Myanmar – Burma – It all really begins… (Part 1 – Yangon)

(VV) The flight from Singapore to Yangon was short and uneventful. We flew with Jetstar and attempted to used their self checkin portal and failed at it, our bags wouldn’t scan through for some reason, so we ended having to be assisted by staff. Our baggage combined, weighs in at 23kg, a pretty good effort for a year of travel, but I think still a little too heavy, I would like to get rid of some things but its already so stripped back, I can’t think of what I could dump. Anyway, I digress, back to Myanmar.

We get into Yangon airport, our first impressions; its dated, but clean and in good repair, and still better than the shithole of an airport that is Chennai International. We get into immigration and realise that we failed to write down when we will be departing anywhere and are unable to fill in our arrival card without this information, lucky the airport has free wifi and we are able to access our emails to double check the date. Lesson learnt there. If we can’t print the confirmation, we now write it all down in our diaries to prevent any future mild panic. The immigration process was simple and straight forward once we had our paperwork filled out, our e-visa applications were accepted and we got another stamp in our passports.

Once out of the airport we got a local SIM card care of ooredoo and exchanged our remaining Singapore dollars to Myanmar Kyat so we would have local currency for the taxi ride and dinner that night. There is a standard taxi fair that the government sets from the airport to majority of Yangon which is $10 USD or about 9000KYT, our driver approached us as we were getting our SIM and drove us to our guest house which we had booked before arriving, after seeing them mentioned on travelfish.org, a valuable travel resource for us on this trip.

The drive took approximately 45minutes and we experienced the pollution, the heat and humidity, the poverty, saw highrise buildings, shining & glowing pagodas all through our open taxi windows. Here is a fun fact, the taxi drivers won’t put the A/C on unless you bargain it into your taxi fare. Chan Maye Guesthouse was located on Maha Bandoola Garden Road, a narrow street packed both sides with cars and food stalls at the end. The guesthouse is located within a residential building and we walked up five flights of stairs until we reached the reception and were greeted with glasses of sweet and cold orange drink. The staff were so friendly and we learnt some of our first Burmese words. Ming-lar-bar = Hello and  Jes-u-bar = Thank You (not actual spelling), I liked to remember how to say thank you by remembering Jesus Bar, which I found amusing. We had a private room with ensuite. The room was huge. It had a large queen bed and an additional single bed and a fridge. We put up our mosquito net, having to get creative with hitching points, and went for a walk to find something to eat for dinner.

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(JB) By this point it was pretty dark and we wandered up our street, going by several street food vendors of varying levels of hygiene (or lack thereof), the first impression of street food in here was a lot of really suspect looking curries full of what looked like pig intestines?! A few flies buzzing around and an all around penetrating dry heat made the idea of eating on the street very unappealing, especially on the first night. We ended up eating plain roti’s from some guy on the street and then managed to find a pretty decent ramen joint directly across the road from our guest house!

The first proper day was pretty busy and was hot, really really hot, we are talking middle of summer Adelaide levels of dry, penetrating, oven-like heat. We spent most of the morning hanging out at the front bar of the iconic, colonial Strand Hotel for some relatively expensive cocktails and coffee and wandering around the area immediately around our guest house which is known for its British colonial architecture in differing stages of crumbling decay, it was very photogenic and reminded us of the streets of Calcutta, but less filthy and intense.

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Another thing we noticed in the day was the tremendous number of cars on the road, and no motorbikes or scooters or really any vehicles with two wheels. Apparently the government banned them a few years ago and so Yangon is the only major city in South East Asia to not have them, which for anyone who has been anywhere in this region would know is a VERY odd thing indeed (the sheer abundance of them everywhere else we went in the country, however made up for this).

Yangon is far more of a modern city than we were expecting, not that it isn’t a bit how should we say….rough around the edges.

(VV) Our second day consisted of more wandering around Downtown Yangon and a visit to the Bogyoke Aung San Market to find a hat for Joe. The market mainly consisted of fabric shops, tailors, gem stores and your usual tourist souvenirs. We didn’t find a hat and realised that markets of this sort can be rather boring when you are not buying anything.

That night we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, aiming to get there at sunset but missing it due to heavy Yangon traffic at that time of day. The Golden Pagoda has been built and improved upon over the centuries by rulers and monarchs, with the trend for a while to donate your body weight in gold, or many times your body weight in gold if you wanted to outdo your predecessors. The foreign entry fee for the pagoda was 8000kyat, around $16AUD for the two of us. At the entry you can pay a nominal fee for your shoes to be watched or pop them in your bag and take them with you, which is what we did, meaning that we could leave by a different exit and not have to walk back around to get our shoes. On paying entry you take the elevator up to the pagoda, which is a very modern touch, we were expecting walk up many stairs. Upon stepping out of the elevator our feet are heated by the hot marble which is slowing cooling down after spending the day in the harsh Yangon sun. Planning for a return a visit the following day during daylight, we quickly crossed off of our list, as our delicate feet would not be able to suffer the extreme temperature of the marble.

Walking from the elevator and past smaller stupas and shrines to the centre of the complex, you find a place of worship whose size dwarfs anything else we have ever seen. The lustre, lighting and height is stunning. We walk the circumference around the pagoda anti-clockwise, not knowing that the traditional route is clockwise until we had completed our loop. Visitors, both local and foreign will find the shrine which aligns with the day of their birth and place offerings and pour water. Fun Fact: Joe was born on a Friday and his animal representation for the day is a guinea pig and I was born on a Saturday and my animal is a Naga, a mythical snake.

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There are many English speaking guides at the pagoda who are happy to part tidbits of information or take you around for a fee, we spoke to a lovely Burmese guide who approached us as we were reading an information board, we didn’t know when she approached us that she was guide, but we had a great conversation with her and then she offered to show us around, which we declined as we had just finished our loop, however she was so polite and didn’t push the tour or get angry at us for spending so long talking to her. We spent just over an hour at the pagoda before getting a short taxi (approx. $2AUD) to 19th street for dinner.

19th street, is commonly known as BBQ Street and is part of Yangon’s Chinatown district. The street is densely packed with tables and plastic chairs and charcoal BBQs, however the street is not closed to vehicular traffic and when a car wants to get down the street every one squeezes in to let it slowly make its way down the street. There are roaming vendors selling salads and fruit, and “beer girls” who like Australia’s Jim Beam Girls wear tight branded t-shirts and encourage you to buy their brand of beer. The beer girls at the place we chose to eat at were Tuborg girls, they weren’t particularly happy that we insisted on drinking Myanmar Beer. There was a local couple sitting next to us and I noticed that he was putting salt and lime in his beer. I asked him why he was doing that and he pointed to his guns (as in arms) that it was to make you strong. He offered me some salt and I did the same, because why not?! He very generously placed 4 huge bbq king prawns on our plate which I had to eat all by myself due to Joes allergy (poor me huh!). We ate at this particular stall twice while in Yangon as the BBQ fish we had was so good and their dipping sauce was especially tasty. In addition to the fish we tried their stir-fried okra, barbequed eggplant which they mashed with garlic, stir-fried morning glory and steamed rice. It was some of the most flavourful food we had the whole 24 days that were in Myanmar.

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On our third and final day in Yangon (until we came back at the end of our trip) we decided to hop on the train to see further than Downtown Yangon. The circle line, a train which goes around Yangon in a loop, for around $1 (AUD). The whole trip takes around 3 hours and the cabins are un-air-conditioned, the seats are hard and the scenery a juxtaposition between trash fields and agricultural fields. There are vendors hopping on and hopping off selling food, there was a salad with chickpea tofu, a type of vermicelli salad, deep fried dough with molasses, and sliced watermelon & pineapple. There was a Burmese girl on the train, maybe around 12 or 13, who ate one of everything that passed by, she was travelling alone from what I gathered, maybe she hopped on the train just for a long lunch? We did not partake in the train food as it was a 3-hour train journey, there were no toilets on the train and it was super-hot and none of that food was refrigerated.

We made a friend on this train journey, a woman named Emma from Sydney who was solo travelling around Myanmar, Vietnam and Nepal for 3 months. We decided to get off a few stops before the end, or the start, depending how you want to see it, to have lunch in Kandawgyi Nature Park, which you pay a small entry fee (less than $0.50 AUD I think). The nature park contains a rickety board walk around the lake and exceptionally clean toilets! We had the first of many Myanmar Beers and plates of tomato salad together and watched the sunset over the lake as gigantic water rats scurried under our table (accompanied by our high-pitched screams of horror at the sight).

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St Patricks day was on so we went to bar with Emma, who was fiercely proud of her Irish heritage and wanted to celebrate. 50th Street Bar and Grill had an actual Irish band playing all the classics, inappropriate posters that would cause a social media shit storm in Australia and a Burmese dwarf dressed up as a leprechaun handing out gold coins filled with cheap chocolate. The bar was regularly frequented by embassy workers from what we gathered and they were out in force that night. We ate pizza and nachos and drank whiskey and beer, of course!

On our final day in Yangon we went to see part of the 9th Yangon Photo Festival which was held in primarily in Maha Bandoola Park which was turned into an open air gallery, with smaller exhibitions in venues around the city. The World Press Photo exhibition was displayed on plastic canvases in a circular array, with the more explicit or confronting work in the centre, the photos were accompanied with essays in English and Burmese. Another exhibition within the park was Yangon Fashion 1979, there was a series of life size images on plastic canvases with the fun fashion images of 1970s Burma. In the afternoon we visited the Yangon National Museum, entry was 10,000kyat each ($10AUD), which by South East Asian standards is pretty expensive and for the quality of the museum hardly justifiable. While there are some beautiful artifacts throughout, and an impressive re-creation of a medieval Burmese throne room, the whole place felt like it had seen far better days, though it admittedly was far better than any of the museums that we went to in India a few years ago (at least the priceless artifacts didn’t have mould growing on them!).

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After this relatively exhausting day (mainly because of the crazy heat), we eventually made our way to the bus station to get on our overnighter to Bagan, which was a part of the trip that we were looking forward to with a lot of  excitement. The bus station was a dodgy, crazy place, and was filthy, but the bus  itself was surprisingly luxurious with very comfortable seats that reclined very far back. That said, we still found it impossible to sleep because the drive was so bumpy and there was horrible Burmese pop music blaring very loudly on the stereo.

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