Hi all! This might be a little long, because I feel like there is a lot to tell about Myanmar. I tried to put in some more pictures 😛 Brace yourselves! Ready? Go.
Arriving at Yangon
I’ve landed at Yangon on the 24th. After getting through the visa checks, my first stop was an ATM. Myanmar uses both Kyat and USD, however to pay with dollars, the bills need to be new and flawless – without a crease or the tiniest imperfection. Since I’ve heard horror stories about people having enough money but no one wanting to accept it, I decided to take out some Kyat as soon as possible. At the ATM my card got refused. Three times. That’s about when the panic started setting in. With about 5 people impatiently standing behind me and a security guard watching me fumble around looking like a lost puppy, I dug deep into my more-than-full backpack, and finally managed to find a different bank card. Luckily, after some waiting, this one worked and I’ve managed to get my hands on some Burmese Kyat. Now, $1 is about 1250 Kyat. I was standing there, holding hundreds of thousands Kyat. I’ve realized that there is no way on earth I can possibly put all this strange money in my wallet. I had to laugh, since I couldn’t put the dollars in my wallet either (no folds)… I felt like a pimp, carrying a wad of money around.
I was fortunate enough to bump into Lia, who was heading into the same part of the city, so we shared a cab and made plans for the following day together. When I arrived into the hostel, there were some girls singing their lungs out in the bathroom (they really couldn’t sing) while another guy was blaring music on his phone speakers (sounded like a bunch of tiny people trying to break out of a metal barrel)… It took me a while to reclaim my calm after all of this. I put my things down and walked through the city. When I came back, the dorm has finally become quiet and I actually got a really good night of sleep.
The next day, I was waiting for Lia at a busy intersection to go see the sights together. I wasn’t there for more than 2 minutes, when an older Burmese guy approached me and started talking to me. It turned out his name is Momo (my take on spelling it), he’s a retired wood carving teacher and he offered to take us around the city for a little tour. When Lia came, we decided to take him up for it. He led us to a very nice pagoda and then walked us to the train station, because we wanted to take the famous train line around the whole city. Now, if you’re a new and naive traveler like me, you are thinking “This man is so super nice! It is true, Burmese people are so incredibly kind.” If you’re someone who’s been around, you know that at the moment of saying goodbye, Momo is going to ask for money – and he did. I have to say he earned it though, he did a pretty decent job as a tour guide and we didn’t mind giving him some money for it. We tried to invite him for some food earlier, but looking back at it, of course he wasn’t interested.
Taking the 3 hour long train around Yangon was actually a pretty good way to spend the hottest part of the day – there is nothing much you can do anyway. I have to admit though, I was very happy to be there with Lia, I think sitting there on my own would have been incredibly boring.
Most of the scenery we’ve seen consisted of either some plantations (still not sure what were they growing there), small markets and what seemed like deserted, tiny villages. In one of the stations, we’ve witnessed a fight between two local women. Although it was brief, at some point I involuntarily let out an “Oh my God she just pulled a knife”. I think it ended up fine though – there were a lot of people pulling them apart.
At the end of the train ride, we’ve met yet another local person – called Moe. Moe was on his way to work and he still had some spare time, so he offered to take us to the market next to the station. However, Lia was on a mission to get some local food and she convinced him to take us to a proper local tea house. We had some delicious food there. Afterwards, he also took us to a stall with a very good mohinga – a type of Burmese soup. I loved it so much I came back the next day! 🙂 Moe seemed to actually be helping us out purely out of the goodness of his heart and some curiosity. We paid for his food, but he did not ask for any money.
Finally, at sunset we’ve visited the famous Swedagon pagoda. Sunset was a great time, because the floor was still very hot (you have to take off your shoes in temples) – during the day it must have been hell. I think there is no way I can accurately describe this place – it’s really, really spacious, like a small village. And so very beautiful.
I’m starting to realize I’m not the biggest fan of big cities – it’s nice to see the most important sights for a day, but after that I just want to get out of there. Because of this, my next day was rather lazy and apart from going to the market, I didn’t really do anything exciting.
On the 26th, I took an overnight bus to Bagan. Lia took one before me and we met up in here. I arrived really early in the morning.
Bagan is located in one of the few desert-like areas in Myanmar. What makes it really interesting is the fact that there are over 2000 pagodas and temples in the area. While Yangon actually does not have a lot of tourists (most of the people use it only for transit,) Bagan is quite obviously full of them.
After discussing what we want to do, Lia convinced me to rent an electric bike with her. It’s very popular in here, almost everyone uses them. I was a little hesitant. I haven’t really driven a car for about 7 years and seeing how people drive in here outright terrifies me – I still struggle with crossing the road in busy areas. Even Bangkok seems organized compare to this!
I’m very happy I rented the bike with her though. It’s a very easy and convenient way to travel from one pagoda to another and explore the Bagan area. And it is actually quite safe, as long as you watch out for the sandy roads and stop feeling jumpy every time someone honks at you. Drivers in here honk all the time, just to let you know they are behind you and/or passing you.
We saw loads of pagodas and even got a small tour of a small village from a local girl (for a “voluntary” fee – but again, she earned it).
Today, we woke up really early and went to watch the sunrise on top of one of the temples. The view was beautiful – the sun was burning red and there were tons of hot air balloons raising up to the sky. Hot air balloons are also really popular in among tourists here (or at least the loaded ones, because one ride costs $350 per person).
As beautiful as Bagan is, the heat got the best of us and at this moment, both Lia and me are just holed up in a hostel, which gave me the time to write this post 🙂
First Myanmar Impressions
When I came to this country, I didn’t really know much about it, apart from the fact that the borders only opened up quite recently for tourists and there are still some strong regulations (e.g. tourists are only allowed in certain areas of the country and our hostel actually has a mandatory curfew at 11 o’clock). I expected it to be very different from Thailand and I wasn’t wrong. While Thailand caters tourists and their needs on every corner, in Myanmar it’s still quite uncommon in a lot of regions. When I walked through a non-touristy market in Yangon, there were people literally pointing and gawking at me. People took pictures of me on the streets. Hell, some monks even took pictures of Lia and me at the pagoda! A small girl randomly told me I’m beautiful, and so did multiple men and women. And when Lia and me put on some thanaka (the yellow face paint), it got even more intense.
At first I found all this attention strange and a little intimidating, but I’ve slowly come to understand it. For these people, I’m someone they would normally only see in the movies or a TV show. Most of them have never been outside of their own country and they surely don’t know any white people – until recently, no one was allowed in here! It still feels a bit awkward, but mostly I just smile, thank them and occasionally pose for pictures if asked to (luckily, a lot of the times they are too shy for that).
I also have to say, I’ve heard that the people in here are very kind and it’s absolutely true. Don’t get me wrong – they’ll still try to sell you everything way too overpriced and a lot of them only see you as a walking money bag. However, I’m feeling quite confident that no one would rob or harm me in here. They are always willing to help, they always smile and generally seem very pleasant.
Myanmar is very poor and the people in here seem to lead rather simple lives. It’s quite common that the electricity just goes out for no reason – some of the villages don’t even have electricity. However, I find fascinating that almost everyone seems to own a smart phone. It’s very amusing to watch the bare feet monks play with their phones. And mobile internet is dirt cheap in here, although the coverage is pretty bad.
The country is very beautiful and it still feels rather authentic (unlike Thailand). I was somewhat doubtful about whether or not I wanted to include Myanmar in my itinerary. Now that I’m here, I have to say I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world. It’s definitely worth a trip.
I’m going to try to take a shower (second one today, not that it helps anything…) and maybe try to still drive around Bagan some more today.
Thanks for reading all 🙂