The decision to come to Myanmar took us a while to make. This was a place that Ben was very excited to see and learn about, as there seemed to be more mystery around former Burma than many other regions in SE Asia. After we had decided to take the plunge and get the visa, our plans were further complicated when we found out our intended route (crossing the border through the northern most point of Thailand) wasn’t possible. We knew there were restricted areas where tourists were not allowed to travel within the country of Myanmar. We did not however expect that you would be able to cross a border but then get nowhere else within the country from that one border town. With our plans thwarted and the rules and restrictions changing faster than anyone could keep up with, we decided to book a flight to Yangon, where we could talk directly to the official tourism office, the MTT (Myanmar Travel & Tours), and then make more solid travel plans from there.
We arrived in Yangon after a quick and easy flight from Bangkok. With tourism on the rise in Myanmar it is now easy to get cheap flights from Bangkok leaving several times a day to Yangon (formerly Rangoon). If you plan your booking right and don’t travel in the high season you can find a one-way flight for $25-30. This was yet another situation that highlighted the fact of budget airfare (even for international flights) in other parts of the world putting America’s domestic budget flights to shame.
After hearing many different reviews from others who had recently traveled to Myanmar, we tried to prepared ourselves as much as possible before our arrival. Information was gathered in documents on our computer (as we planned to be with little internet for the duration of stay), supplies such as conditioner and toothpaste were purchased, and expectations were released. All in all, our arrival was as smooth as you could possibly ask for. Even at 9pm there were a handful of other tourists on our flight. After our arrival we decided to ask others if they wanted to share a taxi with us to the downtown area. It just so happened the first couple we asked were headed to the Agga Guest House, the same guest house we had booked for our first night. Splitting the officially-regulated taxi rate (of about $9) four ways definitely helped keep us on our backpackers budget for what would be a slightly more expensive SE Asian adventure over the following weeks.
We spent our first day in the bustling city of Yangon familiarizing ourselves with the surroundings, gathering all needed travel info from the tourism department, and generally adapting to the new culture. The city itself, previously known as Rangoon, isn’t anything too exciting but it is definitely worth spending a couple days to see.
The feeling and architecture of the city is something unique. In some ways it reminded us of Armenia, in others it felt a bit like Northern Africa, and there were also the apparent splashes of Asian and Indian culture throughout as well. The first obvious cultural observation one will make in Myanmar is the way people dress. Everyone wears their longyi, even here in the big city. This looks like a long skirt or sarong. The men and women wear it differently and for men it is usually a plaid pattern. The longyi is sewn together like an enormous tube with an opening at the top and bottom, so it can be folded over and tied at the waist to fit anyone. The dress is definitely a cultural symbol, but it also keeps the body cool during the hot days (the temperature was about 90 degrees while we were there in late-February). Seemingly half the young people were wearing pants or jeans, but almost all people over 35 years old were wearing the longyi. This added to the mix between new and old that is visible all around the city.
Escaping the concrete jungle isn’t as easy as one may expect. First we thought it might be nice to walk along the city’s waterfront. We started our morning heading this way. We were disappointed when we found that the waterfront was all cement, wire fences, and not even visible or walkable. Ben imagined this was probably similar to what the Embarcadero looked like years ago before the 1989 earthquake when the freeway used to pass along the waterfront. Despite no real walkable waterfront, we continued along this road and finally reached Maha Bandoola Garden park where the independence monument is located. This park is pretty much in the center of it all downtown and one of the only freely open parks to tourists.
Although we saw many parks on our map we soon discovered (the tiring way… by walking to them) that pretty much all of the parks in the city required foreigners to pay. Our belief that Kandawgyi Lake and People’s Park would be open to the public (freely) and easily accessible ended up letting us down. We trekked there by foot in the heat and could only tell we had arrived at the outskirts of the park and saw the 6-foot stone wall blocking all views inside on some occasions.
We did manage to casually stroll into the larger People’s Park from a side street on our second day in town. Being exhausted in the mid-day heat it was a relief to be able to lay in the cool shady grass and read a book. The park ended up being much larger than we expected and on our way out we found ‘lover’s corner’ (a large one) complete with a pond, bridges, trees with swings in them, and mini-tree houses. Since it isn’t socially acceptable to show public displays of affection in Myanmar, it is common to find couples hiding out under umbrellas or behind bushes together snuggling or kissing. These hidden public displays of affection were something we saw frequently and began to somewhat grow fond of over the follow weeks we wandered the country.
Street Food and Tea
The street food in Yangon is abundant in variety and around every corner. The country of Myanmar has over 135 distinct ethnic groups, all with their own culture and cuisine. With Yangon being the commercial hub of the country it is a melting pot for the many varieties of food from around the country.
People will set up their mini-restaurants of two or three boxes with their ingredients on top and a half dozen baby stools around them for customer to sit and enjoy their meal. Our first day out we weren’t sure exactly what to expect from the street food vendors. We saw lots of pots and big plates with different kinds of noodles on top. Amanda also spied what seemed to be cheese, which she was dearly missing in Asia.When our tummies told us it was time for lunch, we found a stand with a couple tables around it where some locals were eating what looked like a bowl of pasta. Deciding that looked good we sat down and pointed to what everyone else was eating, smiled and motioned we wanted the “same.” We couldn’t have made a better choice for our first street meal. What we got was bottomless soup (a yummy broth with mushrooms and chives), bottomless tea, two bowls of noodles with fresh herbs, and what seemed to be like a tomato sauce with cheese. We later learned that the ‘cheese’ was actually a tofu like substance made from yellow bean instead of soy. The dish we had was a style of ‘a-thoke‘ (noodle salad) which can be made a million different ways. We definitely were not expecting this kind of food in Myanmar but we weren’t complaining – it was amazing! And what shocked us even more was our total bill came to $1, making it the cheapest complete meal of the entire trip so far. It was official, the street food of Myanmar had won us over.
This would be the first of many street meals we would enjoy throughout the country. But Yangon definitely remains our favorite place for street feats. Little vendors and tables are set up everywhere and you can enjoy watching life go by while dining on a nice meal with fresh brewed tea. Having been warned about the Burma Belly we did try to take precautions. We ate where others seemed to be eating and looked for places that kept lids on their pots. Amanda, however, somehow got the Burma Belly bug in the first two days we were there and despite eating the same meals, Ben somehow avoided it. Knowing this can happen anywhere, and being told from a local expat that “it is like chicken pox, once it is out of your system it seems to be out,” we decided to not let this spoil our future dining experiences. Once Amanda’s stomach recovered she purchased a cheap cup for her future tea consumption (so it wouldn’t be a shared glass that didn’t really get washed), and we continued to make sure our hands were clean and places looked decent. Street food plays such an important role in fully experiencing a culture and with cuisines as diverse and unique as those in Myanmar we couldn’t help but still desire a plate from vendors where the aromas would fill the air (even after a little belly bug).
Yangon’s Circular Train
A highlight in many of the guide books, the circular train is exactly what it sounds like; a train line that circles the city of Yangon. It is slow but was said to be a great way to see what life outside the city streets and on the outskirts of town is like. Some people get tired of the ride and will eventually get off and just take a bus or taxi back to town. We decided to take the three hour journey and do the entire Yangon Circular Railway loop. The real views and life begins once you start leaving the city limits and reach the northern end of the loop. The scenery on this end of the loop was much more interesting. Here you would see the many farms and fields where the produce was being grown and also little communities of smaller simple, bamboo-thatched homes. It was amazing to see how the garden crops were incorporated into almost every community and in random open spaces. Maybe this was for supporting the mouths of those in the community but we believe it was more likely to have some extra food supplies to sell for more income.
By far the most excitement came at the Mingaladon Bazaar market station, on the northwest corner of the loop. This could be different for the train going the opposite direction (we were going clockwise), but for us it was this northernmost station before heading south. We knew something was up because all the locals that had come aboard for rides, to sell water or cheroot filled leaves, or perhaps just to kill some time in their day and socialize with each other slowly were disappearing. Some kids (pretty much the only other people in our train car at that point) smiled and laughed as we approached the station saying “good bye!” before they jumped off the train as it began to slow. We could also tell something was up because the station platforms we were approaching were PACKED with people selling produce next to huge bags packed with all kinds of vegetation. About ten seconds after the kids jumped off the people on these platforms either jumped aboard or started shoving the bags through the windows in a mad dash. As fast as they could, they loaded the previously empty train car to the brim with enormous sewn bags of produce over 50 pounds. The skilful operation that we saw pass before our eyes in a matter of maybe two minutes max may seem like chaos to an outside viewer, but we could see these people had their train car packing routine down to a T. Before we knew it we were wedged in little balls on our benches between massive bags of greens, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and other unidentifiable (yet tasty looking) fibrous and edible plants. Just as skilfully as these teams had loaded their goods onto the train the women then folded themselves into a seated crisscross position among and atop the bags of produce and began to sort, trim, bundle, and otherwise prepare the food to be sold on the streets as soon as it reached it’s intended stop.
We were surprised at how long most of the sacks of food and their guardians remained onboard. Slowly as we reached the southern end of the loop (and approaching the main city center where we had boarded) the car began to empty out again. By the time we exited the train almost all the veggie goods and their owners had already left the train. Having completed the three hour loop, we soon departed as well.
As with many other things in Myanmar, the circular train is on the list of items that will be changing in the country soon. With the annual foreign visitors increasing the government has plans to renovate the train line. With the new renovations it is believed that many of the locals will stop using the train as they have for the past 60 years. We were glad we took the afternoon to experience it. It was our first glimpse of Myanmar outside ‘city life’, even if it was just a smidgen outside of the city.
While there isn’t too too much for tourists to see and do in Yangon itself, the city does have the oldest pagoda in the world which was built by the Mon people of Burma in the 6th century. As with many cathedrals in in Western Europe, Shwedagon has a number of strange relics on its ground that it holds as small claims to fame (such as the eight strands of hair from the famous Gautama buddha, or the staff of Kakusandha). As you can probably tell, this was not that big of a draw for us, but we were eager to see this local wonder all the same.
We aimed to be at the site in time for sunset, so we chose to arrive at about 4pm, thinking this would allow us to see the beautiful pagoda and surrounding area during the sunlight and also see the change as the stupas and figurines were transformed by the evening light. Some people had reported online that they were never asked for tickets and had been able to walk right in. With fingers crossed, we tried to be as sly as we could, but unfortunately were approached as we reached the final gate to enter the grounds, and eventually paid the $8 foreigner entry fee.
Shwedagon is probably the most visited spot in Myanmar by tourists, and there is a good reason for it. Besides being seeped in history and religion, the grounds of the Shwedagon Pagoda are huge. All four sides have entrances that include lead-up staircases ornately decorated as you walk up the hill. The main area, or paya, is all levelled off at the top of Singuttara Hill, allowing for the pagoda to be seen from many kilometers away. The main pagoda is over 300 feet tall and gilded, making it the crown of the hill and the jewel of the city, even when it is not fabulously lit up. But if you were to think the Shwedagon Pagoda is about one big pagoda, you’d be wrong. The grounds have the main giant pagoda as a central focal point, but all around there are other open air or roofed temples and shrines of all shapes and sizes.
It is very easy to spend a few hours at the Shwedagon pagoda. With so many shrines, there is a lot to look at and take in. Just the feeling you get from being there is magical as well. We could appreciate all the ways buddha is represented and how he is praised. From an emerald buddha, to stone buddhas, to painted clay buddhas, to the different buddhas that represent each day of the week (and two on Wednesday). There was a lot of buddha to take in here. The architecture is wonderful as well. The multi-tiered steep roofs over the wall-less prayer areas almost all have the characteristic turned-up corners and ornate patterns etched into the teakwood. While we weaved through the series of small stupas we came across monks offering prayers (like we had seen at Wat Prhathat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai), large decorated banyan trees, and many bells of different sizes that can be rung after finishing a prayer.
Around 6pm we started to edge toward the borders of the grounds in order to catch a glimpse at the sunset. It was surprisingly hard to find a good place to see it with all the shrines, roofs and palm trees that lined the hill. But we managed to find a spot to watch the sun go down while it painted colors across the sky. After the sun had gone down out of our sight, the lights started to come on at Shwedagon. When the lights came on the entire grounds took on another feel altogether. Everything seemed to glow because of the tiles and the gilded statues and pagodas all around. We did another loop of the area once the lights were shining in order to see everything glimmer now against the backdrop of the dark sky. We couldn’t believe as we left that almost four hours had passed. It would be easy to spend a full day here taking in everything and immersing yourself in all the Shwedagon had to offer.
Riding the City Buses
We got our first taste of Myanmar public transportation in Yangon when we were on our way from our hostel downtown to Ana’s home a bit north of the city center. After checking a map we saw she was located off Pyay road, which is a main artery connecting to the downtown area. We saw there were many bus stops along this road and figured if we got on any of the buses we would be safe since they would most likely continue along up this major road. Our guess was a correct one. Within seconds of arriving at the stop many buses swerved up to the street side screaming things at the many waiting customers. We came to learn the system here is much like that of the matatus in Kenya. The buses seem to have private owners that maybe belong to a larger union and the people manning the door try to get as many people on at each stop, directly competing with any other bus. We chose a bus and said ‘Junction Square?’ as we got on. The person in charge shoved us on with a nod confirming our assumption they would pass by where we needed to go. Despite being a full bus, the person in charge along with the other passengers made sure we were squeezed into a seat for our relatively short journey. At first we didn’t understand but once we were a couple blocks into our ride we had a better idea why. If we had been standing (even without our large backpacks) we would have ended up flat on our butts or faces. The ride we experienced was one of the most thrilling and terrifying experiences we had ever had. The bus jerked along the street as the driver yelled things out the window, swerved across many lanes on either side of the road, and almost hit people. It was like the driver was a mad drunk, driving a bus that didn’t have a functioning transmission. In the mere ten minutes we were on the bus it topped almost all the rides we had in East Africa, and Ben had some light bruising on his ribs from the braking that threw him into a metal security bar at least three times.
Luckily we later realized that not all public transportation in Myanmar is like this. It appears to be something special to Yangon. Once we hit the other cities–while the rides may have been a bit uncomfortable (as expected)–they were nothing compared to the local buses of Yangon. And the intercity buses were like riding on a cloud comparably. But we are happy to have experienced the Yangon bus ride madness. Next time you think of going to some overpriced theme park for three days to experience scary rides consider taking that money and buying a ticket to Yangon to ride the buses instead.
Loopholes and Cat Urine
After spending our first night in Yangon at one of the only reasonably priced hostels in the city (at $9 per person), we were able to switch to staying with a CouchSurfing host for our following two nights. Another thing that is unique to the country of Myanmar (compared to most other countries in the world) is that the government strictly regulates where foreigners are allowed to stay. It is illegal for the Burmese people to host foreigners in their home. Even guest houses and hotels need an additional licensing to allow them to accommodate foreigners. There is however one small loophole that exists, which is that expats (the few that exist in the country) can host foreigners in their homes without any consequences. So when we were able to stay a couple nights with a Spanish woman living in Yangon, we were very grateful and felt very lucky.
Ana, our host, had been teaching English in India prior to coming to Myanmar, and was now nearing the conclusion of a two year contract as a Spanish teacher at a private institute in the city center. She liked Myanmar, and she had a good setup. She had an modern apartment in a nice building with an extra room, access to a mall nearby with western items such as cheese and wine, and a solid network of friends. As a matter of fact it reminded us a bit of when we stayed in Amman, Jordan with the Ambassador’s assistant, who was living in a large place by himself with access to many of the western creature comforts that people don’t usually get in that part of the world. Ana was very nice to host us despite having a very busy social and work schedule. She graciously opened her home to us and we got to share some good conversations about life while also learning a bit more what living in Myanmar had been like from her perspective. She was able to share how the country has gone through great change in the two years she had been there. For example things like having a cell phone or internet access that are now becoming more popular in big cities like Yangon were close to non-existant when she arrived. Two years ago to get a SIM card for a cell phone in Myanmar cost $2,000 (and that is just for the card, not any calling credit). Today it only costs $200 (huge improvement, right?). But despite the changes for the better she still found it a very difficult country to live in as an expat and while she had enjoyed her time there she was ready to move on.
Ana’s apartment was in a central location, good for exploring Yangon. When we weren’t out in the city we were back at the apartment while Amanda recovered from the beloved Burma Belly. We presume it was from something she ate, but over the first two days of being in Yangon we’d had all the same things. Even so, food was probably what gave Amanda a pretty bad stomach bug for the better part of 24 hours. Once again, while it was a drag to be dealing with food poisoning or the effects of foreign bacteria, we found ourselves in the best-case scenario for dealing with it: a two bedroom apartment with a nice bathroom and shower, all to ourselves throughout the day while battling it. For Ben this time was not fully uneventful, other than taking care of Amanda the best he could. This is one of the many benefits of traveling as a couple. When one falls ill, the other is there to support. You would think Ben’s efforts would have brought him some good karma, but this did not seem to be the case. At one point, Ana’s cat took a disliking to his bag, and peed on it. He caught the cat just as she was finishing the deed, so fortunately his stuff inside wasn’t covered, but it didn’t stop the cat urine stink that now covered his bag. While Amanda lay incapacitated on the couch, Ben gathered his cat pee bag, a bucket of warm water, some soap, and a scrub brush and headed rooftop to do what he could to clean it. He scrubbed the heck out of the affected areas but was unable to get the smell fully out. This became real fun later as we traveled and the many stray cats and dogs began to take a quick liking to his bag due to the slight aroma it let off anywhere we went, especially when it was warm outside (which it always was). Thanks, kitty… we will now never forget you.
After three days in Yangon, we opted to head north. We had decided to spend most of our time in Myanmar north of Yangon, as the Delta region in the west was somewhat tumultuous (and off-limits) at the time, and heading toward the good scuba diving on the Andaman Coast was very costly and hard to access without an additional permit from the government. Instead we opted to go north where our options to move seemed a bit less restricted. Near the main train station we found ticketing offices where we booked an overnight bus to Mandalay, a famed city of enchantment. After spending most of our third day in Yangon avoiding the heat and recovering from a stomach flu, we managed to make it to our overnight bus in one piece. Amanda seemed to slowly be on the up and up and other than a stinky bag Ben was in good spirits. We were now officially on our way to Mandalay!