Title: Guided Yangon Walking Tour
Book A Place: http://www.freeyangonwalks.com/
Cost: Free (but a donation is expected).
Times: Monday, Wednesday 4-6pm.
Meeting point: The entrance of the Mahabandula Park (opposite the big white building)
Yangon’s Walking Group: A Must Do!
To understand Myanmar’s history, forget the museums, start off by joining the free Yangon Walking Tour.
The tour guide will walk you around the buildings near the Sule Pagoda in the heart of the city and to meet the street vendors of Yangon.
In just one mile and in two hours you’ll get a unique insight into the political and social history of Myanmar.
“Stand here,” suggests Myo, our 28-year-old guide. “At this point and you can see the religious history of Yangon.”
“The Immanuel Baptist Church to the right, the Bengali Sunni Jameh Masjid Mosque, beyond the Buddhist Sule Pagoda. Outside Yangon there are religious tensions, but here in the heart of Myanmar we all get along.”
The gasps of appreciation come from all nine of us who’ve joined the walking tour.
We’re here to see the architecture, and to discover a little more about the history and social life of this unusually beautiful nation.
As tourists, my partner and I have over the years visited so many of Myanmar’s sights. From Bagan to Golden Rock we’ve visited Myanmar’s national treasures and come away with little understanding of the history of this nation other than what we’ve read in the guide books or George Orwell’s Burmese Days.
“As I’ve got older, I’ve looked for more structured tours. It’s the best way to get a political and historic understanding of a country”, whispered Carol who I started chatting just inside the Maha Bandula Park where the tour met.
“I’m impressed. Myo’s prepared to acknowledge the problems of the past and recognise the current tensions as well.”
Our lesson began huddled around the park’s great monument. Carol was enthralled by the historic photos that that Myo carried, which shows the changes over time of the Sule Pagoda.
The Pagoda was once surrounded by water, drained and turned into a symbol of British power. We all giggle at Queen Victoria’s statue that once beamed down over her subjects in the centre of Maha Bandula Park.
Queen Victoria’s statute has been replaced by a monument recording the independence of Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known.
We’ve come here today to explore the stunning architecture in downtown Yangon that was moulded under British rule but altered by the determination of the Burmese people.
The strength of this tour is that from the moment we arrive Myo’s encouraged engagement between everyone in the group. The young women from Hong Kong eagerly greet the older couple, Carol and Tim from New Zealand. As we follow Myo through the park the tourists exchange travellers tales.
As Myo points out each building we realise as travellers it doesn’t matter how many times we’ve wandered through this park, none of us have really seen the extraordinary buildings that seem to protect this area.
Some buildings have been restored, superbly maintained. Other grand buildings are being left to deteriorate, while still holding a mystery and beauty. Balthazar’s Building on Bank Street, build in 1905 by Samuel and Carapiet Balthazar, Armenian businessmen, slowly decays. The windows are covered by rusting grills, while weeds grow through the concrete fed by rotting wood.
Opposite the stand is the Rosewood Yangon, Yangon’s first ultra-luxury hotel; formerly the New Law Courts, which were completed in 1931.
The Yangon Heritage Trust has a blue plaque project. “When a building is slapped with a blue plaque it becomes under the protection of the government,” says Matt, who’s lived in rural Myanmar since 2007.
“Unfortunately, the government has only so much money to invest in building restoration and there are a lot of colonial buildings that need they a huge capital upgrade.”
“That’s how I feel,” whispers Carol, with a note of sarcasm. After an hour of pacing the streets she’s weary, looking for a seat. The best she can do is lean against a car, sit on a concrete step or lean on husband Tim. He gently holds her hand was we stumble over the broken footpath.
We stop to gather around a street vendor who swiftly spreads limestone paste and something for flavour over the betel leaf and folds in the areca nut, preparing the highly addictive and unhealthy mild stimulant, which is spat out, leaving blood like patches on the city streets and for many users, on their teeth.
Our street vendor isn’t annoyed that our group has become a barrier between her and her clients. Men push through to slip money into her hands and move on. It’s a unique experience watching her and one that our western glaring eyes don’t feel guilty about.
We know she’ll be paid, and we’re right, Myo slips her some notes as we move onto our next destination.
By now Myo has picked up on Carol’s need for a break as we wander into the old Post Office. He offers her a seat and gathers the rest of us around for a game and a laugh.
“How much do you pay for a sim card today in Myanmar?”. We all know, 1500 Kyat. “How much would you have paid in 2007?” That’s got us guessing, confused.
From out of sight, behind Myo, long term expat, Matt, makes hand signals to Carol, “2. 5”. She’s none the wiser. Matt giggles and shows more skills in sign language. From the crowd someone understands ‘$2500…. USD.’ Myo turns around, he knows Matt given away his secret and smiles.
It’s these interactions that make this trip so memorable. By the end we all stand around chatting, wishing each other well.
As I say a long goodbye to Carol, I ask her the value of the tour. Even though she’s struggled with the walk she delighted. “For me it was the mixture of seeing the street culture and the architecture. I think I understand just a little more about Myanmar.
NB: While the tour is free it’s protocol to give the tour guide some money. On our tour most people slipped Myo 10,000 kyats.