The curious thing about Myanmar is that a bloody history still echoes in present day- ethnic tensions loom large and the UN’s ongoing presence for Human Rights Watch is a sobering reminder that “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil but those who look on and do nothing”.* Having recently been released from military junta, the country has had a democratic transition to a civilian government however, there are areas of the country which remain inaccessible to most people and is clearly suspicious. No doubt this is why tourists with vehicles must be accompanied by a guide and a member of the tourist police. Or perhaps it’s for the tourists’ own protection with armed conflicts in the region happening as recently as 2015.
The country in itself has undergone a number of changes to, very rightly, separate itself from its colonial past, including the renaming of Burma to Myanmar and the changing of the capital city from Yangon to Naypyidaw. Some changes are more successful than others and although Naypyidaw boasts a 16 lane highway to enter the capital, we found it to be mostly empty whereas Yangon was full of life with a buzzing evening vibe. We only had a night in Yangon and so we visited the Schwedagon Pagoda- a beautifully gilded Stupa containing relics from the Buddha. It was the site of the Saffron Revolution in 2007 when the military junta was still in power and their removal of subsidies from the sales of fuel when they were the only supplier of fuel in the country, lead to a non-violent protest which included Buddhist monks (hence the name Saffron revolution which was a nod to the robes worn by monks although in Myanmar, the monks wear predominately maroon robes).
The site contains a station for every day of the week, which according to the Burmese calendar, is an eight day week. Wednesday is split into two, before 6pm, it is Wednesday, after 6 to midnight is Rahu’s day (Rahu is a planet in Hindu astrology recognised by the Burmese). Believers are invited to pour water on the site of their birth-day as part of their devotional ceremony.
We were visiting at night when the Pagoda shines most brightly – the artificial light on the surface of the stupa and surrounding artifacts gives a glow to the site which is emphasised by the endless river of candles offered at the base of the Stupa. It is almost 100m tall which makes it an impressive sight and impossible to miss at night.
Only the neon and slightly cheesy booth lights decorating various Buddha figures disturb the uniform gold of the area. The pulsing pinks and turquoise haloes and decorative disco lights give a strangely comic twist to the scene. One can only think of Las Vegas chapels and Buddha in an Elvis suit as being the next step in the decoration. It was only a minor disturbance though, as the enormity and peacefulness of the whole makes up for the distraction. Monks meditate at every day station and people worship at the side shrines with many more walking clockwise around the Stupa, as is customary.
It was really a spectacular experience to walk around the stupa, some groups chanted as they walked, so focussed on their mantras they flowed past you like a river around a rock. The river of candles was particularly mesmerising, each one reflecting in the gold bricks on the base of the structure. The whole place was filled with people but because it is so large, it didn’t feel crowded. We circled the Stupa three times and admired the many shrines to the side. There is a small window one can look through to see the relics of the Buddha- the eight hairs from his head. Which are a little difficult to make out from the small window, truth be told.
After visiting the Pagoda, we headed for Chinatown which is renowned for its street food. After navigating narrow corridors through stalls, trailers and simple trestle tables we arrived at a restaurant and had some fantastic pork ribs and squid.
With a very early start time, we headed for the police station outside Yangon to be reunited with the motorbikes. We were to ride from there to the official capital of Myanmar- Naypyidaw, a day’s ride north.
The road consisted of wide highways for the most part, but the heat was almost unbearable. This was no doubt our hottest ride of Asia with the thermometer clocking 40 degrees when we waited for any time. We had to control our speed although speeding is impossible in Myanmar – the roads are too narrow for speeds higher than 70kph and the traffic far too erratic. The Australian couple we travelled with told of a biker who’d had the misfortune of an accident in Myanmar where having a road accident is illegal. Not only was he injured but the bike was in need of repair (impossible in Myanmar) and he was expected to pay for all sorts of fines and face jail! In the end he abandoned his bike and fled the country.
By sunset we made it onto the principle highway leading to Naypyidaw- a 16 lane beautifully painted road leading straight through to the town. We rode along one of the 8 lanes northwards wondering where all the traffic was. An occasional car passed us and we overtook maybe two scooters but otherwise, that was it. Despite the lack of road users, we still hit a traffic jam on the outskirts of the town. It transpired that the police had shut the road into town as we were near a temple and a minister was currently in the temple praying so no traffic was allowed to pass by.
It was really quite bizarre but within twenty minutes, the police were pulling away the barriers and we continued into the city. On the map, it looked like an urbanised and built landscape but in reality, there was just a lot of space. The occasional government building or lone business building was set in a huge parkland- not by aesthetic choice but seemingly by sheer lack of populace. We passed endless parks and wide open driveways until we reached our hotel- a three storey luxury hotel in the middle of nothing.
With a pool it ended up being very comfortable but clearly they were unused to guests as ordering room service (no restaurants in walking distance) proved painful. Yangon is clearly still functioning as the principle city with Naypyidaw a curious ghost-town and it only added to the mystique of the country and its secretive management.
*Albert Einstein (paraphrased)