17 April 2016
The titles might be getting repetitive, but they correspond to how the city has changed over the three days we’ve been here. On Sunday it was New Year’s Day in Myanmar. The water throwing was over and the city descended into (I actually spent a large part of the day thinking of adjectives to describe it) a scorching, blazing, blistering, searing, sizzling, miserable hell. I had not slept well the night before, waking up continuously for no apparent reason. We had to be at the airport in the afternoon, and so decided it would be the ideal time to visit the sight of all sights in Yangon, the Shwe Dagon pagoda.
I won’t get into the history of it here, assuming that everybody can look that up on Wikipedia. Let’s just say that high noon on the most important public holiday in the country in the hottest month of the year is NOT the ideal time to visit. Seeing as we were experts at public transport in the city by this time, it was not an issue getting there (or close to there). The road leading up to the entrance was packed with cars, while a stream of people including ourselves trudged up the sidewalk. Shoes must be removed at the gate and then it’s a long climb up numerous steps to reach the main “plaza”.
Thankfully, this staircase is completely covered and the wide, shaded corridor is lined with shop after shop selling everything from prayer books to fluorescent flashing singing plastic dolls on horseback, and more useful items like parasols and fans (which I probably should have invested in). We only made it halfway up before I had to stop and sit outside under a tree to rest. We then continued and emerged onto the circular plaza that surrounds the most astonishing, massive stupa, surrounded with shrines and smaller stupas and thousands of Buddhas – entirely covered in gold.
I have never seen anything so completely golden, and in the high noon sun, it blazed like fire, reflecting the glare onto the marble tiling all around. As it is forbidden to wear shoes in any Buddhist temple, walking around this marvellous sight was a sort of torturous feat, similar to walking on hot coals.
I made it a few metres before having to sit down again, and we continued at this rate around the circumference of the pagoda. It can’t be more than 500 metres but it took us close to an hour, trotting on our toes from shade to shade, hiding from the sun. I must have looked pretty awful, because I was offered a fan, or was even fanned directly, by several locals who saw that I was suffering badly from the heat. We took a few photos and then hastened a retreat, as it simply could not be endured.
On the same grassy patch we stopped at on the way up, I rinsed at a water tap and slumped to the ground. A young family picnicking nearby swiftly offered me some ice water and orange soda and food… I can’t imagine what they thought of me.
My only thought was to get back to the hotel as quickly as possible. Air conditioning shimmered in my mind like an oasis. It was actually slightly (very slightly) cooler in the streets than it was around the pagoda, and so we managed to return in good time. It is generally no problem to take a shower at the local hotels even after you’ve checked out, and so I spent many minutes under the lukewarm water, trying to rinse the heat from my system. My stomach has been watery since Saigon, and combined with the temperature it all left me rather weak. I spent the hour until our airport taxi arrived resting on the couch in the cool lobby, followed by a cool taxi, cool airport lounge and cool aircraft. And was eternally thankful that we had opted to fly to Mandalay (with the local Air KBZ company, which was very civilised indeed), rather than the initially planned night train. I have no doubt that would have been the death of me, and ruined at least 2 days of travel. As it was, we arrived nice and easy, shared a cab with some fellow travellers to the city centre (as the airport is some 45 km from town), and sank into a large, clean bed in a bright, air conditioned room, with mini bar and all the trimmings. We are here for 3 nights, and although the temperature promises to be no cooler, I hope to take some leisure time after the first three days of excitement.