Most everything I read about travelling to Myanmar said it’s a country that time forgot. I won’t echo that well-worn sentiment here, but I will say it is the most un-tourist-tainted country I’ve been to. Yes, there are English menus in all the major cities, you can find your way around between cities without much problem, be quoted prices in English, and even find Western food in most areas (although we mostly steered clear of it). But, the locals still dress conservatively in their traditional longhi, paint their faces with a thanaka root-water mixture to protect against the sun, chew betelnut and smoke hand-rolled cheroots all day, burn trash on the side of the road, don’t seem to mind tepid refrigeration, do most everything by hand (including road work), and are happy to see tourists in their midst. I’ve never been stared at, prodded (mostly by women, thankfully), and photographed by locals the way we were there (of course some of that may have been helped by Steve’s impressively thick beard – we saw only a handful of locals with some scraggly facial hair). It was also funny to see very traditionally dressed Myanmar locals tucking cell phones into the waist of their longhiis and kids in remote areas playing handheld video games. So I don’t really agree that time has been forgotten in Myanmar. But it is a special place nonetheless.
Yangon was Rangoon to the British and it almost seems like not too many changes have been made to the city center since the imperialists left their capital in 1948. The infrastructure is in need of some repair and I can easily imagine how my friend Ryan fell through the sidewalk here. However, after seeing Mandalay and some other spots in Myanmar, Yangon appears to be the most well-developed of the cities – after all, it does have paved roads, stop lights, sidewalks, high-rises, and well-placed parks. Although much of the infrastructure is crumbling and blackouts are the norm (there was one most nights, and many places were prepared with generators), Yangon’s crumbling beauty makes it feel like a very special place.
Although some tourist have complained to us about the food, we were excited to have it given our love for Burma Superstar in SF. We had a lot of curries in our first couple of days, but Myanmar curries are pretty heavy and oily (not at all like the Thai curries I have become addicted to). So we decided to venture to the street venders in Chinatown (passing through a very colorful street produce market) for some whole grilled fish and skewers of squid and veggies. This simple meal was one of the best we had in Myanmar (the other being another whole grilled fish in Inle Lake). The fish comes with some amazingly tasty dipping sauces, and we learned that chopsticks are the best way to pick apart a whole fish (you can get all the meat). This feast along with enough beer to make us happy was also only $5 a person.
Overall the heat in Myanmar can be a bit oppressive. When we ventured to the Shwedagon Pagoda (the symbol of Myanmar), we were therefore grateful to have a very good English-speaking guide who did a heroic job keeping us in the shade during our visit. He told us about our birthday animals, which are determined by the day of the week you were born. I was born on a Friday, so my animal is a guinea pig. Given that there are dragons and tigers to choose from, I felt a bit gypped. But we nonetheless each took turns paying tribute to our animals and Buddha — pouring water over their statutes in our birthday corners around the pagoda. As honorary Buddhists for the day, our guide encouraged us to ring the big bell, three times, which notifies everyone that we had done a good deed for the day. Reportedly paying tribute to our birthday animals counted as a good deed!
One of the any things that is really interesting in Myanmar is the driving. Now although we saw plenty of kids a the wheel in Myanmar, foreigners are not allowed to drive or even rent motorbikes (although we could rent e-bikes, a weird loophole). But after seeing the driving there, I was totally fine with this restriction. Apparently after the Brits left, the government changed the rules so everyone is required to drive on the right side of the road – you know, to further distance the country from its colonial period. But the funny thing is most of the cars still have the wheel on the right side, even new cars (actually there is no standard, as it seems perfectly okay to have a car with the wheel on either side). To account for this difficulty (I mean the passenger can more easily see if it’s safe to pass on the left side when the driver is on the right side of the vehicle), Myanmar drivers use their horn. A LOT. From what I gathered, honking is required at least whenever (1) you approach an intersection without a traffic light (which is most intersections), (2) you are passing someone on the road (this applies even if the other vehicle is in the other lane of a multi-lane road, because you just never know when land lines won’t be followed), (3) you just want others to know you’re there, just because you do (we saw several drivers just honking intermittently), (4) you’re merging, or (5) you see any vehicle trying to enter the road and you don’t plan to yield (I never saw anyone yield). In the few times we had e-bikes or push bikes, I learned that a driver honking to pass was more the sign for “hold your line” versus “move to the right.” Once you get used to all the honking, it starts to make sense.
From Yangon we flew to Bagan (after hunting down the Air Mandalay office in Yangon to pay for the reserved tickets in U.S. cash – yes, they still only take brand new U.S. cash money for many payments in Myanmar). The town around Bagan is cute and very manageable. We got bikes from our hotel the first day and rode around a bit. We went to check out the big “new” (active) pagoda in town. Now most of the locals are super nice and helpful. So when one directed us where we could park our bikes, we didn’t think much of it. But then that nicety came with being led by the hand to their souvenir stalls inside, where we were basically forced to buy something.
I was totally cleaned out (of like the $20 worth of cash I had on me). After having some jade rings forced on me, I made the mistake of asking about a puppet (puppetry is big in Myanmar, who knew?). After she wouldn’t be bargained down any lower, I indicated that I couldn’t go lower because I actually did not have any more money on me – making the point by pulling out my last $11 in bills. Now we were haggling over a 1,000 kyat ($1) price difference but she wouldn’t budge. When I tried to walk away she grabbed the money in an iron grip and wouldn’t let go. She simply would not let me end the transaction and walk away with my money. She asked me for something else to make up for the perceived $1 shortfall – my perfume, lipstick, something! When I said no way and offered her my Kleenex, she finally gave up and let me have the thing for $1 less. We had all been basically forced to buy something we didn’t really want or need. After that experience were all a bit wiser about the hard sell tactics (although we honestly never again met women that were that bad – they were the exception).
We otherwise did the requisite touring of only some of the many thousands of ancient pagodas in Bagan. Seeing both a sunrise and sunset, as required. We rented a horse cart to take us to see the sunset. We thought it was a genius idea – drive out to watch the sunset, grab some beers on the way, no problem! Well, when we bought beers, our driver bought whiskey. After he tried to take us to a closer pagoda to watch the sunset we did get him to take us to the recommended one, which was further out and of course which we had bargained for ahead of time. This required some more bargaining with the head of what we dubbed the horse cart mafia — all the horse carts seemed to want to take the tourists to the closest pagoda on the grounds that the big popular one was too crowded. We made it to the larger one, and it was honestly pretty crowded. Squeezing up the dark, narrow internal stone staircase was a bit scary, but it was worth the extra effort and crowd fighting. We were probably up on the pagoda for about 45 minutes, and when we returned our driver was clearly drunk. He ran the cart up the curb a few times and we were sure we’d go over. But our decision to end the ride was really made when he…let’s say…got a bit too chummy with me. Thankfully although this was our first horse cart ride while in Myanmar (we had three other horse cart rides after that one, it is a very common way to get around, actually), it was the only one with a drunk and inappropriate driver.
As I mentioned, we were allowed to rent e-bikes, which are basically just slower motor scooters, and that really helped with getting around in the heat of the day. After the horse cart incident, we decided to make our own way around for sunrise the next day. This also gave us the freedom to see old town Bagan at our own pace. We generally hid out at the hotel pool during the hottest parts of the day, grateful for a pool even though it seemed to come in lieu of good A/C in the room. The hotel also had a beer garden, where you could get $0.65 draft Myanmar beer. A cold lager is just perfect on a hot day!