Saturday, January 31, 2015

Arriving in Myanmar - A few days in Yangon

I flew from Bangkok to Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) on an Air Asia flight. I got in fairly late in the evening and had the intention of getting a new SIM card and some Burmese cash at the airport, which I had been told was possible. When I got off the plane there were big posters advertising the use of Mastercard at the airports ATM machines, telling visitors that they had arrived at somewhere that was modernizing and was ready to serve them. Well, not exactly. Every ATM in the airport was out of order. And, even thought there were people sitting in the currency exchange booths, all of them had decided that they were now closed. I had gotten lots of big American bills, but fortunately I had a few small bills as well, otherwise I might have been somewhat stuck. Getting a SIM card was out of the question.

Myanmar has only recently experienced a tourism boom as the government has opened itself up much more to foreign visitors. This means that they've started to build high end hotels as the masses of (mostly German) toursists have flowed in to the country. But what hasn't happend is an increase in the lower end inventory, to house all the budget South East Asian travellers who are making their way to the country. And make no mistake, Myanmar seemed to be on the itinerary of almost every budget traveller that I ran into in Cambodia and Thailand. So options were somewhat limited in my price range.

I had booked a room for three nights at a place called Wai Wai's Place. It had good reviews on TripAdvisor and seemed like a good option. One of the first things I learned about Myanmar is that no one seems to be able to figure out where to find things, especially taxi drivers Maps of the area don't seem to help, because once you get into the residential areas (where the guest houses are) theyre totally lost. So every time, including that first time, that I needed to get back to Wai Wai's it was a short cab ride to get into the vicinity, and then a long drive around, including several phone calls between the driver and Wai Wai herself, to actually find the place. 

Wai Wai's Place itself is simply a large suburban home in Yangon. She has several rooms that she lets out, including one "dorm" room, with five beds and a shared bath, which is the one I took. The other rooms seemed to be taken by mid and long term residents who were there to seek their fortunes. A couple of guys were setting up their version of Myanmar's Amazon, which I thought was pretty bold, since the Internet access in the country seems to be incredibly sporadic, and the ability to get something delivered to an address in a timely manner would be a struggle. But for exactly those reasons I wish them the best. There were also a few people from the West trying to find employment as political or economic consultants. These tended to be young people with little to no experience, right out of school. I may be a bit cynical, but I'm not sure why a country like Myanmar would be looking to hire very expensive Westerners with no experience to come in and tell them how to run their country. It seemed a little presumptuous to me.

My room was OK, for being a budget room. The sink was in the common area, which meant that people were being woken up by others trying to get up for the day. And the shared shower area really wasn't up for use by five people. I had also shown up without a mosquito net, which hadn't been required anywhere else that I'd been, but here was an absolute mandatory. The first night I slept very poorly, being eaten alive. After that Wai Wai was kind enough to put up a net over my bed for me, which gave me a much better sleep for the following nights. And other travelers that arrived without nets also seemed to try to sleep for a night and then request a net.

The centre of Wai Wai's
Putting up mosquito nets.

Wai Wai herself was great. She was trying to make everyone's stay as positive as possible. However, I did get the feeling that she was a little overwhelmed by all her visitors, and was a little distracted amidst all the things happening, which meant a few balls got dropped. It's too bad, because those tend to be the things travelers remember.

The best thing that happened to me at Wai Wai's was that I started chatting with one of my fellow dorm room residents whom I ended up getting along very well with. We travelled about Yangon together the following day and realized that we made very good travel partners. She and I decided to team up together and travel around Myanmar together until our agendas diverged or we grew tired of one another. My travel buddy was Franziska Knoke, a German engineer who had quite her job to travel around Europe for a few months. We stuck together through all of Myanmar, so it turned out to be a very good partnership.

The plan for Myanmar was pretty much the standard tourist version of the country. Start in Yangon, because that's where the flights come into. Then visit Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. Some people add on a trip to the coast for some time on a beach, but that wasn't in my plans.

So we started of in Yangon, or Rangoon, as it used to be called. I couldn't get Dr. Evil's story of his childhood out of my head - "My childhood was typical: summers in Rangoon ... luge lessons ... In the spring, we'd make meat helmets ..." Of course, this made Yangon sound much more exotic than it really was. It doesn't come close to luge lessons or meat helmets. It's a big, fairly dirty, chaotic city, with terrible traffic problems. 

Local market near Wai Wai's

The first day In Yangon started with us trying to find a working ATM and somewhere to buy a SIM card. Both far more challenging than anywhere else I'd been, particularly since we started out having almost no cash, and the first taxi that we got into, which used up all our remaining small American bills, dropped us off nowhere near where we'd asked to go, and nowhere near anywhere that we could get more money. So it turned into a negotiation with other cab drivers to see if they'd take us somewhere so we could get money. We should have suspected that that first cab driver might not be completely trustworthy when he told us that his mother thought he was still in school, even though he was out driving a cab now.

Eventually we got some cash and found our way around town a bit. We visited the "market", which turned out to just be vendors with stores facing the street, a little disappointing. We had a good walk around central Yangon and enjoyed seeing what the city was all about. We grabbed lunch at a local eatery, where I got to enjoy my first Myanmar Beer, which I would continue to consume across the rest of the country. And Wai Wai had said good things about Inya Lake, so we caught a taxi up there. There was a modern pagoda on the lake, so we went there, but it was just a fancy dinner restaurant. Frankly, there wasn't much to see there, and not really a purpose to visit. We went to have a walk around the lake, but there's a fee to use the walkway, which we felt was a little ridiculous. We had some folks to meet for dinner and drinks, so we called it a day for touring the city.

Old Yangon buildings.
Central Yangon government building.
Awesome menu for lunch restaurant. Big pictures.
Fairly standard Yangon buildings.
Inya Lake

Later on we had drinks with an Argentinian gentleman who was in Myanmar to spend 6 months meditating with the monks at a monastery. He had done this a few times before, and it was very interesting to get the full rundown on life as a monk from him. We got drinks at the rooftop bar at the Alfa Hotel, which provides a view across Yangon. It's not a great bar, and it's not an amazing view, but it's worth it to pop up there, see the city and get your bearings.
On top of the city.

It had been raining pretty hard the first day I was in Yangon. On the second day it was absolutely pouring. The neighborhood that we were in was completely flooded, with a good foot of water in the streets. Wai Wai's place was slightly elevated, which seems standard in a country that has an intense rainy season, so the water didn't come into the house, but it was close.
Flooded streets.
Locals waiting for the rain to stop.
Trusting whatever is under the water.
We hung out in the house for much of the morning, then eventually gave up and decided to give it a try. We waded our way out of the neighborhood, then caught a taxi into town. Our primary stop of the day was the Shwedagon Pagoda, which was the place where we had been erroneously dropped off the day before. Fortunately, on this day it seemed to be a holiday, so entrance to the pagoda was free. Of course, this meant that everyone in town was in the pagoda, but it was a nice vibe.

The pagoda is huge and is the central attraction of the city. There isn't much point in visiting Yangon and not going here. It takes about an hour to give it a good wander, or more if you want to really get into things. There are a variety of stations where people give the Buddha a good washing, and loads of individual shrines. One of the things that I found the most interesting was the addition of what I consider very tacky modern lighting to most of the shrines. Each Buddha seemed to have a set of neon lights around his head. Sometime's flashing in a pattern, sometimes just adding some colour. This was a recurring theme across Myanmar and was a bit disturbing. As always, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Nuns in their pink robes.

Shwedagon Pagoda.

Washing Buddha

Franziska with the main pagoda.

After the pagoda, the lake and the city centre we felt like we'd seen a lot of what Yangon had to offer. It's a place that deserves a day to explore it, but not much more. There's a train that does a circle of the city that we'd hoped to try, but we'd have to give that a shot when we came back to the city. The following day we were heading for Bagan.

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