China 1982

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

China 1982

Rangoon is magnificent in a grotesque sort of way.  I would not have thought that two cities in neighbouring countries – Thailand and Burma – could be so different.  The British influence is strong here in the form of its well laid-out grid of streets and run-down colonial architecture, not to mention the 1930s and 1940s Vauxhalls and Ford Prefects that ply the streets.  In the centre of Rangoon, Maha Bandoola Park is reminiscent of a miniature Hyde Park.  Many of the fences are made up of prefabricated cliplock metal strips designed for building airstrips that were left behind at the end of World War II.  Rangoon is smaller than Bangkok (3 million people vs 5 million), and unlike Bangkok, Rangoon has a clearly identifiable CBD (Central Business District). 

We began this morning with a trip to Rangoon’s number one sight, the Shwedagon Pagdoa.  Described by Rudyard Kipling on his visit to Rangoon in 1889 as “a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun”, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a Buddhist stupa complex that was built around 2,500 years ago.  About 100 metres high and covered in a centimetre thick layer of solid gold (apparently brought to Rangoon from Ayutthya during the Burmese invasion of Thailand in the 1760s), it was truly amazing.  If it was located in California rather than Burma, it would rightly be world famous.  No picture truly conveys the magnificence of the experience of seeing it and being there.

Around the central pagoda are tens of intricately carved and coloured temples and prayer houses.  The temple complex is easily the most awesome sight I have ever seen, and I just had to stand and take it in- despite the burning sensation in my feet as bare feet are required to enter Burmese Buddhist precincts.  I tried to discipline my photo taking – I took 18 photos (half a roll of slide film) and that will not cover even 25% of the temple complex.  The experience was also impressive because the whole complex was being actively used.  We saw young monks being ordained, prayer ceremonies, and so on, and the people we met seemed absolutely delighted to have their photos taken. I’ve now finished six and a half films.  As we left the Shwedagon, small children gathered around us and gave us beautifully scented tropical flowers, and seemed delighted when we gave them pencils in return.  Stationery of all types is in very short supply in Burma.

From the Shwedagon pagoda, we travelled a few kilometres south into Rangoon’s CBD near the Sule Pagoda, where we were allowed to wander around the city centre.  I felt safer in Rangoon than in Bangkok, even though many people just stopped and stared intently at me as I walked around.  Rangoon obviously sees far fewer Europeans than Bangkok these days.  I photographed the contrasting styles of architecture, the footpath sellers and the laneways.

There are very few private cars in Rangoon, and those that are on the road are either very old English or American vehicles or “sailors cars”, which are tiny Japanese utilities imported duty-free by sailors on merchant vessels and converted into open-sided mini-taxis.  Interestingly all the cars have steering wheels on the right-hand side (same as the UK and Australia), but cars drive on the right hand side of the road “because that is more modern”.  It does seem to make for interesting (or rather blind) lane changing and overtaking manoeuvres, especially at night because drivers save their precious head lamps by driving with them turned off until they almost hit an oncoming vehicle, which is when they suddenly turn on high beam in an apparent attempt to blind the approaching driver completely. 

The Rangoon bus fleet is made up of converted Blitz and Chevrolet trucks left behind at the end of World War II, and they make a low grinding noise as they trundle along the streets, often at considerable speed.  Their standard colour scheme is green with a red stripe along the side – that is when they have actually been painted in the last few decades;  some buses were completely rust brown because of … rust.  With their bare wooden plank seats, the buses are universally over-full, with several passengers always enjoying the breeze by riding along on the running boards or on the outside at the back.

In one of the laneways I was exploring, a young Burmese man came up and started talking to me – this is fairly common in Rangoon among students who want to practice their English.  He told me his name, asked how I liked Burma, and asked whether I was going to Mandalay (and then why not).  He was a high school student who hoped to go to university next year, but told me he didn’t own any pens.  Maybe I’m a soft touch, but I gave him the (unfortunately almost empty) NSW blue pen that was in my top pocket.

After our walk around central Rangoon, exploring the area near the Sule Pagoda, Maha Bandoola Park and the City Hall, we were taken to the nearby Diplomatic Store, just half a block to the north, in order to buy “the souvenirs that you will need”.  It is apparently illegal for foreigners to buy jewellery anywhere apart from government shops, so it’s probably fortunate that so many shops are indeed operated by the government (which really means the Army).  I still (in 2021) have the teak wood carvings I bought that day (although the much-needed bottle of Coca-Cola that I also bought to relieve my thirst disappeared within a few minutes).  The Diplomatic Store would only accept US dollars; they were not interested in Australian dollars or even Burmese kyats.  The change from my traveller’s cheque means I now have a mix of Australian dollars, US dollars, Burmese kyats and Thai baht.  The Burmese won’t even exchange my left over Thai baht; I guess I’ll have to wait until China.

Despite the sinister introduction to Rangoon at the airport, I’ll actually be sorry to leave Burma.  Rangoon has a much more integrated character and culture than Bangkok.  It is less westernised, less materialistic, is more devout (and therefore less commercialised) in its Buddhist faith, and it has a fascinating run-down colonial atmosphere that makes it something of a living museum.

This afternoon, we returned from the Inya Lake Hotel (where we had lunch) to Rangoon’s CBD, this time to visit the local markets.  Once known as Scotts Market, it is now called the Bogyoke Aung San Market (named after Burma’s most famous independence activist and revolutionary, now considered the father of independent Burma).  The market is housed in a huge under-cover shed, very dimly lit, which is not unlike the old showbag pavilion at Sydney’s showground.  There would have been around 500 traders selling local foods including prawns about 20 centimetres long, live chooks, dried fish, and so on.  It was quite aromatic.  There were also handicraft sellers and tailors making clothes, sewing by candlelight.  Interestingly, because of the egregious black market that operates in Burma, most of the goods were more expensive than at the Diplomatic Store this morning.

Leaving the markets, we drove to Royal Lake to photograph the Karaweik (a type of large mythical bird) Floating Restaurant where we are scheduled to dine this evening for our farewell (to Burma) dinner.  Royal Lake was, like Inya Lake near where are staying, originally built by the British as a water supply reservoir.  The karaweik on Royal lake was definitely not mythical, being very large and constructed with what seemed like grey painted concrete, nor was it floating, being very firmly attached to the bed of the lake.

After having a look at the karaweik, we took a short drive to the north to visit the Chauk Htat Gyi Monastery, which houses the world’s largest reclining Buddha at just over 60 metres long.  It was quite new, and indeed seemed to be still under construction as quite a large section of the back was gaping open.  It was extremely difficult to photograph because of its immense size within the shed in which it was housed; suffice to say that in the ‘flesh’, it is very very big!  The monks at the monastery were delightful, and quite a number of the monks were as young as seven years old.

We returned to the hotel for a shower (after walking around the monastery in bare feet) and a drink.  I’ve become somewhat attached to freshly squeezed lime juice with a soda while in Burma, which is the only drink that seems to beat the heat and humidity.

Dinner at the Karaweik Restaurant was followed by traditional Burmese dancing and some acrobatics.  Both the food and the show were excellent.  It reminded me once again that despite heat, humidity and discomfort, I really am on the trip of a lifetime.

Day 5

Rangoon, Burma


6 April 1982