Sunday 22 January 2017

Myanmar Journey Part One - Yangon

I grew up in a small town in the north-east of England. My world was small but my ambitions large and I entertained dreams of travel from an early age, becoming fascinated with maps, globes and where one place was in relation to another. There were few books in our house but I have a clear memory of my dad having a book entitled "Burma" which had a pencil drawing on its cover of what I now know to be the Shwedagon Pagoda. Many years were to pass, and the country changed its name to Myanmar before I was finally able to visit early this year, arriving in Yangon on a hot January morning.

Yangon is a city of change. When I was admiring the pencil drawing it was still known as Rangoon, the name used by the British during the colonial times and it is no longer the capital of the country - a new administrative city has been built further north.  The city has lost some of its heritage buildings and others are at risk but it is still possible to see old Yangon in the streets and alleys of this bustling, colourful, amazingly warm-hearted city that quickly became one of my favourite places.

Volunteers at the Shwedagon Pagoda
Strolling the streets is the best way to get to know a city and to uncover some of the secrets not encountered by sticking to the major sites and attractions. At first glance, Yangon may not seem the ideal place to stroll. The city is very busy. The traffic can be horrendous and the temperature is frequently in the mid 30's. However, there are many shady side streets and lots of places to stop for a cold drink and a rest in the air conditioning. Also, the downtown area has numbered streets arranged more or less on a grid system making them easy to navigate. As well as visiting some of the big ticket attractions, I spent the best part of two days on foot, delighted by the amazing colours of the buildings; sights, sounds and smells of the markets and most of all, the friendliness and small, unsolicited acts of kindness of the people.

Cafe Gallery Pansuriya

My favourite street in downtown Yangon is one of just a few carrying a name rather than a number - Bogalyzay Street. There are several interesting apartment blocks in the street including H. A Soorty Mansions built in 1928 close to the junction with Mahandboola Road,  once the location of the Chilean consulate and home to poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda who worked there as minor official in 1929. The street's literary tradition is maintained by the Pansuriya Cafe Gallery on the opposite side of the road at number 102. As well as serving rather good coffee, Pansuriya sells books about Yangon and Myanmar, many of them in English and has regular exhibitions of local contemporary art. I visited the cafe twice during my short time in the city and enjoyed looking at the permanent display of old photographs and the small but wonderful collection of old metal shop signs bearing the circular Myanmar script.

The Good Will Taylor
There are hundreds of tailors shops in Yangon including the Good Will Tailor, just next door to Pansuriya. The Good Will Tailor sits behind a dual language sign working at a sewing machine and receiving customer orders. I didn't use his services, but I did go to the Diamond Shine Beauty Salon. Before regular readers mock, I should point out that the English language sign specifically says the salon is for "gents and ladies" and includes haircutting. I like having my little bit of hair cut when I travel. It can be an interesting experience. This one was. A very serious looking lady was in charge. She spoke little English and I know just two words of Myanmar - "mingalaba" - a generic greeting and "coffee" which helpfully means coffee. Somehow we managed. She asked me if I wanted my hair (in my case head) washing after the cut and did I want a head massage. It was going to cost 6000 kyat - about £3.50. A bargain. Why not I thought, And very good it was too.

Wooden figures for sale, Bogyoke Market
Mooney Moon Coffee Shop, Bogyoke Market
Markets are an important part of everyday life in Myanmar, both as places to earn a living and places to buy food, clothes, household goods, religious items and just about anything else you can think of. Yangon has many markets, ranging from informal street sellers with fruit and vegetables spread out on the floor to enormous indoor affairs selling a wide range of goods.

The  largest market here is Bogyoke on the street of the same name and located in a colonial style building, completed in 1926 and originally called the Scott Market. Renamed Bogyoke (meaning General) in 1948 after General Aung San, it is the city's largest bazaar and sells almost everything including electrical goods, clothes, jewelry, handicrafts and antiques (real and fake) to both locals and tourists. The alleyways surrounding the main building house more shops and a number of eating places serving huge lunchtime crowds of workers, shoppers, stall holders and the occasional tourist. I enjoyed wandering through the main market admiring the textiles, browsing the antique shops and watching tourists try to talk down prices whilst pairs of Buddhist nuns dressed in pink toured the stalls collecting donations.  

Fruit sellers, Theingyi Zei Market
Waiting for customers, market near Shwedagon Pagoda
Star fruit seller, Theingyi Zei Market
Much as I liked Bogyoke I must admit my favourite market in Yangon is an older institution called Theingyi Zei. This is smaller than Bogyoke and many of the stall holders are of Indian origin. Here, you can buy herbs and spices including bright yellow turmeric, sparkling orange paprika, the blackest pepper, cinnamon sticks and deep red, blue and green powders for use during the Hindu festival of Holi. You can also find meat and fish, traditional and modern medicine, choose textiles and have an outfit run-up by one of the tailors or seamstresses working on raised platforms in full view of the customers. Alternatively, you might prefer to rifle through the mounds of second hand clothes piled up on the floor in the adjoining street.

Although Theingyi Zei receives far fewer tourists as visitors than Bogyoke, stallholders are happy to explain their wares if you appear interested and to ask you where you come from or what you think of Myanmar. This is not the precursor to some high pressure sales pitch but genuine friendliness. In Theingyi there was a complete absence of pressure to make purchases, and generally speaking this was my experience right across Myanmar.

Theingyi Zei's stalls also sport some rather lovely shop signs. I especially liked the sign for the dairy produce stall that made some rather grand claims including "We are the best one to all those from workers to diplomatic circles who preper (sic) the best quality of nutritional milk foods...grantee (sic) it has not contained any other dangerous animals. Fats". So there you are. I also liked the cardboard sheets used by the fish and shrimp sellers to display their goods - all of which featured a picture of a cat licking its lips!

Back to the strolling and one of my favorite finds in Yangon. The Bagan Book House at 100 37th Street was founded in 1976 and is a treasure trove of English language books about Myanmar. Open into the evenings, I visited twice during my stay and was seduced by the owner's collection of old postcards advertising Myanmar movies of the 1950's and 60's. The shop keeper was very happy to tell me about each of the films, why they were famous and what he liked about them. I bought two of the cards but, funds allowing, I could have quite happily bought the lot! Reason enough alone to come back to Yangon!

Friends and regular readers know that I am addicted to strong coffee. Imagine my excitement when I came upon the Hanuman Coffee Store at the junction of 51st Street and Anawrahta Road, just beside one of the city's many Hindu temples. Not a place to sit and drink, but to buy either beans or already ground coffee. This small and delightful shop displays the grinding and weighing equipment on the counter but the real charm is supplied by the two lovely ladies who work there. Inviting me to sit down, they checked my preference for coffee mixed with chicory or pure coffee as well as the strength of taste and were happy to indulge me in a little conversation about where I was from, where I had been in Myanmar and to encourage me to return. The strapline on the packaging says Perfect and delicious. The coffee is both of those things and so was the service. It is the little experiences like this that are the most memorable. 

The ladies of the Hanuman Coffee Store
The friendliness shown by the ladies of the Hanuman Coffee Store was something I experienced throughout my time in Myanmar. When waiting to cross the very busy Sule Pagoda Road, I felt a hand on my arm and looking to my right saw it was an elderly man who said "not yet, too much traffic, very dangerous" before escorting me safely to the other side of the road before saying goodbye with a smile. I was also approached two or three times by people who wanted just to shake hands and say hello whilst many others nodded, smiled and said "mingalaba" as they passed. 

Further evidence of this Myanmar kindness came on the day that the city changed all of its buses and launched completely new bus routes leaving thousands of people in the street unsure of how to get to and from work. There were hundreds of volunteers in the streets handing out information leaflets and helping people to get to the right place. And more than this, local companies had provided free mini-buses for the first few days of transition to ease the pressure on the new system. All of the drivers were volunteers as were the people handing out free water and snacks at the crowded bus stops. I was to see this generosity of spirit throughout my time in the country.

Faded grandeur, downtown Yangon
1922 apartment block, downtown Yangon
Art deco apartment block, downtown Yangon
Architecture is another passion of mine and Yangon has examples of many different styles ranging from ancient to contemporary. This includes many buildings from my favorite architectural period, 1900-1950. Some of these are in very poor condition whilst others have benefitted from restoration. The Yangon Heritage Trust is doing excellent work to persuade the authorities and building owners of the need to preserve the city's built heritage, despite the cost of doing so and the many other social and economic priorities in Myanmar.

The Balthazar building
The downtown area has a cluster of colonial style buildings, some of which house government offices, others have become (or remain) banks and yet others provide a mix of commercial and residential space. In some cases ownership of buildings is unclear or the owners left the country for a variety of reasons and at different times since the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. A prime example of this is the once beautiful Balthazar's building on Bank Street. This was once one of the city's most desirable addresses with an electric lift, imported Italian tiles and a decorative canopy above the entrance. The building was commissioned by Samuel Balthazar, an Armenian merchant born in Isfahan, Iran who came to the then Rangoon in 1866 to expand his family's business interests. Extremely successful, he was also to serve on the Municipal Council and the Chamber of Commerce. The family fled in 1942 before the advancing Japanese. Balthazar's is in a very sorry state today. The lift has not worked for many years, vegetation grows in the abandoned rooms and in the inner courtyard and some of the businesses that occupy space there have installed metal or plastic sheeting to prevent ceiling plaster from falling or water ingress. Despite all of this, the exterior red brickwork remains beautiful and catches the eye of passers-by. The future of the building is uncertain but it would be a terrible loss if it were not to survive.

The Strand Hotel Cafe
The Strand Hotel is just a few minutes away from Balthazar's but a world away in terms of its condition. Like Balthazar's it was set up by an Armenian family - the Sarkies who were also responsible for Raffles in Singapore and the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Penang. Occupying a once desirable spot on Strand Road overlooking the river, it has been the haunt of many famous literary figures including Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Peter Ustinov and possibly George Orwell during his time in the Police Force in Burma. Occasional cultural shows took place during the hotel's prewar heyday, including an appearance by Diaghilev's ballet company. After the War the hotel deteriorated until a full restoration took place in  1993, restoring it to its former glory. The hotel has a reputation for excellent service which I can attest too having spent the last few days of my trip there.

The Sofaer building 
Still in the downtown area, the Sofaer building is in much better shape than the Balthazar but a long way short of the Strand. Established by Isaac and Meier Sofaer, Jewish merchants from Baghdad and completed in 1906, this large rambling building on Pansodan Street was once home to some very prestigious tenants including the Bank of Burma, The China Mutual Life Assurance Company and Reuters News Agency. After many years of decline there is again some life in the Sofaer building. Gekko - a very successful Japanese restaurant occupies space on the ground floor as does a branch of the KBZ Bank and some tourist souvenir shops. The Lokanat Gallery has been exhibiting contemporary art on the first floor since 1971 providing a cultural anchor for the building. This is all good news but it does not mean that the building's future is secure. Some works are currently being undertaken on the first floor but parts of it remain in very poor shape. The scale of this is perhaps illustrated by Gekko's owners having had to have a 1.5 metre deep  pile of sewage removed from their space before work could begin on the restaurant - a task that took a full month to accomplish.

The Secretariat staircase
One of the highlights of my time in Yangon was a visit to the Minsters' Building, widely known as the Secretariat. Occupying a huge site at 300 Thein Phyu Road, it was completed in 1905 and designed by architect Henry Hoyne-Fox and was the administrative centre during the period of British colonial rule and the workplace of hundreds of officials and clerks. It was also the place in which General Aung San, leader of the independence movement and father of Aung San Suu Kyi was assassinated in 1947 together with the rest of his cabinet. A small shrine to Aung San was set up in the building but at the time of my visit it  was not open due to renovation work being undertaken. These works are part of a wider programme to bring the building back into use as a cultural centre with museums and galleries. During my time in Yangon a temporary art exhibition was being staged in one part of the Secretariat and thanks to my excellent guide - Sai, I was able to go inside and see the iconic staircase photographed above. Perhaps next time more of the building will be in use.

St. Mary's Cathedral
St. Mary's Cathedral on Bo Aung Kyaw Road is Yangon's largest and most impressive Catholic Church. Completed in 1911 in neo-gothic style it is a work of great beauty with its well maintained red brick exterior and imposing facade. Designed by Dutch architect Jos Cuypers who was also responsible for Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, the interior is highly decorative with blue and red tiles complementing the clean white surfaces as well as striking, high-level stained glass windows. The windows had to be replaced following damage from aerial bombing during the Second World War and again following Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Unfortunately photography is not permitted inside the church.

More than 80% of Myanmar's people are adherents of Theravada Buddhism. There are more than 500,000 Buddhist monks in the country, highly visible in their saffron robes and together with the many many pagodas, temples and stupas they are perhaps the most recognisable symbol of this beautiful country. It is quite moving to witness the monks as they walk the streets of every city, town and village, early every morning collecting rice from their co-religionists who earn merit from donating.

Sule Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda in the morning
Yangon has many important pagodas but two are particularly important and well known. The Sule Pagoda on the junction of Sule Pagoda Road and Mahabandoola Road at the heart of the downtown area. Built in the 5th Century BCE, its central golden stupa still dominates the centre of the city despite now being surrounded by traffic clogged roads and several taller, much less attractive buildings.

Sule is undoubtedly beautiful but the Shwedagon Pagoda on Ar Zar Ni Street is Yangon and Myanmar's most majestic monument and, going back to my dad's book, the place that sparked my interest in the country all those years ago. The image of the central golden stupa surrounded by several smaller versions and a complex of temples is known but the whole complex occupies almost 50 hectares and includes smaller prayer halls, dormitories, shops catering to the religious needs of visitors as well as to tourists. I visited twice during my time in Myanmar. The first visit was in the early morning with my guide and friend Sai who explained the history, layout and functions of the complex, showing me some parts that tourists rarely visit. Of course, the highlight was circling the main stupa, mesmerised by the contrast of its bright gold surface against the deep blue of the sky.

Spectacular as this was, it did not prepare me for my second visit on my final night in Myanmar when I returned to watch the sunset over the pagoda. Despite the presence of hundreds of people, the atmosphere was calm and quiet. Devotees visited to pay homage to the Buddha including at the series of shrines devoted to people born on each day of the week. As the sky began to darken, the colour of the stupa gradually changed, glowing more and more as the light fell. There was a moment when two diagonal lines of white-pink cloud or perhaps vapor trail appeared behind the stupa and despite one thousand cameras being pointed at them it was still possible to be moved by the beauty of it all.  A wonderful conclusion to a greta few days in the city and one which has left me login to return. 

Sunset at Shwedagon

The Yangon Heritage Trust has published an excellent book about the city's heritage buildings - Yangon Echoes. You can buy it at the Trust's office at 22-24 Pansodan Road or online here.

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here.

Thanks to Undiscovered Destinations and Khiri Travel for making practical arrangements.