We are currently in Myanmar (formerly Burma), the last of the six countries we have been blessed to visit on our six week exploration thru Southeast Asia. We may have indeed, “saved the best for last.” Tourism is rapidly growing as an important part of the Myanmar economy, however, tourism is still in its infancy. Coming here is like stepping back in time. The colonial buildings from the British Occupation here present a backdrop for the rustic sights, sounds, smells and colors that are Myanmar. Both men and women wear traditional long colorful longyi, similar to a sarong, wore like a kilt from the waist to the ankle. The colors of the longyi provide a stunning sea of color on the streets along with their beautiful multi-colored parasols to protect them from the sun.
 
Until 2010, Myanmar was governed by a strict military regime that oppressed the people here and the economic growth of the country. University student-led protests calling for democracy and an end to military oppression were met with executions and prison time. The most significant took place on August 8, 1988 ( since named, 8888), where thousands of students and Myanmar people marched peacefully for change, but were met with severe military action, including death or imprisonment. In 2007, the Buddhist Monks all around the country protested the increase in petroleum rates and other goods because it was making the local people poor and the military higher ups rich. Many students and local people joined the protest against military leadership. Again, the military regime did not allow the protests to continue and many monks were killed or arrested. The same fate was met by many local people and students from the universities.
 
Human rights activist Aung San Suu was at the forefront of the protests for change and she was imprisoned under house arrest by the government for over 20 years. She won a Noble Peace Price in 1990, as the world became aware what had happened on 8888 and her efforts for peace in Myanmar. In 2012, the military government released her from house arrest and she and 43 members of her party were elected to Parliament. With her party controlling the parliament, she has encouraged stability, the return of investment and the growth of tourism to stimulate the economy. The United States reopened their Embassy here in 2012, and sanctions were just lifted seven months ago. The people here are beautiful. They are so incredibly gracious and happy that we are here to see their country and they are very proud. Be sure and learn how to say Hello in Burmese – Mingalaba! The people here really appreciate the gesture.
 
The Burmese government changed the country’s name to Myanmar (Federation of the People) from Burma in 1989, trying to reflect the myriad of tribes and people that are in Myanmar, not just Burmese. While the Burmese remain the majority by a long shot, there are at least eight other minority groups in the nation, not including the Chinese and Indians that call Myanmar home. Despite the name change, there continues to be strife and civil war in different parts of the country between ethnic groups.
 
Our Day in Yangoon
We spent the day in Yangoon (formerly Rangoon), a magical experience. Yangoon is the largest city in Myanmar with seven million people. Myanmar has approximately 61 million people in the country. We began the day with a walking tour of Yangoon, including some of the most important colonial buildings that still remain from the British Occupation and the morning market, where food vendors set up shop with their wares. In Yangoon, we were happy to learn that motorbikes are not allowed. It was so much easier crossing the streets here than in other cities in Asia we have visited. Some of the more famous colonial buildings of note include the Yangoon City Hall, the Strand Hotel and Independence Monument, a 150 ft obelisk located in the Maha Bandoola Garden.
 
The market was fascinating and different than other markets in Southeast Asia because it remains untouched by items directed toward tourists. Tim tried the local “chew” sold at the market consisting of a betel nut and ground limestone wrapped in a tobacco leaf. He said his mouth was burning the rest of the day! There are people just selling water as it melts off an ice block. Of course, there are the traditional stands with fruit and vegetables from the farms and no market in Southeast Asia would be complete without rice!
 
We also tried the local sunscreen. You will see women and children wearing a mud like paste on their faces during the day made from ground tree bark from the Thanakha Tree. If their skin is any indication of how well it works, it is a miracle cosmetic crème, as the skin of the Myanmar people is flawless.
I also went shopping at one of the local boutiques and bought two gorgeous longyi (the sarong–like clothing warn by both men and women) for myself. They are stylish, comfortable and easy to wear.
 
The Sule Pagoda
We next stopped at the Sule Pagoda, located in the heart of the city center. The British centered the urban area around the Pagoda when they designed the Victorian street grid system in the mid- 19th century. While much of the ancient Pagoda was destroyed and rebuilt in the early 19th century, the origins of the first Pagoda date back to 230 BC. The Pagoda is a stunning site with a vantage point of the gold, octagonal structure, with it’s inverted bell-shaped base from any major avenue in the city.
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Lunch
We were treated to lunch at Padonmar Restaurant, frequented by foreign dignitaries and locals. The food was traditional Burmese and it was wonderful. We had a tomato salad to start and then traditional Burmese Chicken curry with potatoes and pork curry with garlic and mango.
 
Tea for Two Please – Traditional Burmese Teahouse
We next headed to a traditional Burmese teahouse for afternoon tea and snacks which included sticky rice and palm sugar cakes (omg, so tasty). The teahouse is where the action is. Deals are made between tables of businessmen on a daily basis here. There were no tourists here. That is what I loved about the experience! Traditional Burmese tea is tea mixed with condensed milk and palm sugar. It is incredibly smooth and rich. There are young boys who serve as the tea servers and there is one person behind a counter that serves as the tea mixologist, mixing and making the tea. The Burmese take their tea very seriously. This was a great highlight of the day for us.
 
Lover’s Lane – Kandawgyi Lake
We then visited Kandawgyi Lake where a large ornate floating restaurant, called Karaweik Restaurant I is located. It was built in the 1970s as a replica of a royal barge like what Burma’s kings or queens would ride in for ceremonial occasions. The park around the lake is also a place for lovers, like “make out point” for teenagers at home. There were a number of cars running, windows steamed, and no one in the sight line of the car. We were wondering why, until our tour guide informed us. So funny. Nothing ever changes.
 
The Giant Reclining Buddha
We went to visit the huge reclining Buddha, measuring 213 ft. long and 52 ft high. While the Buddha was built in the 1970s, and is not historically significant, it was very interesting to see. There are 36 smaller Buddhas all lined up displaying the various poses of the Buddha. We visited the God made of clay which looks like a grandparent. He has his finger pointer out and, tradition has it that if you press your forehead against his finger, you will receive a great idea. It’s been 12 hours since Tim and I both tried this, and neither of us has any bright, new ideas. LOL.
 
We also tried the tradition of worshipping the animal representing the day of the week you were born. I was born on a Sunday. My animal is a mythological bird-man figure. Tim was born on Monday and his animal is a tiger. You make a wish and pour a cup of water on the head of the animal from your day of the week three times and the belief is all your bad luck will be gone. We both tried this. I will let you know if it works. Ha Ha!
 
Tim also tried the Buddhist version of confession. By holding a large rock over your head while kneeling before the Buddha, and promising you will never do the bad things again that you have confessed, the Buddha will wash you of your sins. You have to mean it Tim!
 
Finally, when you are done worshipping, you ring a bell to demonstrate and spread your good deeds around the world. You beat the ground first so the people in Hell hear you then the bell. Tim also participated in this tradition.
 
The Shwedagon Pagoda
Our final destination with our guide is the most famous site in Yangon – The Shwedagon Pagoda. The Pagoda, built in the 15th century, sits over 330 ft above Singuttara Hill. The bell shapped Pagoda is plated with 8,688 solid gold slabs, more gold than the Bank of England. The top of the Pagoda is set with 5,448 diamonds and over 2,000 rubies and a very large emerald sits boldly in the middle of the top umbrella. Around the Pagoda, there are over 30,000 Buddha’s of various shapes and sizes enclosed in small places of worship. The best time to go see the Pagoda is at sunrise or sunset. The light reflection off the Pagoda at this time is nothing short of spectacular. Visitors are required to remove their shoes and socks when they visit Pagodas or temples. The flooring around the Pagoda is marble, which heats up to unbearable temperatures during the heat of the day. Another reason to come in the early morning or evening.
 
Dinner at Monsoon
Later in the evening, the hotel arranged for a short cab ride to Monsoon, a restaurant that came highly recommended by our guide. It serves traditional Burnese food in an upscale, British colonial style interior. The food was excellent. We let the wait staff order what he thought the restaurants top specialties were. We enjoyed everything very much and would highly recommend the restaurant.
 
Tomorrow morning, we headed to Bagon, a region in Myanmar laden with over 3,000 religious monuments. More on that later.
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Below are a couple of tips for tourists in Yangoon:
 
Tips:
1. The Taxis have no meters, so you have to negotiate with them before you get in. Ask your hotel or guide what the price should be before you leave. The Taxi drivers do not speak much English and you will have to pay them in local currency, not US dollars.
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2. Make sure you have the place where you are going and your hotel address written down in English and the local language so you can give it to the taxi driver.
 
3. Most Hotels and shops take only Visa and Mastercard or cash. This was a problem for us in Myanmar because our Mastercard did not work here (while it worked perfectly everywhere else we have traveled). American Express is not commonly used anywhere we have visited.
 
4. Bring a comfortable pair of flip flops because in Myanmar, you cannot wear shoes or socks in the temples or Pagodas, so having to remove flip flops is an easier alternative.