Myanmar Day One: the Circle Line and a blingy inverted cornetto

Why visit Myanmar now? The lack of mass tourism due to its military dictatorship has preserved Myanmar making it one of the most interesting places to visit, though already it’s at a tipping point for the best time to travel. Tourism is the goose laying the golden egg.

After a long flight, fine sleep and a hearty filling breakfast it was time to make my first foray across Yangon to search out the infamous Circle Line Railway. This cost for this kaleidoscope of urban and rural eye candy is the mesmerizing total of 80p; it involves a 45.9 km, 35 station, 3 hour journey circumnavigating Yangon and passing through its satellite towns.

Moscow, London, Paris, Berlin and Beijing all have ‘Circle or Loop Lines’ but the most unusual and enticing one can be surely found in Yangon, Myanmar. Firstly its no subway but a narrow gauge full railway all above terra firma.  The system is most heavily utilised by the locals, selling about 150 000 tickets daily and providing cheap transportation but its sure to be increasingly supplanted as one of the cheapest and enthralling tourist attractions on the planet.

A ride on this train allows us to oggl into the daily routine of the Burmese people and facilitates a true experience of the essence of local life. Myanmar’s British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia.  Just before I climbed aboard the train at Yangon’s  Central Station I was invited into the ticket office and offered green tea by the platform manager. It truly feels like you’re stepping back in time: handwritten tickets and train schedules, colourful passengers, rusting antiquated trains and all delivered at a pace guaranteed to cast away modernity and the stresses of everyday western life.

Along with the constantly changing scenery outside, passengers of all ages and social groups come and go: vendors with their plastic baskets, monks peacefully staring out the window some chanting, smiling food and drink vendors flaneuring the carriages, children and mothers with thanaka painted cheeks, market sellers with bundles of live chicken and food – the organised commotion is a feast for all the senses.

After a morning embracing this cornucopia of daily life I alighted crossing over the bridge adjacent to the East side of the station, I passed a woman praying and pariah dogs many of whom appeared dead but perhaps were just snoozing. I wandered through the old colonial and more modest streets all decaying but full of life and smiling citizens. I stopped at a pagoda where I was offered samosas and more green tea, further along i came to Shwe Kyin Monastery which is home to mediation caves, I’m reminded by my “City Walks and Maps” app that it’s exactly 3834.83km away as I write this post! Retracing my steps I passed a school where kids came to shake my hand and say “how do you do?” and then observing a packed street restaurant I stopped for lunch. I had soup, pork, chicken fried rice and shredded cabbage with a soy dressing….65p!

I made my way towards central Rangoon absorbing and feeling quite guilty about its British colonial past. After stooping to chat to four kids completing somersaults in the back of a wagon and an army of plaster cast buddhas I arrived at the derelict Ministers’ Building (the Ministers’ Office). Formerly The Secretariat, this building occupies an entire city block, bounded by Anawrahta Road to the north, Theinbyu Road to the east, Maha Bandoola Road to the south and Bo Aung Kyaw Street to the west. It was the home and administrative seat of British Burma and built in the late 1800s. The structure is more than 120 years old. It was where General Aung San and 6 cabinet ministers were assassinated on 19 July 1947. The building is currently on the Yangon City Heritage List and completely abandoned though as is the want of major international hotel chains it make succumb to market economics as the tourist industry grows.

Strolling through more colonial decay which contrasted with the human activity around it I came to City Hall (1936), Maha Bandula Gardens (1948) and the still utilised High Court Building with its cracked brickwork, broken windows and flocks of pigeons. Crossing the gardens I stopped to read some more “Burmese Days” by George Orwell alongside the independence monument. Beside me students eager to practice their English interrupted every line and so I deposited the iPad in my bag and engaged with them. I was amazed by the standard of English for the majority rather than minority as is the case in SK. They chatted about politics (particularly Thatcher), travel and English Literature; no mention of Kpop though. Crossing the life risking road that encircles the Sule Pagoda, I  mimicked Mr Bean dancing between the traffic whilst making bizarre noises. My 10 second hop/sprint deposited me at the East gate and after removing my footwear and dodging a hoard of tourists I climbed the steps to the pagoda. I took one step and was accosted by a smiling monk who lead me to a look a like he called smiling Buddha. I was instructed in the three pours of water ritual and told providing I tipped both Buddha and the monk himself I would do a Spock; I would live long and prosper. I duly succumbed to the is charming ritual and deposited a dollar for Buddha and a dollar for the monk, he said usually three, I said I’m a very unusual person and sauntered 10 metres to the next encounter.

Returning to my walk I carried on Westwards towards Theingyi Market (1988), the largest local market in Myanmar. The market offers amongst other goods food, clothes. fabric, toys, cosmetics and herbal medicines. Further on into Chinatown I found more traditional fare betweens streets 20-26. Fish, meat, poultry, fresh vegetables sat alongside street food vendors and all manner of businesses. I shook hands with a skinny little boy whose parents where of Indian descent and then I stopped at Kheng Hock Keong Temple (1863) located at the corner of Sintodan Street and Strand Road and which is dedicated to the Chinese goddess Mazu. It is maintained by the Hokkien Chinese clan but also attracts Hakka worshippers. At the time of my visit it provided welcome respite as the sun was fierce. They were preparing for Chinese New Year, licking up the paint and adding lanterns. An old guy said he was a scholar and fortune teller and his predictions meant that if I left a donation it would bring me a happy and prosperous life…never!

I then headed north to my final destination of tho first day, the monumental Shwedagon Pagoda. I walked for a good 3km behind armies of monks some from Thailand making a pilgrimage to this most scared of buddhist shrines. Others who also made the journey were less demure sporing coloured haircuts not out of place in Duran Duran’s heyday. The Great Dragon Pagoda is the golliath  of temples, 99m high and guilded in gold leaf. It is the most sacred placed in Myanmar for the Burmese as it holds a library of buddha relics held inside are the Staff of Kakusandhra and the Water Filter of Konagamana. There’s also a piece of the robe of Kassapa and eight strands of hair from Gautama buddha. Just to keep you informed on economic development in Myanmar the entrance has risen from $5 to $8 side October 2013, the price of tourism eh! Let us hope my pictures do justice to the story.

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