the middle of the lake

The unmistakable (and quite gaudy) Karaweik Palace that sits near the middle of the lake

Kandawgyi Lake 29

A series of lakeside restaurants that line the Eastern Coast of the lake

A series of lakeside restaurants that line the Eastern Coast of the lake

Kandawgyi Lake 21

Within the city, folks often refer to the “three most important” Payas (or pagodas).  Obviously, Shwe Dagon takes the first spot, and the Sule Pagoda (pictured above, in the traffic roundabout) occupies another spot, as much for its location as anything else.  The third pagoda, and my first sight upon entering Yangon, is that of the Botataung Pagoda.  To add to the experience, as soon as I set foot inside the gounds of the complex (and being the only Westerner in sight), I was graciously greeted by a series of monks eager to welcome me (largely because I also gave them a chance to practice their developing English skills).  The conversation lasted over an hour, our tour took us through not only the grounds of the pagoda, but through their monastery and a few nearby markets, taboot, and again, the level of human connection and kindness showed by the Burmese people left me in awe of this gorgeous country:

The Botataung Paya, as visible through the rains of the monsoon season

The Botataung Paya, as visible through the rains of the monsoon season

The gilded Buddha that lies in a sub-temple of the complex

The gilded Buddha that lies in a sub-temple of the complex

As is common throughout the country, there are 8 "stations" around the base of the pagoda, each corresponding to a particular day of the week (the Burmese recognize 8 days of the week, as opposed to the normal 7), in which visitors are supposed to pray at the altar corresponding to the day on which they were born

As is common throughout the country, there are 8 “stations” around the base of the pagoda, each corresponding to a particular day of the week (the Burmese recognize 8 days of the week, as opposed to the normal 7), in which visitors are supposed to pray at the altar corresponding to the day on which they were born

Botataung Paya 14 - Pond

A small lake helps to created a dramatic vista for this small sub-temple

Another golden ceiling, this time as taken from the interior of the pagoda itself

Another gilded ceiling, this time from the interior of the pagoda itself

Banana and coconut offerings available just outside of the Pagoda complex

A variety of bananas and coconuts to be given as offerings that are available just outside of the Pagoda complex

Whereas Yangon is certainly the heart of the country, it is a bit misleading to think that the remainder of Myanmar is similar to that of this big city.  In fact, most of the country is extremely rural, with residents living off the land, growing rice and vegetables, and tending to livestock to get by.  To get a look at life away from the city itself, I chose to take a ferry (along with what seemed like a few thousand other commuters at the time) across the Yangon River to the area known as Dalah — which is essentially the “suburbs” of the city, so to speak, but where a short ride across the water can transport you much farther away, into a world of rice fields, wandering cows, and wooden houses set atop bamboo supports (to protect against the rising and falling water levels of the rainy and dry seasons, respectively).  It isn’t necessarily a popular option for tourists, but it definitely gave me an added appreciation for what daily life is actually like for most of the city’s residents.

The crowds and vendors awaiting the ferry to arrive at the dock in Dalah

The crowds and vendors awaiting the ferry to arrive at the dock in Dalah

The best way to get out and around the countryside is to pay a bicycle taxi driver (known as a sidecar here) a few dollars to drive you around and show you the countryside

The best way to get out and around the countryside is to pay a bicycle taxi driver (known as a sidecar here) a few dollars to drive you around and show you the countryside

Dalah 21 - Rice Fields

An example of normal living quarters for a given family

An example of normal living quarters for a given family

Dalah 8 - Wooden Bridge

Cows and livestock also have free reign to wander around the area

Cows and livestock also have free reign to wander around the area

Dalah 23 - Rice Fields

The heavy rains have given the farmer plenty of water to use for their rice fields

As mentioned above, my visit must have coincided with "Rush Hour," as this was the crushing line that awaited me when I made my way back to the ferry terminal

As mentioned above, my visit must have coincided with “Rush Hour,” as this was the crushing line that awaited me when I made my way back to the ferry terminal

After the initial entry point of Yangon, I’m also planning on exploring the ancient temples and pagodas of the Bagan area to the North, with the possibility of a few sidetrips thrown in for good measure.  Additionally, I have (of course) been eating my way through all of those tea houses and street vendors I showed you earlier, so I’m already working on another food posts dedictated to the variety of noodles, soups, curries, and salads that make up Burmese cuisine.  Until then, “aung myin par say” from Burma!

Post-script — I apologize for the long delay in getting this post up.  Although the internet does exist in Myanmar, finding a quality connection can be quite a challenge.  As such — and also given the fact that I wanted to enjoy the final few days of my trip without having to worry about updating a blog — the frequency of my posts has certainly slipped a bit and I’m running a large backlog.  Regardless, I’ll get caught back up soon, I promise!

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About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

9 Responses to “Riding Out the Rainy Season in Rangoon”

  1. I really appreciate the effort you make to describe what you see and the people you meet. I’ll expect food in your next post. LOL

  2. It is so nice that you were able to visit Myanmar! Myanmar is one of the countries that I’d really like to go to in the future, however I have read articles that Myanmar is not that open (yet) to foreigners? Is that true?? We are planning to travel, cross the border from Thailand to Myanmar then cross to Laos but most of the articles mention that foreigners are not allowed to cross into or out of Myanmar. Do you have any idea about this?

    • Myanmar was amazing, and I would highly recommend a visit if you are in that part of the world. The country is definitely “open” to foreigners, so visiting shouldn’t present any problems, but I’d still do a bit more research (the Myanmar Embassy website would be my first stop) in regards to specific boarder crossings, as the restrictions and requirements vary from location to location. I think you’ll be fine, though. Best of luck and enjoy your travels!

  3. Hey! Thanks for the awesome post! Im planning for a trip to Yangon next year July. Does the rain come in short heavy intervals or does it pour continuously everyday? Also, do the temples/pagodas/attractions close their to visitors during the monsoon season?

    • During the wet season, the rain usually only ever comes in short, strong bursts of 1 hour or less. A couple times it rained for upwards of a few hours at a time, but that was more rare. So it’ll likely only rain for an hour, clear up for a few hours, rain another hour, clear up, and so on. But it is almost guaranteed to rain everyday, so you will have to plan on bring a rain jacket or umbrella. And all of the sights and museums stay open through out the rainy season, so you’ll still be able to visit everything you want to see (and actually, less tourists visit during the rainy season, so most places will less crowded than at other times of the year — bonus!). Best of luck with your trip!

  4. Oh thanks for this blog. I’ll be visiting Myanmar next week (Yangon and Bagan) and I am worried because of the rainy season thing.

  5. Very nice read! You’ve been filling in the gaps of my journey at Yangon.

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