Thursday, October 9, 2008

Adventures in the "Golden Land", Part 1 - Rangoon, Burma

“Then , a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon - a beautiful, winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire.  It stood upon a green knoll… ‘There's the old Shway Dagon,’ said my companion.  The golden dome said, ‘This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.’” 

- Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East, 1889

 Schwedegon Pagoda, Rangoon, Burma

Arriving in the Golden Land and Rangoon 

As the Thai Airways Boeing 767 jet from Bangkok descended into Rangoon I could see the floodplain of the Irrawaddy River delta from my window seat, the mountains in the distance, many farms throughout the floodplain, and an assortment of golden and white temples dotting the landscape, their stupas protruding above the vegetation.  Rangoon’s airport is typical of the third world – no jetways, requiring a stroll out onto the tarmac, and an old dilapidated terminal building.  Surprisingly, most of us made it through customs and immigration without being searched or interrogated by the numerous military government representatives. 

Rangoon, although a city of five million and the largest city in Burma (Myanmar), remains very lush with tropical flora – coconut palms, bougainvillea of a variety of vivid reds, oranges, yellows, whites, and pinks, banana leaf trees, and more.  This lushness adds a pleasant atmosphere often lacking in cities of comparable size, confirming it’s title of “the garden city of the east”.  The city is located within the fertile Irrawaddy River delta.  The city’s feel probably has not changed in decades.  Old, decaying colonial buildings dominate the central city, interspersed with ramshackle structures.  Walking appears to be the most common form of transportation.  But, in the case of vehicular movement, traffic flows mostly on the right despite a century of British colonial rule – although most vehicles steering wheel remains on the right, as in Britain.  If a taste of the British colonial lifestyle is what you seek, then simply step into the Strand Hotel.  The Strand is one of the older hotels in Rangoon, and a lasting vestige of the former colonial opulence during the time of British colonial rule. 

There seems to be a pagoda around every corner, but the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda (which I visited later this afternoon) stands on a hill above everything else, dominating the skyline of the city.  The people of Rangoon are very hospitable.  Most men, women, and children wear a “longii” – a type of sarong wrap – instead of pants.  I tried one out a few days later and I must say it does suit the tropical climate, offering superb ventilation. 

Set high on Singuttara Hill, the famous Shwedagon Pagoda is quite a sight to behold!  Over 400 feet tall and sheathed in no less than nine tons of gold, the pagoda is crowned with over 5,000 diamonds, and 2,000 rubies, sapphires, and topaz, with a huge emerald on its topmost spire.  Regarded as one of the wonders of the world, it was first began over 2,500 years ago and completed in the 1800s.  To gain merit (an integral part of Theravada Buddhism), locals come here to wash the images of the Buddha and to sweep the floor.  Hundreds of smaller pagodas surround the large Shwedagon Pagoda.  I walked completely around the pagoda, interacted with some of the people and monks, and saw some older photographs of the area in an adjacent museum.  A visit to this site is a surreal experience not to be missed.  From its superb vantage point, a view from the pagoda of surrounding Rangoon is quite impressive. 

Downtown Rangoon seems to radiate out from the Sule Pagoda, also over 2,000 years old and 157 feet high.  The area surrounding the pagoda appears to bustle with the comings and goings of humanity.  Within the holy site of the pagoda are many pilgrims and worshippers performing tasks of merit such as washing images of the Buddha.  But this is not the only holy site in the city’s center.  Nor is Buddhism the only religion represented here.  From my vantage point at the pagoda I could see several structures each representing one of the world’s great religions.  One corner is graced by a Catholic cathedral, which stands in front of a Baptist church. On another corner is an Islamic mosque, with a Hindu temple located next door. 

The famously described “1,000 scents of the Orient” may be found intermingling, stirring the senses, in many a market in Asia – ginger and curry, cinnamon, cardamom and coconut, dried fish and fresh fruits, for example.  The markets of Rangoon are no exception.  Everything one could possibly require may most likely be found in the city’s largest and oldest market, the Bogyoke Aung San Market, located a few blocks north of the Sule Pagoda.  

The monument to Burmese independence from Britain, a 150-foot high obelisk surrounded by five 30-foot pillars, is merely a short walk from the Sule Pagoda.  Nearby to the park containing the independence monument are many government buildings, housed in stately colonial structures.  Also nearby is the U.S. embassy.  The city center is also experiencing changes to its colonial skyline.  Foreign investors are funding construction of several high-rise office and hotel buildings. However, given the political situation in Burma, with a military junta ruling the country, no one is quite sure in what direction the country is headed.

Note: this post stems from my travels to Southeast Asia in 2004.


Places to See

Refresh page to see a new picture!

World Travel Gallery

World Geography RSS Audio Feeds

Click on any of the feeds below to listen to the program. Updated regularly.

PRI's The World: from BBC/PRI/WGBH

PRI's The World: Geo Quiz