‘Mingalarbar’, or ‘Hello’ Myanmar!
We flew from Bangkok to Yangon the former capital, known to us oldies as Rangoon, and were met at the airport by Ton, who as a freelance guide, was working for Santa Maria. We set off downtown to the Central Hotel, and thought incorrectly that traffic jams had been left behind in Bangkok. After checking in and a light lunch we were off to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest and most spectacular Buddhist shrine in Yangon, dating back 2600 years. Unfortunately it was covered in bamboo scaffolding, as they are spending 6 months regilding with 27 tons of gold leaf. But once the sun had set just after 17.00, and the floodlights had come on, the pagoda and surrounding temples or zedi were a truly stupendous golden sight.
The next morning we were taken on a walkabout tour of the city, seeing decaying colonial buildings against a backdrop of new skyscrapers, a glimpse of daily comings and goings including Bogyoke Aung San Market, or Scotts Market as it used to be called.
And here a word or two about the recent history.
The UK granted independence to Burma as it was then called in 1948, but in 1962 the military junta toppled the government, and until 2010 Myanmar was closed to the western world, dissenters were imprisoned, and at the slightest sign of demonstrations, universities were closed. In 2010 there was a remarkable change, and Aung San Suu Kyi who had been under house arrest for 15 years was granted freedom, and is now leading her opposition Democratic party. Currently she is unable to be elected President in next year’s elections for obscure constitutional reasons, despite having overwhelming popularity and support within the country. Though fortunately still largely unspoilt, the country is open to a growing tourism industry, and ATM’s now conveniently dispense local currency to Visa and MasterCard holders – most of the time!
Largely rural and densely-forested, Myanmar is rich in natural resources, is the world’s largest exporter of teak and a principal source of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires as well as gold and silver. It has highly fertile soil and important offshore oil and gas deposits. Little of this wealth reaches the mass of the population due to corruption at the highest levels.
The economy is one of the least developed in the world, and is suffering the effects of decades of stagnation, mismanagement, and isolation. Key industries have long been controlled by the government. The military has also been accused of large-scale trafficking in heroin, of which Burma is a major exporter.
The country is years behind the times. Buses are privately owned, some in dreadful condition, and the driver’s assistant stands at the kerbside stop shouting its destination.
Panama déjà vu! Supermarkets are a rarity, because all food can be bought daily and fresh at open markets or small shophouses. With SIM cards no longer costing $2,800 US a piece, mobile phones rule the day, the postal services are hardly used, so no queues!
Nearly all cars are used imports from Japan, have right hand drive and in Myannar they drive on the right! As mentioned, traffic jams are dreadful, with police manning many intersections in Yangon where all motor bikes and scooters are banned.
Insufficient electrical power is being produced, so power cuts occur every day, and businesses that can afford them have generators. The rest wait in the dark, or pay a bribe to be reconnected early. We understand that where the military live, there are no cuts.
We walked in to the Strand Hotel close to the river, not too dissimilar from its London counterpart, on a much smaller scale. And it has hardly changed it seems from the colonial days. From there we crossed the busy road to the area where ferries take passengers from one side of the river to the other – a vibrant scene!
We visited the reclining Buddha at Ngar Htet Kyi pagoda, and finally the Kabar Aye Pagoda. As darkness fell the lights came on, and it was stunning.
Next: Tranquil Inle Lake