Yangon. An ancient city, with more than 2,000 years of history to look back on. It was Burma’s capital until 2006 when Naypyidaw became the capital instead. Yangon is still Burma’s commercial center and most populous city though, and it hosts some of the most impressive colonial architecture of Southeast Asia.
I ended up spending almost a week there, partly because I didn’t know where to go next, but also because I was starting to feel the pace of my journey up to that point. So, I took it easy, slept in a couple of times, and explored the city without any rush.
First, I met up with the Australian lady again. She had been to Yangon before, so she knew her way around a little. We mainly just walked around the city to find curious things along the way. There were monks big and small going about their business, a vast number of lottery tickets everywhere, the sweetest pineapple I have ever had on the street, as well as a decommissioned plane that we decided to take a look at. While walking, we mainly continued our conversation about her travels and where she had been while tracing the path her father took during World War 2.
When we walked past an old, all-wooden gentleman’s club, the Australian lady remarked that her father must have visited it back in the day. The property was fenced off, but we were told that it was being restored and that it was supposed to be reopened in a few years. Next, the Australian lady insisted we enter a three-story market building, saying I really should get my own longyi while I’m there.
The longyi is a traditional Burmese piece of clothing. It is worn by both women and men, who just wrap it around themselves differently. The piece itself is basically an uninterrupted cloth cylinder that is worn by tying it to itself in the front. People like to get creative with longyi prints and patterns, and it is a staple of Burmese clothing to this day – you see people wearing it everywhere, including on the streets of Yangon. I liked it, so I wore it a lot – securing my share of stares on the streets.
To end the day, the Australian Lady invited me for a drink at Strand Hotel. Strand Hotel is a venerable institution that opened in 1901 and is said to have been one of the most luxurious hotels in the entire British Empire. True to its colonial tradition, it also used to only host whites. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. Still, I would have found it too posh for me to enter by myself at the time, so it was a great way to end the day.
I really enjoyed Yangon’s architecture in general. It has many other colonial-era buildings beyond Strand Hotel and that gentleman’s club from before, including several churches and the huge building that used to hold the British colonial HQ. There are also the ancient Sule Pagoda (more than 2,000 years old) and the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, which is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, containing artifacts of several Buddhas.
When I got back to my hostel, the teenage receptionist asked me if I could take him to St. Mary’s Cathedral the next day, the largest of its kind in Burma. He had been too shy to go by himself, and since I still wanted to visit it anyway, I said sure, let’s go tomorrow.
We left after breakfast, and on the short walk to the cathedral, he told me about how he was earning some money on the side by working at the hostel while going to school. At the cathedral, he tentatively entered with me, and I showed him how the images on the walls resembled the passion of Christ.
Next, he took me to a square in the city center. It was filled with people watching a football match on three massive TV screens – apparently, the Southeast Asian championships were on and Burma was playing. While there, he also introduced me to what became my favorite local dish from that day onwards: Burmese Tea Leaf Salad. At first, the taste seemed a bit strange, because it tasted very different from the salads I knew. But once I stopped expecting it to taste like the salad I knew, I started to really like it. People eat it a lot as street food there, and it has peanuts in it, so it really was an easy sell.
After that, things got much slower. One other thing I remember was accidentally underpaying at an Indian restaurant. I came back after realizing my mistake, but the people insisted it was fine and told me not to worry about it. Other than that I spent some days walking randomly around the city, enjoying the small roadside shops and learning to appreciate Germany’s modern sewage system. One of Yangon’s challenges is its infrastructure, and the canalization is very much part of that.
The next leg of my journey was decided a few days later when I learned about the ancient temple city of Bagan. Not one to pass on such an opportunity, I immediately got a bus ticket at the hostel and was on my way north the next day. Of course, I neither researched the place nor booked a hotel in advance. What could possibly go wrong?