The West

Novice monks in Rangoon. Picture: Peta Murray

Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, is sometimes overlooked by visitors in their haste to get to the temples of Pagan or the wonders of Inle Lake. But this bustling port city, home to lively eat streets, colonial buildings, smiling faces, colourful markets and the holiest pagoda in the land, is an auspicious destination in its own right.

It's my guess you can probably spot Shwedagon Pagoda from the lofty echelons of nirvana. Certainly the gigantic golden stupa of Burma's most revered Buddhist temple, shimmering in the morning sun, is an arresting sight as you fly into Rangoon over the lush Irrawaddy Delta.

Once on the ground, the best way to discover this 1000-year-old metropolis set at the confluence of the Rangoon and Bago rivers is to brave its crumbling footpaths.

Street vendors squat beside baskets of crispy fried crickets, monks hug lacquer bowls on their morning quest for alms, jasmine sellers ply their fragrant offerings at the traffic lights and giggling schoolgirls chant "mingalaba", the cheery greeting which translates as "auspiciousness be upon you".

For old-world atmosphere you can't go past the Strand Hotel, a relic from the British colonial era. Near the shipping port, the Strand opened in 1901 and, in its heyday, boasted guests including George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham. Despite the Strand's reputation for luxury, the cocktails here are surprisingly affordable.

For ambience of the more animated kind, head to Bogyoke Aung San Market, a sprawling two-level affair which takes up several blocks of Bogyoke Aung San Road and opens from 9am-5pm six days a week (closed Mondays).

A labyrinth of cool, dim corridors, the market offers a vibrant range of merchandise from hill-tribe handicrafts and freshwater pearls to tailor-made garments and thanaka, a mud-like yellow paste ground from the bark of the thanaka tree which Burmese women paint on their faces as moisturiser, cooling agent and sunscreen.

Once you've haggled your way around the maze of stalls, drop in to the market's food section for a cold drink or tasty snack. Friendly wait-staff cool patrons with bamboo fans, the manual version of air-conditioning.

Of course no visit to Burma's largest city, also known as Yangon, would be complete without a trip to its biggest temple, the mighty Shwedagon Pagoda. At 99m high and set on a hill, Shwedagon towers head and shoulders over the city streets. Built 2500 years ago to house eight sacred hairs belonging to Buddha, the pagoda is topped with a jewel-encrusted sphere whose piece de resistance is a single 76-carat diamond.

In keeping with the larger-than- life theme, nearby Chaukhtatgyi Paya is home to a reclining Buddha who gazes benevolently down from a height of 17.5m. The dimensions of the giant Chaukhtatgyi Buddha are meticulously detailed, right down to the length of his holy eyelashes, which measure an eye-batting 30cm.

When you weary of the steamy city streets and the incessant din of horns, take time out at Inya Lake in the north of Rangoon. Notably home to leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, and site of her infamous 15-year house arrest, the lake is an oasis amid the urban sprawl. Stop for an afternoon beer at the Yangon University Boat Club on the lake's western shore, where sailboats skim the tranquil waters.

As the heat-induced lethargy lifts in late afternoon, it's time to hit the streets again and brush up on Rangoon's fascinating history. Free Yangon Walks offers a two-hour walking tour of the downtown area complete with an English-speaking guide who will point out the city's architectural wonders along with some surprising facts and local knowledge. Tours depart at 4pm every day from the carpark just east of Sule Pagoda. Look out for the guide in a bright-green T-shirt.

After dark, follow the crowds to 19th Street in the heart of Chinatown. Described as "the most exciting outdoor eating street" in the city, the action begins north of Mahabandoola Road and the lively atmosphere kicks on until late with tables spilling across the narrow alleyway and restaurants dishing up a melting pot of cuisines including Chinese, Burmese, Shan, Kachin and Thai. One of the best is Yummy Restaurant, last in the sprawling line of eateries, where house specialties include spicy Rakhine fisherman's stew and, for the more adventurous, reindeer curry.

For a sunset perch, you can't beat Vista Bar, a rooftop restaurant on West Shwegondaing Road with jaw-dropping views of Shwedagon Pagoda.

As day's end slips down the ancient stupa, lights fade in to dramatically superimpose Shwedagon against the inky sky.

Sharing the view, a couple at a nearby table smile and offer me a friendly "mingalaba".

As I breathe in the sultry night air of Rangoon, bathed in the golden glow of the holiest temple in the land, I have to agree that things don't get much more auspicious than this.


Singapore Airlines flies daily from Perth to Rangoon via Singapore.

May Shan Hotel in central Rangoon has rooms from $US45 ($48) a night. The tariff includes breakfast, free wi-fi and views of Sule Pagoda (ask for room 601).

March to May can see the thermometer climb to over 40C while June through September brings the monsoon. Plan to visit between October and February when the rains have eased and temperatures are cooler.

Travellers should obtain a visa from a Burma embassy before arrival.

The West Australian

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