2015, 2012, 2011
Travelling to Myanmar at the moment is extremely problematic.
On so many levels.
I'm posting this information in case things change . Which though unlikely as of 2023, doesn't mean Myanmar couldn't surprise again in the next couple of years.
Yangon for many people is Shwedagon Paya, and probably Sule Paya. In the case of Shwedagon this is fair enough; this is one of the great religious structures in the world, and rewards multiple visits at different times of the day. However Yangon has quite a few other attractions, and there are easily arranged day trips to the north & south with fascinating glimpses of places and life in Myanmar.Shwedagon Paya dominates the life of Yangon.
There are four entrances; the south is the closest to downtown Yangon, the east is the most lively, with subsiduary temples outside and a long set of stairs full of vendors, the north entrance is often used for buses, and the west is the quietest. The east & north entrances have lifts available.
As I said, it's well worth visiting at different times. The early mornings are quiet & reverential, the middle of the day sees local tourists en masse, and the evenings can be spectacular as the light changes. Apart from which there are so many nooks & crannies of interest it's impossible to take in in one visit. Oddly, Shwedagon is almost the only paya where you won't find nat shrines dotted around the perimeter.
Botataung Paya & surrounds
Walking around the central area of Yangon, either early morning or late afternoon has the bonus of a city teeming with variety, and a large, though disappearing stock of old colonial buildings and monuments to see.
Often left off the agenda though is Botataung Paya, the third of Yangon's main payas. On the waterfront east of the central area it's a hub of local worshipers. Inside are magnificent gold plated meditation rooms, and a motley collection of donated goods, while the compound has a pool seething with turtles, lively nat shrines, and some other ornate Buddhas in separate buildings. Plus the waterfront docks for ferries & local traffic are at the end of the road.
Another worthwhile double header are the twin attractions of Chaukhtatgyi Paya and Ngahtatgyi Paya, virtually across the road from each other on facing hills. The first houses an enormous reclining Buddha. The second houses a beautiful seated Buddha surrounded by ornate wood carved screens.
Yangon is a good base for a number of day trips. Bago, to the north, and, to the south, a trip to YeLe Paya, constructed on an island in an Irrawaddy tributary, are recommended detours. The second destination, needing to hop on a short boat trip with local pilgrims & tourists is worthwhile in itself, but along the way there are some wonderfully idiosyncratic temples built of teak & tin. The road itself follows along the ridge lines of higher ground in this floodplain region, and is a nice taster to delta life in Myanmar.
Bago is a somewhat scrappy city with a plethora of interesting sights. A couple of hours drive north east of Yangon, it's quite feasible to see most of these in a long day trip. Given what's on offer though a couple of days could easily be spent in town and around. Most trains to both the north and south also pass through Bago.
Bago has a turbulent history, coming & going as a centre of both empire and religious activity. A relative backwater through the 20th century, many of it's buildings and traditions retain a traditional focus. It is home to at least two major payas, a thriving (though increasingly touristed) monastery scene, some historical reconstructions (some a bit dubious), and some wonderfully quirky 'only in Myanmar' things.
The largest paya in Bago is Shwemawdaw Paya, whose gold encrusted spire looms over the city. Partly destroyed in an earthquake (remnants of the earlier paya are displayed) then rebuilt, it retains a traditional Burmese focus on Buddhism. Around the outskirts you can find buildings housing fortune tellers, mechanical devices to toss donations at, and some very odd & appealing statuary.
Behind Shwemawdaw Paya is Hintha Gon Paya. Much smaller, this is home to nats by the dozen, the mythical Hansa bird, and a regular place for local nat related ceremonies and worship. The interior is quite beautiful, and there often seems to be a pwe either in progress or musical rehearsals for one. Recommended.
Kya Kha Wain Kyaung is one of the largest monasteries in Myanmar. Early morning processionals, or the 10.30 return for lunch, are a sight where the 500 monks still outnumber the tourists.
Typical of Bago's syncretic approach to Buddhism is the Snake Monastery, where an enormous snake, rumoured to be over 100 years old, is revered as the reincarnation of a famous monk. On the outskirts of town, mornings are the go to see locals there. In the afternoon you might have to wake the snake's keeper up from his nap on top of this creature.
Other Buddhist sites include the giant reclining Buddha at Shwethalyuang, the four giant seated Buddhas at Kyaik Pun Paya just outside town, with fresh paint adorning their 500 year old selves, and several other large & small payas.