Completing our second of three weeks here in Myanmar, it’s been a fascinating trip so far and tomorrow we head up north to the mountainous Shan State for some scenic beauty. Although the 3G SIM cards available at the airport on arrival offer astoundingly great coverage in places that look like so shabby they make Malaysia look like Paris, the wifi is not very good so I wanted to post some pictures of our first few days in Yangon before heading out. Differentiating Myanmar from other developing nations in Africa, central and South America, it’s people are awesome. Genuinely warm, amazingly generous and extremely proud, there’s no begging despite widespread poverty and a lot of sub standard living conditions. Blessed with beautiful features like long flowing hair, beautifully perfect white teeth, great complexions and smiles that steal you heart, the Burmese deserve better than what they’ve had and hopefully the new democratically elected government will bring the dilapidated infrastructure into the 21st century.
Unable to support the ridiculously fast growth rate that’s inundated the nation in the last few years, the power grid is a joke and the electricity goes off about every two hours no matter where you are in the country. (As I wrote this post, the power went off. Each time, someone in manually starts the hotel’s generator and this requires 24/7 staff. Don’t take elevators in Myanmar). Supporting the economy with diesel-powered generators, every hotel, gas station, and business has them and people act like it’s totally normal. Neighborhoods in Yangon vary from downright shanty where every structure is one of those weathered filthy looking buildings to moderately upscale but nothing close to other Southeast Asian nations with only a few five star hotels (that’s changing g fast).
Unlike Penang, there are dozens of dilapidated but beautiful colonial style structures and unless someone petitions UNESCO for help, they’ll remain weathered until they’re eventually replaced. Clearly one of the biggest traffic disasters on the planet, the downtown area is a vibrant combination of working class Indians, Burmese, and Chinese and looks like a Hollywood movie set during the days of colonialism. Except of course for the smartphones that the entire population owns despite living and working in mostly sub standard squalor. There’s also a handful of expensive cars amongst the thousands of ancient taxis that take up more than half the city’s vehicles. With limited tourism, most of them are empty and they blow their horns more than the worst rush hour traffic in Times Square. Buses are World War II era privately owned jalopies that clog every street with employees screaming at locals as they try to cram them in to make a few bucks.
Oddly enough, two of the nicest little boutique hotels are not in the trendier neighborhoods where you’ll find western tourists hanging out looking for good wifi but right in the heart of the working class neighborhoods that surround the famous Schwedagon Pagoda. Easily the city’s biggest and best attraction, the pagoda is a must do when you stay in Yangon. Accessible from four different gates, it’s walking distance from both the Merchant Hotel and Hotel Accord and that’s where we’ve stayed while here in the city. Literally stuck right in the middle of what initially looks like a commercial asking for money to help feed the hungry, one stroll through the area immediately tells you how Myanmar is no sub Saharan African nation despite being sandwiched between Pakistan and Angola on the Quality of Life Index of 190 nations. Friendly, engaging and full of life, you forgot the dust, sand and garbage that litters the city because the people are wonderfully endearing with good hearts.
Best visited at sunset unless you’re a very early riser and prefer the 5:30 AM sunrise, the beautiful Schwedagon complex is a large square area surrounded by various shrines and smaller temples. Unlike some of Thailands’s large temples, it’s constantly busy seven days a week with mostly locals if you visit in the blazingly hit and sunny off-season as we are. Groups of families gather and what sets it apart is the eagerness and respect of the young generation that worships along side their parents and grandparents dressed in everything from hip casual jeans to beautiful sarongs. Known as a longyi, most people in Burma wear a skirt garment that’s a long sheet of cloth made of silk or cotton. Women’s are very colorful and stylish while the men’s version are usually dark green patterned.
Well organized for tourists, the East Gate is the only place in Myanmar we found overly annoying youths that stuff things in your pockets claiming you have to pay and use them for your visit. Annoyingly persistent, they’re the exception to the rule in Myanmar and we ignored them but still had to pay the 8,000 Kyat foreigners fee for entry to the complex. Well worth it, you’ll also have to remove your footwear not only in temples but around the entire surrounding areas of worship which is quite annoying in with so much dirt, garbage and dust. Cleaning one’s feet several times a day is suggested. Strangely, the bathrooms in Myanmar are spotless and unlike Malaysia’s smelly disgusting toilets, most all have toilet tissue, soap and towels.
Right around sunset people begin lighting candles all around the base of the pagoda.
Allowing about two hours for touring all the beautiful parts of the complex, we made our way back down and wandered back through the bustling streets filled with street food that’s very dangerous to eat unless your stomach can handle food made with untreated water. Although usually careful, it’s very hard to avoid all street food and juices in Southeast Asia and yesterday while visiting the less popular city of Mawlamyne, something I ate or drank attacked the crap out of my stomach and knocked me on my ass for 24 hours. Food poisoning is common in countries as low on the developing scale as Malaysia so I caution you to mostly eat cooked food in brick and mortar restaurants. Why there’s 443 restaurants in a city whose infrastructure is mostly in line with Cameroon or Nigeria is beyond me but there’s a host of western, Chinese, Italian and Indian places that are quite good.
Sadly, most nations “modernize” by encouraging multi billion dollar corporations to come in with five-star hotels and enormous shopping malls that the citizenry will never enjoy. Although in the infantile stages, we passed a huge complex soon to be the Wyndham and in the middle of the smelly downtown they’re building a five block shopping center similar to Penang’s Gurney Paragaon mega-mall. Visiting in the next year or two will allow you a last look at up and coming Yangon before they displace thousands of people from their homes and jobs to make room for “westernization”. We spent our second and third days in Yangon taking in the sights according to Lonely Planet’s downtown walking tour. Interspersed with a few modern buildings we found a mostly horribly old and overcrowded working class inner city struggling to find a new image but littered with mounds of crumbling old buildings, tons of garbage and dirt everywhere, traffic that doesn’t move and sidewalks so cluttered with vendors and small shops it’s almost impossible to move. In other words, utterly fascinating. They just opened a stock exchange that’s not even on Google Maps and the building is still being renovated showing their eagerness to quickly shed the military dictatorship reputation. Only a few people shy away from pictures and most smile and offer to take yours since they all have experience with phones.
Given its ranking as number 148 out of 191 countries on the quality of life scale, it’s the strangest contrast we’ve ever seen where some western chains like KFC, Swenson’s San Francisco Ice Cream and The Pizza Place are strategically placed right next to street vendors struggling to sell freshly skinned chickens, shrimp decaying in the hot sun with flies hovering over them and innards of every kind that look so unappetizing only the poorest residents would eat them. But that’s capitalism in Southeast Asia. Catering to your every whim, the staff goes out of their way in every restaurant, hotel and attraction to make sure you feel welcome in Myanmar. But skip the high-priced chains and take long walks through the seedy downtown, the working class neighborhoods surrounding the new boutique hotels and the beautifully tropical looking parks with the broken down boardwalks where locals with no jobs hang out and graciously appreciate a foreigner’s presence. Hello in Burmese is “Ming-a-la-bah” and thank you is “Jay-sue-bah“. Everyone says it to you and while the Thai are quickly shedding their reputation as The Land of Smiles thanks to throngs of horribly obnoxious mainland Chinese tourists invading like flies, the Burmese remain genuine and good-natured.
We’re off to the northern hills of Kalaw tomorrow so probably won’t post again until we return to Penang in mid May but please check back again late in the month where I’ll easily have a few weeks worth of story telling to go along with our thousands of pictures. The featured image shows a train pulling into the city’s central antiquated but beautiful rail station where we took the famous “Circular Train” which circles the city and although it’s already changed to a newer train with fans and isn’t anything like Anthony Bourdain showed only three years ago, it’s worth a separate post which I’ll write about later.
Cheers from steamy Yangon.