Wednesday October 22
Today was spent almost exclusively on a bus! The drive from Pyay to Yangon was only 190 miles but took the best part of eight hours. The “Highway” (one of the major arteries in the country was a two lane road (barely wide enough for two buses to pass without inching on to the dusty berm) and was an almost continuous stream of traffic even away from the towns and villages. In those more residential areas it was even more chaotic with buses (lots), trucks, motor bikes, bicycles, tuk tuks (and variants), oxen, cows, goats and people!
We made a total of three stops, the last of which was at a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. It was very similar to the one Molly and I had visited in Normandy some years ago where we found her father’s name on a stone pillar (designed for those whose bodies were not found or identified); so much so that for a few minutes we just stood there and cried together and it was a somber ride for a while once we got going again.
We arrived in Yangon and fought the rush hour traffic to arrive at the Shangri-La hotel around 4:30pm. Just the relatively short drive through city streets showed us how much more Western was this city when compared with the rural areas we had already seen and even with the larger towns of Bagan and Mandalay. Skyscrapers (not generally more than about 20 floors), brick and stone built houses and apartment blocks and modern shops – very much like other large Asian cities. And the difference in dress was quite startling; yes, the longi was still in use but alongside mini-skirts, jeans, shorts and other Western clothes. Presumably this is a taste of the future here; inevitable, it seems, but desirable????
We had no formal program on Thursday morning so we had a leisurely breakfast and then went a couple of blocks to a local market. It was full of souvenir stalls, many jewelry and precious stone outlets, paintings and wood carvings of every description. All were lovely to look at, tempting to buy – but we were very conservative as we have many examples of similar works at home already.
Our afternoon excursion began at 3pm. This took us first the center of town (very close to the hotel) where we saw the old city hall a very nice square with fountains and a very nice old colonial red brick building. There was also a Baptist Church, a mosque and (of course) a Buddhist Temple within the same area.
Then we drove to a very pleasant park in which there was a large lake and a replica of a royal barge. This is now a restaurant but it is ornately decorated and presumably a faithful copy in all respects.
The main attraction today, however, was the largest pagoda (Schwedagon) in Myanmar, perhaps even in the world. An elevator took us to the terrace (itself perhaps 150 feet above street level and the pagoda itself rose a further 362 feet from there. It is completely gold in color with parts done in gold paint, some covered in gold leaf and even some parts which are claimed to be solid gold. We were told there were over 40 tons of gold on the building. It is also believed that there has been a pagoda on this site for 2500 years (making it the oldest in the world) and inside are cuttings from the hair of Buddha. The top spire contains many jewels including a huge ruby.
It is impossible for me to describe the other features on the terrace itself. There are several Buddha images, dozens of shrines of all sizes and small shrines representing the days of the week. Buddhists are big on astrology and the day of one’s birth is important to all kinds of union – from business to marriage. Actually there are eight days because Wednesday is represented by two elephants – one with tusks being the morning, the other (without) being the afternoon.
The overall impression on this terrace with its huge central pagoda is that it is a jewel of white (marble) and gold. There are other colors of course, but these two predominate and give the sense of opulence and beauty that is overwhelming. Many in our group mentioned that, had we taken the tour in the other direction, with Yangon and this pagoda being on the first day in Myanmar, everything following would have been a let down. I am not convinced that the rest of the country that we saw could ever be a disappointment no matter the sequence, but this was certainly a major highlight of our visit.
On Saturday our tour concluded with the return flight to Bangkok and an overnight stay there. Molly and I continued on to Singapore for five days of relaxation in a city we have visited many times before.