Chop! Chop! Chop! A woman is gutting fish under my window…

When I arrived at my guesthouse late on Thursday night, the taxi dropped me off in a dark dirty alley in front of a door with a little sign made of lights announcing my accommodation. When I woke up on Friday morning and opened my curtains, I was looking straight down at a busy and colourful wet market full of people eating and shopping despite the early hour. Fascinating.

Not to worry though, my room is very decent and air-conditioned (although simple), and the staff at the guesthouse is friendly and helpful. But I am not surprised that the taxi driver from the airport had a little trouble finding it.

Initial impressions

Arriving in a new country, you immediately notice many peculiarities that you tend to forget after a few days. Landing in Yangon on Thursday night was no different. Already from the air, the city looked poorly lit.

Walking out of the airport my nostrils were assaulted by the  odour of car fumes and sewers characteristic of third world cities. The taxi driver who found me (as I was coming out of the airport washroom) was quite jolly though. I spent most of the ride trying to memorize the Burmese word for “thank you” (shizu temare). Traffic was erratic and honking. We were cut off by a speeding SUV and a sports car. The driving is certainly not helped by the fact that the Burmese drive on the right but their cars have the driver’s seat also on the right (like British or Thai cars).

First day in Yangon

The day started with me realizing that I was completely disconnected from the world. For some reason I couldn’t connect to the WiFi at the hotel at first (works now) and didn’t yet have a Burmese SIM card for my phone. The irony was not lost on me, being in a country that has been itself disconnected from the world for the last 50 years.

New friend

Fortunately the market outside my window and my friendly breakfast companions were enough to keep me from feeling sorry for myself. Since there is only one long L-shaped breakfast table in the tiny reception area of the guesthouse, it was easy (almost inevitable) to meet other travellers. Refreshing, after the “everybody for themselves” feel of Southern Thailand. This is where I met Cecilia, a French woman also travelling on her own. She’s funny, spunky, adventurous, and an aspiring photographer. 🙂

After a rather uninspiring breakfast of hard boiled egg, toast, banana, and instant coffee, I was eager to go explore. I decided to head for the centre of town: the Sule Pagoda. I was also hoping to find a place that sold SIM cards. And perhaps, if I was lucky, decent coffee!

Venturing out

The sun was already starting to get hot by the time I started my walk. The streets were very animated with many outdoor food stalls, shops, and cars (no motorcycles). My first impressions of the city itself were not very positive: noisy, smelly, dirty, and hot. Men (and some women) chew a betel-nut concoction that causes their teeth to turn black-red and from the look of it, eventually rot away. They hack and spit on the street constantly. Real attractive. Sidewalks are uneven with barely covered sewer ditches that run under them. The place reminded me a little of India, but without the amazing architecture.

To be fair, Yangon still has some beautiful colonial buildings from the British era, but they’re few and far between. Some have been left to decay and are now only ruins locked behind fences.

Passport please

It took me longer than expected to find the Sule Pagoda because I couldn’t see street names. I had to ask around several times. Fortunately once there I found both an air-conditioned restaurant that made cappuccinos, and a tiny shop that sold SIM cards for about $25. They asked for a copy of my passport (which I didn’t have). Why on Earth? It must be some kind of government scheme to keep track of foreigners using cell phones in their country or something of that nature. So I returned to my hotel sans SIM card.

But first I had some ice coffee, lunch (big serving of noodles with beef and veggies) and decided to walk down a few more (long) blocks to check out The Strand Hotel. This is the most expensive hotel in Yangon. It also dates from the colonial era, and although it has a pretty interior, and bygone-era atmosphere, that hardly justifies the $488 they charge for the cheapest room in my opinion. In contrast I’m paying $25 for my room. Just a few years ago, before foreigners stated pouring in, I would probably have paid $10-$12 for this room.

My own travel agent

Despite the warnings of “all the visitors” hitting Burma, I don’t see that many tourists when I walk downtown; nothing on the scale of Thailand at any rate. On Friday night I met up with a friend of a friend who is a travel agent here in Yangon. Because it is almost impossible to book things online in Burma yet, one way of organizing your trip is to go through a travel agent. Hotels are also very useful in helping you book bus tickets and hotels in your next destination.

Su Hlaing and a friend of hers showed up at my guesthouse around 6 PM and we all went for a beverage at a restaurant nearby. She helped me figure out an itinerary, and as I write this, she’s booked hotels in my two next destinations already. I’m meeting her tonight at her office to make the payment and get the vouchers.

I only saw Cecilia once that day and she told me that she had run into a famous french TV guy on the street, and they were going for dinner. Wow! Maybe I should start looking around for Johnny Depp. Maybe he’s in Yangon too! This place is getting popular.

Shwedagon Pagoda – the jewel of Yangon

Yesterday I finally managed to get a SIM card, and tried a typical Burmese tea house called Lucky Seven for lunch. It was a large and airy place with a lot of waiters milling around. (Most restaurants here seem to have lots of staff standing around, not looking very busy.) The Chinese tea is free, and you can order snack or noodles dishes from the menu. They also bring you little plates of samosas, cakes, etc. You only pay for what you eat. I ended up quite full with two pork buns and two small filled cakes for $1.50! The food here is even cheaper than in Thailand.

The highlight of my day however was going to be the Shwedagon Pagoda, quite possibly the largest Buddhist temple complex in southeast Asia still in active use. It’s large, and covered in gold leaf, and very very crowded. I mentally nicknamed it the Shwedagon Shopping Mall. I didn’t expect it to be so busy and this somewhat put me off, but what can you do? I spent over an hour walking around the large area and snapped about a hundred photos. They make you take your shoes and socks off before you’re allowed in, and judging by the state of my feet afterwards, not everybody has clean feet. It grosses me out just thinking about it. I timed my visit for dusk so I could see the structures both in daylight and with the illumination (see photos).

Too much beer

Finally I was about to go out for a late dinner, when I ran into Cecilia on the way out, and, along with another friend of hers who had just arrived, we all went for beers (and in my case some food) at a nearby local eatery. A few hours later there were five large empty bottles of beer on the table and my legs had a fair share of mosquito bites! My food (chicken with veggies in a sweet and sour sauce) was quite good for such a non-assuming restaurant.

I said goodbye to Cecilia this morning as she’s finished her trip in Burma and is returning to Bangkok. But I’m sure I’ll make more friends as I move north through the country. I’m taking a night bus to Kalaw tomorrow night.

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