FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Bago to London

Posted in Myanmar, Yangon by folkestonejack on January 18, 2017

The journey home from Bago began with a car to the airport – a smooth ride that took just one hour and forty minutes, with no sight of the traffic that slowed our outward journey a week or so back.

Stepping inside terminal 2 at Yangon we found the place almost completely deserted, so it was easy enough to get checked in quite quickly (it turned out my attempts to check in last night using the mobile app had been successful, though it failed for others in the group). A glance at the departures board suggests most international flights now depart from the year-old Terminal 1.

Farewell to Yangon...

Farewell to Yangon…

My flight (Thai Airways TG302) boarded on time and was waiting at the end of the runway a good 5-10 minutes before the scheduled departure time. The clear skies afforded some great views of Yangon, Myanmar and Bangkok along the way with our plane (once again a relatively lightly loaded A330) landing early and ready to disembark ten minutes ahead of our timetabled arrival. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bangkok airport was much cooler than the last time I was here.

I’m fairly easily pleased when it comes to airplane food but if it helps anyone, the food served up on the flight was quite simple fare – a hot ‘chicken rico rico’ roll, a small cake, water and coffee. All quite edible.

Flying over Myanmar

Flying over Myanmar

As I had seven and a half hours to kill before my next flight I took the opportunity to book a few hours in the quiet haven of a Louis Tavern CIP Lounge which was worth every penny. I really appreciated a bit of space to unwind and chill before beginning the next leg. The light snacks on offer in the lounge looked fairly uninviting, but the drinks were quite decent.

...and hello Bangkok

…and hello Bangkok

The second flight of the day (Thai Airways TG910) had a scheduled departure time of 0.15am but this was delayed until around 1am to comply with the curfew at Heathrow Airport. As it was explained to us, if we departed on time we would have arrived at Heathrow too early due to the good flying conditions. In the end we still had to circle London twice before landing and reached the ground twelve minutes early at 6.08am.

Although the flight out had been packed the A380 for the return trip was more lightly loaded, offering a little more space to stretch out. Unusually, I even managed to sleep for six hours which is a vast improvement on the hour I usually manage on long haul flights! Food was quite decent too – a beef stew and banoffee pie on departure and a traditional cooked breakfast before arrival (no rival to the french toast with apples and sultanas served for breakfast on the outbound flight).

The temperature change on arrival was a bit of a shocker – downgrading from 35 degrees in Yangon to -3 degrees in London with just a light jumper to keep me warm on the slightly awkward journey home by tube and train during the rush hour. Still, it’s good to be home again.

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Pagoda hopping in Yangon

Posted in Myanmar, Yangon by folkestonejack on January 7, 2017

My plan for the afternoon called for a westerly walk from the Karaweik Palace, taking in the Maha Wizaya Pagoda, Martyrs’ Mausoleum and People’s Park before ending up at the Shwedagon Pagoda in the last light of the day. As with all best laid plans it involved a few moments of headscratching, puzzled map reading and the occasional diversion, but in the end it proved a pretty marvellous way to link up some of the most interesting sights in the city.

Karaweik Palace at Kandawgyi Lake

My short taxi hop from downtown brought me to a spot on the edge of Kandawgyi Lake near to the entrance of the Karaweik Palace. From here I could join the boardwalk that runs along the perimeter of the lake with some terrific views. My guidebooks had suggested that the entry fee would be $2 here but there was no-one around to collect money from anyone.

A view of the Karaweik Palace from the delapidated boardwalk

A view of the Karaweik Palace from the delapidated boardwalk

The boardwalk was rather quaint in its semi-delapidated state with rotten planks, gaping holes, missing railings, haphazard repairs and patched up gaps. I also assumed that it was wise not to step on the lanks where a white cross had been painted! It was rather charming, if a little treacherous in places. As seductive as the views were, it was necessary to keep one eye on the way ahead to avoid calamity.

I managed to get halfway along the boardwalk before encountering a red flag. Looking ahead I could see workmen treating the boardwalk with preservative using spray guns. I turned back and took the road along the edge of the lake instead, though later saw plenty of locals ignoring the warning signs and carrying straight on through the workzone.

The views of the Karaweik Palace, shaped like a pair of mythical birds, were rather splendid. It may be a relatively recent addition to the city (1972-74) and it may be made of concrete but it is a strikingly different sight and very photogenic. It is supposed to replicate the royal barges that the Burmese kings used to traverse the Ayeyarwady River. Appropriately enough, Kandawgyi Lake means Royal Lake.

Maha Wizaya Pagoda
Open: 06:00-21:00
Entrance fee: Free

I got a little lost at the other end of my walk, distracted by the heavy traffic at the roundabout, but eventually crossed over to U Htaung Bo Road and made my way up to Maha Wizaya Pagoda. It is another relative newcomer, having been built as recently as 1980, but that doesn’t make it any less splendid. Don’t believe the reviewers that describe this as too plain or as a mere copy! It is also entirely free.

Maha Wizaya Pagoda

Maha Wizaya Pagoda

If I had not fully appreciated why pagoda visits are not recommended in the midday sun I soon learnt as I crossed the scorching tiled grounds in my bare feet, seeking out the occasional shadow for relief. However, the only way to get the best shots of the stupa were from the hottest spots. Arghh!

The really amazing part of this pagoda comes from stepping inside the hollow stupa and entering the magical central chamber which has been decorated to look like a forest with the sky above it. It was a wonderfully peaceful space, with hardly a soul around. Besides this, the outer passageway also has some marvellous scenes showing pagodas from across Myanmar along with some colourful wall paintings.

The forest-like interior of the Maha Wizaya Pagoda

The forest-like interior of the Maha Wizaya Pagoda

The pagoda was built to mark the occassion of the unification of the Theravāda Buddhist monastic orders in Myanmar and includes sacred relics donated by the Nepalese royal family.

Martyrs’ Mausoleum
Open: 08:00-17:00
Entrance fee: 3,000 kyat

After leaving the Maha Wizaya Pagoda I had a devil of a job crossing the busy roads to get acros to the southern entrance to the Shwedagon Pagoda. However, I resisted the temptation to go straight in and set off on a walk around the perimeter road (Ar Zar Ni Street) towards the Martyrs’ Mausoleum.

The Martyrs’ Mausoleum

The Martyrs’ Mausoleum

The Martyrs’ Mausoleum is a striking bright red monument that would not look out of place in the Soviet bloc. It is the last resting place of General Aung San and his cabinet ministers following their assassination at the Secretariat in 1947. As if this bloodshed was not enough, the original mausoleum was destroyed and 21 people were killed here in 1983 when North Korean agents tried to assassinate the then South Korean premier. It is such a tranquil spot today that it is hard to imagine the horror that unfolded here.

The mausoleum re-opened to the public in 2013 and is worth a short visit. Given the history, security is understandably tight here. On paying the entry fee I had to record my name and passport number at the security office before entering the grounds. There are some panels in Burmese on the walk up to the monument but other than that, all you can do is soak up the atmospheric site.

People’s Park
Open: 07:00-07:00
Entrance fee: 700 kyat

I continued my walk around the perimeter road and took a rather long-winded approach to the People’s Park (it would be easiest to enter through the gates at U Wisara Road, but I got a bit lost and somehow ended up cutting through Revolution Park before finding my way onto Dhammazedi Road/Pyay Road and used the gate there).

Elephant fountain in the People's Park

Elephant fountain in the People’s Park

I mainly came to the park to get a good picture of the Shwedagon Pagoda from outside and to see the much photographed elephant fountain. However, it was interesting to take a little wander amongst the locals enjoying the mix of amusements, rides and gardens of the park. There were also a few military jets scattered in the grounds, all looking rather unloved. I left the park through the large visitor entrance block on U Wisara Road (if you haven’t entered this way it takes a few moments to work out how to exit the park from this side!). Finally, I had made it to the highlight of any visit to Yangon – the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Shwedagon Pagoda
Pagoda open: 04:00 – 22:00 hrs
Visitor center open: 08:00 – 21:00 hrs
Entrance Fee: $8.00 or 8,000 kyat

The Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most impressive Buddhist sites in the world and certainly the greatest temple in Myanmar. It is considered to be 2500 years old by the faithful, though archaeologists are inclined to knock between 1000 and 1500 years off this dating.

A view of the Shwedagon Pagoda from the People's Park

A view of the Shwedagon Pagoda from the People’s Park

I made the small mistake of entering the site using the Western staircase (albeit with the benefit of escalators) which is the most modern and probably least impressive. However, nothing could diminish the impact of stepping out onto the terrace and looking up at the stupa. This wow factor does not diminish as you wander the terrace and pick your way through the forest of spires, shrines and stupas that surround the main attraction.

The 325 foot high stupa at the centre of all this has certainly attracted its fair share of unwanted attention over the years, from greedy adventurers to occupying forces. In the list of historical acts of vandalism it is hard to beat the insanity of the British plan to use it as a gunpowder magazine in the 1820s which saw an exploratory tunnel dug into the stupa. In the light of this, its survival to the 21st century is a miracle.

Although I was dazzled by the sights and the onset of sunset I wasn’t able to stay quite as long as I had hoped with my stomach staging a rebellion at far too early a stage of the trip! Thankfully taxis were plentiful at the entrance and before too long I was back in the sanctuary of my hotel room.

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Morning wanders in downtown Yangon

Posted in Myanmar, Yangon by folkestonejack on January 7, 2017

A good night’s sleep set me up nicely for a day exploring the highlights of Yangon and the time to correct my first impressions of Myanmar, which had mostly revolved around the painfully slow flow of traffic around the city and the distressing sight of some of the many thousands of stray dogs.

I knew from the start that one day in Yangon would be hopelessly insufficient to do the place justice, but I was determined to see as much as I could in the time available. To help make the most of my time I made good use of the plentiful taxis across the city. On every occasion a fair price was offered, with the short hops I took costing between £1.50 and £4 each.

Yangon Central Station

DF1251 runs around at Yangon Central Station

The first taxi took me to the starting point for my day’s exploring – Yangon Central Railway Station. The somewhat tired building, constructed between 1947 and 1954, is a marvellous example of Burmese architectural style (incorporating tiered pyatthat roofs) that must have been quite a statement in the early days of independence. The bridge on Zoological Garden Road offered a great vantage point to watch a few of the 215 trains a day which pass through the station.

It is worth seeing now as there has been talk of moving the station out of the city centre altogether. On top of that there are plans in the offing for a massive complex of high-rise hotels, office blocks and retail space surrounding the station which could change the view considerably.

A trip on the Yangon Circular Railway, a journey of around 3 hours, is a popular option for many visitors but not one that I could fit into my tight schedule. After lingering for a little while I continued my walk to Sule Pagoda, which sits at the heart of the colonial quarter.

Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda was as much a mainstay of Colonial Rangoon as its more obvious neighbours (such as City Hall and the Supreme Court) having been fixed at the centre of the British road system in the mid-nineteenth century. To this day it is the point of measurement for all distances to the old capital.

Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda

The pagoda is located on a roundabout with a constant flow of traffic around it, including many colourful local buses with passengers hanging out of the doors. The eclectic appearance of the pagoda is completed by its encirclement by a diverse range of small stores.

Outside the entrance two women sat with bowls of sparrows and was rather surprised to be asked in good english whether I wanted to buy one (to release for good luck). I passed on the opportunity and made my way in (entry fee $3). Hopefully the sparrows didn’t have to wait too much longer to acquire their freedom (or, if unlucky, end up as a ready meal for the crows perched in wait!).

As is the custom I removed my shoes and socks before beginning a clockwise wander around the impressive golden stupa. I didn’t really know what to expect, but soon began to appreciate that any visit to a pagoda rewards curiosity and an attention to detail. I particularly liked the roundel featuring a rather startled looking white rabbit (symbolic of the moon). If ever there was an image of a rabbit trapped in the headlights this is surely it!

A startled rabbit at Sule Pagoda

A startled rabbit at Sule Pagoda

I retraced my steps from Sule Pagoda and walked over to Mahabandoola Gardens, a beautifully maintained park bounded by colonial buildings but with Burmese independence at its centre in the form of a 50 metre tall white obelisk. The independence monument was installed in 1948, where a marble vision of Queen Victoria once looked upon her far-flung outpost. From here I took a wander of the colonial landmarks, shaking off the persistent offers of postcard sellers and tour floggers.

Colonial Quarter

It had been quite apparent from the off that Yangon is a city in transformation, riding a wave of tourist dollars, but as a shiny new city emerges you can’t help but notice that the colonial foundations which should be one of its strongest assets are at real risk. It is heartbreaking to see these once magnificent buildings in such terrible disrepair with broken windows, crumbling plaster and trees growing through the brickwork.

The largest of these sites, the vast Secretariat, must be a real headache for developers. The red-brick complex set on a 16 acre site was the centre of the British administration and later became home to the first Burmese Parliament after independence. However, it is mostly remembered for one of the darkest moments in the history of the country – the assassination of Aung San (1915-47) which deprived the country of its unifying father figure at the moment he was needed most.

The Secretariat

The Secretariat

I was interested to read that the board of trustees have looked to Somerset House in London as a model for the redevelopment of the site, seeking to create an arts and cultural centre, combined with a museum to capture its history. It sounds like an appropriate use for the historic site, compared to many other colonial buildings in the city which have been earmarked for conversion into retail space or high end hotels. I hope the end result truly delivers the space back into the hands of the public in some form.

The Yangon Heritage Trust, founded in 2012, has been working tirelessly to highlight the risk to the overlooked architectural treasures of the city and their incredible potential. I made an unplanned stop to their modest exhibition on the first floor at 22/24 Pansodan Street and really wished I could have found the time to go on one of their walking tours. I hope their visions are realised and that they can succeed in creating Asia’s most liveable city.

As I headed away from the colonial city centre I realised that my progress was already a little slower than I had anticipated so, after a quick stop at St Mary’s Cathedral, took advantage of an inexpensive taxi to get me back on track for an afternoon focusing on palaces, parks and pagodas.

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Steam and pagodas

Posted in Myanmar, Yangon by folkestonejack on January 6, 2017

The new year has brought with it some fresh opportunities for travel, starting with a trip to Myanmar to see the re-creation of authentic looking steam hauled trains some nine years after the end of real steam. Along the way I hope to get the chance to see a few of the vast number of pagodas in the country, beginning with a full day of sightseeing in Yangon (Rangoon).

Yangon at sunrise

Shwedagon Pagoda

My outbound journey to Myanmar was reassuringly smooth. I travelled with Thai Airways on flight TG917 from London Heathrow, connecting with flight TG305 to Yangon at Bangkok. Although we left London 40 minutes behind schedule we arrived early in Bangkok, allowing a relaxed transfer that fell well within the two hour window. The total journey time came in at 14 hours and 20 minutes.

The heat and humidity of Bangkok was a shock, so I was relieved to find that Yangon was a little cooler when we landed around 7pm, roughly 10-15 minutes behind schedule. Disembarkation from the very lightly loaded A330 was very quick, but progress soon slowed. Time got eaten up first by migration/customs formalities (50 minutes) and then the painful crawl through the traffic jams of Yangon to get to my hotel (40 minutes). Sleep followed soon after…