We arrived at the very modern Yangon International airport (RGN) and managed to get through immigration without any problems. As soon as we cleared the customs area we hit the 1st money changer we saw and got one of the better exchange rates (very close to 990 Khats per dollar) during our entire visit to Myanmar.
After collecting our vouchers for hotels and future transportation from Myanmar Delights we loaded into a late model white Toyota “Kluger” (known in the U.S. as “Highlander”) and within minutes found ourselves visiting Hsin Hpyu Daw Park to see the Royal White Elephants. To our eye, the elephants really aren’t “white” but more of a pinkish gray but their color is obviously a much lighter shade than any other elephants that we’ve ever seen.
White elephants are seen as symbols of power and good luck. Unfortunately for these 3 particular white elephants, it is their bad luck to spend most of their day chained inside an open air pavilion. We were a bit dismayed by the constant rocking motion of the elephants, which we interpreted as a sign of distress. We were told that after the viewing closing time, the elephants are set free to roam in a larger space within the park.
Virtually across the street from Hsin Hpyu Daw Park is Kyauktawgyi Pagoda, the home of a huge white marble seated Buddha that is 37ft tall and weighs over 600 tons. In addition to the actual statue and the building housing it, we were extremely impressed with the long covered stairway leading from the street to pagoda. The chanted prayers heard over a loudspeaker added to the atmosphere across the surrounding mall paved with marble tiles and park portion of the complex.
After lunch at Padonmar Restaurant (see our restaurant review at the top of this link) and check-in at the Thamada hotel, we made our first visit to Scott Market; home to the largest collection of Myanmar arts and crafts and all forms of souvenirs in the city, if not the country. In addition to these less expensive items, there is a huge section of the market devoted to the sale of gold, precious stones and jewelry of all descriptions. The number of stalls and stores selling jewelry is so great and the displays are so overwhelming, we wondered who exactly was supporting this many sellers. Was there that much local wealth or was the primary customer base tourist oriented? We were traveling in low season but there just didn’t seem to be enough traffic in the Market to justify this many high-end shops.
Between this visit and a later visit to Scott Market we bought a few items including some very interesting textiles from Nagaland, a region that includes a border area between Myanmar and India.
From Scott Market, we headed to what would be the highlight of our day, the famous golden Shwedagon Pagoda. This is a structure that is 2,500 years old and contains multiple relics of Buddha. It is considered one of the wonders of the sacred world.
Upon arrival and payment of a $5 USD per person admission charge, we hired an “official” guide to explain what we were seeing. While we could probably have hired a guide for less, his knowledge was certainly worth the $10 USD we agreed to pay. He led us to the elevator and the elevated walkway leading to the Shwedagon grounds. Perched atop Theingottara Hill, the walkway affords panoramic views of the city and landscape in every direction. Upon passing through the entrance to the courtyard around the Pagoda, we were amazed upon our first close up view of the gold covered Pagoda and surrounding stupas.
Our guide explained how some parts of the pagoda are solid gold while others are covered in gold leaf. One of the buildings in the complex is a museum where thru photos, visitors can get a more detailed look at the bracelets, rings, necklaces and other jewelry hung from poles extending out from the top spire and a 76-carat diamond incrusted into the tip.
Even on the rainy evening we were there, we found more local visitors at Shwedagon than at any other site we visited in Myanmar. We spent an hour walking around the Pagoda and looking into all the structures that are a part of the complex. In one was a group of local volunteers who help keep the area clean kneeling in prayer in front of a Buddha image with LED lights emanating from the head. The combination of the ancient sacred image and modern light effects struck us as a strange juxtaposition but it was something we saw at a number of temples and pagodas across the country.
Another shelter covered a reclining Buddha and offered a rest spot for weary pilgrims. Another houses a dining hall where visitors can eat a simple meal provided free of charge by volunteers. Another structure houses a sacred umbrella…and there were more.
Surrounding the main pagoda were smaller stupas where visitors would stop, pour sacred water and pray. All in all, Shwedagon is a most impressive site.