Yangon: Marvels, If you can make it
Demand is outstripping hotel supply in the former Myanmar capital, but for those who do find lodgings the city will enchant with modern touches rising up alongside a blend of Indian spice, crumbling colonial heritage and Buddhist traditions
Even if Barack Obama had spent the night during his historic trip to Yangon late last year, chances are he would have steered clear of the White House. For travellers on a modest budget, however, this reliable guesthouse in the former Myanmar capital's frenzied city centre is about as good as it gets _ if they can endure the hike up to the rooms in the upper storeys. The lift-less, decades-old British building also provides the most extensive buffet breakfast in town _ a detail not to be overlooked since most budget and midrange hotels here only offer simple eggs-and-toast meals in the morning.
END OF DAY, PRAY: The faithful pray as darkness settles in at Shwedagon Pagoda.
On his visit, the first by a sitting US president to the country, Mr Obama would have done better overnighting with other high-enders in the Strand, a century-old British institution that is the classiest hotel in Yangon (except, perhaps, the Governor's Residence by Orient-Express). Visitors who can't afford the rooms can at least sip coffee in the Strand Cafe, where the only sounds are the gentle creaking of rattan chairs, clinking of dainty cups being returned to saucers and the almost imperceptible whir of ceiling fans.
Finding accommodation is the only real hassle for visitors in Yangon, where the skyrocketing demand for hotel rooms is outpacing availability. Travellers who book hotels in advance, though, will find just about everything else here fascinating and trouble free. Myanmar has some of the priciest accommodation among developing countries in Southeast Asia.
Easily accessible from the doorsteps of the Strand, the White House and other downtown hotels, is Southeast Asia's most tantalising taste of the subcontinent, a large Little India section, which is laid out on an easily navigated grid pattern that belies the area's exoticism. It's a lot livelier than the one in Singapore _ in a bustling scene right out of Kolkata or Delhi, ethnic Indian vendors jamming footpaths cook up all sorts of dirt-cheap snacks like samosas and chapattis, while curries galore and chai await in the small, packed cafes lining the streets where locals merrily chat away day and night. In this chaotic, densely populated area of town, street-side stalls selling tea, freshly pressed sugarcane juice and more delights are up wherever there's a sliver of space. And there's no shortage of Myanmar Indians frequenting tiny stalls selling stimulating red paan _ betel leaf mixed with areca nut.
Most of the Indians in Yangon are descended from workers brought in to help oil the machinery of the British Empire, which also bequeathed to Yangon one of the city centre's most distinctive characteristics: a stately expanse of colonial architecture.
PRAYERFUL IN PINK: Nuns on alms rounds make their way down a Yangon side street.
While the Strand was renovated in the 1990s, several other Raj-era edifices around downtown are surrounded by scaffolding; the race is on to save as many of these structures as possible. Some of them now house government agencies and banks, while others are simply being swept into history.
Modern shopping malls and hotels are just beginning to make their mark in Yangon, and are much smaller than those in Bangkok. The Thiripyitsaya Sky Bistro is located on one of the upper floors of the Sakura Tower, which at just 20 storeys is one of the most imposing buildings in town. Arrive after happy hour starts at 4pm and get a good seat from which to behold the superb vista through the large windows.
Set atop a green hill and dramatically standing out like a gilded beacon above the low-rise buildings of Yangon, the mesmerising Shwedagon Pagoda always commands attention, especially as the sky slowly darkens.
While gazing at this wondrous attraction over cocktails, patrons can contemplate how many average trips to an ATM, a convenience just beginning to appear in Yangon, it would take to pay for the 30 tonnes of gold covering this iconic pagoda soaring to about 100m.
Seen up close, the stunning structure is all the more beguiling. Along with an ever increasing flow of international tourists paying the US$5 (149 baht) entrance fee, devout Myanmar Buddhists flock here especially around dusk, when temperatures dip, to meditate, pray and chant before the Buddha images filling the many shrines and alcoves surrounding the pagoda, which by some accounts is almost as old as the belief system it honours and is said to enshrine strands of hair from the Lord Buddha. Its holiness is matched by its aesthetics, particularly its elegant series of rising ridges leading up to a gem-studded finale.
Everyone must go barefoot here; even the US president did on his recent trip.
An equally serene scene but one less-frequented by travellers can be experienced at Yangon's Chaukhtatgyi Temple, where a massive reclining Buddha with bright-white skin in the classic local style is the object of veneration by locals who sit before it with feet tucked beneath them, fingering prayer beads and offering candles and incense. Some locals pour water over Buddha images too.
The deep devotion extends down Yangon's fascinating side streets found around town, where young nuns in pink robes make alms rounds past simple stalls selling mohinga fish-noodle soup and other tasty local dishes. Away from the former capital's main roads, the unhurried rhythms of upcountry Myanmar villages prevail.
Yet central Yangon is also full of leafy residential areas and two gorgeous lakes surrounded by trees, where al fresco meals and drinks in languid afternoons are enjoyed in cafes of both the basic and classy variety. The resplendent Karaweik Hall restaurant on Kandawgyi Lake is a particularly ideal place for sampling local delicacies while watching traditional Myanmar dance performances.
With its bewildering, bewitching blend of traditions and cultures, Yangon endlessly delights and surprises.
About the author
Writer: Carleton Cole