Insein Station. We giggle inappropriately at the name, blaming our antics on the heat as we seek shade on the platform where locals wait patiently for the train. Huge mango trees span the tracks where crimson bougainvillea grow rampant between the lines.
We’ve just arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, and our guide, Ye Thiha Thwin from Exotissimo Travel, is taking us on the Yangon Circle Line, a 50-kilometre track that loops around the city. A full circuit takes about three hours, but you can hop on and off anywhere along the line for about $1.30 (less for locals).
Insein is the closest station to the airport, and the hour-long trip to Central gives us a snapshot of local life as we rattle and roll on the old train past shacks, shops, factories and backyards.
Fellow passengers wearing elegantly practical longyi (traditional long skirts worn by both sexes) shuffle up to make room for us foreigners on the hard seats. Those who speak English strike up a conversation, while others just watch and smile. Three teenage girls, faces painted with thanaka (a traditional bark-based paste used for the complexion and sun protection), are absorbed with their newly-affordable mobile phones. Ye explains a SIM card that cost more than $6,300 five years ago has dropped to just $1.90.
While no longer the capital (that moved to the purpose-built city of Nay Pyi Taw in 2005), Yangon is still the gateway to Myanmar and the country’s largest city. It was built in the mid-18th Century, around the village of Dagon, next to Shwedagon Paya, regarded as the most holy pagoda in Myanmar.
Covering 46 hectares, it’s a phalanx of gleaming golden stupas, and with the main stupa rising almost 100 metres high, its glistening silhouette can be seen from all around the city. It’s impossible to see the detail of the ‘umbrella’ atop the stupa, but photographs show the jewel-encrusted orb with its 4,351 diamonds.
The pagoda is pulsating with people when we arrive before sunset. Tiny bells tinkle overhead and a gong rings out as people pray at the shrine of their birth day. Ye recounts a lovely story about a Dutch couple who prayed at the fertility shrine and later fell pregnant on their Myanmar trip.
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During the 1920s, the British moved the business district towards the Yangon River and it’s still the commercial hub. Despite its rundown, ramshackle appearance, it doesn’t feel as chaotic as other Asian cities, possibly because motorcycles are banned, horn honking prohibited and there are no enormous high rises. Barricades used by authorities during protests a few months earlier remain near the Independence Monument, a reminder that despite the 2010 elections the country still has its problems.
Some of the majestic colonial-era buildings left vacant by government ministries that moved to Nay Pyi Taw are now being restored, thanks to the Yangon Heritage Trust; though others, like the Yangon Region Court are beguiling in their dilapidated decor.
Bustling Bogyoke Aung San market sells everything from jewellery and gems to sandals and saucepans. Aisles are dedicated to products like exquisitely embroidered fabrics or pungent spices. When the power goes out, as it does periodically due to outdated infrastructure, tailors hunch over old Singer machines sewing by the light of small battery lamps.
Progress is apparent in unexpected ways though. At Yandana, a traditional teahouse, orders are taken on computer tablets and Ye says the staff have recently been given shares in the business. We lunch at LinkAge restaurant and gallery, a project established to empower disadvantaged street kids through hospitality training. The Burmese soups, salads and curries are inexpensive and delicious; the young staff humble and gracious.
During the 1920s, Yangon (then Rangoon) was a busy stopover for steamships and supported a large inland water trade. The muddy brown Yangon River is still awash with containerships and barges, ferries and fishing boats.
At the wharf a stack of colourful containers resembles a giant patchwork art installation and food carts tempt homeward-bound commuters with delicious aromas. A sunset cruise aboard the launch Dora puts you right among the action as a blood red sun sinks into the river.
Since the elections there has been a dramatic increase in foreign investment and one of the newest hotels is the Novotel Yangon Max located near Junction Square Shopping Centre. The smell of paint is still in the air when I stay, shortly before its official opening. The generously proportioned rooms and expansive rooftop pool, with views to Shwedagon Paya, bring a new glamour to the city.
Equally sophisticated is Le Planteur restaurant, which from humble beginnings in 1998 has now become Yangon’s premier fine dining restaurant and recently relocated to a stunning 100-year-old villa overlooking Inya Lake. It’s nice to know that here too the loyal staff are being rewarded, with a generous percent of profits to be dispersed among them from now on.
Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Yangon.
The writer was a guest of Accor Hotels, Qantas, Jetstar Asia and Exo Travel.