Mingalaba Mingers, greetings from stop 1 in the Myanmar trip – Yangon, known by the British as Rangoon. The plan had been to spend just two days here before heading off for a Vipassana Silent Retreat for 10days, however the retreat was cancelled about two weeks before I left the UK and attempts to reschedule for another in Mandalay went unanswered, and so I decided to use the full amount of time to explore Myanmar. So it turned into 4 full days in Yangon before heading off to Bagan, temple wonderland.
Arriving into Myanmar was surprisingly simple, there was one other person ahead of me at immigration, and following a cursory glimpse of the e-visa letter, and passport, I was stamped and through to baggage. The longer wait was for bags, but even so, it was all done and dusted in 40minutes from touchdown to taxi.
Myanmar has opened up a lot in the past 5yrs and seemingly that openness has picked up pace in the last 3, as evidenced by how out of date the guidebooks are about things such at wifi, cash machines, money exchange and general day to day stuff. One thing they were still right about was the taxis. That was the first ‘eh-o?’. Myanmar drives on the right (probably a two-fingered salute to the British), but the taxis, being Japanese Toyota imports are all right hand drive, rather than left, thus making for a disconcerting feeling when turning at junctions, across traffic etc. The drivers are never quite in the right lane and the risk of getting clipped as a pedestrian feels quite high! Like India they are used to their horning and their beepings, and it was a surprise to be back in the land of noise, after Langkawi. The useage is mainly reserved for telling someone that they have a car behind them about to do something rather than impatience at the pace of movement occuring in front. What was also a surprise and being Sally Slow-Boat it took a couple of days to notice, there are no motorbikes on the roads of Yangon, anywhere. Apparently there’s a ban on them so chances of getting run over is reduced to it being just from 4-wheeled and not 2-wheeled vehicles.
First stop was Hotel Bahosi, creatively housed in the Bahosi residential area. After (accidently) smacking one of the hotel staff in the head as we both dived for my very heavy rucksack, I had to watch a tiny little person about the size of my left leg lift the blooming thing and take it into the hotel. The bag probably weighed as much as 3 of him. There has been constant bag tussling going on – I really don’t want anyone having to carry such a heavy bag, if nothing else I don’t think my insurance covers me for accidentally crushing small people, but the hotels insist. Into the bijou room and it was shower and early night for me as I was going walkabout the next day.
Up and after breakfast I headed out into the late Sunday morning heat. Left and left took me onto the main road, thank you Britain and your decision to create a grid system in Yangon. What I had neglected to bring was a grappling hook and crampons – the footpaths were about 1’6″ in height (about 45cms in new money), and a lot were higher. There was not gentle slope down to the road either, you had to climb down and then climb back up the other side. It was kind of like a city step class, sweaty, lots of up’ing and down’ing but no tunes and no lycra.
Also out and about where pigeons, hundreds of the little flying rats, all pooled around certain parts of streets, waiting to be fed. Apparently it’s a way of gaining good karma or good merit, you buy some corn, you help the seller, and you feed the birds, a good deed and voila – you’re a bit closer to nirvana. Meanwhile the lil’ ol’ dirtbirds – sparrows that is, get to have shucks of corn tied up for them, and the dogs and whatever else is going begging gets to have leftover rice that is dumped out on the roads. No wonder the street dogs looked so fit and fat.
Dotted about the place are water stations, either clay pots with a small cup attached by a chain or else a large plastic water bottle, sometimes in a cage or other times in giant owls.
These are free to use, although the quality of some of the water is highly questionable, and only foreigners trying to lose weight should consider drinking from them. Another positive in Yangon (and I only say that as someone who only saw them from the outside) was there were a number of public conveniences dotted about, that looked very clean and didn’t smell too bad either.
Most of the men of Yangon, and across Myanmar wear a longyi or paso, piece of cloth stitched down one short end, usually knotted at the front. Muted colours, plain or there’s a bit of a check thing going on at the moment seems to be de rigeur. It’s always a bit disconcerting when they undo it to redo it up – there’s a momentary panic of ‘what’s going on here’ before you remember that they are fully encircled and no-one is going to take anyone’s eye out. The younger guys are all V05 hair styled to the max, lots of hair bleaching going on, and wearing ‘RAAAHCK’ t-shirts and a longyi and then velvet flipflops. Most of the woman are also in longyi usually more ornate, either printed or woven, theirs has a broad folded at the front to allow it to be tucked in at the side, and is usually a co-ordinated with tight fitting top or blouse.
Different types of top or jacket and head-dress (or even styling of hair) denotes the cultural grouping. Women’s’and children’s faces, are covered / decorated, (usually just on the cheeks but sometimes all over) with a light yellow powder, called Thananka. It’s a natural sunscreen made from grinding the wood of various types of tree.
On every street corner there are betel sellers, dunking leaves into water, breaking up betel, pasting the leaves with lye and adding tobacco and other potions to the mix. As a result of the high usage there are red splatters of spittle everywhere around, looking like various acts of violence have been permitted and then the forensic team forgot to have a wipe down. It reminds me of India back in the 1990s, every building or corner of a building had red stains growing up the wall as a result.
I winged by the railway station, e.g. went round in a mahoosive circle first to one side then to the other (from the booking office, to ‘advanced booking office – of course on completely different sides of the tracks to each other) to book the 18hr train to Bagan. Turning up and hoping for the best on the day seems to be the preferred way of travelling, I however do want to guarantee being horizontal if I’m on a sleeper service so it was an early booking for me, or it would have been if I’d had my passport with me. That’ll learn me for next time. Anyway, at least I knew where to queue, the price and what to now do on Monday instead.
Back out into the heat, and I headed for Sule Paya – a 2000yr old golden temple which is also a giant roundabout for traffic and was the starting point for the British grid system design. Apparently there’s a couple of bits of Buddha’s hair under it somewhere as well.
At the paya or pagoda there are stations for each day of the week, and two for Wednesday, Myanmar operating on an 8day week, whereby Wednesday is 2 12hr days. Making libations at the day of the week of your birth is supposedly lucky and some people were going all out to cover off every day of the week just to be one the safe side.
At the side of one of the main shrines was a small stall, which had a little boat on a pulley system. Seemingly you deposited your wish or words onto paper and put them into the boat. Cranking a handle sent it winging its way up to a little hut where a Buddha statue resided and I guess your wish or words got a little bit closer to your god.
The streets were starting to get a bit busier, and down the side roads (handily most run sequentially as 35th, 36th etc, so you have less chance of getting lost, were market stalls set up for the day, selling fruit, veg, food stalls of dosas, hotpot, skewers sweet or savoury pancakes, samosas and the like, basically, anything that was edible. Luckily most of these streets are one-way and the lack of 2 wheelers, apart from the weird little side-bikes means less chance of being run over.
Down Pasodan Street were lovely old colonial buildings from the 40s, 30s and back even further, or maybe they just look like that because they’ve weathered.
and then left past the newly refurbished Strand Hotel, onto the imaginatively named Strand Road. Looked at the prices of the stays there and, well, it’s a no from me. It’s now owned by the same group that own Raffles in Singapore and the pre-update reviews on TripAdvisor are a treat to read!
The British Embassy is along this street as well, and oh the irony, there it was covered in bamboo scaffolding and health and safety signs all over it, meanwhile elsewhere in Yangon men are using pneumatic drills on the road whilst wearing flipflops.
It was lunchtime so I headed back down Pasodan Street for a sandwich in a great restaurant that became a firm favourite just for its lime and mint juice alone. Feeling a bit restored, and decided to take on a few more steps by heading upstairs to the fair trade shop above it, I had a pootle about looking at papier-mâché animals and the like before taking a turn back to the hotel for a wee rest, then I was going to head out north to Shwedagon Paya, and the rest of my marathon trek.