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).
Realizing the expat experience isn’t complete until you immerse yourself into the local shopping scene away from the tourists, Diane and I made our first trip to the night market in Tanjung Bungah. Already regularly frequenting the morning market weekly for eggs and fruit, someone told us they run a night market on Tuesdays so we checked it out. More extensive and crowded, the local wet market is one place where expats really learn to immerse with the local community and our experience was no different. Lacking tourists due to its ideal location in between the island’s major attractions, we arrived early and found it was already crowded by 7 PM. Unlike the morning market, there’s lots of merchandise and an endless chain of food stands that stretched around two corners and featured food items we hadn’t yet seen and some we never heard of.
Jumping right in, we immediately purchased a pork bun and rounded the corner where the food jumped out at us. Approaching a stand serving a beverage called Lo Han Kuo, I decided I had to try some just because it looked like iced tea and would seemingly be refreshing on a hot evening. Attempting to ask about it proved fruitless because as I’ve mentioned, Hokkien Chinese is completely foreign to Diane and although they often talk to her in Chinese, she can’t understand one word. Still friendly but not as patient as hawkers in touristy areas, the vendor mouthed something about cough and we determined it meant “an herbal remedy for sore throats”. Tasting slightly sweet, there was a fruit in the bottom that looked like a small plum but I couldn’t really name it. Satisfied, we moved on and didn’t realize how many food vendors were at night markets, including almost every type of Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Chinese and even some strange-looking version of Western food. (I have yet to taste anything from the “western food” stands, figuring McDonalds, KFC and Dominos Pizza can fill my craving when that time arrives).
While reading about the recent coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s death, I reminisced back to our first visit to Singapore a few years ago. Having spent a week in Borneo exploring the terrain at Borneo Rainforest Lodge and The Kinebatangan River Valley, both spectacular places in the wilder and often forgotten part of Malaysia, we relaxed for a few days and soaked up some luxury at The Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort near Kota Kinabalu. Perhaps the best kept secret in the luxury chain circuit, we had more than enough splendor and probably should have visited Penang at that point for some serious expat destination research. Innocently unaware I’d be laid off one year later, instead we chose five days in Singapore. Thinking the remote jungle atmosphere left us longing for a big expensive city filled with expensive food and touristy glitz, we headed out to Malaysia’s enormously small but powerfully wealthy next door neighbor.
Aware of the city’s reputation for shopping as a national sport, we decided to skip Orchard Road and all the cheesy attractions at Sentosa Island in favor of soaking up some culture. Realizing the best way to do this was explore the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, we opted for a few days well spent in Little India, one of the best places for Indian culture outside India itself. Naturally, Chinatown was also on our list of must-do places since Diane is Chinese and all real New Yorkers like myself love Chinese food but with our mutual fascination of all things Indian, we hopped on the immaculately clean and beautiful subway system and headed out to see what we might find. Like all good tourists, we did a bit of research and decided to try The Original Singapore Walks to get a feel for things before exploring some more ourselves. Ironically, it must have been the right tour guide because a few months later while watching an episode of No Reservations, lo and behold, there’s Anthony Bourdain taking the same tour (albeit just him and his crew) with the same woman who guided us.