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WHAT TO DO IN YANGON - SHWEDAGON PAGODA & DAY TRIPS

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Yangon—previously called Rangoon—is the largest city in Myanmar (Burma). There are lots of things to do in Yangon, from visiting temples and markets to listening to rock bands and eating out on 19th Street.

Sule Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.
Sule Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

After our Irrawaddy River cruise, we took a two-day Yangon tour organized for Road to Mandalay passengers. It began at Sule Pagoda, which fills an intersection on Pagoda Road.

From the top of Traders Hotel we looked down on the octagonal golden zedi (stupa) which is 46 meters (150 feet) high. The central stupa reputedly enshrines a hair of Buddha. Legend claims that Sule Pagoda is more than 2,000 years old, but it has been repaired and rebuilt many times.

People-watching on the surrounding streets and shops is equally interesting. A man rode a bike, with his son in the sidecar. A monk bought betel nuts and leaves from a stand, topped them with slaked lime and rolled them into a bundle to chew.

Where is Shwedagon?

Our next stop, Shwedagon Pagoda, is the largest and most impressive Buddhist shrine in Myanmar. Located on Singuttara Hill, three kilometers (five miles) north of downtown Yangon, it dominates the city day and night.

Shwedagon's 2,500-year-old golden stupa (pagoda) is 98 meters (326 feet) high. Locals claim that it enshrines eight hairs from the fourth Buddha. Surrounding the main stupa are 68 smaller zedis and 72 tazaungs (pavilions).

Pavilion and golden dome of Shwedagon Pagoda
Pavilion and golden dome of Shwedagon Pagoda
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Gold and jewels

As custom dictated, we removed our shoes and socks and walked clockwise around the marble platform surrounding the golden dome. How much gold is on Shwedagon Pagoda? Lots!

The top banana bud is covered with 13,000 plates of gold, each 30 square centimeters (4.7 square inches) in size. Gold leaf covers the lower sections.

The flag-crowned highest vane is plated with gold and silver and studded with 1,100 diamonds and 1,383 rubies, sapphires and other stones. Its top diamond orb is decorated with 4,351 diamonds weighing 1,800 carats. A single 76-carat diamond sparkles at its tip.

Workers climb ladder on central golden dome.
Workers climb ladder on central golden dome.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shwedagon's central stupa is regilded every year. The magnitude of this task was obvious as we watched men—so far up that they resembled ants—climb a ladder up its side.

Planetary posts

Time melted away as we observed men, women and children pray at the planetary posts for the day they were born. An animal symbolizes each week day (e.g., a tiger for Monday).

Because Buddha was born on a Wednesday, an elephant without tusks represents the morning (associated with the planet Mercury), while a tusked elephant identifies the afternoon planetary post, which corresponds with Saturn.

Offerings to Buddha

Devotees brought offerings and anointed their animals with water. Our guide explained that shops lining the covered stairways to Shwedagon sell flowers to pray for beauty, incense for glory, candles for intelligence, small bronze bells for a clear voice and paper umbrellas for good shelter.

Woman anoints Buddha statue with water at planetary post for her birth date.
Woman anoints Buddha statue with water at planetary post for her birth date.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Long lines of sweepers paid homage to Buddha by donating their cleaning services on their birth dates. We soon learned to move when they approached because they swept over our feet with their feather-soft brooms, rather than going around.

Family celebrates son's novitiation.
Family celebrates son's novitiation.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Becoming a Buddhist monk

Our visit fortunately coincided with the novitiation ceremony (shinpyu) for a young boy. Males become samanera (novice monks) for about nine days when they are between five and 15 years old. After they are 20, they can become pongyi (fully ordained Burmese monks).

Induction into monkhood is a special day for the family, which earns great merit when a son becomes a monk. We watched the proud father hold a golden umbrella over his son, who was dressed as a prince. At the monastery, a senior monk shaved the boy's head and gave him his robe and black alms bowl.

Scott Market

The next day, we had free time to visit Bogyoke Aung San Market. It is often called the Scott Market, a carry-over from the days when the British ruled Burma, between 1824 and 1948.

Street-side restaurant in Bogyoke Aung San Market
Street-side restaurant in Bogyoke Aung San Market
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Women sewed beads on fabrics, which they hung attractively in shops. Nuns collected money from vendors to buy food.

Delicious aromas drew our attention to street-side restaurants serving Burmese cuisine. Contented patrons sat at low stools around tables, eating noodles, barbecued meat and slow-simmered soups.

Day trips from Yangon

What else is there to do in Yangon? We booked a day trip to Thanlyin (formerly called Syriam), a 30-minute drive southeast of Rangoon, across the Bago River. Famous for cashews and dried fish, Syriam was a major port from the 14th century until it was displaced by Yangon in 1755.

In Thanlyin market, vendors sold eggs, garlic, chickpeas, rice, fruits and vegetables, which they weighed on hand-held scales. A boy sold rosette-shaped pastries from a tray.

A seamstress made longyis (wrap-around long skirts for men and women) on a sewing machine overlooking the street. We photographed spice stands, chile vendors and women selling flowers, cheroots and marionettes.

Woman sells fruit and vegetables in market. Thanlyin, Myanmar.
Woman sells fruit and vegetables in market. Thanlyin, Myanmar.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Two Buddhist shrines are popular side trips from Yangon. Chauk Htatt Kyee (also spelled Kyauk Htat Gyi) Pagoda, located northeast of Shwedagon, houses a Reclining Buddha that is 70 meters (269 feet) long.

Swallowtail boats transport visitors to Yele Pagoda at Kyauktan.
Swallowtail boats transport visitors to Yele Pagoda at Kyauktan.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Yele Pagoda

We viewed picturesque Yele Pagoda (Mid-River Pagoda) in the Chaung-Pi River at Kyauktan. Swallowtail boats transported us to the golden-spired temple. A statue of a blue-faced ogre garbed in colorful shawls guards the temple.

Yele Pagoda also houses a statue of U Shingyi, who is dressed in pink and holds a harp. According to Burmese legend, he was a sailor who drowned and became a nat (supernatural being).

Outside, devotees gained merit by feeding popcorn to catfish in the river. They don't catch the fish to eat because they believe the fish are holy from living near the temple.

New Hanthawady airport

We wished we had one more day to see more of the former Rangoon's attractions, such as the National Museum of Myanmar and the Botataung Pagoda. We also wanted to try more Yangon restaurants.

Our flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Yangon International Airport (code: RGN) was 2.5 hours long. A new international airport will open in 2017. Located 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of Yangon, in Hanthawady, it will handle more passengers and larger planes.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Road to Mandalay

Malaysia Airlines (flights from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur with connections to Yangon)