Off the Beaten Path in Yangon: Moe Kaung Pagoda
Photos and Article by Joshua Van Lare
For some, the perfect day of travel is scripted by a glossy brochure. It is predictable, safe, entertaining and guarantees a multitude of predetermined, photo-op moments. Others seek something different, they desire experiences based in reality where they can explore the cultural nuances of the place they are visiting. I prefer the latter and perhaps that has a lot to do with the reason I spent five years living in Myanmar. Yangon provided incomparable uniqueness; never ceasing to fulfill my appetite for connecting with the extraordinary beauty of it’s daily life.
Throughout the five years I spent living in Yangon, nearly every Saturday and Sunday morning I went on an adventure. I would usually awake with the crows at the first hint of sunlight and be home in time to enjoy a late breakfast with my family. Occasionally I would return with a few local snacks, but I would always come back with stories. For the first few years I would ride my bicycle, each time attempting to explore some area, pagoda, market, neighborhood, tea shop or street I hadn’t seen before. I’m pretty sure I have been down every street in Yangon at least once. After a while I discovered some areas that I really felt a connection to; vibrant or peaceful places I returned to again and again, depending on my mood.
When it comes to buddhist temples, one of the most iconic in the world is the magnificent ShweDagon Pagoda. If you are in Yangon, you should unquestionably make it a point to visit. However, there are many more pagodas throughout Yangon and all of SE Asia that are less an event and more a part of the fabric of daily life. One such place is the area surrounding Moe Kaung Pagoda off of Kanbe Street. I found such delight in spending time in this area that I ended up taking my high school photography students here several times over the course of a few weeks to work on photo stories about the people who live and work in the neighborhood. It was visually and culturally fascinating and at least at that time devoid of any tourists.
Walking around the perimeter of this small, local pagoda you feel a sense of community. There are flower sellers, wood carvers, fortune tellers and a variety of other shop keepers. The pace is slow and the area uncrowded. Monks wander through in the morning, returning from collecting their alms. Children play marbles and friends walk arm in arm. Once you enter the pagoda, the sense of calm heightens. You can take a lap around while enjoying the warm smooth tiles on the bottom of your bare feet. Follow along with locals and just sit for awhile. The pagoda is a space for quiet contemplation. Watch the people, listen to the birds, and admire the way the sunlight glimmers off the mirrored tiles and golden stupa. If you gain a sense of peace and well-being as a result of your experience, ring the large bell three times to share your positivity with others.
Options abound in the experiencing local culture department. If you are up for more, several Hindu temples are nearby. If you prefer to just sit and observe, there are a few great little tea shops inside the pagoda complex, but I like the shop just outside the front gate and to the right (on Kanbe Road - bonus, there are full sized tables and chairs). They offer many cold drinks, Burmese tea and coffee, packaged snacks and really delicious Chinese style steamed buns. If by some bizzare set of circumstances you happen to lose your shoes, as once happened to a student of mine, they sell Burmese traditional sandals (the velvet covered flip flop style). Additionally, the owner and his wife are very friendly and welcoming. If you are a photographer, I recommend finding a spot near the open wall for some great street shooting. Once you're ready to move on, you can test out your newfound serenity amidst the shrieking trishaw bells and shouting sellers in the market down the road (see map linked below).
Walk directly across the main road, on a slight diagonal to the right with your back to the tea shop. The street you want should have a handful of trishaw drivers waiting at the corner, which is generally a good indicator that there is a market inside. Follow it for a few hundred meters, past the vibrantly colored Hindu temple with the massive peacocks perched atop it's walls. When you arrive at the 'Y' with an open air tea shop in the middle, turn right toward the shouting sellers and myriad of smells and characters. For whatever reason, I have found the people in this area to be some of the friendliest I have encountered anywhere. As is the case many places in Myanmar, people are simultaneously very poor and incredibly generous. I have been pulled into a Hindu wedding where I feasted off of a banana leaf as a guest of the family, invited into several different homes for tea and conversation and visited a family run tea shop many times where I was never allowed to pay (I had to hide money under my tea cup). If you are interested in an authentic, cultural experience, I would recommend spending a few hours wandering this intriguing area.
As I always say, it's my feeling that you should view your presence as that of a privileged guest who must respect the fact that the people around you are there to earn a living and to go about their lives. It's one thing to be totally enamored by a culture and therefore to let your curiosity draw you to explore it. It is an entirely different thing to treat people as animals in a zoo in order to boast about your travels. In my opinion, intention is everything. In other words, please use caution, be friendly and respectful, stay out of the way and don't ruin the opportunity for future travelers to visit these fascinating places and marvel at the beauty of real people going about their everyday lives.
Click below to link to map.