First impressions of Yangon – meeting painted ladies, palmists & Santa



We did the walking tour of Yangon city, as laid out in the guidebook when we first arrived. Impressive buildings are everywhere but watch were you step in Yangon or you might end up on your ass as there are many cracked, broken and seriesloy smashed up pavements across Yangon. On first sight I felt like I was in an episode of Starsky and Hutch as its all so retro…big wide roads, busy with old cars from the 60′s & 70′s. The guest house I stayed in was all wooden walls and flower power wall paper and the bedroom was covered in tiles…walls, floor and ceiling…most bizarre!

We didn’t linger over our breakfast as ‘another’ Mick Jagger look a like started talking to me over breakfast. I say talk but it was more like a slurrr, I think he’d had so many drugs in his very long life that he no control over his jaw anymore…most distressing to watch… Anyway, he proceeded to tell me he had a contagious deseise which apparently ” is airborne”…” great ok, well…thanks…nice chatting to you…we have to go….” God knows what it was but I don’t think I’ve got it….errr?

During our walking tour, using my extremely out of date guide book, we took in many sights along the way…the Sula Paya, the beautiful colonial buildings along the Strand road, the Mahabandoola Garden, the Indian and Chinese quarters, the Aung San Market and of course the spectacular Shwedagon Paya. But as usual, some things are more memorable than others…

During our visit to the famous Sula Paya, which is right in the centre of downtown, I was painted in the delightful Thanakha. This is traditional face make up that you see many women and children across Myanmar wearing everyday. It’s also a sunscreen and they apply it thick usually across the cheeks in squares and with a pattern on it to make ot look individual. The ladies giggled as they layered it on good and thick onto my cheeks and forehead, they seemed really sweet. I got plenty of nods as we walked around after that. I wasn’t sure if the amount of ‘ stares’ I received increased after they applied this to me? Were people thinking ‘aww look at that girl complimenting our tradition and getting into the spirit of Myanmar’ or…’ strange white woman wearing our make up?’ I do however think it was the first as it wasn’t the last time a local painted my face…

My guide book made out that the people of Yangon weren’t really geared up for tourism and won’t try to rip you off or even offer you different prices from the locals. This was not my experience on my first visit to Yangon. ( I visited 3 times in the end) we were approached by people offering to be guides, rickshaw drivers ready to barter, persistent people offering money exchange. But the people I met below in these situations were the most memorable…

Whilst in the centre of town,the book says something like ‘ here you’ll find Yangon’s famous fortune tellers…’ I was intrigued and obviously on approaching the first man, I must have had an invisible sign on my head that said ‘ Gulible woman – will pay good money to hear any old rubbish!’ because that’s exactly what I got! Mmmm…we shall see…” you will be powerful and successful next year”‘ he said. ” And?” I said…what else? ” Errrr, oh, you will have a great year this year!” Great…2 big, bold statements. The second one is of course correct but that’s it? Turns out thats all the English he could speak…So instead of thinking… ‘ this is a load of tosh’ and moving on, because I’m a real glutton for punishment…I go to another palm reader further up the street!!! This one spoke some serious crap…he read out a load of numbers and then something that was totally wrong and upset me, so naturally I got up and stormed off down the street…

When we finally found the Shwedagon Paya, it was nearly sunset, the best time to see the pagoda. And oh my…it was pretty impressive! A stunning, shining, gigantic gold stupa. We wondered around taking it all in. So many little temples and pagodas surround the Shwedagon, all gold and sparkly…some a little too sparkly…I think it is an attempt to move a little into the modern world…but some of the big Budda statues housed in the temples had flashing neon lights over the buddas heads, like a sort of neon halo. It definatly made them stand out anyway…
I sat to take it all in and a monk started to chat to me. His name was Santa. Easy to remember I thought. Santa showed us around, telling us about the traditions, about Buddisum and about the traditions of the people who flock from all over the country to visit here.

It was very peaceful as the lights turned on around the temples and the sun disappeared over the stupa…lovely…
Especially memorable was when Santa pointed out the jewels such as diamonds, emeralds and rubies on the very top of the stupa.If you stand in certain places around the grounds the light will bounce off the jewels highlighting the colour, so in one place we could see a red light, then when we moved it turned green…so pretty. Santa showed us how to offer a gift to the budda and take part in a ritual, say a prayer and make a wish.It was a lovely and memorable experience. As we were about to leave, Santa called to is where he was sort of hiding behind this little stupa. We thanked him and he asked us for a ” donation” towards bedding at his monastery and then bells started ringing…he didn’t exactly want a tiny donation either.

The guide book is well out of date and I think the people of Yangon are well clued up for tourism and are ready and waiting for us!

We did give him a donation…well…we gave him some money but I didn’t mind. I’d like to believe it was for the monastery and not for his back pocket, he was, after all a monk…wasn’t he? I had enjoyed the experience and felt that Santa had given me a gift…so

What do you think? Is everyone after something…?