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The results of last week’s Parliamentary elections in Myanmar (formerly Burma) are very encouraging but didn’t really surprise us. We traveled in that troubled land just prior to the historic vote, and formed the impression of a country firmly rooted in tradition and Theravada Buddhism, yet seeking a more responsive, benevolent and honest government–one more characteristic of the people themselves.
Whether these elections can lead to such an outcome remains an open question and was definitely a matter of debate among many of those we encountered during our journey. Still, hope seemed the dominant political sentiment, and the enthusiasm evidenced by the supporters of the National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, foreshadowed their electoral success.
For us, Burma was always the “far away land,” distant and exotic. Perhaps stories of the C-B-I, the China-Burma-India theater of WWII, coupled with recollections of Kipling’s romantic poem, “The Road to Mandalay,” colored our image of the country. Factoring in Burma’s isolation over the past half-century put the place fairly squarely on our “bucket list.” So, when we got an opportunity to visit here, we counted our good fortune and didn’t hesitate.
View of Hong Kong and neon signs near our hotel
In making travel arrangements we decided to fly by way of Hong Kong, because it seemed a logical way-point and because we’d never been there. Consequently, we were struck by a startling sense of time warping–almost as though we traveled back a century on our three-hour flight from Hong Kong to Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
Hong Kong is prosperous, bustling, crowded, and modern: functional, efficient, generic international airport; forests of high-rise buildings; efficient transportation; shopping malls that could be in California except for their multi-story verticality. Even so, we did our best to catch glimpses of Hong Kong’s relatively short history.
Riding the venerable tram up to the Peak, we walked around the island’s high point for the view and exercise amid crowds enjoying a holiday. We wandered the open air market in Stanley a former fishing village on the south side of Hong Kong Island before heading for Admiralty, another former fishing village, its harbor now filled with yachts, where we enjoyed lunch at a floating restaurant. In the afternoon we walked from our hotel, the Empire in Kowloon, to the Hong Kong Museum of History and learned of small pre-British settlements, the Opium Wars, early days of the colony, Japanese occupation during WWII, post-war boom, and transfer of the colony back to China in1997.
Arriving in Yangon around 1:00 AM allowed us a few hours sleep before our guide from Asian Trails, Ye, picked us up at our hotel, taught us “mangalabar” for “good morning or “good day,” and guided us through this sprawling city. We toured Botataung and Sule Pagodas, some colonial-era buildings, many decrepit but including the beautifully restored Strand Hotel. We then wandered through the Bogyoke Aung San Market (formerly Scott Market), a huge bazaar full of hundreds of vendors of fabric, jewelry, handicrafts as well as sundries and food.
Lunch with our guide Ye and the huge reclining Buddha in Yangon
A badly needed afternoon siesta was followed by an evening visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, a spectacular, gold-encrusted structure considered one of the holiest places in Buddhism. Lit-up at dusk, thronged by thousands of worshipers and tourists, it’s a memorable sight.
The colonial buildings, the sheer numbers of temples and pagodas, the vibrant marketplace, the antiquated, narrow gauge railway, the traditional longyis and htamiens worn almost universally–all signaled clearly this was quite a different place than Hong Kong. We loved it.
For more information about our trip, you can check out our blog we wrote for All Things Cruise: