‘This is Burma’ wrote Rudyard Kipling. ‘It is quite unlike any other place you know about’. More than a century after he said this, I still believe it to be a valid statement. It is a country where men wear skirt-like longyi, women are covered in thanaka (traditional make up made from tree bark) and the elderly spit red blood-like tobacco on the street. Even my first impression in Yangon has shown me that the next 8 days are going to be like being no other country.
Visit no. 1
After sleeping for the whole flight from Bangkok (even take off!) we arrived in a very modern Yangon International Airport where the rain was hammering down outside. A taxi driver wearing a traditional longyi took us to our hostel while we stared out the window at the variety of modern and run down buildings. We saw a lot of people in the backs of pick up trucks like in Chiang Mai still celebrating Thingyan (Burmese New Year) and the driver told us it was the last day of celebration.
The rain turned into storm so we napped and then sat on the wifi making a plan for our few days here. Already we experienced one of Myanmar’s stereotypes: the wifi is awful. We gave up, put on our raincoats and started walking to 19th Street in Chinatown for dinner. As we walked we saw several groups of people the opposite side of the road with hoses throwing water over all the cars (not the motorbikes unlike Chiang Mai). Eventually we came across a group on our side of the road and I had to plead with a man not to throw a whole bucket on me. I agreed to let him throw a handful and a few other people threw the same amount.
This was my first real meeting with Burmese people (other than the taxi and hostel) and I instantly felt a welcoming warmth from them. They wanted to meet us and even though none of us said a word, they smiled and laughed in such a genuine way that I knew I was going to like this country.
I couldn’t really tell you what I had for dinner as it contained so many weird, unidentifiable vegetables but whatever it was, it was good! We washed it down with a Myanmar beer. We didn’t stay out too late as our hostel had told us to be back inside early. There was a cyclone heading towards the country and Yangon was on the edge of it. At midnight they were going to shut off all the electricity and close all windows and doors. We knew it was cyclone season but we didn’t expect this! The wifi didn’t work all evening so we stayed in the common area reading and writing.
Due to the Thingyan festival, all the busses had been messed up and the hostel weren’t able to book us one so we got a taxi to the station. Our original plan of Yangon – Bagan – Mandalay – Inle Lake had to be adapted because the only place we could get to was Mandalay!
As we only really had one day we went straight to the city’s biggest attraction: the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. It is an impressive 99-metres tall and is situated on Singuttara Hill, to the west of Kandawgyi Lake, and dominates the Yangon skyline. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa. It reminded me of the Vatican City how there is one smaller, religious city within a bigger city. Everything was either gold or glass mosaic and it was so beautiful. It was also really busy with some people walking around, some people praying and others just sitting around, relaxing.
We sat for a while and watched people as they walked past. I saw hardly any other tourists which, after Thailand and the other countries we’ve been to, was very strange. So many people smiled at us with the same genuine smile we had seen the night before and a few people politely asked for a picture. I loved watching all the women as they all dress so beautifully. Most of them wear a tailored short sleeved top and a tailored long skirt and quite often they make a matching set. There was the very occasional person in ‘western clothing’ but the majority stuck to tradition and it was amazing to see. I particularly enjoyed seeing mothers and daughters in matching clothes.
Lunch was interesting. We first went to a street food restaurant where the menu consisted of a verbal “rice or noodles?” and it was only 1000 kyat (60p). However it was so small that we had to go for a second lunch which was a plate of rice bigger than my face.
It was so hot and we were boiling in our conservative clothing so we went for a lie down in the park. It was quite a nice park (if you take away all the rubbish) and it was very, very busy.
We walked back to our hostel to get showered, get ready for our night bus and get a taxi to the station. We arrived very early so went for dinner at the enormous bus station. We both ordered our meal and they came with a small soup and sides completely free!
Our bus was one of the best busses we’ve had in Asia. The blankets smelt freshly washed, we had personal TVs and were given water and a snack. At 1am when we were just settling down to sleep we were kicked off the bus for 30 minutes to use the loo and get food if we wanted. We were not impressed. I didn’t sleep much but I knew we could nap once we were in our hostel in Mandalay.
Visit no. 2
I think I only dosed for about 45 minutes on the bus back from the beautiful Inle Lake but I enjoyed 2 films and read some more of my book. I’ve never been the kind of person to get travel sick but some drivers in Asia make me feel very queasy which didn’t help.
In my half asleep state, we got a taxi and went back to the same hostel we were in before as we knew they had a sofa bed in the common area we could crash on. The taxi took two hours due to the morning traffic but he did a short detour via Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. After her father’s assassination in 1947, just before the country’s independence from Britain, she got into politics and organised the National League for Democracy (NLD) for the 1989 election. This was also around the time that the country changed its name from Burma to Myanmar to sound ‘less European’. In spite of Slorc, the current party’s, dirty tactics, the NLD still won more than 85% of the vote. Slorc was a pretty sore loser and arrested most of the party leadership including putting Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for the first part of her 14 years.
As expected, the hostel staff were happy to see us again and I was able to finally get a few hours sleep on the sofa while Ammun chatted to a guy called Patrick who gave lots of advice about Kuala Lumpur and Singapore which are our next two stops. He also mentioned that he had been to Nay Pyi Taw which is Myanmar’s official capital city (but a lot of people believe it’s Yangon). The whole city was only built about 5 years ago but the only people that live there are the people who work in government. Their families don’t even live there as there are no schools. The whole city is empty with new blocks of flats etc completely uninhabited and he described it as like being in the film I Am Legend. I love abandoned things so I’m gutted we didn’t have the chance to visit here!
We went to the nearby shopping mall to have a browse, have some lunch and find some decent wifi to do planning. We bumped into Patrick again who joined us for lunch. I had dumpling noodles which was interesting then Ammun and I headed upstairs afterwards for our second lunch: a cookies and cream waffle and banana chocolate pancake!
We did some planning and then headed to the airport. We didn’t have much cash left and ended up in such a kerfuffle at KFC which didn’t take card but once we went through security, Burger King didn’t let us down. We were so happy that we were going to get food and sat and ate in the big, empty airport. The flight was fine and we even got an upgrade from Air Asia’s usual three little sandwiches to a hot chicken pie. Sadly, we had KFC chips and a whole burger king meal beforehand so we didn’t eat our pies which was sad.
At 1:30am local time we finally touched down in a big, clean city and got some sleep before a very busy day the next day!