Monday, July 30, 2018

Yangon, a City Stuck in Time


I am quickly approaching the completion of my first full week in Burma.  It really is quite difficult to even describe this country.  My first few days were spent in the former capital, Yangon - previously known as Rangoon.  The city was small in scale, although nearly 6 million people call it their home.  There were no skyscrapers or even medium sized buildings.  In fact, Yangon still has nearly all of the colonial style buildings from the British era of the country.  They really were quite amazing to see.  Most Asian countries have some trace reminders of their colonial times, but much has been demolished to make way for more modern buildings.  Not in Yangon, though, as it was cut off from the world due to military rule until 2010.

It is clear, however, that the west is moving in.  While the country does not yet have a Starbucks or McDonalds, I have seen both KFC and Pizza Hut, which are both staples around Asia.  We also passed the construction of one of the largest buildings in all of Yangon - right near a lovely lake.  Upon closer inspection, I realized it is going to be a Wyndham Hotel!  So, yes, Burma really is opening up to the world.

Yangon has a beautiful culture, filled with tea shops and temples.  It has also has been the only city so far where I have been able to actually find coffee.  The restaurant I discovered was definitely geared toward expats and tourists, but I didn't care - they made a perfect cappuccino.  Typically in Burma, tea is the main beverage of choice.  Tea shops line the streets of every city.  They are used as a hub for social interactions as well as for business.  It would not be unusual for a man to spend an entire day at his tea shop of choice.  Also, you need to immediately change the image of the tea you have in your mind because Burmese tea is nothing like what we are used to at home.  It is layers of black tea and sweetened condensed milk served in very small glasses.  It is an unusual taste that comes across as very sweet and definitely takes some getting used to.  I have naturally gravitated back to my usual coffee.

Yangon is steeped in history as it used to be the capital during both colonial times and military times. The capital was moved to a newly designed city in 2006 to be more centrally located in the country.  During the time of military rule, Yangon/Rangoon was the face of the resistance movement.  Several famously brutal protests took place in the city, including one known as the Saffron Revolution where about 30 monks were killed. The biggest protest in the city, though occurred on August 8, 1988 (8-8-88).  This protest, organized by students at Rangoon University, resulted in up to 10,000 deaths and a defeat by the military regime.  Being on those streets, the places where history was made was quite chilling. I think it is safe to say, now, that those people did not die for a lost cause as Burma has made great strides toward democracy in the past eight years.  The results of that protest are still seen in the city today.  Since the protest was organized by students, lots of precautions have been mandated by the government to ensure students do not have too much time to interact with each other.  The students stay in the same classroom all day and the teachers rotate to prevent students from different majors from plotting additional revolts.  The military also banned any kind of student union or social location on college campuses for the same reason.  These rules are still followed today even though the military is no longer in power.

In addition to the protest sites,  we also were shown where General Aung San was assassinated.  This famous general, and father to Aung San Suu Kyi, was in line to take on the presidential role at the conclusion of British rule in the country.  His assassination started the country down the long and arduous journey of oppressive rule that lasted nearly sixty years.  The building where he was shot is currently being restored in hopes of being preserved for future generations.

Probably the grandest site in the city on Yangon, though, is the Shwedagon Pagoda.  In fact, it is well renowned around the entire country.  Historians believe the temple was built between the 6th and 10th centuries, although local legend says it was built over 2,000 years ago.  If that were true, it would make it the oldest pagoda in the world.  The entire structure is gold plated and contains over 3,000 rubies and 5,000 diamonds including a 76 carat one.  Beyond the rare gems, though, the temple is well known for the relics it contains from four previous Buddhas.  The day we visited was a national religious holiday and the place was absolutely packed with locals visiting to make offerings to the monks and pray.  It was a truly remarkable experience.  Pictures just cannot even begin to do justice to the experience of being there, but here are some to enjoy anyway!

I am currently in the ancient city of Bagan having an amazing time.  Keep an eye out for my next blog to read about this magical place!

1 comment:

  1. Loving following your trip. You write beautifully!