A year ago, when I first started reading about travel in Myanmar, things were going to be much more difficult than other areas that I had visited in SE Asia. There were no ATMs, credit cards weren’t accepted and you basically had to carry enough cash in pristine USD to last your entire trip. (USD must be in perfect condition – no rips, tears, creases or writing). Power cuts were rampant in the cities. Internet was limited, and WiFi was still unheard of. Gmail and YouTube were blocked. Mobile phones were available, but the cost of a SIM card ruled it out as an option for most travellers.
To compound these problems, with the recent lifting of trade sanctions, and travel to Myanmar now being encouraged, Myanmar was flooded with tourists. The infrastructure was not keeping up so finding accommodation especially during peak season on November/December. I had read stories of people showing up in towns and not being able to find a place to stay. They bunked down on hotel floors, or in the back of pickup trucks. Travellers were encouraged to try and pre-book as much accommodation as they could before arriving which limits the flexibility that you have to travel freely. It was difficult to contact the smaller family run accommodation places who didn’t have access to email and the internet. And travellers generally want to avoid the larger hotels and airlines that are often owned by the military government, or by members of the government.
So all of these things had me a bit worried about how things would go. But things are rapidly changing here in Myanmar, and even though I’m here just before the peak season starting in November, I haven’t found any problems as far as those things go. Although I did bring a wad of USD cash, there are ATM’s are around – even in some of the more popular temples (presumably to make it easier for locals to withdraw cash for the donations to Buddha). Free WiFi has been readily available – albeit a bit slow at times. I have been able to email or phone my preferred guesthouse in my next destination and secure a booking without any difficulty. Power cuts happen sometimes, but the places where I’ve stayed have generators that keep things going.
Myanmar is catching up with the rest of the world fairly quickly.
I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t enjoy Yangon much. I’m not sure if that’s as much to do with my state of my mind at the time (re-adjusting to travelling alone) as it was to the fact that I really don’t enjoy big cities. I stayed too long – about 5-6 days – when I should have only stayed for 2-3 before moving on to the quieter, more rural areas that I plan to visit.
A shadow was also cast by the recent bombings in Myanmar, with the worst one in a hotel in Yangon. I made the decision to come anyhow, and whilst I wasn’t too worried about the risks, I was very definitely aware of the situation. Each morning I checked the online papers to see if there had been any new ones; if needed, I would abandon the travel plans. I went to a busy street festival one night and as I walked around it occurred to me that this would be an ideal target. I left early-ish as it was just getting too crowded and noisy to be enjoyable anyhow – and not long after, I heard a bunch of sirens from that general area. That played on the nerves a bit, but I read the next day that they were due to a fire in a nearby electronics store.
So this is the big must-see attraction in Yangon. At nearly 100m tall, it’s the most sacred of all Buddhist pagodas in Myanmar, and at 2600 years, is also the oldest in the world. It was quite sunny the day that I went, and the glare from the white tiled floors and the glittering gold made it absolutely blinding.
The amount of money tied up in this place is staggering – but it is stunning to see. The base of the stupa is made of gold-plated bricks. The bell-shaped stupa is made of gold plates.. And at the top are the umbrella with over 5000 diamonds, and 2300+ rubies. At the very top is a 76 carat diamond. All the gold is donated by the Myanmar people and monarchs to ensure it is properly maintained. (I hate to say it but much of that gold could be used to improve their roading, electricity and other infrastructure!)
Around the main stupa are buddhas representing days of the week, and people will worship at the buddha that represents the day of the week on which they were born. There are two buddhas for Wednesdays – a morning and afternoon one.
While I was there there were getting prepared for a special ‘Full Moon’ ceremony the following day. I was tempted to go back but the number of people expected put me off!
Full Moon festival
To celebrate the Full Moon and the Buddhist Lent, one of the local streets were closed off and a street festival commenced.
It was the usual chaos that you’d expect at this sort of thing. Loud music competing at different stalls, crowded with people, young and old, lots of stands for food and other knick knacks.
Up a side street from the festival was exhibit of cartoon – they looked like something you might find in the Sunday paper. Even though I obviously couldn’t read them I had fun trying to work them out them. Some were more obvious than others…
I particularly enjoyed just watching the locals walking through them, having a little chuckle at them, and even photographing them as I was. (There are more of these in the slideshow at the bottom).
The rest of this post is really just a bunch of random observations that I made during my time here. Interesting or not, here they are!
Whilst I did see some much grander housing on the way to and from the airport, in central Yangon, housing was mainly in the form of shabby multi-level apartments. Most wouldn’t have had elevators so it would suck to be on the top floor!
As I walked along the street, I would occasionally run into these (sometimes, quite literally if I was too busy focusing on not stumbling over the broken concrete). I though it was a bit strange until I saw one being put to use but unfortunately didn’t get the camera out in time).
Somebody would show up and phone the person up stairs. They’d shake the cord with their clip on it, and the person at the bottom would know which one to attach their delivery to. It saved walking up and down stairs!
City traffic and public transport
The roads are a shocker here. There are no motorbikes in the city – they were banned in 2003 – and it’s probably the only city in Asia where that is the case. There are 3 rumours about why this is:
- a person on a motorbike made a threatening gesture to a military general;
- a motorbike rider distributed pro-democracy leaflets,
- a general’s son was killed while riding a motorbike.
Either way, someone had a little tanty and forbid motorbikes. So what is means is that there are lot of cars. The roads are heavily congested and often at a stand still.
There are also a huge number of taxi drivers. I reckon about 60-70% of the cars are taxis since I guess cars are pretty expensive and there is no where for city dwellers to park them anyhow. And the taxi drivers are by far the most dangerous drivers I have ever come across. They actually speed up at intersections when going around a corner, often running a red light. It wasn’t the bombs that I needed to be scared of, it was the taxi drivers. The number of times I was nearly hit was frightening. I’m pretty relaxed about most Asian roads (even the cray ones in Hanoi ones) but this was something else again.
The buses were pretty rough looking – old, dilapidated, over-crowded, and chugging out thick black smoke and really didn’t look very inviting to me as a means of getting around.
These trishaws were also a fairly common way for locals to get around. But in this heat, I always feel it’s wrong to ask someone else to provide the pedal powers. So if I wasn’t hoofing it, a settled for the taxis. I was probably safer in one that out of one, anyhow.
After a couple of months in Indonesia where no one was afraid to approach us, say hello, and ask to take our picture it’s been refreshing to find people who are far more reserved and shy. They smile and say hello (“mingalaba”) – but generally only if I do it first. The exception is some of the older men: I have been stopped in the streets several times by elderly men who only ask what country I am from, and then welcome me to their country. It seems that they are genuinely pleased to see tourists here. I had one younger chap stop me who wanted to practice his English. He wanted to be a tour guide and started telling me about the places that I could visit. He suggested that I visit a village across the river (which I had actually heard about) to see some local village life – but to NOT go after dark, as then there are people with guns, knives and drugs. Hmmmm…. I think I will skip it altogether, thanks!
Fortunately I had read about this before coming, but even so it took me by surprise when I was walking down the street, and someone came up behind me making, well, smoochy kissy noises. It basically there way of saying “Watch out, I’m coming through”. Apparently it’s also used at restaurants to get the waiter’s attention. Try it at home next time you want another beer and see what happens!
The curse of the red spit is found here. I’ve often seen it in Indonesia, and it’s usually the older women who chew on betel leaves which results in dark red stained lips and and teeth. But here it seems to be mainly the men for some reason. And I’ve seen quite a few younger men with the red stained mouth and terrible, terrible teeth.
Every street corner has a small stand selling the stuff. Betel leaves are wrapped around pieces of the betel nut, tobacco and spices. Fold it up, put it in your mouth and chew. Then spit. Wait to enjoy the effect of the narcotic. (No, I didn’t try it).
Everywhere you walk, there are blobs of red all over the street. It’s even worse when you see the aforementioned spit being spat out on the ground – it looks like someone spitting blood. It aint’ pleasant. Lucky for you, no photos of this to be shared!
For the older readers who may not be familiar with the term, this is ‘Public Display of Affection’. It is relatively rare to witness men and women in other SE Asian countries showing any form of public affection. (I’m referring to husband and wives, boyfriend and girlfriends holding hands and whatnot,) It’s been a surprise to see such open PDA here in Burma – men draping their arms over their girl’s waist or shoulders or holding hands. Or just cuddling up on a park bench. It’s kind of refreshing to see.
I dunno. Some people rave about it. Others complain that it’s too oily. They do use a lot of fresh vegetables in their cooking (like snow peas, baby corn, carrots, tomatoes, cauliflower, etc) which is good and I have had a few good curries – but there is just something generally about the flavours that I struggle with. Unfortunately, I’m just not enjoying the food – and it’s the first SEA country where I have come across this. Having said that, my favourite snack in the night markets is a roll of sticky rice stuffed with sugar and dessicated coconut. Now that tastes nice!
Coke has (back) come to town!
Until recently, there were only 3 countries in the world that didn’t sell coke: Cuba, North Korea and Myanmar. This changed for Myanmar earlier this year when a Coke bottling plant opened here after the US lifted sanctions. The challenge that they have now is how to sell Coke to a couple of generations that were never exposed to the endless marketing campaigns that we all grew up with. But I see cans everywhere, and I went to a street festival one night where there were long queues of people waiting to get their free sample. And yes, I got one too. It tasted good. Like a Coke.
This chap in the photo was my friendly stalker as I walked around the street festival. He didn’t speak any English, but kept talking to me in Burmese. He was friendly enough, and walked just a bit behind me. When I queued up for my free coke sample, the got in line behind me. When I finished my drink, he carried the can for me since I couldn’t find anywhere to throw it away. I eventually walked back to my hotel, with him keeping pace. Once there he just gave me a friendly wave and walked away – bu first asking me to take his picture. I guess he just wanted to see me safely back to my hotel.