After a better trip than the northbound one (comfier seats, more legroom, quieter telly and milder aircon) the bus arrived into Yangon at a little before 7am. I rebuffed all offers of a taxi and walked out of the bus station. This isn’t as easy as it sounds as the “station” is more like a vast industrial estate with many roads through it. The trick is to get your bags quickly and start following the full taxis as they’re heading for the main road.
Once there, I turned left towards the city and walked for about ten minutes until I was asked by a driver if I needed a taxi. From here, it was 4000K – around half what I’d have paid when I stepped off the bus. You can use this trick at the airport as well.
With a little luck and guidance we managed to find Motherland (2) where I’d stayed when I first arrived in Myanmar. A dorm bed was available and I dropped my things and sat down to breakfast.
I got talking to two guys in my dorm, both German. One’s in his fifties, I’d guess, and has been traveling for 6 years. The other is the guy who owns the tri-shaw that the NGO member I met 13 days ago told me about. He offered to pedal me up to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda as it was on his way to work. He also bought most of my Kyats back from me at the same rate I paid for them in US Dollars. Smart.
As he said as we were cycling, “this is the easiest way to get the locals to smile!” And smile they did as they watched a white guy pedalling another white guy along the street. They also clapped. And waved. And pointed. And told their friends to look. It was rather cool.
He dropped me a short walk from the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the jewel in the crown of all the religous monuments in Myanmar. By all accounts a must-see even with the government-imposed $5 foreigner tax. As ever, I’m not averse to entrance fees if the cash goes to the upkeep of whatever it is you’re seeing, but not when it goes into some corrupt bum-wipe’s back pocket. My judgement is based on the opinion of the local people regarding skipping the payment. Unanimously it’s been “avoid it” and they know better than anyone else.
So skip it I did. It’s not tremendously easy, but the route I took was to walk round to the east entrance. Just past the guards on the entry there is a set of gates which were open. Up there as far as I could go and then across the walkway to the west entrance (with escalators, believe it or not). The ticket check is above the escalators, so the trick was to walk up the left hand stairs. Immediately at the top of these is an opening into the Pagoda itself. You have to be sneaky, but you can slip in this way without being seen.
Apparently the entry ticket includes a sticker you’re supposed to display prominently, but I’ve always found that these fall off anyway. None of the so-called inspectors seemed to be in attendance anyway so I just enjoyed myself.
It really is something special. Rather than simply being a load of bling, it’s like a small town surrounding an enormous (nearly 100m-tall) stupa covered in gold. All the buildings are different styles, colours and so on. Some people seem to have a preference for praying at one or another, I’m sure with good reason. But it really is pretty amazing.
The only downside was that the stupa itself is currently covered in a latticework as – I assume – work is done on it. Or as the generals steal a load of the gems encrusting the upper levels and replace them with coloured glass.
I was up there for almost two hours before sneaking past the desk again in case they got arsey about my lack of sticker. At the bottom of the stairs, two monks tried to get $1 out of me for looking after my shoes. Even though they hadn’t. It’s typical round here – the monks really are different from elsewhere in SE Asia. I’ve seen them begging, smoking, drinking, driving Jeeps, chewing betelnut… you name it.
On the walk back into town I stopped for a chilled Star Cola and to scratch a cat behind the ears. I was on the point of getting a pizza for lunch, but picked up a whole ear of boiled corn and half a pineapple. Even at the upper level of pricing for these (300K and 500K) it was cheaper than the pizza and better for me.
Back at the hostel, the older German chap bought a chunk of my US Dollars off me in exchange for Australian ones at the prevailing exchange rate, which will have saves me a bit. I’ll change the rest in KL as the commission in Oz is mad.
A quick trip up the road garnered me some sweets and beer for when the football’s on this evening and now I’m typing up the last few entries that I’ll upload in KL.