Yangon -Spell of Shwe Dagon (2005)

Yangon -Spell of Shwe Dagon (2005)

Visiting Yangon is like emerging from a time machine into a sepia-tinted, dreamy, misty town where overloaded ancient buses with beaked bonnets and pump horns share road space with bullock carts, chickens, and Buddhist nuns in single file seeking alms. Unmindful of the chaos on the streets, stately trees have burst forth in obscene fecundity typical of the tropics. Gulmohars and laburnums vie with each other to carpet the pavements while ranibow-hued Birds of Paradise, prim and proper inside compounds, sway suavely. Tall palms fan out in different shapes, providing ample refuge to families of squirrels and parakeets. The pointed peak of a golden pagoda peeks out of the foliage, as if to remind you of man-made splendour amidst of this cacophony.

I was in Myanmar for 10 days in the winter of 2005/6 to catch the original timeless version of this gorgeous city before globalization worked its unseemly surgical treatment on its radiant visage. The junta was still in charge, Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest and the US Embassy in Yangon still blocking an entire road barring entry to citizens and visitors. I had obtained a visa in advance in Delhi and encashed my airline reward points to fly into Yangon.

A friend in the Indian embassy in Yangon had booked me in a gorgeous traditional hotel at discounted prices available to embassies. He had got me a lake-view room in Kandawgyi Palace hotel with its stunning Burmese architecture – exquisite Burmese teak structure embellished with sloping tiled roofs, turrets, polished wooden pillars that made mirrors redundant, parquet flooring that did not creak or groan. From my window, the lake lapped at the private pier of the hotel where boats bobbed up and down, tempting us to unleash and ride them. Befittingly, the breakfast set out was fit for a king – replete with multicoloured tropical fruits, rice delicacies wrapped so lovingly in plantain leaves and steamed to perfection. I wish I had taken some pictures of the hotel which, unfortunately, burnt down in 2017.

My plan is to walk around Yangon for a couple of days before heading out to Mandalay and Bagan. Yangon skyline is dominated by the glitter of the golden dome and steeple so tall and stately that it is visible from virtually everywhere. But Shwe can wait, I need to check out this city first. As I step out of my hotel and walk a few yards, I am in the heart of a city where life is lived out largely on the streets. This where families congregate to dine al fresco under paper lanterns slung about from trees; this is where nuns and monks go about their daily rounds, swinging their papiermache tiffins filled with generous offerings from the devout. This is where everything from chicks doused in lurid colours to priceless handwoven baskets and delicate sarongs are spread out on the pavements. This is where the townspeople squat offering incense at the numerous altars that populate this city. There are many grand colonial mansions including the Strand Hotel built at the beginning of the century, but they stand discreetly behind, making room for the chaos of cycles, rickshaws and carts.

Yangon is studded with payas (Buddhist pagodas) all of them gilded. In fact, for country known to the world as poor, Yangon has too much gold in every altar, big or small. Perhaps these are only covered in gold leaf, but considering the number and size of the payas, that must add up to several tonnes of gold. Towering above them all is the massive Shwe Dagon Pagoda crowning a hillock. I puff up the steps to wander around a massive temple complex crowded with so many Buddha statues that devotees spread out between the statues cheek by jowl. The dazzle of Shwe’s central dome takes your breath away in its glitter and polish. Its girth is also impressive.

Finding vegetarian food in Yangon is easier than finding the holy grail. Virtually everything that moves, crawls, creeps, flaps or flies is eaten with great relish. Al fresco dining is very popular and streets are full of cafes sending up plumes of smoke from numerous stoves set up on makeshift tables under trees. I walk past several, but fail to find anything remotely vegetarian except the generous piles of fruits. In the ten days I spent in Myanmar, I subsisted mostly on fresh fruits. I did not trust even the rice which might be cooked with a bit of squid or prawn to enhance its flavour.

On the street, groups of men squat around, intently looking at something and arguing animatedly. I get a bit closer for a look and find gems scattered on a white cloth on the pavement. They are haggling over the price of rubies. Burma has some of the finest gemstones – mogok rubies, also called pigeon blood rubies for their pink colour, come from Mogok mines not far away. Jade is also endemic to Burma and it comes in a million shades and prices to be carved and sold for a fortune to China’s jade-crazed chatterati. Blue sapphire, spinel, peridot, spessartine, zircon, topaz and many others are also mined in this country.

Naturally, my legs lead me to the sprawling Scott Market with its profusion of gem and silverware shops. Burmese make such beautiful silverware. I haggle over a golden pearl brooch, but my emaciated wallet allows me to acquire only a blue sapphire necklace and a Mogok bracelet. For all I know, they may be fake, but I don’t care.

Two days flew by in a jiffy even before I had had my fill of Yangon. But I had managed, through the same embassy contact, to obtain a ticket to Mandalay on an overnight train. I must bid goodbye now. I will be back on my way out, but not sure if I will have enough time to wander around again.

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