Day 32: Yangon, Myanmar
by Oliver Smith
Are they trousers or pants? Prince or the Artist (formerly known as Prince)? Eggplant or aubergine? Puff Daddy or P. Diddy – or maybe even Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs? And is the country we’re in today Burma – or is it Myanmar?
This is the question I was pondering as I caught my first sight of the country now widely known as Myanmar from our plane today – rice paddies spangling in the morning sunshine beneath us, and coffee-brown rivers swerving through the countryside. Like lots of things in this country, the answer is muddled up in politics.
Myanmar has long been under the control of repressive military rulers; a regime which changed the country’s name from Burma in 1989, and whose brutality has meant that many travellers chose to stay away. In the last few years, however, the political situation has evolved at supersonic speed, and many say the power of the military is waning.
What’s more, the main opposition to the military – led by Aung San Suu Kyi – is no longer asking tourists to boycott Myanmar. It means this largely untouched country is facing a January-sales style stampede of visitors. Read Lonely Planet's essential guide to travelling to Myanmar to find out more.
It was a hot, sticky day in the rainy season when we landed in Yangon this morning – the kind of day when you feel a bit like a Brussels sprout stuck in a pressure cooker. After a lunch of beef curry, we made our way to the golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest Buddhist temple in Myanmar, glittering an ethereal gold on Yangon’s smoggy skyline.
Before I arrived, I’d heard that political discussions only happen in hushed voices in Myanmar. So I was surprised when a friendly old monk with a voice like a loudspeaker hobbled over in the temple and struck up a conversation about the demise of the military. While we were chatting, two people strolled past sporting Aung San Suu Kyi T-shirts – something also unthinkable a few years back. Only a few minutes out of the airport, I’d gained a tiny sense of a country on the cusp of enormous change.
And finally something did change. Suddenly, the sky blackened over the temple – the way it does in sci-fi movies when aliens are about to invade – and everyone looked up in fear. Slowly but surely, king-sized droplets of rain started thwacking off the marble – the sort of torrential rain that can eats umbrellas for breakfast, and can turn your underpants waterlogged in a nanosecond. The monk and I sheltered in a pavilion and watched the rain streaming down the gilded dome of the temple.
Within half an hour the rain had stopped, and the air was fresher. Everyone felt better.
The day in statistics:
- Aung San Suu Kyi souvenirs purchased: 1
- Burmese curries: 2
- Thunderstorms: 1