songkran

Yangon Old Rangoon


Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset.

This is second part of three part series about Spring 2019 trip to Burma (Myanmar).

Am sitting in a cafe in Bangkok, reminiscing my recent trip to Burma and trying mold materials into something. Am watching outside as Thailand is preparing a week of Songran. Similar works were ongoing in Yangon, for Burmese equivalent called Thingyan. When new year was observed at the time am roughly placing this post, it was modest religious festival, not outlandish water splashing riot of today.


Sule Pagoda at dusk. According to legends, its even older than better known Shwedagon. Being outskirts of downtown, Shwedagon has had room to grow, whereas Sule is in the middle of traffic junction in old town, and surrounded by a lot of buildings.

Due to its long isolation, Burmese old colonial architecture has survived relatively well. Demolition of building blocks didn’t occur as much, but old buildings suffered from neglect and lack of renovation funds over the years. City east-west and north-south grid pattern was laid by British, after the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. However, judging old maps prior the war, city already had layout that supported the design.


Above: old map of Yangon before Second Anglo-Burmese War. “Rough sketch (from memory) of old town of Rangoon, as it existed between 1836 and 1849. Obligingly to the author by a resident during those years, July 1852.”
Bellow: Yangon today from Google Maps. Grid pattern was centered to Sule Pagoda, although map above suggest there was same directional roads to it already in early part of 1800’s (likely the road heading north from Main Wharf).


Something new, something moulding. Yangon downtown.


Streets of Yangon.


More street shots from Yangon.


Yangon River crossing is lively scene of small boats coming and going to Dala side.


Buddhist monks and nuns can be seen every morning doing their alms walks. Pious Burmese consider it their honor to donate food.

The Secretariat

Secretariat is former Victorian style administration complex, and was used by British colonial civil servants and bureaucrats. Its building was long project which completed 1905. In 1937 Burma Province was separated from rest of British India, giving more local authority for people working in Secretariat. Next phase came after the independence in 1948 when British left, giving keys to Burmese themselves.

Complex forms a large square U-arch.

Inside Secretariat. Saloon doors, long corridors that channel winds for cooling effect, long halls with high roofs, these are some of characteristics of Secretariat. Complex is currently empty and is ongoing big restoration program.


Opposing double spiral staircases were a fashionable thing at the time of building.


Secretariat was also location where assassination of General Aung San and six of cabinet ministers took place in this room (above) in 1947. Its currently closed from public (photo taken through window). Aung San is father of modern Myanmar’s prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi.


Saint Mary’s Cathedral (completed 1899) is largest in Burma, and right next to Secretariat. Combining visit to both is easy.

At Shwedagon

Perhaps best known landmark of Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Its in vicinity of the downtown, but walking there takes quite a while. Taxi at the time of writing cost around 8000 Kyats (around 5 Dollars). Shwedagon Pagoda is also well known by Buddhists outside Burma as its considered most sacred religious sites in the country, could hear for example Thai spoken by some visitors. Wikipedia:

Historians and archaeologists maintain that the pagoda was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. However, according to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, which would make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world.

Snake Temple, Hmwe Paya


Hmwe Paya. Temple is on other side of the Yangon river. Dala ferry takes 15 minutes to cross, then hiring a taxi or motorbike to reach the temple is around 30 minute drive. Locals know about it, so if heading there on your own, they can point you to right direction.


Temple is home of large Pythons slithering among the Buddha statues.

Obviously there’s lots more to explore and see in Yangon, for example the old ring railway, various parks in the city, Chinatown and 19th street bar and barbecue restaurants and food stalls. Hotel Strand is renovated old luxury hotel, nice stop for a coffee even if not wanting to pay for its room rates. Back in 2013 (my first trip to Yangon), Strand was one of few places where stable Internet was available, so times change… And, as they continue to change, city would benefit a lot from developed riverfront, currently occupied by large harbor.

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Songkran Ride: Mae Hong Son loop

Mae Hong Son loop is name for set of scenic serpentine roads crossing hills and valleys of north west corner of Thailand. Loop starts and ends to Chiangmai, the second largest city after capital Bangkok. There are several route options one can choose. This link describes the loop more in detail. I followed Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang route with a friend year ago, but switched Mae Sariang this time to Mae Chaem. This turned out to be good idea as views were better and could more easily visit Doi Ithanon, the highest point in the country. Edit: Ha Giang Loop in northern Vietnam is similar riding experience and highly recommended!

Route as my phone recorded it (for some reason Google had determined farthest distance being 88.095 miles. Route in total is about 500-600km)

Infrastructure is well developed and guesthouses can easily be found all along the route. And, occasionally fascinating restaurant or coffee shop too. These services are best in Pai and Mae Hong Son, but are not nonexistent elsewhere either. Compared to its neighbours, Thailand have had more time and better resources to improve its road network. For most part road was in good condition. Driving style is “interesting” to be put mildly. Car drivers generally consider bikers as their inferiors, that stay away and give way when needed. This can be seen especially on big highways, but sometimes on smaller roads as well. After 10am to around 4pm, especially now when rain season had not started yet, sun can be tormenting. Good sun glasses and lotion are a must!


What is Songkran, is best illustrated with photos 🙂

Am big camera and photo nut and would normally take real camera with me. But as it was Songkran, the Thai new year, the water splashing is guaranteed everywhere from big cities to small roads in the middle of nowhere. So decided to keep electronics at minimum, and just use smartphone for everything. Same device is invaluable these days with maps, routes and location tracking. And searching information about guesthouses.

For the transport, chose my 150cc Honda PCX. Its not torque oozing touring bike, but rather just a big scooter. I found it enough for one person to pull up the mountains. Tank is big enough for about one to two hundred kilometres, while the engine is not as thirsty as in bigger bikes. Compartment under the seat takes helmet plus stuff such as clothes, sandals etc. Dedicated box behind the seat wound improve the storage abilities even further. I tried 300cc “jumbo scooter” Honda Forza few months ago, and for two persons would not choose anything smaller in Mae Hong Son. Many locals and tourists alike wont care, and storm around with their 110cc Scoopy’s and Fino’s. Going by car would obviously be safest, and with aircon, one does not have to care about scorching sun. But because road is so curvy, one has to have a good stomach. Knowing breaking techniques is also mandatory, as overheated breaks loose their grip. Least on personal preference, good curvy roads on nice warm weather are so much more enjoyable on two wheels that decision was easy.

Region is Himalayan foothills that span across North Burma, Thailand, Laos and Yunnan in South China. Region was largely unknown to the world until 19th century, and plurality of ethnics that populate region is stunning. Different hill tribes live in countryside, their remote villages can be accessed by hiring a local travel agent or self-searching the information. I did three village trips to Kayan (Karenni) villages. They are also known as “long neck women”, because of their custom for women to wear brass rings around their neck. There are several theories why this became to be. One is that rings were intended to make women look less attractive, for raiding parties from neighbouring tribes. Other is that rings were intended as protection against tigers, the beast biting to neck of its prey. Third is that they were meant as protection against evil spirits. Am sure there is also fourth and fifth theory at least. Before there were any border demarcated between Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand), hill tribes moved freely in the region and Thailand has its own ethnic minorities. But today most Kayan people here are refugees from purges by military junta in neighbouring Burma.

Huai Sua Tao is most easily found and accessible, south west from Mae Hong Son centre. Only about 20-30 minutes drive. Its also smallest and most touristy, entry fee is 250 Thai Baht at the time of writing. Women are selling souvenirs for visitors.

Second village is more genuine, and north west of Mae Hong Son centre called Ban Nai Soi. Drive there takes bit of road manoeuvring skill. Road is usable only with dirt bikes during monsoon season. Some locals felt even surprised me showing up one late afternoon.

The best experience was to village of Nam Phiang Din, further south west from first village. It stands beside river Mae Pai that crosses the border nearby. To visit the village, one has to cross the river with help of locals. Entry costs 200 Baht plus 20 Baht for the boat men. Village is biggest than two earlier, has genuine feel in it. People are doing other things there, rather than just wait tourists to show up. Dogs seemed to roam everywhere, which at night time can a surprise. Children were playing on mud streets, adults minding their businesses such as fixing boats, carrying fire wood and caring their young ones. Chicken and pigs were doodling about as well. This meditating place would be good choice, when wanting to escape hectic city life for a moment.

While Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, work of Christian missionaries in 19th century can still be seen in hill tribes

Had strong rain shower when heading up to Doi Ithanon, as last part of my trip. While feeling wet and cold, rain also cleared temples from tourists and had nice moments reading about Buddha in silence.