"The Burmese girls in Rangoon know many tricks
The betel leaves on their baskets can seduce you…"
Yes, that is why Rangoon is so colourful.
Word has it the boys of this subcontinent would not want to return to their respective countries once they travelled to Rangoon. I have read this about Rangoon in novels, short-stories, song lyrics and various legends.
The current name of this city in Myanmar is Yangon. But I love the old name. I travelled to Yangon with all the memories I had in my mind through reading about the city at a time when coronavirus first hit China but the news was yet to be circulated all over the world.
I first learned the name Rangoon from Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novel "Srikanta". The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II was exiled to Rangoon by the British. There he died and was buried there.
I found a story about modern Myanmar titled "On the Way to Maungdaw" written by Bipradas Barua while teaching Bengali literature to my eight-grader son. Later I read a 2017 report in BBC Bangla based on that story.
There arose some questions over some of the information presented there. Bipradas Barua was asked about that. I read his book "Aporup Myanmar" (Beautiful Myanmar) later. Apart from Bipradas Barua and Mostafizur Rahman, I do not know any Bangladeshi writer who has written about travelling to Myanmar. However, I found some online features on the issue.
Rangoon was one of the richest cities in Asia in 1962. The main reason for moving the capital was probably the political instability of the country. I wanted to travel there to see what Sarat Babu's Rangoon looks like now. He lived there for 10 long years. Rabindranath Tagore also travelled Myanmar in 1924. I started my journey to stay seven days in the country.
The thing that suddenly caught my eye at Yangon Airport was that all the men and women were wearing lungi, except for a few officers. The boy who came to receive me at the airport was named Ya Lin Htet. A very funny young man. He got in the car and handed me a bag with a Burmese lungi for the girls, a bottle of water, a few postcards and a book titled "Do's and Don'ts for Tourists". I loved the process of welcoming guests.
Lin shared many stories in the car. I wanted to know about the public transport system in Yangon. He said everything except motorbikes run through the streets of the city. We reached my hotel "Summit Park View" very soon.
In this article, I will share some of my travel experiences about some special places in Yangon.
The golden god of Myanmar
Everyone in Myanmar calls the Shwedagon Pagoda by this name. In Buddhism, 27 Buddhas came to earth before Gautama Buddha. Apart from Gautama Buddha, sacred relics of three other Buddhas are preserved here – the water filter of Kakusandha Buddha, chibar of Konagamana Buddha and some materials used by Kashyapa Buddha. It is believed that two or three locks of hairs of Gautama Buddha are also preserved here.
The height of the main pagoda is 326 feet. It was built on Singuttar Hill in 500 BC. At first, it was 66 feet high. The importance of this place increased throughout history and the kings from generation to generation continued to decorate the pagoda. The top of this pagoda is decorated with several precious stones including diamond and gold. However, tourists cannot go to the top of the pagoda.
In 1608, the Portuguese explorer Filipe de Brito visited the pagoda. The then king of the country gave him a great bell weighing around 300 tonnes. On the way back, the bell sank in the Bago River and was lost forever. Gasparo Balbi, a Venetian jeweler, was fascinated by it in 1583. In 1779, another bell called Mahagandha was made weighing 23 tonnes. In 1824, the British invaded Myanmar. They tried to send the bell to Kolkata but it also sank.
Rabindranath Tagore came here in 1924 and as far as I can remember I saw a picture with the nameplate of the poet in a feature in 2017. The author wrote the article from Canada. I have forgotten the name of the writer. My guide could not show me that nameplate.
It takes about four hours to see the Shwedagon Pagoda. The whole yard is quite large, but the craftsmanship of various pagodas is spectacular. At the entrance of the pagoda, tourists are given a lungi and must enter the pagoda by taking off their shoes and socks. The authorities request that everyone visits the pagoda in modest clothes.
Tea culture in Yangon
They say if you want to know Yangon, you have to drink a cup of tea watching the British colonial buildings downtown, sitting on the side of the road. Everyone in this country is familiar with tea culture. However, the tea culture in China, Japan, Mongolia and Europe may be a little different. There are different types, tastes and flavours of tea in these countries. The custom of drinking tea mixed with milk and sugar is mainly seen in the subcontinent.
However, in Yangon, there are two types of tea, green tea and milk tea with sugar. In addition to roadside shops, elite tea houses have sprung up downtown. Among them, "Rangoon Tea House" has earned quite a name. However, everywhere, whether in roadside tea stalls or in the elite places, you will be given free green tea but you have to pay for milk. My guide said, in Myanmar, green tea came from Mongolia and milk tea from India.
Another interesting item is the tea leaf salad. Tea leaves are processed and sold in every market in Yangon to make tea leaf salad. Tea leaves are served with various types of fried pulses, lemon, and ginger together. It is also available at every roadside food stall and in big restaurants. When I returned home I asked many people about tea leaf salad. Some of them said they had eaten the smashed tea leaves in Sylhet, but didn't know anything about tea leaf salad.
The tomb of Bahadur Shah II
The British captured the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II and exiled him to the state of Arakan as punishment for aiding the sepoy mutiny. He died in captivity on 7 November, 1862 in Yangon.
His tomb is located on Ji Wa Ka Street in Yangon. The tomb of the last emperor of the Mughal Empire is much simpler than that of other emperors of the same dynasty. His memory was almost lost. In 1991, while excavating in Yangon, some workers found this tomb.
People have to enter the tomb through an iron gate. The name of the emperor is written in front of the gate. This place is very sacred to the Muslims of Yangon. Not only Muslims but people from all walks of life come here because he was a Sufi practitioner.
The tombs of his wife Zeenat and granddaughter Raunaq Zamani are on the ground floor of the complex. The tomb of the emperor is below the first floor. However, the mausoleum is made entirely of modern tiles.
The officer in charge of the tomb said the emperor's poems, songs and ghazals are quite popular in Yangon. The last Mughal emperor was a famous poet of Urdu language.
Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda
The Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda is a popular tourist destination in Yangon as it houses a 216-foot-tall Buddha statue, the largest in Myanmar. This half-lying beautifully decorated statue was erected in 1906. The feet of the statue are divided into 108 sections with red and gold colours that describe the qualities of the Buddha.
Traditionally, people in Myanmar believed that their capital is the centre of the world. And that is why they are called Myanmar Subarnabhumi.
There is so much more to see in Yangon. If you go to the Old Town, you can see various types of colonial buildings. Women shopkeepers and traders will be seen everywhere in the market. Another interesting thing is that, in Yangon, the name of each area in the Old Town is designated with numbers, such as 33rd Street. My guide said the British named the areas with numbers from 1 to 100.
This is just a part of my experience from my travels in Myanmar. Another thing that I observed is that they are working very seriously with the tourism industry and the youth are engaging themselves in tourism.