Our 2nd day in Yangon began with a visit to the center of the city to view some of old colonial era government buildings. In the middle of everything is the Maha Bandula Park. In the center of the park is the Independence Monument, a 160 foot tall obelisk commemorating the 1948 battle to end colonial rule by the British. The park also borders Sule Pagoda and two old colonial government buildings: the Yangon City Hall and the High Court building.
From there it was a short drive over to The Strand Hotel, considered by many to be one of the top great hotels in South East Asia for most of the 20th Century. We enjoyed a late morning coffee and Danish there and despite the higher than normal charge for a coffee in Yangon, it’s a great place to relax. Later in our trip we had an afternoon and evening in Yangon and stopped by the Strand for a cocktail and a game of billiards in the bar.
Our next two stops were within a block or two of the Stand.
As we approached our next stop, our driver actually referred to it in the rather irreverent Anglia-sized name of “Buddha Town” but along with the Shwedagon and Sule Pagodas Botahtaung Pagoda is among the 3 most sacred Buddhist temples/pagodas in Yangon.
The history of Botahtaung actually began 2500 years ago when 2 brothers from Dagon, the village that was to become Yangon, visited India on a trade mission and had the opportunity to meet and study with Siddhartha Gautama, who in modern times is recognized as “the Buddha”. In appreciation of their homage and with the hope of spreading the Buddhist Doctrine to Burma, Buddha gave the brothers 8 strands of his hair. Upon their return to Dagon, the King took possession of the 8 strands of hair but eventually gave one strand to each of the brothers. The other 6 hairs became part of a shrine on Theingottara Hill where Shwedagon Pagoda eventually would be built.
The older brother built the first pagoda at the place where Botahtaung now stands to house his single strand of hair. Eventually, 2 additional pieces of the hair strands plus 2 small “body relics” were added to the shrine.
In 1943, the Botahtaung Pagoda was destroyed in bombings by the RAF. Five years later, during excavation that was a part of the reconstruction effort a small capsule was found that contained the strands of hair, the body relics and some other sacred items.
The reconstruction was completed in 1953 and that was followed by a major renovation 1990 to deliver the pagoda as we see it today. One of the interesting features of this pagoda is that there is a labyrinth of hallways that surround the glass encased shrine that holds the relics so visitors can enter and explore the core of the structure.
It was while we were walking through these hallways that we came upon the monk in the video below, sitting and chanting in his beautiful strong voice. After the video was shot and as we walked through the winding golden corridors we continued to hear the monk. In addition to his chant, he began lifting and dropping his long string of wooden beads in rhythm. (I wish we had sound on that!) Even though we could not understand what he was saying, it was a moving experience. In fact, I fully expected him to levitate at any moment.
Our next stop was the Strand Jetty. It is directly behind the Strand Hotel and virtually shares a parking lot with Botahtaung Pagoda. This was one of the occasions where we weren’t quite sure what we should be doing there. We walked across a decrepit wooden bridge out to the jetty where what looked to be a tourist boat that would serve sit-down meals was docked. Beneath the walkway on the way out to the end of the jetty were lots of smaller boats that didn’t look all that reliable but that ferried locals to the other side of the river. We considered taking one but weren’t sure how long it would take or what we would do on the other side once we got there. Plus, there was a steady rain and the thought that we might pick a boat that decided to break down in the middle of the river convinced us that we had seen enough.
I’m not sure if produce markets are on everybody’s must see list but we’ve always felt we got a good feel for a city’s culture by visiting local markets. So by request, our next stop was the expansive Thiri Mingalar Market. As we approached the covered structure, our driver managed to find a small space among the trucks and carts used by vendors and buyers. I’m not sure I could have made it but with a tip of about $0.50 USD he got a couple plastic chairs moved and received expert guidance from bystanders and squeezed in.
We haven’t seen them all but Thiri Minalar is the biggest produce market that we’ve ever seen in Southeast Asia. We saw stall after stall; row after row of beautiful fruits, vegetables, nuts, freshly made soy and chickpea tofu, leaves to cook in and others to chew and all manner of foodstuff from around Myanmar and the region. There were piles of asparagus that we were told were imported from China stacked like giant cords of wood. It happened to be the height of the pineapple harvest and we saw giant pineapple pyramids on display in multiple areas. And what Southeast Asia market would be complete without its durian vendors acting as if their product really didn’t stink at all.
While the display of produce was inviting, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the floors were a muddy mess of decaying product that even in areas far removed from the durian, produced an odor as offensive as the display of produce was impressive.
The vendors and other shoppers at Thiri Mingalar were very friendly towards us. My wife noticed one fellow who was paying too much attention to us for her taste but it turned out that our driver, who had stayed with the car, had asked this guy to follow us around the market and make sure we didn’t get into any trouble. Once back at the car on our way out, we ended up giving him a small tip for his trouble.
From the market, we headed back to the same area of the city as we found Shwedagon Pagoda to Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda to see the huge reclining Buddha image. The statue is 216 feet from head to foot and 58 feet from the top of the pedestal the Buddha lies on to the top of the “halo” on his head (as referred to on the official measurement sign in the photo below.)
As you can see from our photo, the Buddha has large expressive eyes and what appears to be a porcelain finish on his face. He is sometimes referred to as the “Sweet-Eyed Buddha.” At the oppostie end of the statue is a glass tile mosiac on the sole of his feet depicting the 108 unique characteristics of the Buddha.
It should also be mentioned that while one side of this pagoda borders the parking lot, on the opposite side behind the back of the Buddha is an absolutely stunning view of other temples, pagodas and parks in the surrounding countryside.
As we were driving through a tree lined neighborhood near Inya Lake, our driver asked if we like to see “The Lady’s house?” While the driver didn’t speak a lot of English, he realized that we didn’t know what he meant and so he clarified “The Lady Suu Kyi”. This was the first mention of Aung San Suu Kyi that we had heard but it wouldn’t be the last. All over Myanmar, people speak of her with great respect. In our travels across the country, we saw her framed picture on the wall in homes and businesses.
And almost as often, we saw similar tributes to her father, General Aung San, who had been assassinated in the power struggle for control of the government among different elements of the military after Burma gained independence from the British. In fact, about 10-days later, we were sitting in an open air bar/restaurant in the crossroads town of Thazi having a beer and doing a little people watching (and likewise being watched by people) when a man with betel nut stained teeth sat down at our table and after telling us that he was Myanmar Chinese offered to show us his tattoos. Before we could decline he pulled down on the neck of his t-shirt and exposed a portrait of General Aung San on his chest.
In actuality, we really were not able to see the house. What we saw was a high fence and gate (shown in the photo above right) that surrounds the property and marked the territory of her house arrest until she was allowed to leave in November 2010. This was the same fence seen in the iconic news photos of Aung San Suu Kyi delivering speeches to protestors standing outside the gate. She was making the speeches while standing atop a platform erected behind the fence that was tall enough for those outside to see her.
From The Lady’s house we headed to Chinatown. While we had an idea of why we were there this was another occasion that when we exited the car, we really weren’t sure where we were headed. The driver pointed to the next corner and motioned for us to take a right. As we made that turn, we immediately found ourselves in a market that covered the sidewalk and spilled out onto the street. After we walked a couple very crowded blocks, we realized that we were at the corner of 19th Street, also known as Bar B Que Street so we turned down the street to check out the various grilled food stalls. We eventually settled on a small place and enjoyed a good meal.
You can find a much more detailed discussion of our visit to 19th Street on our Yangon Restaurant page. Just scroll towards the bottom after you’ve clicked the link.