"Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon - a beautiful, winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire. It stood upon a green knoll... 'There's the old Shway Dagon,' said my companion... The golden some said, 'This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.'" - Rudyard Kipling, in 'Letters From the East'.
Chapter Eleven - At last !... Shwedagon !
We arrived in Bago late afternoon. It's a bustling city, even more so than its bigger sisters. The Silver Snow Guest House asked $8 for an extremely hot and smelly, humid room with a minimum of amenities. Way too much ! I didn't bother to bargain because I didn't want to stay there anymore anyway. A much better option was the Htun Hotel. Rundown but very acceptable double rooms with private bath (piping hot water !) and A/C were listed in the guidebook as $25 but went for $20. After serious bargaining (I even had to walk off the property to make a point) this became $15. Always remember that there's a great surplus of rooms in Bago. Tourists hardly ever stay there; it's a place which is almost always visited 'en route', either to Yangon or Kyaiktiyo. In this knowledge you can bargain, and bargain hard !
The Shwemawdaw Paya, the 'Great Golden God Pagoda', boasts the highest stupa in the country, 114 metres of gilded splendour. It's a great site to spend a while but this privilege costs $2, though. There's also a camera fee, but for the small amount asked (K25) you get a very nice little shield you can pin on your shirt.
The entrance to the Shwemawdaw is one of the greatest I saw : it's guarded by two very beautiful, huge chinthes, each one of them carrying a small statue of a Mahayana bodhisattva (an individual destined to become a Buddha in this or another life) in its mouth. Looking over my left shoulder, standing in front of the chinthes, I noticed a big, attractive building. It's the Buddha Ahthandhamma Beik Mhan, a meeting hall. Except for its looks it's not of interest to the average traveller.
We'd seen images of it in the Shwemawdaw too, but the nearby Hintha Gon Paya is dedicated to the hintha couple which, according to popular belief, landed here in a distant past. The two mythological goose-like birds were passing over the Bago region when they got tired and needed to find a place to rest right away. Unfortunately the whole area was flooded, except for a little rock which jotted out of the surrounding water. There was only room for one bird and when the male hintha landed the female saw no other option than to stand on his back. When two Mon princes witnessed this strange scene, they saw it as a good omen and founded the city of Bago at the edge of the water.
After the water had retracted, the Hintha Gon Paya was built where the two hinthas allegedly rested. A statue of the birds marks the exact spot. Two dollars entrance fee plus a K25 photography permit make this pagoda too expensive to visit for what it is. The Lonely Planet guide states : "this shrine has good views over Bago from the roofed platform on the hilltop". I found this untrue. The views were always obscured.
Kanbawzathadi, King Bayinnaung's palace, is being reconstructed. No guidebook, except Lonely Planet, mentioned it yet. I decided to check it out anyway. A bumpy dirt road leads to the compound. A couple of soldiers were on guard but they just waved us on. We stopped at the entrance of the Bee Throne Hall and intended to have a look inside. Suddenly a caretaker appeared from the gloomy innards and demanded we'd pay an entrance fee. We were taken to a building near a small circular museum. There, amidst heads of sculptures and potsherds, a representative of the Department of Archaeology demanded $4 per person, a ridiculously high amount of money, even though it included admission to the museum. I didn't agree. I asked him if the government by any chance randomly picked folded scraps of paper with numbers from one to five written on them out of a high hat and let an 'innocent hand' determine the entry fee. He was both annoyed and ashamed. Ashamed because he was asking such a high fee, annoyed because he couldn't help it either. After a bit of negotiating I was able to arrange that we only had to pay $4 for two. For that price, however, only I could enter the museum, Kris couldn't. Unfair, but it was the best I could do.
Now that I've been there I can confidently say it's not worth it. The museum is rather well-arranged but small and the collection is very modest. The Bee Throne Hall is not worth entering, especially not if you've already been inside the buildings of Mandalay Palace. It's beautiful when seen from within the garden behind it, but I'd recommend anyone to skip this place until renovations are nearing completion. Just wandering around the grounds could have you being hassled to pay the unfair admission fee.
On the other side of the Bago river, which divides the city in east and west, lies the Maha Kalyani Sima, an ordination hall which is spoken high of in all the books. Well, I simply cannot understand why. It's nothing special, there's nothing really worth seeing, it even looked quite modern to me although it isn't (which is not surprising in Myanmar - the Burmese like to renovate their religious buildings). Entrance is fortunately free; it would have been a terrible waste of money. More interesting is the Mitteya Ananda Paya across the road. This monument with four Buddhas standing back to back looks a bit similar in design to the Kyaik Pun Paya (more about that later) but the spire and the images were clearly inspired by the Ananda Temple in Bagan.
The Mitteya Ananda is one of the monuments standing on the corners of a parallelogram of streets. The other corners are made out by the Shwetalyaung-, Mahazedi- and Shwegugale Paya. We didn't visit the latter. The Shwetalyaung is the best-known reclining Buddha image in the country. 55 metres long and 16 high, it is reputed to be the most lifelike of all reclining Buddhas. The image got forgotten about after the destruction of Bago in the 18th century and was only rediscovered in 1881 by workers who were clearing parts of jungle to allow the construction of a railroad track. Visiting this paya is a must. The $2 admission fee (plus K50 to take pictures) is fair. Continuing beyond the Shwetalyaung one soon reaches the Mahazedi Paya, a recent reconstruction dating back to 1982. The earlier pagodas were all levelled either by man (King Alaungpaya) or nature (earthquakes). The whitewashed monument is a pretty sight, visible from far away, and offers good views in all directions. It's a delightful area. I'm not sure, though, whether the views alone are worth paying the two dollars entrance fee for (and of course K50 for photo cameras).
Bago is definitely one of the highlights of Myanmar, in my humble opinion. Not only does it have a lot of things to see but I also found it a very pleasant city, despite its crowdedness. And it has a wonderful restaurant : the Kyaw Swa. Although it looks very posh from the outside, with even people to open car doors, it does not at all make one feel uncomfortable. Locals even came to sit inside to watch TV. Everybody is genuinely friendly and the food is truly excellent. Contrary to what I expected, it's not expensive at all; we had paid more for much lesser meals.
Just before the meeting hall near the Shwemawdaw pagoda is a good place to have breakfast. You can't miss it; it's crammed with Burmese and you'll be lucky to find a seat right away. It offers a good view of the pagoda and so does the cafe across the road. We spent the evening at the latter; a weird experience, as a matter of fact... The young manager (more likely he was just an employee taking care of things for a richer dude) was as drunk as a lord, breaking bottles and openly feeling up his girlfriend's tits - very unusual behaviour in Myanmar, but she seemed to like it.
There weren't many customers - I wonder why ? - so I took the time to discuss some things with Phone Kyaw. As usual, we ended up talking about religion, and more specifically about meditation. I asked him why he needed it. "To be in total control of my mind." "And does it help ?", I asked. "Yes, gradually I'm becoming more powerful." I joked : "Well now, my friend, I've been in the country for almost a full month and I haven't drunk any alcohol, haven't smoked a single cigarette, didn't come near drugs or betel, didn't steal, didn't kill and haven't committed adultery. You, on the other hand, chewed betel every day and I even saw you smoke a cigarette or two. Now who's the most powerful ? You with your meditation or I without ?"
On the way out of town, in the direction of Yangon, is one final must-see : the Kyaik Pun Paya. Actually, there's not much to it, but it's very photogenic. Four Buddhas (the past, present and future Buddhas) sit back to back around a massive square pillar. The figures are thirty metres high, beautifully painted and therefore pretty impressive. It costs $2 to enter the platform surrounding the monument. The money was collected by a couple of very friendly and enthusiastic trustees. If you don't want detailed pictures of the whole thing, I advise you to not pay the fee and forego entering the grounds. The monument can easily be seen from outside without paying; one could even sneak in round the back (there's nobody there to check up on you), take a snap and get out again. If you're caught you can easily pretend you didn't know. If the people responsible for imposing an admission fee want to make sure this doesn't happen, they should sell the tickets at about halfway of the dirt track leading to the paya.
From Bago it's only about 80 kilometres (50 miles) to Yangon. The road is quite excellent but it still takes about two hours to get there because of the traffic that gets busier the closer one gets to the capital.
We first went to the airport to have our tickets reconfirmed - it was a holiday and the downtown THAI office was closed. The people in charge were rude and service was slow. They let me wait for almost forty minutes, while they stood around doing nothing at all - chin on their hands, arms on the desk - just to tell me reconfirming was unnecessary.
Downtown, Kris and I went for a walk in the nearby Mahabandoola Garden, which is smaller than I expected but nevertheless a very pleasant to spend a while and a good place to meet locals. It costs K10 to enter plus another K50 if you want to take pictures. The park is most visited by young couples for whom it's a place to get away from it all and secretly hold hands. Eye-catcher in Mahabandoola Garden is the 46 metres (150 ft) high Independence Monument, an obelisk surrounded by two concentric circles of bronze lion statues. Attached to the main needle are five smaller ones, symbolising the former five semi-independent states of Burma (Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah and Shan) in harmonious union with their Big Burman Brother. Looking to the east I saw the splendid Victorian Supreme Court and High Court Building, definitely one of the most beautiful British-colonial remnants.
Phone Kyaw was very eager to see his family again - after all, it had been almost a month since he'd been with them. I noticed it and said he should go home. Kris and I walked to the Shwedagon Pagoda - not exactly nearby, but Yangon, sometimes dubbed the Garden City, is a wonderful place to do some walking. It was too late to enter Shwedagon - we'd go there the following day - so we visited the Maha Wizaya Paya, which is just across the road. This is a recent construction, only dating back to 1980. It has a bit of a reputation, as it is often dubbed 'Ne Win's Pagoda' because of the general's involvement in the project. Ne Win assumed power in 1962 and ruled the country with iron fist until 1988 - and behind the curtains he still does. One can effectively say he's responsible for the awkward situation the country still is in the moment I write this.
The pagoda is officially built to commemorate the first gathering of all theravada orders in Burma and is definitely a very beautiful one - one you shouldn't miss out on. At least, on the outside it's a wonderful sight. Inside it's not very impressive, with silly papier-mâché trees and on the ceiling a painted representation of the constellations.
Entrance is free but the pressure to give donations is enormous. I entered and passed a donation counter. The lady behind it strongly exhorted me to give. Now the problem was that I was almost out of small change - in fact I was nearly out of any Burmese money. I looked and only had a couple of K1,000 notes left but I surely didn't intend to spend these here. I would have probably given something when I left, but now that I was pressed I just didn't feel like it anymore. My small money totalled sixty Kyats and that was what she got. Man, was she annoyed. She threw the money on her table and uttered several insults, which fortunately for her I couldn't understand but the intonation left nothing to the imagination. I asked a Burmese visitor what she was on about. He told me she had just said it wasn't enough. I told her this was bloody rude of her and that she apparently didn't understand what religion was about. If she was there just to extort money from visitors, she didn't deserve to be there in the first place. Either they impose an entrance fee - and like I mentioned before, I'm against admission fees for functional religious sites - or let the people enter and leave in peace, leaving the decision to give or not to them. Hell, I was so angry with her. I never raised my voice or visually lost my temper, though, but I would have if this had been home.
The mighty Karaweik entrance in the stern of the 'ship'Near Kandawgyi Lake we found a nice place to stay : the Green Hill Inn, No. 12 Po Sein Road, Tamwe Township. Double rooms (always incl. a poor breakfast) come at $10 (private toilet and shower but no hot water or A/C), $16 (A/C, private toilet and bath tub with hot water) and $22 (same as the previous one but with TV and telephone). Bargaining is possible and gets you about $2 off. It's a bit run-down but still clean enough and has a friendly Indian manager.
After having checked in, we went for a stroll around the lake. It's impossible to walk around it inside the fencing. We could only visit a couple of small parks, one which wasn't worth it (it's located near the eastern end of Natmauk Street). Entry was always K10 plus K50 for photography, but sometimes the ticket sellers tried to get K200 from us, so beware. The little parks are mainly used by couples; young lovers sit on the most remote benches or on the grass behind bushes, secretly holding hands, perhaps they even exchange a kiss on the cheek - innocent actions but frowned upon when done openly in the street.
Kandawgyi Lake is also the location of what is probably the best restaurant in town : the Karaweik. Built to look like the Burmese kings' floating palace resembling the mythological Karaweik bird, it's a fantastic sight. Some may find the concrete construction kitschy and fake but I loved it. Every night performances, including Burmese dance, marionette plays and circus-like dexterity acts, are staged. They're incredible value for money at K1,500 per person because for that you also get an all-you-can-eat buffet. The food, ranging from soups to desserts, is very clean, very varied and very tasty. The performers in the show are professionals and bring very entertaining acts.
The price can be kept so low because the restaurant overcharges the drinks. There's an easy way to overcome that : just say you only drink water, it'll be served on the house. Also, make sure you sometimes get up and go and have a look-see in the other hall; the performances are different.
The Karaweik is huge, much bigger than what you'd expect it to be when looking at it from the street. It's built symmetrically : the left half mirrors the right half. In the middle is the buffet room where you go to fetch your food.
In the afternoon it's also possible to have lunch at the Karaweik, albeit without dinner show. This costs K1,000, still very good value for money. Even though this is a government restaurant, at this price level it's recommendable.
I got befriended with the head waiter. He showed me the upper floors of the restaurant which are normally not publicly accessible. The second floor is for dinner parties and wedding receptions, whilst the top floor is there for official governmental meetings. Both 'decks' are nicely decorated and offer a great view over the lake towards Shwedagon. To have a look at the copy of the royal barge from the nearby little island costs K100 for guests and visitors alike, plus another K100 for taking snaps. I could get in for free because the head waiter knew me. He was a great guy and had been an international volleyball player. Most people I mentioned his name to, recognised it.
Another, but non-governmental, place where dinner shows are staged, is the Ni La Ne Restaurant, also on Kandawgyi Lake. Prices are comparable and the food is also very good but the Karaweik is simply the best, also in terms of performances. Also good, but without a show, is the classy-looking (but conveniently located if staying in the Green Hill Inn - it's down the street) Holiday Restaurant. The head waiter there is a bit of a remnant of bygone days himself; he even speaks with a near-authentic English accent. A jolly chap to talk to.
The next morning, we finally saw Myanmar's top attraction and the very essence of the Buddhist religion : the Shwedagon Paya. It's the most highly revered religious monument in the country, enshrining a staff donated by Kakusandha, the first Buddha, a water filter donated by Konagamana, the second, a bathing robe donated by Kassapa, the third, and eight hairs donated by Gautama, the fourth and present Buddha. It's absolutely fantastic. I can tell you, if you've been in Myanmar for one month you've seen your share of temples and pagodas and if yet another one still makes a big impression on you, it must be incredible. Well, Shwedagon did - and yes, it's fabulous.
Shwedagon Paya is a lot more than just the pagoda most of us know from the guidebooks and travel brochures. The stupa is just the main focal object but around it are dozens of subsidiary buildings, shrines and objects - a cacophony of colour and gold. Gold of which the central stupa has plenty : allegedly 53 metric tonnes ! There's so much that even the rain water from the platform is collected to recover washed-away pieces of the precious coating.
As in all payas there are four entrances. Tourists are supposed to enter through the western one, although there's nobody to stop if you decide otherwise. The western entrance, however, is the only one with a visible ticket counter. Tickets are $5 per person and are valid for as long as you decide to stay, but the catch is that it's only valid for one entry. If you leave, even only briefly, and want to go in again, you have to pay another five bucks. A shitty rule, especially if you want to go out to eat something (an extremely basic cafe cum snack bar - to the right shortly after climbing the western stairway - is your only option; better bring something yourself). However, it can easily be overcome by leaving and re-entering by any of the three other entrances. I tried it and it worked fine. This could lead one into believing that entering from the north, east or south is a way to get in for free. Believe me, it's impossible, and the reason is that when you pay, you receive a sticker which you must attach in a clearly visible place. There are anonymous inspectors all over, keeping an eye out for foreigners without a badge. You won't notice they're there as long as you have such a sticker. But if you haven't, you'll soon be buying one. The colour of the stickers as well as the writing on them changes a couple of times daily too, so that the inspectors can see at what time of day you entered.
Another way to avoid having to pay twice, is to pay less. Sounds weird ? It's not too difficult to get the ladies selling the tickets to accept a bribe instead of another admission fee. As long as you have the sticker this should work. Be discreet, though; this is dangerous for them.
The western entrance is forbidden area for Burmese; only tourists are allowed - and hence there are no hawkers in sight. There's room to leave your shoes, decent toilets and even a shower area where you can wash your feet when you return.
A set of escalators leads up to the 58 metres (190 ft) high Singuttara Hill on which the pagoda platform is laid out. Upstairs there were many, many people. It was the festival of Tazaungdaing and a robe-weaving contest was taking place on the pagoda terrace. From dusk 'til dawn Burmese women compete to produce robes for Buddha images. When the time limit has expired, the resulting fabrics are donated to the monks.
I gazed at the nearly 100 metres (305 ft) high golden 'winking wonder', as Kipling liked to call the pagoda. It's very, very beautiful - although even at this height it was smaller than I'd expected. I think it was down to optical delusion.
Immediately to my left was the Shwedagon Museum where many little treasures can be seen. Worth a look. I didn't, however, intend to spend my time inside a museum, so I kept the visit short. There are so many things to see up there. All the guidebooks have a detailed overview of them, but regardless I'll point out a few I think you shouldn't miss.
Continuing to the north from the museum I soon reached the pavilion housing the Mahagandha Bell, donated by King Singu in 1778. After the First Anglo-Burmese War the British ferried the 23 tonnes heavy bronze colossus off to have guns made out of it. 'Miraculously' the ship transporting it sank, taking the bell with it. The British repeatedly tried to raise it but in vain. A year later the Burmese managed to fish it out of the water using 'primitive' techniques.
Virtually next door is the Hall of Great Prosperity, housing a nine metres (30 ft) high seated Buddha image. It's the largest on the Shwedagon platform and is very attractive.
Now continuing due east, I arrived at the Hall of the Buddha's Footprint. The interior is very beautiful; two rows of gilded Buddha figures with their backs against the pillars of the building flank the central hallway which was full of offerings, mostly green coconuts and bananas. Centrally behind these is the main Buddha with in front of it the highly revered footprint, which had thus far been hidden from sight. It's actually an enlarged copy of a footprint found somewhere in the mountains. The sole is inscribed with symbols representing the Buddhist conception of the universe. Believers drink the holy water inside the print to protect themselves from evil spirits.
Across the 'street' is the Hall of the Wizards, easily identifiable by the two brightly coloured figures flanking the entrance. It's more attractive on the outside than the inside. The building is actually the western hall of the Elder Brother Pagoda (or Naungdawgyi Paya), which is the second-highest structure on Singuttara Hill. It's a smaller version of Shwedagon and actually the place where the Buddha hairs were first enshrined before the 'bigger, younger brother' was constructed.
I followed the pathway (the one running between the Footprint and Wizards Halls) in southern direction. The last building on my left just before reaching the main stupa is a real eye catcher : the Mahabodhi Temple, modelled after the original temple at Bodhgaya, India. It is totally different from all other structures on the platform; the sikhara (temple finial) is covered with bright paintings depicting stories of the Buddha's life before and after enlightenment.
To the east of this, diagonally opposite the southern hall of the Elder Brother Pagoda, is another big bell : the Maha Tissadagandha, donated by King Tharawady. The beautiful bell weighs 42 tonnes and is the biggest in Myanmar, after the one at Mingun.
Strolling south I gazed at the main pagoda once more. It's surrounded by dozens of smaller stupas. On the cardinal and inter-cardinal points there are planetary posts at which devotees pour water over the Buddha and the animal representing their star sign.
Opposite the planetary post for Monday (associated with the moon and the tiger) is the eastern stairway, the longest and most beautiful of the four. Its green roofs are stunning. It's worth going down (either using the lift or stairs) to have a look from below. The stairway is so long it's even intersected by a road !
Back on the terrace we continued to the south-eastern corner, which is probably the dullest - although that's not exactly the correct term for anything here. It is there, however, that one can find the most important bo tree of the whole platform. It is said to have grown from a sapling of the original Banyan tree under which the Gautama Buddha gained enlightenment.
Just before the southern stairway I passed the Hall of the Carrousel, where people throw coins at silver bowls placed on a revolving table. If they make a wish and throw a coin in the correct bowl, their wish is said to be granted.
In the south-western corner stands the Shrine of the Moon and the Sun. It's only a small edifice but a highly popular one. It's easily recognised by the two round golden plates above the entrance; they represent a peacock (symbol of the sun) and a hare (symbol of the moon).
We headed north, passing a glass case with two nats inside; one is Bo Bo Gyi, the guardian nat of Shwedagon. Before I knew I was standing at the western exit again. Of course I went around a few times more, but I think I've summed up the most important things to see.
Several people will try to make you hire them as a guide, and actually it's not such a bad idea. There's a lot to see, and there are many details which are easily missed when on your own, even if you have map and/or a guidebook. You can hire official and unofficial guides, but I wouldn't dare say the official ones have a better knowledge of the place. I engaged U Tun Min, an elderly guy, very religious and with a good knowledge of the English language. He was a poor chap and could use some money. He never let me down and provided me with a wealth of information. Perhaps you'll see him when you're there; if not, he lives at 45/9 Panhlaing Housing, Panhlaing Rd., Kyimyandine, Yangon.
Just before sunset a really peculiar sound, clearly produced by gongs, resounded over the Shwedagon terrace. I headed towards it. It was a Kathein procession. Kathein is a one-month period at the end of Buddhist lent during which robes and requisites are offered to the monks.
The men participating in it were dressed very colourful, very traditional. It occurred to me, though, that none of them smiled or was happy. I asked someone about it; I said : "Why do these people have such long faces ? I thought the robe offering ceremony was supposed to be a happy one ?" He said : "They don't have much to smile about. In Myanmar life is very hard and the people have no reason to be happy."
It had been a wonderful day, almost exclusively dedicated to what in my opinion certainly is one of the wonders of the new world : Shwedagon Paya.
I wanted to phone home but the central telephone office on Mahabandoola Street was already closed; as a matter of fact, it already closes at 4.30 pm, even sooner on holidays. Fortunately, there's a privately owned little office virtually next door, in Pansodan Street, near the intersection with Mahabandoola St. Rates are obviously higher than at the official office but if it's urgent, this can be a life-saver. Big was my surprise when I saw that it was even possible to send e-mails from this place. I saw it with my own eyes. It wasn't cheap (K1,000 for a short message, K1,500 for longer mails) but definitely possible.
The final day of the trip was breaking. Our plane was scheduled to leave at 8.20 pm, and we had to be in the airport two hours early, so we still had almost an entire day. We used it to leisurely see some more sights.
We saw the famous Strand Hotel, the most exclusive place in the country, and the Kheng Hock Keong Chinese temple further down Strand Road. We didn't visit it as it was undergoing extensive renovations and looked more like a construction site.
We passed several colonial buildings, and eventually reached the township of Okkalapa. There is a new complex, the Melamu Paya. It resembles a kind of Buddhist fancy-fair but everything is exceptionally well-done. Lots of colourful Buddha images and even a giant crocodile in which one can walk around. Foreigners are very much a novelty here.
The Kaba Aye Paya, close to Inya Lake, is a nice place. Although it's beautiful, particularly on the outside, one doesn't necessarily need to visit it for its looks, but because it's just a nice, untouristy place with only very nice people. They were happy we came to have a look at 'their' pagoda; there was no pressure on us to give anything at all - which is in stark contrast to the Maha Wizaya Paya. As a matter of fact, the girls collecting the donations were quite surprised I gave something at all. I bought two postcards, paid with a K500 note and told her she could use the change as a donation. She was very happy indeed and not only gave me my cards, but also added two extra ones and wrote my name on an A4-sized honorary receipt printed in golden letters. She then handed me 32 gold leaves (K15 per piece), neatly packed in a plastic cover and accompanied by a small note in Burmese, which I then had to 'post' in a dedicated donation box.
Nearby is the Maha Pasan Guha, an gigantic artificial cave resembling a sports stadium. It was built for the Sixth Buddhist Synod in 1954. It's not interesting and the guys at the door really hassled me for donations. I got really pissed off and left.
A far better place to go and have a look is the recently built (and not so far away) Shwe Taw Myat Paya, the Buddha Tooth Relic Pagoda. It looks like a cross between the Ananda Pahto of Bagan and an Indian temple. The spire has an unusual 'twist'; it's rotated over several degrees relative to the substructure - this at first looks like a construction flaw. The temple doesn't actually have a real tooth relic; it's only a copy. This, however, doesn't bother the many devotees who flock here.
Our last couple of hours in Burma we spent on the edge of Inya Lake, which is about five times as big as Kandawgyi Lake. Most areas around the lake shore are off-limits, though, because it's where government officials live and state guest houses are built. Former man in power, Ne Win, as well as NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi have their residences here as well. It was impossible to get near these places. University Road, where Aung San Suu Kyi lives, was completely shut off by heavily guarded road blocks. Everyone approaching it was subject to (hard) questioning. Being caught trying to sneak in, would definitely result in deportation.
The best spot to head to is the dike running along Pyay Road. A stroll on it must be one of the best ways of meeting people in Yangon, especially youngsters; most of them were happy to talk. There's a lot of kiting going on here. If you're interested in having a go yourself, there are several guys renting them.
At one end there are several shady places to have a drink or snack.
From the road I hardly realised we had arrived at the airport. It's a tiny, low building. A small illuminated sign says 'Yangon International Airport' but because several lamps were broken it said something totally illegible.
I said good-bye to Phone Kyaw and thanked him for a great service. Having him around never really bothered me. He was a real gentleman and a great guy to talk to. My companion is kind of quiet by nature, so Phone Kyaw was a life-saver on the long (and sometimes tiresome) journeys. Check-in and security procedures were well-organised. We just followed directions. There were no hassles, although security was high and searches thorough. Departure tax was US$10.
The service aboard the Yangon-Bangkok flight was excellent, the cabin crew of the BKK-Frankfurt flight was unfriendly - same story as when we got to Myanmar. And Frankfurt airport was able to worsen the opinion I already had of it... Upon arrival, I searched in vain for a transfer desk that was open; we hadn't received our boarding passes for the connecting flight to Brussels yet. I decided to inquire about it at an Info desk. The clerk was one metre away from me and looking at his computer screen. Suddenly he started talking, but I couldn't figure out at first whether it was to me or the microphone he was wearing. It turned out he was addressing me, so I asked where we could get the boarding passes. We'd get it at the gate, he answered. Fine.
We went for a drink at the only place open that early in the morning, the Steigenberger Flughafen Restaurant Leonardo da Vinci. A cocky, fat waiter handed me a menu. I ordered a yoghurt. He sneered at me that yoghurt had to be ordered in the restaurant and as that was closed, I couldn't have it. There was no indication of this on the menu but, all right, "bring me a Coke then". He sniffed denigratingly and waggled off. Big was my surprise when I saw the bill afterwards : 6.30 German Marks for a small Coke ?!? That's US$3.10, ladies and gentlemen, gratuity not included !
We headed to the departure gate but couldn't get our boarding passes there. We should have gotten it from the transfer desk ?? The guy working at Transfer tried to be helpful but managed to mess up the IDs of the baggage tags and finally crashed the computer trying to undo his error. Several other people were called in; the lady who arrived as the fifth in line managed to set things right and finally, about 90 minutes later, we set foot on Belgian soil again.
It had been a wonderful, educational trip in a country troubled by political problems but inhabited by disarmingly friendly people.