Getting off the plane shattered, Captain Hindsight tells me I should have attempted a power nap during the one hour long flight. I’m tired but buzzing with adrenaline. New place. New land. New people. New language. New stuff. Yay. Guy, Nordes and Danish have arrived in Myanmar. Boozed up Brits on tour.
The airport in Yangon, the capital, is surprisingly nice, it is very modern and pretty clean compared to my low expectations. I was expecting military with guns guarding an old and run down airport, taking innocent passengers aside to interrogate them before putting them in jail for eternity. The greeting we received was warm and friendly. Smiles everywhere.
Bags collected, we immediately had to change some of our crisp, new USD notes up into kyat (pronounced chat), the currency used in Myanmar which you can only get in Myanmar. The airport had a couple of counters and changing money was safe and relatively easy, don’t believe The Planet. You can change money on the black market but it can prove dodgy. Remember, believe me, not The Planet. Throughout Yangon, people will approach you in the street and ask to change your money. Dodgy touts. Stories circulate about robberies, poor rates, short changing, fake notes and mis-selling as much as stories of high rates and successful transactions. Best be safe. The touts who approached us looked wired on paan, their teeth stained red and their eyes big black holes. Most advise to use the banks, hotels and exchange shops as they have just as good rates as the black market people, with the added safety bonus that they wont rob you. Money is a funny thing is this country. At present, 1 USD equals 852 kyat. I got a very large wad of notes for my two 100 USD bills. During the money exchange we pick up a couple of girls to share the taxi ride with. Isabella, the young German girl officially joins the boozed up Brits on tour team.
The taxi to central Yangon was old, but the man was overly helpful and very smiley. The ride took us into the heart of Yangon near the river. The five of us were smiling, large excited smiles, anticipating the adventures of a new country. Even taking pictures of buses was fun. We ran around the first few guesthouses with little joy. In Myanmar you must have a foreigner license to house foreigners over night. This puts the price up for us and limits the guest houses we could actually stay in. Some couldn’t take us because they were full and others didn’t have a license for foreigners. However, a little guy called Johnny, a honest tout, was happy to show us around a few places. When I say honest, I mean he openly told us he gets commission. How refreshing, a tout who knows he’s a tout. He, like every other person we saw, smiled heaps and nodded his head a lot, even when our conversation was completely lost in translation.
We did the usual walk around five different guest houses and as usual, we all went for the cheapest. We and the other guests all crammed into what seemed like a huge wooden house split with stupidly thin wooden walls, bed sheets as doors, that was stuffed full of beds and mattresses in no particular order. One room had four single mattresses lying on the floor, the next room had a double bed, but in order to get to the four mattresses you had to go through the double room. The influx of tourists in the last two years means hotels are trying to cram in as many of us as possible to keep up with demand. Tourism looks set to boom here but luckily for us, I think we may have caught it at the beginning of that explosion. I hope for the people’s and future tourists sake it doesn’t go like Thailand did. Expensive for what it was but clean, we were happy sleeping in this guest house, we dropped our bags and walked the streets.
Ecstatic with every little part of our day, we find street food stalls, smiling men and giggling girls. ‘Minglabba’ is hello in Myanmar and this little phrase puts shear delight into the people it is directed at. They smile, laugh and reply the gesture My initial thoughts take me back to India but these people are different. Somehow, I feel safer. I feel like these people are not desperate for my money, no cons, no scams, no begging. People are genuine. Johnny and the black marketers are the only touts, but they understand what ‘no’ means the first time. OK, I’ve just got here, but already, I think I’m warming to this country like I have no other. Just a gut feeling I got straight away. My expectations exceeded in every way possible. I am just as fascinated with Myanmar as I was with India, but I feel safe, I’m not looking out for the scams, there isn’t any. The people are overly friendly.
A wide spread cultural symbol of Myanmar is the yellow paste people put on their faces. Although it looks and seems ridiculous to me, a stupid white guy from England with limited knowledge of their customs, traditions and Aung San Suu Kyi, the face paint is something that the Burmese people use to protect them from the sun, moisturise their skin and they also consider it to enhance the persons beauty, male or female. The definition of beautiful changes from country to country depending on what the media tell us is beautiful. The yellow paste can be smothered to cover the entire face and arms but can also be applied in a variety of designs and patterns. The majority of boys, girls, men and women slap this stuff on daily, it’s a big thing out here. I’m not immediately won over, but I’ll give it a chance. I’m an open book.
OK, that’s not true. I think it looks stupid.
Ordering my first samosa and buying my first bottle of packaged drinking water I notice that there’s no haggle needed. The price is cheap, the price is the same for locals and the produce is of good quality. Easy, straight forward transaction. No hassle. I buy a drink of freshly squeezed sugar cane. I sit on plastic garden chairs that have had the ends sorn off. I feel like they are adults chairs modified to children’s size. How bizarre. Still, the price is right. Weird but nice. The service is impeccable and they genuinely seem happy to see me, take note Thailand sales vendors. We are all buzzing from the small precious things in life, life in Yangon, Myanmar, where all the horrid news stories of ethnic cleansing and civil war come from.
The streets are clean and the buildings in good shape. My expectations of a run down war torn country with Police torturing the locals in the streets was no where to be found. I’m surprised. Everything is amazingly relaxed and happy here. No signs of civil unrest or a strict military regime.
The street ambience is relaxed, the pace of life here is neither frantic nor fast. Community spirit seems strong, men talk in groups in the tea shops, women chatter whilst selling fruit on the market and small games of street football bring the young lads together. Indians love cricket, the Burmese love football. I don’t like cricket. Burma is in serious danger of slipping into the top spot for Michael’s favourite country award. My expectations have been blown away, purely by the friendliness of the people in this ascetically dull looking city.
The English and Spanish football leagues are clear favourites for the youngsters of Myanmar. Wearing fake Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona shirts is popular here. Burma is football crazy. The icing had just been put on my cake. Me and Burma, we’re going to get along. We’re going to be good friends, no, great friends.
We even saw a Monk playing football. On his own. Practicing his ball control. Legend.
And to top it all off, after I sunk a curry flavoured mutton soup with Parotta in the local cafe, that’s Indian food, I love Indian food… the bar by the market was showing the Man Utd v Liverpool game live. We sunk full power 8% volume Dagon beers that night, with a fat guy from Finland. We were buzzing with excitement at the prospect of the next 28 days in Myanmar, so not even Utd spanking us 2-1 lowered our spirits. Anyway, football’s for losers.
Leaving the bar a little tipsy and still smiling, we noticed that the busy market had disappeared and the streets were nearly empty and the shops were shut. Yangon is Myanmar’s largest city so we were surprised to see the central parts streets deserted at only 10pm. However, this is a country wide thing that we discovered that night, I’d have to retune my body clock to an early rise, early fall Burma timetable. However we spotted signs of life down a side street, where they had a TV showing the football. The fans were sitting on mini chairs, just like the ones we’d sat on earlier and huddled around drinking green tea. Chinese tea, as they call it, is free in all eateries. Great if you like tea I suppose.
Another beautiful discovery, Myanmar’s answer to Indian chai is called lapaye, is available from all good tea shops, but it’s not free like it’s poor tasting sister green tea. Big in the game. The milky tea is not as good as my beloved masala chai but it’s damn close, it’ll do. For me and my pedigree chums, Myanmar just kept getting better, beyond any of our wildest expectations. It’s these small things in life…
Today’s cultural news bit:
Researching the Burmese history, I found out it is formed of many different cultures and ethnic minorities. Myanmar borders Laos, India, China, Tibet and Thailand, the people and the food influenced by immigration from these surrounding countries. Even my English ancestors had their part to play, giving independence back to Burma around 1948. Burmese people come in all shapes and sizes. Some look Chinese, others have come from Indian decent and others look like they have Thai blood lines, and keeping in line with most of Asia, they are pretty short. Chinese style stir fry and Thai noodles are on the menu along with Indian curries. This country appears to be a fusion of a number of different cultures. I like it. The doors to tourists were opened back in 2011 so tourism is relatively new. I believe business visas were accepted before this but were tough to negotiate.
Everything this country offers is interesting, I’m fascinated by the happy, smiling people and it’s current and past human rights issues. This country has already given me the WOW factor. Well played Michael. Burma was a good choice. I’m sure I’ll learn more, I’ll keep you updated.
This is me in a wrestling mask that johnny had. Strange boy.
The following morning was spent eating breakfast out on the street. In most guest houses breakfast comes gratis. The service is happy and helpful. The whole family who run the guest house are involved with keeping us happy, young and old.
For all it’s behind the times charms, one modern invention sparked a huge interest, an umbrella that looks like a gun.
Taking a stroll down the road, a lovely man asks us softly if we like Indian chai. Hello. I do. Strange thing to ask but before we know it we enter into a discussion about Myanmar, travel concerns and the no go areas of the country still gripped with civil war, over a few cups of chai, sorry lapeiye, with a Burmese man from Indian decent who spoke bloody great English. I notice again that all seats on the street were little kids size plastic stools. Interesting. His friends were thrilled to see us and although they did not understand English, they smiled and nodded their heads eagerly. He paid for our teas and wished us well on our journey. Welcome to Myanmar. What a gent.
Shredagan Paya is the place for all tourists, Buddhist pilgrims and monks to visit when in Yangon. We walked the streets, past malls, street stalls, markets, shops, the train station and parks. Their winter season hit us with 30 degree heat. At home in England, it’s snowing. I applied my sun lotion. A pink face is inevitable.
Inside this beast of a Buddhist complex are 82 temples, a shed load of pagodas and a fair few monks. The entire complex is extravagant, peaceful and breathtakingly beautiful. The centre piece is a huge pure gold pagoda. That’s right, that massive huge gold thing is not cement painted gold, it’s real gold. The gold was donated by rich Buddhist dudes seeking excellent Karma and future business wealth but to top it off, somewhere in there was some of Buddhas hair. The actual Buddha himself, the man, the legend.
I walked the temple area all day, mesmerised by the calm and tranquil surroundings. I was caught bashing several of the huge bells, three times each for luck. I felt the urge to meditate, even though it was getting late and more tourists were coming in. I found peace in a corner. Cliche. But a great choice. This place was surreal. I floated. I’ve never meditated in public, but this felt right. I am turning into such a hippy.
When I came to and arrived back on planet earth, I was approached by an over enthusiastic young monk with good English skills. He talked the talk. Before I knew it, his teacher, who he called Papa and kissed many times, joined us with another monk in learning. I saw genuine passion and interest in their eyes. Why were they talking to me? After explaining about their monastery and the good his teacher, Papa, has done for the children of the school, he explained how Papa had lost his family in the cyclone, which the Government famously gave no or little aid to help, had killed his family. He then chipped in with a story about that his sight saving operation would cost lots of money. Oh I see. I get it. Scam ahoy. They got me good. Ten minutes in and I only twig at the punch line. I decline for a donation, smile and agree to come and visit them at their monastery They didn’t look too enthusiastic but played along with me. Silently, I told them with my eyes I knew their game, they replied, also with no words, that they knew that I knew their game. They gracefully bowed to me and wished me well, gave me a blessing and departed swiftly. Funny world, religion and tourism always bring out the most elaborate of scammers.
This experience didn’t ruin the magic of this palace of beauty. As the sun set, the lights eliminated the gold draped temples, stupas and pagodas. It was stunning. The complex strangely offered free wifi for tourists only. A rarity anywhere in Yangon, not exactly the place I’d imagine picking up my emails at.
After we shrugged off a weird Dutch dude who couldn’t pay his dinner bill or the taxi, we retreated back to the guest house for a good nights kip before we were to set off for a place called Bago in the morning. The night was again disrupted early in the morning by the city sounds, a rogue cat making death curdling screeching sounds and randoms walking through our room.
On the morning of the fifteenth of January, we were woken to another finely prepared breakfast of noodles, fruit and tea. We said our goodbyes, I practised some of my new found Burmese lingo an we toddled off to the station for our ride to Bago.
This little walk confirmed my first negative experience of Burma. The Burmese love to chew on Paan. The red beetle nut that contains a small hit of amphetamine and stains your teeth a painful looking blood red. Once thy have finished sucking the life out of it, they spit their red saliva on the street floor. As you may already have read in my previous Indian blog posts I feel this habit is not exactly charming. Rotten teeth and spitting on the floor regularly is something I’d rather not pay money for. I’ve tasted it too, it’s rough. I’d say the majority of men do it and a fair few lower class ladies do too. It’s every where. Even monks do it. And certain kids. It makes you look evil, honest, check yourself out in the mirror. My dentist would have a field day over here. Their red spit covers the pavements. Dog rough. Apparently one of the kings of Burma once upon a time chewed it, so, a great excuse for the entire country to get hooked on this disgusting habit. Rant over with.
My first Burmese train journey was destined to be in upper class. I tried my hardest to get ordinary class but I was refused. On certain trains tourists are not allowed to get ordinary class. No idea why. No questions asked, we were shown to our seats by a porter. Chewing Paan, he grabbed our ticket and wouldn’t give it back. I told him I wouldn’t tip him and he was wasting his time. Once sat in our seats the guys paid him a tip. I refused. Tight arse me. We could have worked it out without his help. He smiled, with his mouth still full of minging red paan and left.
As in India, the train network was installed by the British and unlike India, nothing has been updated or renewed. It was something from the dark ages of the forties. There were food sellers of all ages and genders pacing the train, most left us to it, smiling and giggling as they passed. Unfortunately small children workers hoped on and off the train. While in Yangon, I saw little poverty and no slums. As the train departed, the poverty that breeds by the railway lines was evident. We watched the train tell the full story of Yangon, a city we only paid brief time and attention to.
The train was slow and rocked from side to side as we left Yangon and drifted out into the lush countryside passing bamboo shacks, farms, villages, work houses, rice paddies, ponds harvesting unknown greenery, loads of sub tropical plants and waving children hoping to catch food thrown to them by passengers. Most villages outside of the cities are bamboo huts built at least a metre above the ground, protecting them from the monsoon rains. The people seem to lead a simple life out in the sticks, staring and waving in excitement as we pass by.
Rubbish is thrown carefree out of the window, the railway lines are scattered with litter. That’s annoying but part of the short sighted culture of certain parts of Asia. With no rubbish collections, most people use their front doorstep or back garden as a rubbish dump. Some burn rubbish fires daily. Burmese people, like many Asian countries are uneducated in regards to pollution or have a poor rubbish disposal system, if any. I’m reminded of what a great and privileged bubble the people of Britain live in.
You’re allowed to smoke on trains too. Not a big fan of that. No rant, just saying that’s a bit rough.
After we pick up some speed, and that didn’t happen a lot, something amazing happened. We hit the bumps. The train threw us into the air, repeatedly for 30 seconds. Bags crashed down and people held onto their belongings. Alien to us but quite normal for the hardened Burmese passenger, we jumped and laughed hard as we were thrown into the air. The tracks clearly not realigned since the Second World War, this occurred many times throughout our journey. The bumps added another thrill to an excellent seven hour train journey. I watched, I learned and appreciated the beauties of an under developed country. A lesson in the reality of life in Burma. I am absolutely loving this experience. Thailand sucks in comparison. Burma has me. She’s sucked me in.
They even have signs up everywhere, telling the locals to look after us tourists. Nice touch.
This is going to be one hell of an adventure. I’m ready.