Revisiting a travelogue featuring the place we’ve just visited is a ritual in our household and any episode of an Anthony Bourdain show takes top priority. Ironically, they shot the premier episode of his highly successful CNN series “Parts Unknown” in Myanmar only three short years ago. Comfortably back in the confines of what now appears to us as our highly developed home territory of Malaysia, we grabbed some tortilla chips and sat down on the couch to see how much we’d recognize. Unlike most other nations, almost every topic mentioned is almost totally obsolete since the original air date. Focusing mainly on the authoritative regime that’s kept the people of Myanmar fearful of speaking with foreigners, the show injects way too many shots of government atrocities, riots in the streets and historic photos of the old Burmese colony under British rule.
Catching only a few glances of anything recognizable, it seems Yangon singlehandedly transformed itself from a place where locals went from cautiously optimistic to overly enthusiastic. Currently very different from the not so busy looking streets they showed, it’s like they sugar-coated the episode for fear of political repercussion and the vibrancy exhibited today reflects one of the world’s fastest transformations from a repressed fearful society to an open-minded and quickly developing nation. Possibly the strangest sound bite was his testament to the nation’s lack of modern communications:
“Internet? Forget it. Downloading something? Nope. 3G? Not happening.”
In only three short years, not only did they wire the nation top to bottom but they successfully transformed the citizens into one the world’s highest users of smartphones per capita. With 80 million people, this is no small feat and proves how eager people are to quickly embrace change that represents progress. Seeing monks spend more time texting than meditating is commonplace in many Buddhist nations and the days of wine making are as far removed as the stately colonial buildings now mostly relegated to dilapidated eyesores. Having razed six square blocks of downtown to make way for an enormous office and shopping complex now under construction furthers the argument to visit soon before the great transition wipes away all signs of the past 60 years. Although we didn’t frequent the many tea shops, Bourdain spent time with some journalists reminiscing about jail sentences and harped on the tea shop being the focal point of society where people exchanged ideas and read any available newspapers. Far fetched for a new internet generation, only those older than us read print media and Google maps makes it easy to explore the heart of Yangon.
Always wanting local food despite the abdominal risk, Diane and I skipped the hotel’s version and went looking for some mohinga where the locals eat. Dubbed the national dish, it’s a rice noodle and fish soup considered a staple in the diet. Wikapedia loosely defines the ingredients as chickpea flour, and/or crushed toasted rice, garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste, fish sauce, and catfish in a rich broth cooked and kept on the boil in a cauldron. Served with rice vermicelli and garnished with fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, crisp fried onions, coriander, spring onions, crushed dried chillis, it sounds like a lot but unlike Thai soups, is relatively unspectacular with none of the ingredients really jumping out at you. Half the fun is patronizing a small noodle shop with no English on the menu and simply pointing so we headed around the corner to Myaung Dya Daw Cho. Unclear how to order, a friendly local helped us out and the bill came to about 600 Kyat for two medium size bowls. Lacking much protein, it’s a good snack but didn’t satisfy our body’s nutritional requirements for a walking tour on a 40 degree Celsius sunny day.
Usually used as a gateway for other destinations, many foreigners simply blow off touring Yangon and this is a big mistake. Understanding why most foreigners prefer the cooler winter months, touring by foot is an experience in dehydration and the city’s higher temperatures and low humidity make it feel more like Napa, California in mid July than the humid tropical environs of Penang but we toughed it out anyway and mostly followed Lonely Planet’s suggestions. Considered the commercial hub and center of downtown, the Sule Paya is the city’s second most popular pagoda, albeit much smaller. Wanting a foreigner’s admission fee, we admired it from the outside since it’s paltry compared to Schwadegon’s grandeur and crossed the street to admire City Hall, The Immanual Baptist Church and a small park known as Mahabandoola Gardens. Featuring a clock tower similar to The Washington Monument and some green space, it’s worth a quick look but the people surrounding the park seemed more interesting.
After about a half hour the heat was unbearable despite having lived through Southeast Asia’s worst heat wave in over 20 years so we ducked into a noodle shop known as 999 Shan Noodles and listed as number one out of over 400 eateries on TripAdvisor. Segregating all foreigners from locals by bringing them upstairs where three large air conditioners crank out so much cold air it feels like a Malaysian train, it’s obvious that pampering scores more points for travelers than the food. Owning the restaurant for a several years, the proprietor comes to each table explaining the dishes and making sure diners are comfy on the Lilliputian sized stools that pass for seats in Myanmar. Specializing in the north’s signature style soup, I ate Shan K’auq Sweh. Commonly known as Shan noodles, this thin sticky rice noodle dish is tastier and more authentic in Kalaw, 240 miles to the north. Certainly not worthy of the number one rated restaurant, it’s an OK place to cool off but left me longing for a bowl of good ol Penang style Hokkien Mee.
Filling our bellies a bit, we continued our stroll downtown and headed to the riverfront street known as Strand Road. Passing a newly renovated building that’s not even complete, The Yangon Stock Exchange just opened for business and isn’t even known to Google Maps yet. Unclear who can invest or what type of investments might offer positive returns in a nation where free market capitalism is a new concept, based on experience I’d recommend the telecom companies, the recently re-branded national airline (Myanmar Airlines) and the multitude of Japanese companies collaborating with the new government to make power grid improvements.
Speaking of which, the one thing on Bourdain’s show that hasn’t seen much improvement in three years is the electricity. Regular blackouts are the norm everywhere from the biggest cities to remote villages, especially in hot season. Clearly one of the three biggest annoyances along with the horrendous amounts of garbage and unacceptably horrible air quality thanks to the never ending 24/7 burning of fields and garbage, the most common sight in the city is the ubiquitous generator. Used by every business, hotel and the airport, we can’t imagine how much diesel pollution permeates the already horrible air but the internet buzzes with positive articles of quick improvements due to loans from the Asian Development Bank and various other élite NGO’s. Not usually a fan of large-scale big brother type financial powerhouses like The World Bank, Myanmar’s population deserves to have uninterrupted electricity and bringing the nation power grids in line with today’s needs should be a top priority.
Understanding development will ease some problems and replace them with others, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Yangon. Because our work exchange program didn’t pan out, we wound up changing plans and spent four more days than expected, giving us a chance to explore the neighborhoods and parks after seeing the top tourist attractions. (More on that in a future post). But on this day, we continued our journey down the riverside street, oblivious to the parking lot of traffic that never ends. Debating whether to keep or destroy the old colonial buildings remains a hot topic for city dwellers but luckily a handful of old buildings like the Customs House and the fabulous main post office are still in use today, allowing visitors a chance to gaze into the colonial architecture of yesteryear.
Passing the Customs building there’s a footbridge leading to an old ferry terminal that goes to Dala. Considered a slum by most guide books, the old ferry transports thousands of residents across the river where they arrive carrying all kinds of goods on their backs, heads and any other way possible. Arriving just in time for an incoming ferry, we observed an oddly controlled chaos of people, goods and animals with taxis making their way slowly through the narrow streets, locals directing traffic and a non sop hoard of residents making their way across the bridge into the city where they spread out to sell their goods. Hypothetically possible to buy tickets, it seemed difficult and the heat raged on so instead we waited for the surge to end and powered on.
Most former British colonies have a grand old hotel that still operates today like Raffles in Singapore or The E & O in Penang. Yangon’s version is The Strand Hotel and it’s a worthwhile place to pop in from the heat and have a look. Elegantly decorated with granite and tile columns, there’s a dining room with overpriced drinks and meals of all kinds and of course the most luxurious place to pee in the entire city.
Finishing the riverside stroll, we came across my favorite building of the day. Functioning like in the movie “Groundhog Day“, it’s like 1925 never went away and repeats daily. Decked out and very stately looking, the city’s main post office is classic colonial with large columns, hanging ceiling fans and counters only slightly updated from the days when mail traveled by horse and buggy. Featuring beautiful marble staircases and tile floors, it’s like stepping into a stop on the Universal Studios Tour where they’d film a scene set during George Orwell’s last visit to Burma. Adding to the charm, there’s rarely any electricity during the business day so it’s easy to imagine yourself standing there reading by candlelight or oil lamp. Unlike many other deteriorating colonial structures, this one will probably stand the test of time and serve as an icon to the glorious past when people sent telegrams instead of text messages.
By the way, there’s still a sign for telegrams in the city’s other downtown postal outlet which we discovered later that afternoon but I’m unclear what you’d be able to do if you stood on that line. Equally as fascinating is the steel cage where I’m guessing they probably kept gold and currency once.
Having exhausted our history lessons of the Myanmar Postal Service, we turned the corner, passed an area known for book sales and returned to our starting point via Anawratha Road, one of the downtown area’s main arteries. Clogged with people, vendors, endless vehicles going nowhere fast and a few foreigners, it’s a perfect way to explore what the city’s really all about. Passing everything from hardware stores to barber shops, the narrow sultry streets reek from Indian spices and the shops range from old dark cement caves to modern storefronts housing Asian based chicken joints, bakeries and other various western enterprises that sprung up since Bourdain was last here. In no particular order, here’s a slide show gallery of inner Yangon’s interesting downtown streets.
Certainly not boring, Yangon’s revised spirit combines with the friendly nature of its citizens and makes for a very interesting self guided day tour. Less aggressive than people in some other Southeast Asian nations, it’s still in the early stages of tourism and continues to decide what’s most important to improve the city’s old infrastructure while still retaining some old world charm. Depending on who you talk to, most people agree that while there’s a long way to go before everyone begins to reap the benefits of a new democracy, life in Myanmar continues to improve as time goes on. Spend some time and get to know the city if you plan on visiting in the near future. While the temples of Bagan may highlight of your trip, the inner workings of daily life in the big city form the heart of the nation and deserve a few days of anyone’s itinerary.
Next: Some our stories of the Circular Train Ride and the local neighborhoods surrounding the boutique hotels.
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