Tag Archives: Yangon

Impressions of Burma

It’s funny think that if I hadn’t walked through a glass door and ended up in hospital I might never have made it to Burma. But doing just that put paid to my plans to spend some time diving on the Andaman Coast, and finally made my mind up to book a flight to Yangon.

Yangon by night

Yangon by night

It’s probably worth saying straight off that for a long time I had been a supporter of the tourism boycott (that interestingly seems to have a far higher profile in the UK than in many other countries), but in the last year I’ve had numerous conversations with other travellers that had started me questioning my stance – and finally this year a friend of mine from back home who knows far more about Burma than anyone else I know talked me into it.

Ultimately the thing that swayed me was the argument that the boycott is damaging the people far more than it is the government (who don’t suffer that much at all thanks to being propped up with cash from lots of Asian governments like China). Sanctions mean that Burma gets way less development aid (about a quarter of the amount per capita) than near neighbours such as Bangladesh, Laos & Cambodia. Visiting as an independent tourist offers a way to give money directly to people running private businesses (incidentally the Lonely Planet is pretty helpful at advising you on how to minimise the amount of cash you spend that goes to the government), and we made a real effort to spread our cash around rather than spend it all in the same place. Furthermore, it was interesting to see quite how much people were willing to open up when talking one to one, about their views of the government – and it seems that the vast majority want tourists to come and see for themselves how the junta keeps the people poor and repressed.

I’m so glad I did make the decision to go, as the country was one of the highlights of the whole year of travelling. It was certainly the most intense experience of the whole year, with some amazing highs interspersed with some of the more challenging bits of the whole trip – most notably the rather terrible bus journeys and food that was often even worse (and had us leaping for joy at the sight of this restaurant in Nyaungshwe, by Inle Lake):

Inle Pancake Kingdom

The best pancakes in Burma

There were times too when the poverty became hard to bear – between the five of us, we tried to spread our money round as much as possible to help as many people as possible – but you have to acknowledge you can’t help everyone – which led to a sadly farcical situation in Inwa, where we decided we’d rather sight-see on foot, and spent the afternoon being followed around by a horse and cart driver desperately trying to persuade us to use his services (and being told repeatedly no). We ended up trying to escape him by taking short cuts across fields, but every time we thought we’d got away he’d turn up again.

No escape

No escape

Luckily though the highs easily outweighed the lows. I’ve already written about how Yangon is one of my favourite cities in Asia, on how Bagan really deserves to rival Angkor Wat in terms of global fame, and on the wonders of trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

Bridge over Inle Lake

Bridge over Inle Lake

But there were plenty of other highlights too. Inle Lake itself is absolutely stunning. It’s edges dissolve into a series of floating vegetable gardens and houses on stilts, so it’s hard to see where land ends and lake begins. Even better is taking a boat out early in the morning to explore the area – at that time of day on a clear day even the sky and the lake seem to blur into one.

Inle Lake fisherman Burma

The unique rowing style of the Inle Lake fishermen

Meanwhile around Mandalay it’s easy to spend a day stopping off at the former capitals of Inwa (with its rather amazing leaning tower), Sagaing (and its many temples on a hill overlooking the mighty River Irrawaddy) & Amarapura (with the rather incredible U Bein’s Bridge, at 1.2km long, the longest teak bridge in the world).

The leaning tower of Inwa

The leaning tower of Inwa

In terms of natural beauty and historic interest, the places I visited in Burma rival anything else I saw in Asia, and all with way fewer tourists than in most neighbouring countries (and all still pretty cheap too). Even better is the fact that in many ways its traditional culture is better preserved than many countries in the region. For a start, it’s the only Asian country I’ve been to where people still stick to traditional dress, with the clear majority of men & women preferring the skirt-like longyi over trousers. Equally distinctive is the use of thanaka, a creamy paste derived from a sandalwood-like tree, and which most women and children use on their faces and arms as a natural sunblock.

Sunset over U Bein's bridge

Sunset over the beautiful U Bein's bridge

Best of all though, yet again were the people. From the moment we arrived at Yangon airport to the moment we left, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people we met everywhere. Everyone says mingala ba (hello) in the street, people regularly stop just to have a chat, and people go out of their way to be helpful, and even when times got a little bit stressful people were always there to help cheer us up. People constantly surprised us with their reactions, like the woman from Inle Pancake kingdom who chased us down the road to try to return the money we’d left as a tip (she thought we’d accidentally overpaid). It’s a great tribute to the people that they manage to remain so friendly and upbeat despite the best efforts of the government, and I hope one day soon that they get to escape from military rule.

You can see all of my photos of Buma here.

Next (and final) stop: Cambodia

How to do Yangon in a day

Getting up at 4am is never the best way to start the day, but at least I was able to comfort myself with the knowledge that it was just going to be a ‘travel day’ – I planned to spend most of the day chilling out in Yangon, perhaps exploring a little bit of the city near to the hotel, with the serious business of sightseeing left to the following day after catching up with some sleep. Or so I’d thought – it all ended up far more hectic (and a lot more fun)

I travelled to Bangkok airport with Sam (an Englishman I’d met at the Burmese embassy a few days before, and subsequently bonded with over a nightmare adventure wandering around Bangkok trying to find suitable clean and unmarked US dollars to take to notoriously fussy Burma) and Frankie (a German who happened to be in the same hostel). A slight flight delay saw the three of us chatting to two Americans, Andrew & Tony, and so when we finally arrived in Burma, the five of us decided to head to a hostel together – the wonderful Motherland 2. Seriously, if you’re a backpacker planning a Burmese visit, this is totally the best place to start – they’ll come and pick you up from the airport (for free), give you loads of tips on what to do in the city and round the country, advice on getting the best exchange rates and book all your onward travel for you too.

Colonial building, yangon, myanmar

Faded colonial grandeur


After checking in, showering and changing, it was about 11am and the five of us decided it was time to head out for a little wander around town. The first thing that struck me was that Yangon is a gorgeous little city. There are loads of colonial-era buildings still standing, and the centre is much more low-rise than most in Asia (I’ve only really felt the same atmosphere in Lao cities), giving it a much more human scale and charm that I’ve really missed since leaving Latin America.

Unsurprisingly enough there are way fewer white faces on the streets of Yangon compared to Thailand, so we definitely stood out. But it became apparent straight away that this was going to be a very friendly country – armed with the one word of Burmese we’d picked up at the hotel (Mingalaba) we set about saying hello to everyone we passed and got plenty of amused smiles and Mingalabas in return.

Sule Paya, Yangon, Burma

Temple in a roundabout


As we approached our first major sight – the Sule Paya, a huge golden-domed temple in the middle of a roundabout at the heart of town – we had our first proper interaction with a local. We were stopped by an elderly monk (who looked remarkably like Yoda) who told us all about the Paya and then proudly displayed his world knowledge by giving us each a fact on finding out where we were all from (Chicago – Al Capone!; Germany – Angela Merkel!; London – John Terry! (yes, still no escaping the football even in Burma).

The monk was entertaining enough – but I’m not sure anything could quite have prepared us for our next meeting with a Burmese. Heading away from the Sule Paya, we were soon ambushed by a little old lady by the name of Ethel. Daw Ethel (who by her own admission talks a lot of blah blah blah) insisted we join her for tea, and so the five of us were soon perched on little stools by the side of the road, sharing tea and listening to a whole series of very entertaining monologues on subjects ranging from life in the city, to her childhood, and tips on travelling round the country. Ultimately she was trying to sell herself as a guide around the country – but lovely (and hysterical) as she was, the five of us all agreed that the blah blah blah would have left the five of us unable to get a word in edgeways for the rest of the trip so we regretfully declined, after buying her lunch for her time. (On a side note – I’d love to team her up with equally lovely-but-bonkersCynthia from Mexico and see what happened).

Yangonn, Myanmar

Quite a character


After wandering around admiring all the historic architecture, next stop was the market, to change some money on the black market (essential, as the official exchange rate is terrible). This required a trip to the main market, and wandering around asking various people about exhange rates, and then disappearing down an alleyway to do the deal – which involved tediously counting my way through hundreds of 1000 kyat notes to check I wasn’t being short-changed. As it turned out, my usual terrible currency luck continued – when we were there, the exchange rate was the worst its been in aaaages – although despite that, it still left me in the uncomfortable position of wandering around with three huge bricks of notes inside my rucksack.

We’d covered a fair bit of ground on foot by this point, so we were all starving. In typically adventurous tourist style, we shunned Burmese food and headed straight out for a curry at one of the numerous Indian restaurants in town (our subsequent experiences were to show that may not have been a bad move…). Suitably refuelled, we soon found ourselves abandoning our previous plans to head back to the hostel, and instead made our way up to the city’s highlight, the spectacular Shwedagon Paya.

Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Burma

Day....

Words really can’t quite do justice to it – it sits on top of a hill, dominating the city, and is pretty enormous. It’s reached by four different staircases on each side, and as we reached the top we were pretty blown away by the scale of it, with dozens of spires and domes, all encrusted in gold, and packed with local families and monks paying their respects. We hung around for a couple of hours, soaking up the atmosphere and trying to take it all in, and then admiring the changing colours as the sun set. Quite remarkable.

Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Burma

...and night

Of course by now it was dark and any thoughts of heading back went out of the window, and so we all hopped in a cab (five of us was a bit of a tight squeeze) and headed for a bar – which, being sunday night, was almost entirely empty, although predictably enough was showing a Spurs game. Regardless, we had a few drinks before piling into a bus back into town for a final few drinks at a street corner beer station by the Sule Paya, and then walking home through deserted straights to make it to bed around midnight.

Packed into a Yangon Taxi

Packed in a taxi

So my planned quiet start to my fortnight in Burma ended up being a 20 hour sightseeing marathon. But what a way to start – exploring a fascinating city on foot, meeting wonderful locals, seeing some great sights, and having a great time bonding with the four people who I was to end up spending the next two weeks with.

You can see all of my photos of Yangon here. Next stop – heading up to the hills (by way of a rather dramatic bus ride).