Exotic Yangon and its charming people

Uday K Chakraborty feels the city’s exoticness is accentuated by its charming people

Why Burma, when many Indians view it more with apprehension than interest? For us that was the very reason to visit Yangon, where monks and markets coalesce with sandalwood and spirituality in a city that still bears vestiges of its colonial past. And, by the time you read this story our PM must have completed his own trip to strengthen India’s new Look East policy.

On our way from the airport we got a fleeting glimpse of the Shwedagon Paya (Pagoda), Myanmar’s most arresting and memorable symbol. Next morning, we rode up the elevator to the pagoda and suddenly a world of crystalline temples unfolded. Here was a beauty, enigma and wonderment, all in one shining constellation.

A main street in Yangon
A main street in Yangon

Splendid Shwedagon

We entered the elevated courtyard and, following local people, started strolling clockwise around the plinth of the pagoda. It was a bright sunny morning, the reflection of the golden dome added luster to the marble platform. The bottom half of main pagoda is gilded with gold leafs, while the top portion is covered with solid gold plates and studded with diamonds.

I walked slowly, in tune with the men and women who had come to offer alms and food to Lord Buddha. The immense stupa is surrounded by smaller golden and silver pagodas, by coloured shrines and glass mosaic prayer halls. Some temples are decorated with carved wood, others with lacquer-work. Numerous images of Buddha, other deities and nats (spirits) are sitting in a grand conclave. Also, present are seven wish –fulfilling animal statues, that devotees bathed by pouring down mugs of water.

The open area itself is great place to observe the locals for countless hours. Some people sit still for hours, training their mind. Others offer candles, paper umbrellas and flowers. Smiles hover about their lips. They re-gild the pagodas with thin sheets of gold leaf. The area is a combination of a spiritual hub, wish-fulfilling area, picnic spot, crèche, and quite possibly, a matrimonial bureau. Men, women, monks and nuns pray, smoke cheroots, play cards, mothers breastfeed babies, while father loiter in shady niches. Locals peer at foreigners with sheepish greens and often approach to talk for practicing their English.

Decayed colonial grandeurs
Decayed colonial grandeurs

Diverse Attractions

Although the city is dotted with many pagodas, including the dramatic Chaukhatgyi Paya with its huge reclining Buddha or the exquisite gold plated Botatung Paya, everything else pales in comparison after having seen the big one.

Yangon has many lakes, parks and nurseries where one can marvel at orchids or golden cascading flowers. An entire afternoon could be well spent in the Kandawgyi park that includes a lake where the reflection of the Shwedagon at sunset draws many visitors. The evening could be rounded off by having dinner at the many Burmese restaurants at one end of the park. Much larger Inwa lake situated a little afar is another popular relaxation point. At its southern tip, lies the house of Myanmar’s Noble laureate leader, Aung Suu Kyi.

Remnants of British Raj

Rangoon maintains a uniform urbanscape, one pitched to a human scale found in just a shrinking handful of world’s larger cities. The British colonist planned and built Rangoon to make it their trading hub. They took the Sule Pagoda, still a major downtown landmark, as their centre point and from it laid down neatly parallel avenues and connecting streets in a chessboard configuration that remains totally intact.  There are some new skyscrapers but not many are higher than the Golden stupa of Shwedagon soaring 157 meters above street level.

The city’s southern boundary was formed by the Rangoon River, a bustling, sweaty waterfront of steamers, boats and coolies, backed by Strand Road where the colonial buildings and iconic Strand Hotel still stand with stately presence, particularly after recent coats of paints. The northern edge of the city proper was marked by the cavernous Scott Market (officially renamed Bogyoke Aung Sann Market) and ornate Yangon railway station.

Negotiating a gauntlet of shops and haggling is a way of life in Scott Market. The covered market is a heaven for lacquer-ware; ornate silver; gracefully-painted parasols; delicious, flaky tamarind sweets wrapped in waxed paper; and suspicious looking rubies. For authentic Gem stones and jewelry, Myanmar Gem Museum that has a number of licensed gem traders is a prudent choice. Burma is the largest producer of its world famous ruby. One can also visit glass blowing Na Gar factory, located on the city’s northern outskirts, which sells glassware at ridiculously cheap prices.

Burmese are devout Buddhists
Burmese are devout Buddhists

People In daily rhythm

To take in the daily rhythm of the city, I walk along Yangon’s leafy, wide roads, marked by delicately dated buildings and grungy stucco. I notice that much of the British era buildings have been turned into tenement, houses or offices, many of which need maintenance and a coat of paint. But, citizens make up for the facades with the laidback rhythm of their daily lives.

Every morning a well-conducted, strolling crowd emerges into the roads, when the city is a flow of sarongs and an eternal whisper of flip-flops. Inevitably, the faces of women are smeared with patches of Thankha, a yellowish sandalwood type of paste. Monks and nuns appear as parts of the scene everywhere, seamlessly going about with others on the street. There is a gentle calm about the place where even today not material pursuits but spiritual values is still the prime mover for the masses.

Since that first day Yangon has captivated me and I have succumbed to the unchanging charm of its people.

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