After spending the morning walking around downtown, I decided to venture out a bit further in the afternoon, drawn to the golden vision I’d seen the previous night from the backseat of a taxi – Shwedagon Pagoda. It didn’t seem so far on the map, and the route was quite direct – just walk north along Shwedagon Pagoda Road. From the hostel, I walked up Sule Pagoda Road one block, before cutting west along Bo Gyoke Road. In the days of British Burma, it was known as Montgomery Road, but independence led to a wave of re-naming throughout the country. The old Scott’s Market was also given a new name, and I made a small detour through the Bogyoke Aung San Market, named after General Aung San. I personally found very little of interest among its stalls, but I certainly don’t pretend to speak for the average person. At the corner of Bo Gyoke Road and Shwedagon Pagoda Road stands the Holy Trinity Cathedral, a 120-year-old Anglican church. The top of its white tower can be spotted from quite a ways away, standing out against blue skies and palm fronds, and I made a beeline for the red-brick building through the dusty crowds and traffic below.
I turned north once I reached Shwedagon Pagoda Road, where I very shortly came across a bridge that spanned a set of train tracks. A closer look revealed a simple station tucked into the shadows, with dozens of people milling about along the platform edge. Phaya Lan Station is part of the Yangon Circular Railway, a 39-station loop of the city and its satellite townships, the slow-moving trains taking around three hours to complete an entire circuit. Families and commuters lingered on both sides of the tracks, as children played on the rusted rails. In the distance, two women emerged from the mists of the ravine bottom, following the tracks west across the city, before curving around slowly to the north. Not five minutes later, a whistle sounded from around the bend, and an old train wheezed into the station, the pine green cars plastered with Red Bull logos. Men in yellow helmets casually jogged up to the open doors, grabbed a handle, and pulled themselves into the still-moving train, getting a head start on the patient crowds on the other side of the cars. With tickets costing just 200 kyat (less than 0.15 USD/1.13 HKD), the Yangon Circular Railway is a cheap way to see the city at a more leisurely pace, but I would save that experience for another day.
When the train finally pulled out of the station, I went back up to street level and continued up Shwedagon Pagoda Road. After walking for about 20 minutes, I came across the Kandawmin Garden Mausolea, a complex housing the mausolea of four of the most significant figures in Myanmar’s modern history, including U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Supayalat, the last queen of Burma. Throughout this trip I read Amitav Ghosh’s superb novel, The Glass Palace, which features Supayalat and the rest of her exiled household in the first part of the book, and seeing her mausoleum was a nice parallel to the events I was reading about in my spare time. On the opposite side of the street from the Kandawmin Garden Mausolea stands the Maha Wizaya Pagoda, a relatively new structure, built in 1980 by the government to commemorate the establishment of a committee overseeing all Buddhist monks in the country. I didn’t bother to go in, though, as the Shwedagon Pagoda beckoned from a block away, where Shwedagon Pagoda Road meets U Htaung Bo Road.
After removing my flip-flops, I walked through the covered arcade towards the heart of the complex. Shops selling souvenirs and flowers lined both sides of the tiled path, rising slowly as it climbed the gentle slope of Singuttara Hill. A security checkpoint guarded the bottom of the final set of stairs, a reminder of the lingering tension and unrest below the surface in Yangon, most significantly in the form of four bombings in the city in November. It was a quiet afternoon at the pagoda, however, and the security guard lazily waved me through. When I reached the entrance, however, I encountered an obstacle far more effective than an X-Ray machine – my shorts. I was perfectly willing to shell out 8000 kyat for the entrance fee, but I balked at the 5000 kyat price for a longyi, a cylindrical robe worn by nearly everybody in Myanmar. Defeated by my inappropriate attire, and knowing that I had plenty of time over the next few weeks to make a return trip, I turned around and started the long walk back to the hostel.
In the evening, I met up with my fellow interns to grab dinner. With no particular restaurant in mind, we walked east along Anawrahta Road, named after the celebrated king and founder of the Pagan Empire. On one of the side streets that criss cross Anawrahta Road, we saw a food stall and a covered eating area, and, through pointing, gestures, and bits of stray English, we ordered a few bowls of the ubiquitous Shan noodles, a staple of kitchens throughout Yangon. I’m not very adept at describing food, but the broth had a rich flavour and a hint of spice, which I enjoyed. After dinner we walked back towards Sule Pagoda Road, turning south to check out some of the street snacks on the dimly-lit pedestrian walkway. We stopped by a small metal cart selling fried quail eggs in shallow wicker baskets, popping them quickly into our mouths before they cooled down. As we we walked and ate, however, we noticed a large crowd gathering and moving towards Maha Bandula Park, just around the corner.
As we rounded the bend, we saw a massive outdoor crowd by the northern edge of Maha Bandula Park. They were all facing a giant screen set up on an elevated stage, where a game of football was being shown. Myanmar was playing Thailand in the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup that night, a biennial football tournament between the countries of Southeast Asia, and, all around us, people were waving Myanmar flags and sporting the national kits. In the glow of the Sule Pagoda, faces reflected the ebbs and flows of the match, the excitement rippling through the crowd whenever the Myanmar team threatened to score.
In the end, Thailand came out on top, by a score of 2-0, but that did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the spectators. Even after the final whistle, the crowd lingered, gathering in small groups to, presumably, discuss the details of the match. A fair number kept their eyes glued to the screen, as a post-match report began to play. I found myself separated from my fellow interns for a while, having each wandered on our own paths throughout the game, and by the time we found each other, the fans had begun to disperse. Lumbering buses belching clouds of smoke stopped on the roadside, attendants leaning out the doors to yell out destinations and pull passengers up and into the vehicle, while the more able-bodied were still making their way down from their perches in the treetops. Streams of bodies navigated the chaotic traffic, forging paths and channels in between trucks and cars, flags and national team jerseys lit up in the sea of headlights, before melting away into the city.