Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
Shop owner at the Scott Market in Yangon, Myanmar, applies traditional Thanakha paste to her face. Made by grinding branches of the Thanakha tree into a powder and then adding water, the paste is used as a protection from the sun and as an enhancement to beauty

Click on title to view photo in large format: Shop owner at the Scott Market in Yangon, Myanmar, applies traditional Thanakha paste to her face. Made by grinding branches of the Thanakha tree into a powder and then adding water, the paste is used as a protection from the sun and as an enhancement to beauty. Though men are also occasionally seen wearing Thanakha, it is more commonly used by Read More

The soles of my feet were black as tar by the time I’d made a circuit of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Fortunately, the folks at Viking River Cruises were waiting for us with wet wipes. I cleaned and massaged my aching feet without complaint, for the famous Buddhist shrine, which requires visitors to remove their shoes and socks before entering, turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.

The gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda, surrounded by some of the 2,000 shrines, halls, and stupas that spread across the site

The gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda, surrounded by some of the 2,000 shrines, halls, and stupas that spread across the site

Today, Shwedagon Pagoda is the most dominant landmark in Yangon, especially since the 325-foot high spire, along with scores of temples, ordination halls, and shrines that surround it, crowns a prominent hill in the city center. Initially, however, it was a much more modest structure. Although archaeologists estimate it was originally built by the Mon people between the 8th and 10th centuries, legend insists that the Pagoda was built 2,600 years ago during the life of Gautama Buddha, in order to hold eight of his hairs. Through the centuries, the pagoda suffered periods of decline and earthquakes, followed by rebuilding. With each iteration, it grew larger, taller, and more extravagant, eventually reaching its present height. Read More

Sunset at Shwedagon Pagoda. As the sun dips, this most famous of Buddhist sites in Yangon, Myanmar, begins to glow as if illuminated from within.

Click on title to view photo in large format: Sunset at Shwedagon Pagoda. As the sun dips, this most famous of Buddhist sites in Yangon, Myanmar, begins to glow as if illuminated from within. The 325-foot high pagoda is said to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas. It sits on a base of gold bricks and is entirely covered with gold plates. Additionally, the crown is studded with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, including Read More

Chilies and spices of all kinds are sold at the Dala market, a small village across the river from downtown Yangon, Myanmar

Click on title to view photo in large format: Chilies and spices of all kinds are sold at the Dala market, located across the river from downtown Yangon, Myanmar. The village of Dala is accessed by a pair of ferries that run continuously throughout the day, with the trip taking about 15 minutes. Upon arrival, any of the dozens of rickshaw drivers Read More

All manner of goods carried on the head are sold to passengers of the ferry that continually crosses between Yangon and the small village of Dala in Myanmar

Click on title to view photo in large format: All manner of goods carried on the head are sold to passengers of the ferry that continually crosses between Yangon and the small village of Dala in Myanmar. In addition to this watermelon, I saw vendors with giant stacks of oranges, baskets of steamed pigeon eggs, trays of candy and cigarettes, and much much more, all of which were balanced on their heads. Read More

Our guide, Mu Mu, wrinkled up her nose when she learned I planned to take the Circular Train in Yangon. “It is not very comfortable,” she said. “Hard to go to the bathroom and takes a long time.” It sounded perfect to me.

Later that morning, I traipsed through the mud to a dilapidated ticket window in a dingy train station where chickens roamed, only to discover I was on the wrong side of the tracks. By the time I had located the correct platform, the train whistle was blowing, so I hastily paid my 20 cents and ran for the carriages. With no pass-through available between cars, I checked for an available seat before climbing aboard. I finally found one in the fourth carriage and settled into the hard wooden bench just as we jolted out of the station.

Huge bags are loaded onto the Circular Train at Yangon Central Station

Huge bags are loaded onto the Circular Train at Yangon Central Station

Now it was my turn to wrinkle up my nose; the stench that permeated the car was equal parts stinky feet, stale urine, and sewage. The breeze through the open windows did nothing to reduce it, and I realized the smell emanated from the surrounding land, where squatters had constructed shacks of woven bamboo and corrugated tin sheets. Lacking sanitation facilities or city services, land along the tracks was serving as both toilet and dump. The poverty that unfolded as we rolled lazily along was pervasive but not startling. Myanmar emerged from an oppressive military dictatorship in 2010 and economic sanctions are still being imposed by some countries, including the United States. Though conditions are improving rapidly, the majority of the population still lives below the poverty level, earning on average only $100 to $300 per month. Read More