Not so long ago, Myanmar (formally known as Burma) was a completely different place politically. It was in a tight-shackled dictatorship but with all great historic events, the people demanded change. Usually with such stories, we expect a detailed account amassing to years worth of hard labour to transform an image and social norms. But considering that democracy came just one year ago, there is little time to waste. In short, a fast and strong evolution followed after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won the first free election for 25 years. Her legacy is huge and seen in the attitudes of the locals who deem her their hero. As a result of the new female leader restoring political freedom to her country, the local’s impression of her has continued to grow. The overwhelming majority, and then some, who agreed to vote her into power have had their faith restored. After reading a recent article about her first nine months in government, I can see the attraction. Asked recently what she is most pleased with after her short time in power, the response was simple yet extremely effective: “The fact that the ministers are not corrupt.”
Yangon is the capital and sits peacefully facing the south. Upon arrival, you get an immediate sense that the place has only just started opening up to the western world. Empty ads line the walls of the international airport at arrivals. Next door stands the shed of the old terminal, which marks a reminder as to how far the city has come in just a matter of months.
In the taxi on the way from the airport to our hotel, a local girl weaves through the stationary traffic in all three lanes. She is selling jasmine, we are told. To me, this experience of Yangon is best described as a journey. The girl, who wore bold blobs of yellow make-up on either cheek sets a beautifully altered setting around her to what one is used to back home.
While here, the city was in preparation, which I assumed was for New Year’s Eve. I was wrong, in fact the celebration that was around the corner was far more significant. Myanmar became an independent state in 1948. Every year on January 4, the people of Myanmar celebrate their Independence Day. The spirit of the local people come together to reflect how far their nation has come.
If this is what I am calling ‘a journey’, then the climax of which is unquestionably the Shwadagon Pagoda, which is situated in the heart of the city. Here, the giant golden temple not only is a symbol of the Yangon, but was planted in the epicentre of activity. Life here, of all generations happens around it. Local traffic, like throbbing veins, circles the grand temple. Car horns may echo off its majestic exterior, but once inside peace is served, barefoot of course.
Culture, that’s what you will find here. The temple is a 2,500-year–old shrine to religion and spirit. Legend has it that eight strands of the Buddha’s hair is sheltered here. At the top of the 326-foot tall structure is a 76-carat diamond bud. As westerners, we were certainly among the minority. In all corners Burmese people kneel and pray. It’s custom to never show the knees when visiting, so Burmese skirts are common for men and women.
But balancing the scales between new and old are the hotels, which offer a sense of luxury (if you know and check in to the right places) while staying true to local tradition. The Chatrium Hotel next to the Royal Lake is a tranquil retreat and a perfect place to reside on the first day following an overnight flight. A calm, shut off abode that offers quiet and privacy.
Yangon today is an exciting city that is full of possibilities and hope. Shadows of it’s recent history are still visible throughout the city, but opening up to the west has brought money back in. There are not many places left in the world that offer such an authentic and raw experience. These jewels, like all culture and all faith, should be nurtured, protected and cherished for as long as possible.