Upper Burma


I was in Myanmar last month, a country that is in the news for all the wrong reasons.

A lot has happened since my previous visit seven years earlier. At that time Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest, receiving the world’s sympathy and adulation for her brave and determined opposition to Burma’s military rulers.

Now she is Myanmar’s de facto leader and is under fire for not speaking up against the forced expulsion of the Muslim Rohingya community, which the UN and many others regard as ethnic cleansing but which the Burmese see as sending foreigners back to where they came from. Whatever the circumstances, there is no excuse for the inhumane treatment of innocent people, especially women and children. 

There are probably days when Aung San Suu Kyi wishes she was back in her cosy Yangon bungalow under house arrest.

My trip this time was to the Mandalay area in what is sometimes called Upper Burma. I particularly wanted to visit Pyin Oo Lwin, formerly the British hill station of Maymyo, named after a Colonel May.

I have written five articles for my other website and you can read them by following these links:

1. National Kandawgyi Gardens

These are among the finest botanical gardens in the whole of Asia.

2. Maymyo Hill Station

Pyin Oo Lwin, formerly known as Maymyo, has a wonderful climate, many well preserved colonial buildings and beautiful flowers and gardens.

3. Maymyo English Cemetery

Here I met a Mr. McDougall, a mixed race Anglo-Burmese who told me something of his family history.

4. Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin Train

This four hour train ride costs 40 cents.

5. Mandalay

I was slightly disappointed by Mandalay but there are a few sights worth seeing.

A Stroll Round Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda

When AirAsia announced that they were going to begin flying to Yangon (Rangoon) in Burma in July with a promotional fare of just RM4 one way, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Even after paying for the return flight (a bit more expensive),taxes,  meals and check-in baggage, the fare was still very reasonable so I decided to take my son along for a short city break in Yangon.

Burma has for years been on my list of countries to visit. I’d been putting it off. Lots of people say that you shouldn’t go to Burma because you would be helping to prop up the military government which many regard as illegitimate especially while they continue to hold the popular Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.  Well I don’t think my visit put too much money in military pockets. Maybe the guy at the airport who guided us to a waiting taxi then asked for a USD1 tip. He must be well connected to be able to wait at such a prime spot inside the airport. Then there was the cost of the visa from the Myanmar embassy. The visa cost more than the flight! But apart from that I tried to spread my thrifty spending towards people who did not appear likely to have official connections.

I booked a room at the Panda Hotel in Yangon. It was very reasonable at around USD22 per night net including breakfast for two. It was clean and comfortable enough but not a lot of frills. Its list of facilities included ‘4 No. of Lifts’. How exciting! The reception staff were very helpful and efficient and greeted me by name even before I had checked in which I thought was impressive. Using this hotel as our base we were able to explore the city, mostly on foot.

Panda Hotel Room

There a few oddities in Burma. Burma drives on the right side of the road (apparently they switched to the right side in the 1960s to break from the practice during British colonial days). That’s fair enough, other countries have done the same. However the majority of the cars on the road are ancient second hand Japanese models which have their steering wheels on the right side. This makes overtaking very dangerous as the driver has to pull out into the oncoming lane in order to see if the road is clear. Not such a problem in Yangon where traffic moves slowly but I imagine it must cause lots of accidents up-country. A case of two rights making a wrong.

Taxis were plentiful and cheap and the drivers were probably less roguish than in many other countries. The taxis were very ancient and clapped-out though.

Money matters are also a bit unusual. You used to have to change at least USD200 per head into Foreign Exchange Certificates on arrival at the airport and you would use these FECs for all expenditure during your stay but this requirement seems to have lapsed . You wouldn’t want to change dollars into the Burmese currency (kyat – pronounced chut) at the airport or at a bank because you would probably get the official exchange rate of around 6 kyat to USD1 whereas the black market rate is closer to 1000 kyat to USD1. So everyone changes their money with the unofficial money changing guys who hang around the main tourist areas of Yangon. You don’t need to change much though because US dollars are readily accepted just about everywhere. But you do need to make sure that your dollars are in almost perfect condition because they won’t take notes which are crumpled, folded, marked by pen or even the tiniest bit torn. By the time I left Burma I had a wallet full of slightly imperfect dollar bills which could not be exchanged in Burma. Luckily I’ll probably be going to the Philippines soon where they will take dollars in any condition!

Bogyoke Market .Bogyoke Market Bogyoke Market

Bogyoke (Scott) Market is a good place to change money and a good place to spend it. Gems, wooden carvings, Burmese lacquerware, and embroidered fabric products made by the minority Kachin people were some of the attractive goods on offer and I bought some of each.

Yangon has more examples of British colonial era architecture than probably any other city in Asia, though some of the buildings are looking rather dilapidated (hover the mouse over the picture to see the caption):

Holy Trinity Cathedral Fire Station City Hall Customs Office

 Hongkong and Shanghai Bank's former Rangoon office Unidentified government office May Shopping Centre

Strand Hotel Time for refreshment at the Strand

Despite my love for old colonial buildings, the real highlight of any visit to Yangon has to be the exquisite Shwedagon Pagoda. This impressive Buddhist temple complex comprises dozens of pagodas and hundreds of Buddha statues surrounding a massive golden stupa said to contain some hairs from the head of Buddha.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Covered with solid gold plates and gold leaf, the pagoda reaches a height of almost 100 meters and the top is encrusted with thousands of diamonds, rubies and sapphires including a monster diamond of 76 carats.

Golden stupa.Some of the structures surrounding the main stupa.

A friendly guide latched on to us explain all the features and history of the pagoda. He was knowledgeable and pleasant but did insist on telling me the precise spot to take photos from and how to compose the shot. So if you have been to this place and you had the same guide as me, you will have exactly the same photos as these two.

Chauk Htet Gyi Pagoda is another place worth visiting. It houses what must be one of the world’s largest reclining Buddha’s with a length of almost 66 meters.

Chaut Htet Gyi Pagoda Reclining Buddha

The National Museum is a also quite an interesting place to kill an hour or two. The building itself is very ugly and the displays are rather dated and the lighting is poor but the exhibits themselves are worth a visit. Cameras were not allowed inside so I cannot show any pictures but here is the handsome exterior:

The National Museum

Overall my impression of Yangon (based on a very short visit) was that the people are very nice; reserved, polite and helpful and the standard of English is quite good. Decent places to eat are not abundant unless you are brave enough to sample the street food. The city is well worth a visit for a day or two but I can understand why most tourists do not linger in Yangon but instead head straight for places like Mandalay and Pagan.

What’s In A Place Name?


Map picture


A few hours to spare at Yangon International Airport recently got me to thinking about place names and why countries change them. In 1989 the military government running Burma announced that the country should henceforward be known as Myanmar and that Rangoon, its capital, should be referred to as Yangon. Countries change their names for a multitude of reasons – historical, political, ideological or to make them more accurately reflect the correct name in the local language. Burma’s decision, it seems, fell into the latter category and there are valid reasons for choosing the name Myanmar, not that there was much wrong with the old name. Wikipedia gives a good explanation of the linguistic peculiarities of Burmese which helps to explain the reasoning to adopt the name Myanmar. Being old fashioned, I prefer the old names but if a nation wants to change its own name who are we to object? It does not mean however that other countries will always use the new names. In Burma’s case, a number of nations stubbornly refuse to recognize the name Myanmar as a way of getting back at the military regime which they see as illegitimate as long as they refuse to hold fair elections and until they release Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

China was more successful in getting the world to adopt the Pinyin spellings of their cities which were introduced in the 1980s.  Thus Tsingtao became Qingdao (except the beer), Tientsin became Tianjin and Foochow changed to Fuzhou.  Guangzhou (Canton)took some getting used to as did Beijing but now the old names like Amoy and Nanking are slipping into the history pages alongside archaic names like Port Arthur, while Peking lives on only as a recipe for duck. For a country which is sensitive on these matters it is perhaps surprising that China did not seek to have the world address it by its Chinese name, Zhong Guo (middle kingdom), rather than ‘China’ which is a word of foreign origin (Persian or Sanskrit). Maybe one day.

Another country with an exonym is Japan. (An exonym is defined as a name for a place that is not native to the people or language to which it refers). Why Japan likes the world to call it by a foreign name (which seemingly originates from a Dutch version of a Chinese term) is something of a mystery. Surely the world could manage to call it by its Japanese name of Nihon or Nippon, after all, we did during the war!

India has more recently tried to de-anglicize some of its city names, with mixed results. Bombay was changed to Mumbai. It sounded ridiculous at first but we are getting used to it. Chennai, the new name for Madras, is also gaining traction though I have yet to see Chicken Chennai on the Indian take-away menu. Kolkata, the new spelling for Calcutta, looks rather ugly while Dili (Delhi) is just silly. BBC World’s TV weather maps continue to use New Delhi but have switched to the new names for the other cities.

Some place names have changed more than once. Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul – Serendip to Ceylon to Sri Lanka. Other places have changed their name back to the old name. St. Petersburg (too German-sounding for WW1) became Petrograd then Leningrad before reverting to St.Petersburg. Congo switched to Zaire then back to Congo. Siam changed to Thailand then back to Siam before finally sticking with Thailand. Perhaps the Thai’s were unsure whether they should include an English word (land) in their title.

Countries with a direction in their title (east, west, north etc) have not survived well, perhaps because a direction implies that it is part of a bigger entity and should be merged or renamed. Thus the following countries are no more known by these names : North and South Vietnam, East and West Germany,  South West Africa,, North and South Yemen, Western Sahara, West and East Pakistan, Upper Volta, Western Samoa,East Timor.  North and South Korea remain but for how long will they stay separated? What about Northern Ireland?  South Africa will probably keep its name after proposals in the 1970s and 1990s by some revolutionary parties to rename it ‘Azania’ were not adopted.

When I was at school I remember a left-leaning guest speaker from Amnesty International saying that it was wrong to name a country after a person. She was talking about Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes whom she described as an imperialist who built up the country to exploit its wealth. Now of course that country is Zimbabwe, run by Robert Mugabe who has ruined the country to exploit its wealth. There are other countries named after individuals. Interestingly they are both named after foreigners – Bolivia named after Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan, and the Philippines, named after King Philippe of Spain. This shows that not every country is in a hurry to rid itself of all names from colonial times. In Malaysia, the difficult to pronounce Port Swettenham was renamed Klang while Jesselton was given the more romantic name Kota Kinabalu. Georgetown in Penang however still remains. In Morocco, one might have expected Casablanca to have been renamed long ago. If the usage of Spanish in USA continues to grow apace perhaps the President’s home might also become the Casa Blanca one day.

Italy calls itself Italia. Why did we have to call it Italy? Could we not manage that one extra syllable? Meanwhile, the whole world calls the British capital London so why do the French have to call it Londres? Are they taking revenge for the inability of the English to pronounce, with a straight face, their capital as Paree without using the prefix ‘gay’. And where did the word Germany come from? Would it be too difficult for us to call it Deutschland? Given the European Commission’s love of standardization it is a wonder that they have not set up a bureaucracy to standardize European place names. But then again that would lead to calls to agree on a standardized European language, which logically would have to be English. That, of course, for our French partners, would never do. So it seems we will stick with the current messy conventions for place names and call it part of life’s rich tapestry. As for Myanmar, I will continue to call it Burma for now until Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is released and says otherwise.