Monday 30 January 2017

Myanmar Journey Part Three - To Pyin Oo Lwin By Motorcycle

I had a free day in Mandalay and after receiving a message from friend who had been in Myanmar several years ago, I decided to visit Pyin Oo Lwin, a small town 80 kilometres away and a former Hill Station during the British colonial period. 

There are several ways of getting to Pyin Oo Lwin from Mandalay but feeling adventurous I decided to invest the equivalent of $50 in taking a motorcycle taxi there and back.  This involved perching on the back of a motor cycle for a four hours round trip, sharing the road with huge goods carrying lorries, smaller trucks packed with people going to work or to markets, cars, cars, cars and even the occasional bicycle or tuk-tuk. Despite this and the terrible stiffness I felt when dismounting, it was a great way to travel and allowed me to see much more than other forms of transport would, as we proceeded to our destination.

You monks collecting the rice, Mandalay.
I knew it would be a good day when whilst waiting for the bike and driver to arrive, a long line of young monks passed my hotel on their early morning round to collect the rice. My hotel was just a few metres away from the River Ayeyarwady and there was still a little morning mist as they passed by, barefoot and in their deep red garments, some smiling, others more serious. There are more than 500,000 Buddhist monks in Myanmar and all Buddhist men will spend at least some part of their lives in a monastery.

My driver arrived punctually at 7.15 and we began our journey north. In recent years, many of Mandalay's citizens have replaced their bicycles with motor scooters due to the availability of cheap imports from China.  We began our journey by threading through the thousands of motorcyclists on their way to school or to work. I am used to sitting (or more likely standing) in a packed underground train but this was something new for me. Many of the motorcyclists appear to be in their mid teens, few wear crash helmets and my driver complained that many do not know the rules of the road. Let's just say that there was plenty of evidence to support his assertions!

Flower market near Mandalay
An unusual flower stall!
There is a morning flower market just outside the city and we made a brief stop to admire the yellow, white and purple dahlias, chrysanthemums, tulips and other brightly coloured flowers. Almost all of the traders are women who come from the surrounding towns and villages, very early in the morning, staying until well after sundown. The stalls are arranged on the central reservation and at the sides of a frantically busy road system. This does not seem to worry the hundreds of enthusiastic customers but having once been hit by a car in Bangkok, I am ultra cautious in crossing roads. This must have shown because the driver took my arm and for the second time in Myanmar, someone helped me across the road. Physically.

On we went and the last stretch of the journey is an uphill climb with great views and alternatively sparklingly fresh air and choking dust thrown up from the heavy traffic or quarrying works going on at the side of the road. About half an hour away from Pyin Oo Lwin we stopped at a petrol station for a coffee, a comfort break and "to give the bike a rest". I was given a mug of hot water and a sachet of "2 in 1" coffee (instant coffee already containing sugar) which was passable but that could have been due to my throat being extra dry from the dust on the road.  Cigarettes were being sold singly whilst  rum and whisky were also available, all being sold by young women who bring cellophane wrapped snacks and  sandwiches to the table to tempt hungry travelers. Most contain pork so not for me.

Fruit sellers near Pyin Oo Lwin
Nearer to Pyin Oo Lwin we stopped again. I made a quick visit to a local temple to admire the view from its hilltop location and then had a quick look in the local market and shops where I had my first site of the fruit, vegetables, jams and preserves for which this part of Myanmar is well known. I bought bananas from a group of local women selling fruit and vegetables and wearing conical hats designed to keep off the sun. They asked me where I am from and my reply of "London" received a friendly response. They let me take their picture but not before one of the women removed her hat, re-arranged her hair and assumed a serious expression for the camera.

Pyin Oo Lwin itself is a positive delight. Previously called Maymyo, the British established a hill station here at the end of the nineteenth century, coming here to escape the summer heat of Yangon (then Rangoon) and Mandalay. Pyin Oo Lwin does not suffer from the extreme temperatures of the larger cities further south. The climate is so comfortable that strawberries, plums, damsons and avocados and their respective jams and pickles are produced here and then sold in the market or at the roadside. Local honey is easy to find too.

At this point in my trip, I had become addicted to Myanmar's markets - the colours, the atmosphere and the aromas. Pyin Oo Lwin has a huge market selling just about everything - fruit, vegetables, spices, bamboo goods, electrical appliances, medicines and sweaters. Lots of sweaters. The town is famous for its warm and colourful sweaters that are just right for its relatively cold winters.

Central Market, Pyin Oo Lwin
Shopping for bananas, Central Market, Pyin Oo Lwin
On the subject of food, by the time we arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin I was ready for something to eat. Choosing a small cafe I sat down and ordered a cold drink, tea and a simple omelette with chillies and tomatoes. After a few minutes I was approached by an elderly man who greeted me with "Good morning" and asked me "Where are you from" in perfect English and with an impressive old fashioned BBC accent. My reply of "London" produced an enthusiastic response - "London. A wonderful city. You are British then?". "Yes". I replied. "Well you will be wanting chips with your omelette then won't you?" he continued. "Er, yes, why not". He ordered some chips for me, smiled and wished me a good day before leaving. So I had chips too.

Hindu Temple, Pyin Oo Lwin
Interior detail, Hindu Temple, Pyin Oo Lwin
Enough with the food. The town's main street is lined with a variety of shops and cafes as well as a large Buddhist temple, an equally large mosque and various government institutions and offices. Turning off the main drag I found myself in a series of little streets where there are sill some wooden houses, a surprising number of guest houses and small hotels, small shops and businesses and a beautiful Hindu Temple. Located in a quiet back lane, the temple is covered inside and out in the brightest of reds, blues, greens, yellows and pinks whilst inside there are shrines to and sculptures of the various Hindu deities. There were few worshippers present at the time of my visit and I was able to sit quietly for a while before returning to the street.

Mosque, Pyin Oo Lwin
Colorful houses near the Central Market, Pyin Oo Lwin
As I said earlier, the British established a presence here during the colonial period. There are enduring signs of this across the town with various administrative buildings in the centre and several large houses on the outskirts. Perhaps the most famous of these is Candicraig, built in 1906 and originally owned by the Bombay Burmah Trading Company who used it as a chummery or bachelor quarters for their workers. Candicraig was constructed in brick and teak and is set in extensive gardens. Standing outside the house, it is not difficult to believe that you are in Surrey or one of the other home counties. Today it is an hotel. At the time of my visit it was closed for renovation. 

All Saints Church, consecrated in 1914 is another reminder of the colonial past but still has an active Anglican congregation. The church had strong connections to the British army and following the Second World War a garden of remembrance was established in the grounds.

All Saints Church
Lake and pagoda, National  Kandawagyi Gardens 
The built heritage of the city is partly a legacy of the British period, but perhaps the most significant symbol of those times are the stunning National Kandawagyi Gardens. Originally the idea of Alex Roger a forest research officer who worked with Lady Cuffe, a botanist connected with Kew Gardens, the site was established as botanical gardens in 1915. It covers 240 acres and is today owned by the state.

Joining the many locals strolling through the gardens, I could recognize the Kew connection with the beautiful manicured lawns, many different trees and plants and even a little tea shop. However, Kandawagyi has something Kew is unlikely to ever have. Whilst walking through a forested part of the gardens, I could hear movement above. At first I thought it was the sound of bark being shed. And indeed bark was falling intermittently from some of the trees but to my surprise when I looked more carefully, I could clearly see an adult monkey moving from tree to tree closely followed by a second smaller, but still adult looking monkey. I soon realised they were a couple when I spotted the baby that the female was gripping whilst expertly moving from branch to branch and on into the park. There are larger forests nearby and it is likely that they had strayed from there in search of food. How unexpected to see a family of monkeys walking on the roof of the aviary in search of dinner!

Kandawagyi also has an extensive orchid garden, a large collection of butterflies, a jungle walkway, a bamboo forest and a pagoda from which to view the surrounding area. On leaving the Gardens, my driver wanted to stock up on betel to keep him going on the way back to Mandalay. He bought them outside the park from a neat little stall operating under the name Betel Gentleman. There is also a very good cafe close to the Gardens on the way back into the town centre. It has a range of good coffees and teas and to my delight a rather fabulous selection of cakes and desserts. Woo hoo. I chose the creme caramel to go with my strong black coffee. I was not disappointed.

Orchid garden, Kandawagyi
Betel Gentleman - buy your betel here!
And then it was time to spend another two hours on the motor cycle to return to Mandalay. The journey was to include a final treat of seeing another Myanmar sunset with its glorious deep orange sky. I arrived back at the hotel tired, saddle sore but happy. Going straight to my room I found that the electronic key wasn't working, so I returned to reception for it to be re-activated. The young woman on the desk asked me what I'd done that day and wished me a good evening. I went back to my room to get washed and changed for dinner. Looking in the mirror I saw that my face was covered in thick dust, arranged very nicely around the outside of my glasses, giving me a kind of panda effect. The receptionist had not batted an eyelid.

You might also like Myanmar Journey Part One - Yangon or Myanmar Journey Part Two - The Road To Mandalay

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here.

Burmese Design And Architecture by John Falconer and others and published by Periplus is an excellent introduction to the art and architecture of Myanmar. You can buy it here.

Thursday 26 January 2017

Myanmar Journey Part Two - The Road To Mandalay

Mandalay is one of those cities that stirs the imagination. Distant, somehow mystical in the same way as Timbuktu or Lhasa, yet somehow familiar. For some of us it's because of the reference to the city in the children's song Nelly The Elephant ...they met one night in the silver light on the road to Mandalay.... For others it's the mistaken belief that Bing Crosby and Bob Hope made a film called The Road To Mandalay in their famous Road series. Although such a film was planned, the title was changed to Singapore and Mandalay was omitted. And of course there's Kipling's poem Mandalay which doesn't really pass muster today with some references and use of language that might best be described as being of their time.

White stupas, Kuthodaw pagoda
My road to Mandalay was mainly in the air on a short flight from Yangon to the airport at Tada-U, 35 kilometres away from the city. I was met there by my guide and driver who delivered me to my riverside hotel but not before I had touched a snake, seen an elephant, an astonishingly colorful procession and enjoyed the temple ruins of Paleik.

The Hmwe Paya temple in Paleik is widely known as the snake temple because of a group of pythons that made their way there in 1974 and despite efforts to keep them away insisted on returning and were eventually allowed to remain. When I arrived at the temple, shortly before 11 a.m. the pythons were resting, apparently asleep at the foot of one of the Buddha statues. People were beginning to gather for the daily ritual of seeing the snakes being washed and fed by the two men that care for them. To my astonishment people were touching the snakes, even stroking them  believing them to be holy. My guide, Myoswe encouraged me to do so too. I am not particularly scared of snakes but nor have I ever wanted to hold one or drape one around my shoulders as some visitors to the temple do. Eventually, to the amusement of the other visitors, I managed to touch the smaller of the two pythons with the tip of my middle finger. Shortly before 11, a tiled bath was filled with water and rose petals and the snakes were bathed and then fed scrambled eggs by both the carers and visitors, some of latter coming forward to have their photograph taken holding or feeding them.

Feeding the snakes at Paleik
Mythical creatures in the Paleik ruins
Western influenced architecture, Paleik
A short distance from the temple there is a large collection of decaying stupas and a small village where there are several mostly mechanised weaving workshops in which the work includes dyeing the textiles as well as producing garments and household items. As with everywhere else I visited in Myanmar, people called hello or mingalabar as we passed by. 

It was in the village that I had my first encounter with the ubiquitous betel, chewed by both men and women of all ages. Four young men were playing a vigorous game of carom, a board game, proceeding at pace, chewing and then spitting deep red juice onto the ground as they played. The betel consists of areca nuts, tobacco and sometimes other ingredients wrapped in a leaf brushed with slaked lime. The nut produces a red liquid which is not swallowed but spat out. This is the explanation for the red blotches you can see on the ground, footpath and roads all over the country. You can also see people carrying small plastic bags for the same purpose. The betel produces a kick similar to that of coffee or cigarettes but also causes damage to the teeth and can lead to oral cancer. Despite this its use is widespread.  

The temple ruins receive few visitors despite the interesting mix of golden covered stupas and prayer halls some of which surprisingly exhibit western architectural influences. There are more than 300 temples in total dating from the 14th century. Some are in the process of being reclaimed by nature as the vegetation begins to take over.  

Cattle drawn carriage on the way to the novitiation ceremony
Novitiation ceremony procession
Back on the road to the city and a few kilometers on we ran into a long, colourful procession involving carts, people in brightly colourful clothes, loud music and even an elephant on the way to a novitiation ceremony which is called Shinbyu Pwe. The children who are to be novice monks are dressed in costumes like those of a prince or a king and ride on a horse or in a carriage, protected from the sun by a parasol. The children of wealthier families may even ride on an elephant as in the parade I saw. The process symbolizes the journey of Prince Siddhartha as he relinquished the world of possessions in the first step towards enlightenment and becoming the Buddha. 

Not long after passing the novitiate procession, we arrived in the city. Mandalay is a busy, modern  place of more than one million people and I was immediately struck by the volume of motor-cycles. In recent years motor cycles have almost entirely replaced bicycles due to the availability of cheap Chinese imports. Visitors looking for the Mandalay of Kipling might have to look very hard. Japanese air raids destroyed 3/5 of all the city's houses in 1942 whilst the British flattened the Royal Palace in a major bombing raid at the war's end in 1945. Although the palace has been faithfully reconstructed, I was reminded of my time in Manila last year which had a similar wartime experience albeit on a larger scale. 

The view from Mandalay Hill
Detail, Shwenandaw monastery
Detail, Shwenandaw monastery
On reaching the city, we headed for Mandalay Hill with its spectacular views that stretch to the Ayeyarwady River (which readers in the UK might know as the Irrawaddy). I loved the Kuthodaw Pagoda (pictured at the top of this post) at the foot of the hill with its white, gold topped stupas. Completed in 1868 during the reign of King Mindon, the pagoda is famous for being home to the world's biggest book - consisting of 730 stone leaves, 107 cm wide, 153 cm tall and 13cm thick. The pages carry the canonical texts of Theravada Buddhism and are inscribed in the ancient Pali language. Each page is housed in a small roofed structure with a precious stone at the top.

The Shwenandaw monastery is a short step away from Kuthadaw. Built as a royal residence in the nineteenth century under the direction of King Thibaw, it originally stood in Amarapura, which will feature later in this post. The building was later dismantled and brought to Mandalay to be used as a monastery. Constructed in teak it features beautiful carvings depicting figures and stories from Buddhism.

Mandalay was once the capital city of Myanmar and to some extent remains a cultural capital with music venues, theatrical performances and authentic marionette shows. Marionettes have been an integral part of Myanmar culture for centuries. The shows may tell stories from the life of Buddha or folklore whilst others tell stories from the former royal courts. The marionettes can be up to one metre high and manipulation of their dozen or more strings is a highly skilled operation. Over the last several decades the art has seriously declined to the point where it was felt to be dying. There are now efforts to revive it, mainly by Mandalay Marionettes - a small theatre running nightly shows that include traditional music and dance as well as the puppets. Before the show commences, there are brief explanations in English of the stories and of the instruments in the small orchestra. In the old days shows could last all night - these ones last for an hour and conclude with a humorous exchange between the musicians and the puppeteers. I attended a performance during my stay in the city and thoroughly enjoyed it. If you wish you can buy puppets to take home from the theatre itself as well as from just about any market or souvenir shop in the country.

Marionettes for sale
The Ayeyarwady river runs through Mandalay on its way from the far north of the country all the way to the Indian Ocean. It provides an alternative means of exploring the country and visiting the many temples, towns and villages close to the city. During the dry season, it also provides temporary farming land as islands emerge when the water recedes. The soil is so rich that farmers can grow two crops in eight months, usually peanuts and watermelons. When the rainy season commences and the water begins to rise, they move, along with their families, to cheaper rental accommodation in the city. The river is also used to transport goods to and from markets, to do the weekly washing and as a tourist attraction as visitors travel by boat between different towns and villages.

Part of the Setkay Thida nunnery
Ruined temple, Ava
I took a boat from the jetty near my hotel, arriving first at Sagaing, 25 kilometers south of Mandalay on the opposite side of the river. As the boat approaches the city, Sagaing Hill rises up with its many stupas. The village is one of the chosen locations for visitors who come to Myanmar to meditate. It is also where one of the country's largest nunneries - the Setkay Thida - is located. Visitors are welcome and can see the many pink clad nuns paying respect to the Buddha.

Back on the river, my next stop was at the former capital city, originally known as Ava but now called Inwa. Today it is a quiet, rural place scattered with ruins of the old city walls, stupas and other reminders of its glorious past. Like most visitors, I toured Ava on a horse-drawn carriage stopping off at the sites, some of which I had almost to myself.

Maha Aungyme Bonzan, Ava
Carved peacock, Bagaya Kyaung, Ava
Rice field and stupa, Ava
Working in the rice field, Ava
The Maha Aungyme Bonzan is  gorgeous, fortress-like stucco covered structure was built in 1818 by Queen Me Nu as a home for the Royal Abbott. At a time when most monasteries were built from wood, its brick construction led it to sometimes be referred to as the "brick monastery". It was damaged by an earthquake in 1838 but restored before the end of the nineteenth century. Guarded by two mythological Burmese lions it is home to a large colony of bats who I am told can be seen taking off en masse at dusk as they go to look for food.

Ava still has a beautiful wooden monastery - Bagaya Kyaung, made of teak and built in 1834 during the city's final period as a royal capital. It is still a working monastery and includes a small school for the younger monks. It is exquisitely decorated with carved figures and peacocks and flowers painted on the internal surfaces.

In addition to temples and monasteries there are many banana plantations in Ava. I like bananas. I especially love the deep red colour and rubbery texture of the hood-like bract on a maturing banana plant. I really wanted to get some pictures of these and of a full banana plant and my excellent guide Myoswe accommodated this slight eccentricity by walking through the fields with me until we found some. Please indulge me by enjoying the photographs below!

Fallen banana bract
Amarapura is a small town just 11 kilometers south of central Mandalay. The Maha Gandyon monastery is home to hundreds of monks and some beautifully restored prayer halls. The abbott, Ashin Kelasa,  receives visitors within certain hours and as in other monasteries, people come to seek his advice and guidance. He is also the author of a number of books on Theravada Buddhism.

Monasteries are a key element in Myanmar society where more than 80% of the population are Theravada Buddhists. At some point during their lives, all Buddhist men will spend some time as a monk. As well as providing guidance and teaching in Buddhism, the younger monks will learn reading, writing, mathematics and other academic subjects. This is vital as although access to primary education is free, children must provide their own books and other materials which is often not possible for the poorest families. At Maha Gandyon there is also a project to provide work for women from the surrounding villages.

Local women employed at the Maha Gandyon monastery
Shoes (and socks) must be removed before entering monasteries and temples
The spectacular U Bein footbridge is a short distance from the monastery. It stretches 1200 metres across Lake Taungthaman. Constructed entirely of teak in 1859, there are more than 1000 columns that support the bridge. Some of the original teak columns have been replaced with concrete. Together with hundreds of other visitors (and locals) I visited the bridge to see the sunset but in sufficient time to first walk its length and have a look around the small settlement on the opposite side of the lake where there is a pretty pagoda complex with many ceiling paintings. However, the highlight of the other side of the bridge (at least for me) was a small street food stall where a young woman was cooking and selling very thin savoury pancakes topped with chillies, tomatoes and herbs, which were then folded and sliced. Delicious. And very cheap too. That pancake alone was worth the walk across the bridge!

Street food near the U-Bein bridge
Small temple complex near the U-Bein bridge
After a quick visit to the temple and longing looks at the pancake stall on my way back to the bridge, I was stopped by two young monks one of whom was pointing to his camera. At first I thought they wanted me to take their photograph, but no, they wanted to have their picture taken with me. My guide obliged and I removed my hat for the camera - to much hilarity on their part as they realised I probably have less hair than they do! Smiles and thanks and on I went to the centre of the bridge where there are steps down to a small cafe set up on the land exposed during the dry season. As the sun began to go down, hundreds of people gathered, many of them in small boats in the centre of the lake. The Myanmar sunset comes quickly and leaves the sky a deep orange.  At Amarapura it silhouettes the people on the bridge and provides opportunities for great photography. Unfortunately my low light photography skills are not good. In fact they are terrible and so I sat back and enjoyed the beauty of it all, unencumbered by my camera. A great way to end another great day in Myanmar.

U-Bein bridge just before sunset

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here.

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.