Myanmar, Day 1: Welcome to Yangon
We just returned from eight days in Myanmar, and the words and descriptors lingering in my head include: time warp, dilapidated, adventure, smiles, beauty, surprise, hot, trash, crash, happiness, curiosity, sadness, possibility, difficulty and hope. We barely scratched the surface, visiting only Yangon, Bagan and Mount Popa, but there is clearly a wealth of exploration to be had in every direction — from the coastline and beaches in the west to the mountain villages in the north to Inle Lake and the Shan State in the east.
There are many curious things about Myanmar — starting with the confusion about whether to call it Myanmar or Burma. I’m now calling it Myanmar, after I was calling it Burma just last month. It seems everyone has flip-flopped on the name at one time or another, including Myanmar’s own government. If you’re interested, you can read all about it here.
Another curious thing is its time zone — it’s called Myanmar Time (MMT) which is GMT + 6:30, meaning Myanmar has its own zone which is 30 minutes ahead or behind its neighboring nations.
We arrived at the Yangon airport Saturday morning and exchanged some US dollars into the local currency (kyat). There are no ATMs or credit cards in Myanmar, so tourists have no choice but to carry cold, hard cash in concealed stacks of pristine bills. There can be no creases, tears, wrinkles, marks or smudges on your bills or they will be declined. (We saw it happen.) We laid out two brand new Ben Franklins and walked away feeling rich with 168,000 kyats.
From there we found a “taxi”, a term I use loosely since there are no meters in any taxis anywhere in town. Instead, you agree on a price before you get in. Taxis in Yangon are, hands down, in the most dilapidated, deplorable condition of any taxis we’ve ever ridden in anywhere in the world. They are in a visible state of rust and decay, with an occasional fancy seat pad or seat cover used to politely cover or distract from the severe wear and tear throughout the interior. It’s so ridiculous, you just have to laugh… especially at the big spider living in the door lock that stopped working 10 years ago.
Not knowing anything about Yangon, we had decided to spend our first two nights at the Savoy Hotel — one of just three upscale hotels around town (the others being The Strand Hotel and the Governor’s Residence). We checked in, dropped our bags, noticed the pool was closed due to renovation, and headed back out into the city to Sakura Tower. At Sakura Tower we paid cash for roundtrip tickets to Bagan (currently no way to pre-book them online) and went to the top of the tower for a bird’s eye view of downtown Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda.
From the air, Yangon resembles a lot of other cities in the world. It’s not until you set out on foot that you begin to discover the nooks and crannies and unusual street scenes that seem caught in a time warp from decades ago. My mind struggled to compare Yangon to other places I’ve been — Kathmandu meets Lima is about the best I could come up with. Yangon is its own animal — full of contradictions, confusion and charming smiles from people who seem as curious about you as you are about them and their country.
Trash is everywhere, apartment buildings are at myriad stages of decrepitude, colonial structures ache with a grimy sadness washed over their once-beautiful facades. Yet, there are brightly painted shutters, flowering plants and signs of life even in the dingiest parts of the city.
Nowhere else is necessity so visibly the mother of invention. Cruiser bikes have been turned into three-wheelers to make money and move people around town. Phone booths appear on several street corners, with a handful of lines attached to old phones from the 1980s and a person who keeps track of the minutes on paper. Football, board games and even breakdancing keep the youth of the city occupied on the streets.
The Bogyoke Market houses a huge array of stuff for sale — sandalwood combs, cedar woodcarvings, lacquerware, baskets, painted umbrellas, longyis, flip flops, artwork, food, fabric and much more. It’s a must-see and a fun place to shop for souvenirs.
In the alleys outside Bogyoke, there are stalls where you can sit and enjoy fresh fruit juice and avocado milkshakes while you watch the world go by.
While taking photos, I was surprised to encounter this person who was so proudly and happily pushing the boundaries of acceptable self-expression in a country that has outlawed homosexuality. Like Harvey Milk was to San Francisco, could he or she be the same to Yangon?
Fruit and food is for sale everywhere, although with the poor water quality and sanitation we didn’t partake in what looked like some unusual and yummy options.
Nearly every man who smiles in Myanmar reveals a mouthful of bad teeth, stained with the rusty red of betel nut. Chewing betel nut is akin to chewing tobacco, with an effect similar to caffeine. Street vendors place areca palm nut pieces, tobacco and lime paste in a leaf from a betel vine, and wrap the mixture into a bite-size burrito. This is chewed into a red liquid that’s spit on the ground everywhere so you have to be very careful where you walk.
Yangon is a bit like Manila in that funky Jeeps in great condition are seen all over the city. These are surely some of the most well cared for vehicles in the whole country — I have no idea who is driving them and how they came to be in a city full of jalopy taxis.
The Botataung Pagoda is located near the Yangon River, which has its own microcosm of activity near the water. Elaborate offering baskets are for sale all over — some with golden coconuts and green bananas.
More food stalls and scenes of daily life dot the sidewalks along Strand Road. Football games are everywhere — all ages in bare feet on concrete, playing The Beautiful Game with handmade nets.
Then, as if magically delivered in the middle of extreme poverty, the 50th Street Cafe appears on the side of the road.
Housed in a restored colonial building, this place is like walking through a door back into the First World. Exposed brick, wrought iron, wood floors and a teak spiral staircase welcome you into a place completely unlike greater Yangon. Cheap beer is flowing, real pizza is cooking and the pool table and wi-fi are free. Wow. Just when you thought you’d seen it all in Yangon… surprise.