The bustling city of Yangon, until 2005/06 was Myanmar’s capital and called Rangoon when it was under British rule.
I had to laugh out loud after a while, when for every conversation I was asked ‘where are you from‘ and responded ‘from the US’, the next statement or question from the person would by, ‘oh, from California?’. Once or twice I get, but this was every similar conversation while in Yangon. Looking back, it did not occur anywhere else in Myanmar.
It just made me wonder what do they know or see that brings California to their minds. Have a lot of tourists from California visited Yangon? Have they watched too many Hollywood movies? Is it just easy to make conversation? Was it just coincidence?
Three days was more than enough time to see the highlights of Yangon, I will share a couple here.
Did you know what ‘shwe’ means gold?
A visit to Yangon would not be complete without a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda. Here is a brief history from http://www.shwedagon.org/history.php. You can find further details on the site.
Over 2,500 years ago, there lived a king by the name of Okkalapa. He was ruler of Suvannabhumi and ruled over the Talaings. At this time, Siddharta Guatama was living in northern India. He was still a young man and was not yet recognized as the Buddha.
It was and is believed that a new Buddha, or “Enlightened One”, will come into being once every 5,000 years. At the time of Okkalapa, it had been approximately 5,000 years since the last Buddha, and it was considered time once again.
Singuttara Hill is important because it was the holy resting spot of the relics of three Buddhas. Their relics were enshrined within Singuttara Hill, thus making it a holy place. To keep it holy, it was believed that gifts given by the new Buddha, which would become relics, had to be enshrined every 5,000 years in the hill.
But Okkalapa was concerned, as a new Buddha had not come to be known yet, and if it took too long he feared the hill could lose its holiness. He went to the hill to pray and to meditate, unaware of Siddharta Guatama’s coming into enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in northern India at the same time.
According to area legend, he appeared to Okkalapa and told him to be patient, that his wish for the hill would soon be granted.
As Guatama was reaching the end of his 49 days of meditation, he was visited by two brothers. Their names were Tapussa and Bhallika, and they happened to be from Myanmar and were subjects of Okkalapa. These two merchant brothers present Guatama Buddha with a gift of some honey cake, as they recognized him as The Enlightened One.
To express his thanks to them, he pulled out 8 of his hairs off of his head, and gave the hairs to Tapussa and Bhallika. They took the hairs and headed back home. However, during their journey they were twice robbed, and 4 of the sacred hairs were taken from them. By the time they reached Myanmar, they had only 4 of The Buddha’s hairs left.
However, their return was still a celebrated one by King Okkalapa and his people, and a large party was thrown in honor of the brothers. It was decided that a shrine place should be built on Singuttara Hill to house these newest relics. At the party in their honor, the brothers presented a casket containing the Buddha’s hairs to their king, and he opened it and there were great tremors upon the earth, a great rocking earthquake. It is also said that all of the trees then burst into blossom and lovely jewels fell from the sky.
A shrine was created on Singuttara Hill to house these 8 miraculous hairs, and the area was deemed sacred. An enormous pagoda was then created atop the hill to house the shrine, and it is considered one of the most sacred places in all of Myanmar.
The pagoda itself is a wondrous architectural achievement. The top soars well over 300 ft into the air (approximately 100 meters or more) above the hilltop and can be seen from quite far away. The Shwedagon, which means, loosely translated, “golden hills” is magnificently made out of gold and jewels all over.
The details as to exactly when and how the construction of the pagoda began are somewhat sketchy, but writings document that it was well-known and visible by the 11th century. Over the years, various kings and queens took part in renovating it, and enlarging the structure, making it even taller and grander than before.
My guide explained that there are eight days which we are born. Monday through Sunday but Wednesday is split between morning and afternoon. Each day has an animal associated to it.
For example, I was born on a Wednesday in the evening, so my animal is an elephant without tusks, known for compassion. There were also numbers associated but I’ve completely forgotten that lesson.
People will pay their respects to their relevant ‘days’ / ‘animals.
Shwedagon – Buddha’s foot with the story of his many lives.
An afternoon in Dalla [Dalah]
While I was in Yangon, I was waiting for approval for me to visit a monastic facility for meditation, so I had more time in Yangon than planned until that sorted itself out. I recall reading about a village called Dalla, just across the river, and I thought it would be good for an afternoon when I finished strolling around other sites.
While enjoying my tea and trying the Burmese dish, ‘tea-leaf salad’, albeit possibly westernized given I was in the Strand, I had a random thought to look up Dalla and see what I could expect there.
The tea-leaf salad is typically comprised of pickled tea leaves, crisp, roasted peanuts and other crunchy beans, toasted sesame seeds, fried garlic, I’d say LOTS of garlic.
It was an interesting dish but for me I’d say it was an acquired taste. I could eat about 1/3rd of my portion, after that it was just too much.
Oh, boy, am I glad I spent some time reading about Dalla! I learned that Dalla was known for many scams as soon as you arrived to purchase your ferry ticket. I read to expect that people will approach and try to get you to have a ‘guide’ or tri-shaw through them at inflated prices.
That even if you hire a tri-shaw on Dalla, when you return to the pier, they will try to extort more money from you stating things like ‘the price we agreed was per half-hour not per 2-hours’ or ‘the ride took longer, therefore you must pay more’, even though they intentionally changed the route and time. Also I read about the guides will take you to an orphanage and try to extort money here.
Ferry across river to Dalla
For a short moment I questioned whether I wanted to be bothered with the hassle. I will have plenty of opportunities after all to see local villages elsewhere.
Well, I’m going, but at least now I am prepared and know what to expect to can plan and negotiate accordingly. Dalla, here I come.
Dalla is mainly rural and undeveloped, despite being less than a five minute ferry ride across the river from Yangon. There is no bridge to Yangon, but I found shortly after my visit, plans to build a bridge were approved and funded.
The ferry ride alone was an experience, especially watching everyone rush with their goods to get off.
Rushing off the boat to Dalla
I left to boat after the mad rush and of course was immediately hounded one after another to rent a tri-shaw guide. Oh wait, did I mention that I was approached as soon as I purchased my ferry ticket before boarding!
My approach really was to get out and away from the madness departing the ferry and away from the pier, take a short time to walk, before I would negotiate a tri-shaw.
Well, I had a soul that was very persistent! I walked, he followed, I continued to walk, he continued to follow, this went on for some distance.
Sometimes a certain type of persistence is off-putting. In this case I thought, let me give him a chance, I know like many he’s just trying to make a living.
So, we chatted, went back and forth, we agreed a price and time, and I explicitly explained I would not go beyond this in the end of the ride. Not so bad, right?
We meandered through the village, stopped at a small pagoda, meandered further to see local schools and a fishing village. It was a nice casual, hot and sweaty ride.
To many of our western standards, this was certainly a poor community when it comes to life’s ‘nice-ities’ such as running water, electricity, etc., but you don’t need to go far to see the children running about and playing as normal.
Dalla – water – there is no running, it must be collected
Ceramic water storage containers – Dalla
transport – Dalla
Dalla – taking a break
Dalla – Orphan village 1
All is going well so far and then, surprise, we stop at an orphan village. I was expecting this from what I read, and was prepared to make a donation.
From my guide, I understood Dalla was badly destroyed and not recovered by a tsunami in 2004.
This left many children homeless, even to this day, but also brought together a sense of oneness and community amongst different religions, which were previously segregated.
We stop for a refreshment and afterward I thought we would be on our way back to the pier given the time. This wasn’t the case. My guide stops and invites me into what looks like a house, but no, it’s another orphanage. I learned this gentleman took care of 14 children.
I was invited to sit and the history and background was explained, etc, etc. My guide moves over the where the children are. I’m giving him a look, like it’s time to go.
He had put me in an unexpected and uncomfortable position, however that could be the position I put myself in based on my own thought process. Of course I could just get up and walk out, but my sense of humanity would not allow.
The children were generous in their own innocent ways. It was sad to see some of them sleeping soundly, taking their afternoon nap, under the house, but they did not seem to mind.
We are once again, surely, on our way back to the pier. I noticed the speed at which my tri-shaw driver is going is at a much slower and casual pace. Ok, I know what game we have going on here.
We eventually made it back to the pier and as soon as I got off to pay, he started with the price is ‘x’ more than we agreed because we sent ‘y’ time. Well that was a shame as had he not tried to ‘pull one over on me’, he would have seen the extra in the form of a tip. Of course I told him I was paying what we agreed, did so, and walked to the ferry.
In my entire time in Myanmar, I’ve only had very good experiences with the people. They’ve all been so friendly, willing to help, and happy. Of course, you can expect in all tourist areas that, because you ARE a tourist, you’ll most likely pay more in some way or another.
If you can get beyond the scams, Dalla is an nice overall experience. Dalla was the only place that seemed a bit dishonest and given all the consistent reviews, this was definitely not a one-off experience. It makes one question, why? Are they just trying to make a living the best way they know how? Why is it different here vs. the rest of the country?
Next destination…..SURPRISE….stay tuned
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Additional around Yangon
I just had to add this photo. I was walking in a park and observed this monk and child at a distance and how they were enjoying themselves and taking lots of photos.
Shortly after, the monk approached me and asked if he could take my photo with the boy and him. Of course!
It is common is some Asian countries that people ask for a photo of or with you because ‘you’ are ‘different’. This was a bit ironic as outsiders like to take photos of the monks because they are not usually seen is some Western countries, so considered ‘different’.
Peoples Park – Bamboo
Karaoke in the park