First Impressions in Yangon

First Impressions in Yangon

Travel bans in Burma, which have been on and off since the at least the early 1990s, have eased. This has opened the country to travelers, and there has been a boom of tourism in the past year. This means prices of accommodation are often triple what they were even a year ago. We found that places to stay listed in the guidebook from December 2011 had at least doubled, yet the quality had not. It is clearly not the cheapest country to travel in, especially in SE Asia, but it is fascinating.

It is also not the easiest country to travel in. First of all, you cannot use credit cards, or travellers cheques, and there are no ATMs for any foreign account. Not only that, you need to bring clean, crisp $100 bills, post year 2006, if they are torn or bent, they will be worthless in Burma. Essentially, this means you need to arrive in Burma with all the cash that you hope you’ll need and carry it around with you. Good thing theft didn’t seem to be much of an issue there. Careful planning prior to travel is required.

Mark, my colleague from Panyaden School, and I read up a lot, met and planned our itinerary, got our visas (obtaining a visa is fairly simple from Thailand), and generally got ourselves sorted before going. We met up in Bangkok and took our quick Air Asia flight to Yangon.

Mark looking stern on our bus from the airport to our guesthouse.

On a busy street in the center of Yangon a man reading the paper next to his goat, naturally.

This photo was taken close to Motherland 2 Guesthouse – a busy and basic guesthouse that cost $30 a night. It was similar in quality to something you would pay 200 baht (about $6.50) for in the center of the Old City in Chiang Mai.

A trishaw driver in Yangon. Roads were rather bumpy just about everywhere.

Apart from money, internet is slow and isn’t everywhere as there is only a small percentage of the country online. This meant it was a facebook-free, and almost internet free holiday, aside from a few e-mails sent from slow internet cafes. Very few people have cell phones. Yes, it definitely felt like going back in time.

After a midmorning breakfast, Mark and I set out walking in Yangon. Here were some things we saw:

Family, democracy, and life preservers in Yangon

Neatly organized rusty tool parts

Just a typical street scene in Yangon

One immediate difference between Burma and Thailand are that the men all wear longyi. A longyi is a piece of fabric sewn together in a tube shape and then wrapped around the waist. It is worn in the same way women wear sarongs, but the men’s fabric tends to be checked patterns, while women’s is often a floral motif.

Mark buying his first, but not last, longyi

Another obvious difference is that many people, especially women, wear what looks like a light yellow powder on their faces. This is called thanakha, and is actually a paste from bark. People wear it to help cool the skin, as sunblock, and also as a form of beauty.

A boy wearing thanakha

Though the country is predominantly Buddhist, several other religions are present: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and we even saw Jewish temple.

Detail from a Hindu temple in Yangon

Since Burma has basically been cut off from the modern world, a refreshing change is not seeing any corporate logos, fast food chains, or chain stores of any kind. There are no McDonalds, no KFCs, no Starbucks, but the most marked difference in the urban landscape of Thailand and Burma is no 7-elevens.

This is how ‘corporate’ logos appear in Burma: Asahi (which is a Japanese beer) with no mention picture of beer, but oddly a Lacoste alligator.

Electrical engineering Yangon style

Thanakha faced Burmese children.

While the stunning photos of golden temples in verdant rice fields piqued my interest in wanting to travel to Burma when I was in my 20s, Mark had wanted to come Burma since childhood for one reason much closer to him – his people. Mark’s last name is Burman.

It was a big moment when Mark found the photocopied book of ‘his people’ – the Burmans.

Herbs and spices anyone?

A few touts asked us to buy postcards, or take tours, but they weren’t overly aggressive. To avoid them we tried speaking Spanish. Amazingly, they could say a few words back in Spanish. When we switched to Thai, no one ever understood us.

While we were on our improvised walking tour, initially I was alarmed because I thought I saw a blood stain on the sidewalk, followed by several more. I was relieved to realize it wasn’t blood, but rather the red juice that comes from chewing betel nut. Lots of people chew it and spit out red liquid. It also turns the mouth and teeth red. Although I considered it, I couldn’t bring myself to try it.

Betel nut prepped and ready to chew

A girl we would soon come to know as Jennifer with thanakha cheeks and betel nut stained teeth

After all our walking around in the heat of the day, and the chaos that is Yangon, Mark and I decided to duck in to the famous colonial Strand Hotel. With rooms starting at $500 USD a night, we obviously couldn’t afford to stay there, but were happy to have a margarita for $7 in a classic hotel. We planned to return for the 1/2 off happy hour on our last night in Burma.

The Stand Hotel – exorbitantly priced rooms, great colonial bar for happy hour.

After our drink in the luxurious air conditioned Strand, it was back to the real Yangon by strolling through a local market:

not hugely different from a local Thai market…

…though I have no idea what that is.

A different kind of flower offering

Mark’s Thai language is close to fluent. My Thai is still fairly simple words and sentences, but we both feel it’s important to try to learn at least little of the language of any country you visit. We learned and immediately used a few Burmese words – Mingalaba – hello, Jesubay – thank you. Burmese is nothing like Thai, so we had no base. One funny thing I read was to get someone’s attention Burmese people make a kissing sound. While trying to hail a cab without much success, Mark tried the kissing sound and a cab pulled right over. Cultural assimilation at its finest.

We took that cab to the Shwedagon temple, which was the main attraction for Mark and me in Yangon. It is so big, it gets its own post. So, I will fast forward to several hours later…

I don’t think there is such thing as a small meal in Burma. For our first Burmese dinner we ate at a popular restaurant called Feel Myanmar. We pointed to order a variety of somewhat unfamiliar looking dishes and this is part of what we got…

Dinner at Feel Myanmar

Myanmar beer. Good and strong.

To top off our full day, this was our cab ride home. Are most taxis in Burma like this? No, they are not.

Our super cool taxi

We split a second Myanmar beer back at Motherland 2 Guesthouse while our young, mellifluous waiter serenaded us with Justin Bieber songs. These sweet melodies acted as an untraditional lullaby to end our first day in a land called Burma.

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