I came to Myanmar largely in the dark about the country. Before deciding to travel there, I knew vaguely of the country’s authoritarian military junta, which had been exposed to the world during 2008’s Cyclone Nargis; of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and election into parliament during a recent liberalization of government; and finally that the country was opening its borders due to the removal of sanctions and that the big ad agencies were already swooping into the city. I knew it was a place that was on the brink of change, and I always like to travel to dynamic places to observe this energy. I read up a bit about the country’s violence and human rights issues, related to a rather cacophonous ethnic situation in which Bamars comprise 68% but not all of the population, about heroic stories during the China Burma India Theatre of World War II, and a bit about the Burmese empires of old.
Yet my first dealings with the country were with the embassy in Canberra while acquiring my visa. To illustrate this country’s “backwardness” and isolation, the embassy did not even have a functioning website and I had to find the PDF visa application from a random unofficial host. The embassy in Australia was inundated with visa applications (we’re talking high hundreds at a time), which it can only process by mail, and it was a real nail-biter trying to get my passport back in time. After one tense phone call with an administrator who yelled at me for not allowing 8-12 weeks for processing and a few weeks wait, I received my passport with Myanmar sticker in it exactly one business day before I was set to fly to Malaysia. Meanwhile, I was in charge of booking hotels and airfare in this country.
The hotel situation was dire. Despite being a country of such low development, the hotels were in such short supply that they were actually quite expensive, while any cheaper options just looked a bit too Third World for me. I also had to get my sister to bring fresh crisp American money because allegedly Burma has no ATMs accepting international cards. After these headaches, I barely even wanted to go.
But I got my visa and passport, made the bookings successfully and after two days traveling overland from Phnom Penh via Battambang, I was flying from Bangkok to Yangon! I was so glad I did, because Yangon turned out to be one of my favorite cities that I visited in Southeast Asia.
Arriving in Yangon was nothing out of the ordinary and there were in fact some ATMs dispensing kyat. Ladies at a taxi booth wrote out instructions, specifying the price, and a driver in a green checkered longyi retrieved us with a toothy smile. What is a longyi? Everyone in Burma, man and woman, wears a wrap skirt called a longyi. Yes, Burma is a land where men wear wrap skirts, chew betel leaves and drive right-hand driving cars on the right side of the road.
We exited to find a rosy sunset over a forested area and a small village of restaurants. The road was dusty but paved and containing only cars (no motorbikes!). After 45 minutes or so of driving through increasingly dense suburbs of Yangon we arrived at MK Hotel, which turned out to be clean and featuring a brand-new German elevator and Chinese appliances. I peered out the small window to notice a crowd of people gathering around a barbecue and steamers outside.
On the hunt for some street food, we ventured into the slightly dusty streets illuminated by yellow street lights. We walked along the elevated sidewalk of Bogyoke Aung San Rd and saw for the first time that everyone was wearing longyi, the men wearing button-downs to accompany their longyi, the women an assortment of shirts. And another unique tradition: the women and children painted their faces with circles of a yellowish plant substance called thanaka, thought to be a natural sunscreen. On this Sunday night, the urbanites were all out on plastic furniture on the sidewalk, gathered around plates of meat and veggies with rice. Some food was made fresh, some sat out in vats. Men were swigging draft Myanmar beer while watching a SEA Games soccer match on TVs (Burma was hosting the SEA Games during this time). We wandered down an alley where women were sitting with produce for sale in the dark. Young men filled up the nearby gaming parlors, which had TV screens and X-Boxes.
We settled at a little cart where a girl had a grill and meat skewers lined up in a semi-circle around a bubbling vat of broth. She handed us a little bit of broth and a sauce for dipping. We didn’t know the protocol but then a man, wife and child sat down next to us, started taking skewers and immersing them in the gravy-like broth, so we did the same. At another cart, we had a pancake topped with a layer of sweet egg mix, and then made our way to the popular BBQ stand serving a host of young people all chattering on the chairs. We picked out three pieces of fried crab and three fried shrimp rolls, which together cost 1000 kyat, just over $1. We mainly ordered with pantomiming and pointing, and to my surprise, people seemed to know how to count in English.
Trying to sleep downtown on this Sunday night I heard some males chanting by mic and also a female vocalist blasting tunes from a party tuk tuk brigade.
For our full day of exploring Yangon, first we broke our fast with watermelon, banana, coffee and mohinga. The hotel’s version of the popular local dish featured medium-thickness egg noodles in a coconut fish broth with chicken and topped with crunchy fried pounded rice. Love crunchy toppings on my noodles! I wish I could eat this amazing dish more often.
We headed out down Bogyoke Aung San Road, a major thoroughfare. After the other occasionally inscrutable cities I visted in Southeast Asia, Yangon was a treat as it has a modern grid for a city plan! The downtown actually resembles Melbourne or any British colonial city, a wide rectangle on top of a river, but it further benefits from numbered north-south streets. Also, traffic lights! However, street signs were scarce, and the ones that did exist were sponsored by Seiko.
We passed an old brick church and soon turned toward central Yangon, observing its British colonial architecture. Yangon is a bit lighter on shophouses compared to say, Vietnam or Malaysia, but it contains many large apartment buildings, often with balustered balconies, usually painted sea foam or white but dirtying quickly. Everything is a bit taller than in other colonial cities, with most apartment buildings at least six stories.
We easily found Sule Pagoda, a large elevated stupa in a roundabout right at the center of town–a helpful landmark–but I couldn’t enter wearing shorts and clothing shops weren’t open yet. So we started wandering west. We entered Little India, marked by ladies with bindis or hijabs, a few bulbous mosques and tons of fried street eats like samosas and dosas, in addition to the noodle stands all over the place. I had a terrific samosa for about 10 cents. We wandered up and down the smaller numbered streets passing by stores displaying sewing machines or blue PVC pipe out front on the street, or even cutting commercial signage. We ventured through Chinatown as well.
So far Yangon was quite walkable, which I really enjoyed. Because of a longstanding ban on motorbikes, everyone either walks or is in a car or bus, and obviously most cannot afford a car and who likes taking the bus anyway. So the streets are nicely bustling with people. We encountered long ribbons of novice monks traveling; the young ones are marked by pale pink robes with an orange sash as opposed to the adults’ burgundy. Plus, the streets are all turned into a giant market. Besides the stores displaying their wares, people have colonized most spare sidewalk space to sell jeans, wallets, electronics, rubber stamps, you name it. Even a pedestrian overpass was covered in clothing for sale.
At one point we discovered a large open-air market, where sellers blanketed the street with produce, butchered meat, still-moving fish and cages full of chickens. A few vendors were serving up fresh snacks and dishes as well. Next door was the big market hall. Inside this tall, mid-sized hall with wooden rafters, vendors were setting up, stacking heaps and heaps of folded textiles. I decided to look for a potential longyi, and came away with a white floral cloth. The girls laughed their asses off trying to tie it for me, and I got a lot of amused stares and finger pointing when walking on the street wearing it, tied basically incorrectly (because most female longyis actually include a hidden tie inside), exposing too much leg and accentuating too much waist for a modest Buddhist female.
We returned to Sule Pagoda, a gold stupa in full use, with locals sitting before the many images of Buddha, meditating and praying. We saw our first of what my sister called “psychedelic Buddhas”, which have flashing LED lights surrounding Buddha’s head. After Sule we cut across the street to Mahavandula Gardens, a big pleasant park with an obelisk across from Sule, City Hall and other administrative buildings. Many of these neoclassical government buildings could have been in any British colonial city, except they were often in disrepair, peeling, dirty, eroded.
We would see more of these grand old buildings on our way to the river. Some were crawling with vines. I even saw one restaurant in a gutted old building where only the Corinthian columns remained. We also walked down Pandosan, where vendors sell photocopied and second-hand books, ranging from ancient Reader’s Digests to textbooks on data structures to Burmese popular fiction. This street is known as a sort-of open-air library; allegedly the Burmese love to read. On the way I also munched on a deep-fried banana and a deep-fried bunch of onions.
We marched all the way to Botahtaung Pagoda. The stupa itself was under construction but you could walk inside through triangular room after triangular room of gold! The grounds were quite large, good for a wander, with many rectangular pavilions housing Buddhas plus a large pond full of terrapin turtles.
We hailed a side-car cyclo back down Strand Road, Keala in the front and me in the back, kind of precariously hanging out there passing by cars and buses. We stopped in for cocktails at the Strand Hotel, a historic hotel from the days of old Rangoon that once saw the likes of Kipling and Orwell. Nestling into a pair of leather chairs in the dark wood and marble bar, we enjoyed some rum and gin cocktails, pricey at $7 but well-mixed. I flipped through the hotel’s large old History of Rangoon, bound in green leather and illustrated with full-page etchings, in which I learned such facts as:
- Burma used to be a big exporter of ponies.
- The British found the conditions difficult because they had no bread and butter.
- Any merchant could set up shop in Rangoon due to an absence of competition from the East India Company.
- The city plan was drawn up in 1854 after the old city centers had faded/been destroyed, designed by a surgeon who had served as magistrate performing similar duties under Stamford Raffles in Singapore. City planning not only involved drawing up plans for building but also the outlining of rules and regulations and the set-up of a postal service, sewers, etc.
We hiked back to Little India looking for Nilar Biryani House, which due to Yangon’s simple numbered grid was a breeze to find. Enjoyed some mutton biryani which cost maybe $1, and the staff understood English–at least food words.
We hopped in a cab where the driver was playing Akon and we finally arrived at the crown jewel of Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda (also known as Shwe Dagon Paya; the Rangoon book called it the Great Dagon). Built by the Mons back in the 9th or 10th century, this massive monument to Buddhism has endured for a millennium, through many changes of national leadership. At one point the monarchs started gilding the stupa so that now Shwedagon is one of the shiniest structures in the world. The pagoda is majestically sited up 120m so you must enter through one of the four grand covered staircase halls. We spent a while wandering the grounds barefoot on the white marble floor. The big gold stupa is surrounded by countless little rectangular pavilions, and has some big images of Buddha on the corners. More, larger pavilions are scattered throughout the complex, and there’s also a smaller, subordinate gold stupa, the spire wrapped with some bells which chime magically in the wind. The place has a few tourists but these are equally matched by locals coming to pray and monks in burgundy robes. Amazingly only about 10 white people were visiting at this time. Another thing I like about Yangon: no Western backpackers in hideous elephant harem pants.
After a brief nap we headed over to Taunggyi Lake, a big lake/park where young couples come to canoodle on benches. We strolled around, taking a bench break, until near-sunset, when the great stupa was reflecting on the water.
Back outside MK Hotel, we took a seat at a tea house where we had a plate of mini samosas and a puffy fresh naan-like bread, which was amazing though lacking the usual lentils for dipping. K asked for tea and a guy brought us cups of light-colored tea full of condensed milk in addition to the black tea in a pitcher. I like the Yangon tea house experience–drinks and snacks and chatting–though I noticed the majority of the patrons are men.
So that was my whirlwind 24 hours in Yangon, one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia next to Bangkok and Hanoi. Dilapidated but interesting buildings. A burgeoning energy. A great place to walk. Not at all touristy. Full of unique Buddhist and colonial sites. Yummy street food. Men in skirts in the city.
As they say in SEA, same same but different. VERY different.