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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).