Burma (or Myanmar) is more open for travel and business than ever before, and I decided it was high time to take a look. Yangon airport is small and clean, and I was shown to a taxi, driven by a nice young lad in a longyi (Burmese traditional dress) who spoke quietly and in broken English. The drive to central Yangon, capital of Myanmar with a population of 4.5 million or so, didn’t take long, and soon we were at Traders Hotel….then went behind it and down a dirty, dark little side-street to where I would be staying – Clover City Hotel, covered by the looming shadow of the vastly superior Traders. I paid the driver with US dollars – but he didn’t accept one of my $10 notes. It was slightly crumpled. I gave him a $20, flat and in perfect condition. He found me change from somewhere and gave me a perfect $10 note. Strange. Despite the dilapidated surrounds, the Clover City Hotel was clean as a whistle. Too clean, in fact. It looked more like a hospital reception than a hotel, all white-washed and shiny. I was almost regretting not checking into Lonely Planet’s ‘Top Choice!’ – Mother Land Inn II, but then I remembered that every penny-pinching backpacker in Burma would be there sold on the Lonely Planet’s shameless rhetoric: “Take a pinch of backpacker bohemia, a dollop of professional service, a massive portion of cleanliness, mix well with a generous helping of travel advice and services, leave to marinate with enviously attired and proportioned rooms and voila, it’s the Mother Land Inn II.” I cringe just writing it. Still, the fact that a colleague of mine had recommended it had enticed me to send them an email enquiring about room availability. No rooms, of course. Booked out for the next year thanks to the Lonely Planet. Looking at where I was checking into, I was clearly just jealous. So I checked in and paid the extortionate room price of $100 at the Clover City – shocking considering it got me a white cube with a view of a brick wall and no breakfast. My $100 note was inspected very carefully for signs of wear and tear. From taxi drivers to hotel receptionists – no-one in Burma will accept an even slightly crumpled or dirty US bank note. Bank notes have to be brand new. A note with even the slightest stain is useless to the Burmese, they can’t spend it on anything, or exchange it for the local currency (kyat). I’d never known anything as ridiculous. How can anyone keep banknotes in such a perfect condition? Still, I would have to try. I left my room as quickly as possible and headed straight for Traders Hotel and Niko Travel, where I booked a ticket on the 6:30am flight the next morning out of Yangon for Mandalay. One night in Yangon would have to suffice, but it was still morning so I had a full day to kill. I don’t know what made me want to get out asap. Perhaps it was the fact that it was raining and everything looked gray and miserable, but it proved to be a good decision.
I walked around 10 minutes from Traders and reached Scotts Market (or Bogyoke Market as it is now known). I was on the hunt for a moneychanger, but one specific moneychanger recommended by a friend who used to live and work in Yangon. He’d drawn me a little map from memory and I was following that, trying not to get it wet in the rain. I found it – right at the back of the market on the far left. They gave a good rate – $1 = 847 kyat. I changed $500 and got a huge bundle of 500 kyat and 1000 kyat notes. The quality of these notes was variable, but the quality of kyats doesn’t seem to matter. I walked around the market, which was of little interest. Lots of older European tourists were milling around stupidly, which I found a surprising indication of the new openness of Burma. I walked behind the market and over a bridge which went over some train tracks. Monks were walking along the tracks, as well as villagers walking home or to market, and they stepped off without urgency when a big train rolled lazily past.
As I walked around the neighbourhood behind Scott’s Market I was greeted warmly with gentle smiles by the locals, who seemed shy but friendly. I stopped to buy some fruit from a fruit cart, and all around me locals were watching, smiling, some trying to practice English. I popped back to Traders to pick up my air ticket and went for a long stroll around downtown Yangon. Dirty, smelly, busy – very South East Asian. Not as noisy as, say, Saigon or Bangkok though. One of the big reasons for this is that there are no motorbikes – they are banned from the city centre, which makes it an altogether more pleasant experience to walk around. Loads of cars though (right hand drive cars driven on the right side of the road oddly), and old buses that seem to be belching their last smokey breaths every time they change gear. I felt at home, tramping around these streets full of pot-holes, flanked by crumbling old buildings, people milling around everywhere, some sat on the ‘pavement’ selling their wares….I’ve been pounding similar streets for over 10 years and it feels like home. Never threatening, always interesting.
I walked to the 2000 year old Sule Pagoda, like a huge gold bell in the middle of the city with a spike on the top, and not surprisingly a significant landmark. The city’s main traffic circle rings this temple, and the area around this pagoda attracts all manner of touts and money-changers, but, unlike other cities in the region, they are not persistent and very easy to swot away. Just a ‘sorry’ and a wave of the hand is enough. That won’t be the case for long, not once mass tourism kicks in, then they’ll become untrustworthy and lacking in morality and start peddling more sinister things like women and drugs, as they do in any other big city or beach resort in SE Asia. For now, the innocence and naivety is a wonderful novelty. The inside of the pagoda was very nice, well-worth seeing, despite the Lonely Planet writing ‘Don’t bother (going inside), just take pics from outside.’ As a result of what is written in the Lonely Planet, the place is free of backpackers, and I had the opportunity to meet some interesting people. I had a chat with Frank, a grey-eyed, silver-haired and glib-tongued charmer, and his beautiful ‘secretary’ who was learning English through the archaic language of religion. Frank seemed happy to chat and tell me about the Pagoda, and also about the British occupation of Burma. I was waiting for the sales pitch, but it never came. I met ‘Steven’ too, whose purpose was unclear, but who looked a tad shifty to me. Like Frank, though, he never made a pitch. Refreshing.
I walked from here down to the river and to an area with very old, once grand buildings, one of which houses the British Council and the High Commission. I pushed on down to the jetty – a colourful, lively scene of people coming off boats, people selling all manner of vegetables and fruits from wooden carts, monks, and all manner of misfits that such places attract. Casting its colonial shadow over this daily scene and the busiest road in Yangon is a grand old dame – The Strand Hotel, up there with Raffles in Singapore and Hotel Majestic Saigon. I walked in. Splendid place. I imagined it in colonial times, full of British gentlemen wearing khaki shorts and socks, sipping gin and tonics or whiskey at the bar. I had a coke for $3 – it was too early to be a gentleman.
The sun was setting now. I grabbed a little minicab (modern minicabs have started operating in the city) which took me to one of the finest pagodas in all Asia at the perfect time of day. The Shwedagon Paya, the most sacred of all Buddhist sites in Myanmar. I took of my shoes at the entrance and climbed the many steps leading to the pagoda which are full of souvenir and flower shops to the left and right. I reached the top. The immense gilded stupa was glowing in the fading light, and the impression was instant and memorable. A peacefulness was in the air, a faint, gentle buzz of worshippers, tourists and monks. Bats and other birds were having a field day as night fell and moths fluttered towards the golden lights in a trance. Cicadas, as big as dung beetles, fell to the ground in droves, ending their short lives in a glorious setting. It was amazing, not just the main glowing stupa, but also the smaller temples, shrines and statues that are dotted all around. It’s a spiritual place and worth lingering for an hour at least….a great escape from the madness of the world.
Now night, I walked down hill towards town, where I thankfully discovered a beer garden – a real locals place where everyone was gathered around small TVs watching soaps or football. I sat down hot, sweaty, tired, and ordered a Myanmar beer -the crisp, clear taste felt like the best thing in the world as it slipped down my parched throat. After 2 more bottles I headed towards town in the darkness – Yangon isn’t a bright city, and bought a couple of apples for later from a fruit vendor who was selling juicy red and green ones from his cart. I then found a Chinese-style restaurant -a cheap and cheerful affair, and ordered chicken vermicelli, which went down an absolute treat as the only thing I’d had for lunch was the peanuts I’d eaten at The Strand. A coach-load of old German tourists then barged in, all bulky-framed, white socks and sandals, and they all converged on the same counter, terrifying the till girl. I left, back into the busy night. Like most cities in SE Asia, Yangon nightlife is played out on the streets, not inside air-conditioned malls. In Yangon, markets, carts, hawker stalls…all kind of life is there just spilling out of the streets and into the side-streets. I visited Sky Lounge, a very swanky bar opposite Traders, but found it full of quiet couples on quiet tables – not for a loner like me, so I went back to my soulless hotel and got to bed, for I had to be up at 4:30am to catch the plane to Mandalay. I had enjoyed my brief stay in Yangon – a city clearly going places. There is lots of development, and it’s good to see the city in the midst of rejuvenation, while still being very traditional. Most men and women still wear longyis and the men smoke cheroots. Some people say “Go to Burma now before it’s too late. Before it’s spoiled” I’m not sure what that means. I think the locals won’t mind nice new apartments, malls, clean streets, job opportunities. Some will get left behind, of course. People will lose their gentleness and start to rip-off foreigners. But that’s part of progress, and it has its good and bad. Bangkok hasn’t done so badly out of progress. It’s romantic but unrealistic and unfair to think a city will remain time-trapped for us affluent culture-starved tourists to enjoy forever. It’s changed already – there are already nice new roads, new modern buildings. So, I enjoyed Yangon. It’s clearly a very malnourished city, in dire need of ‘feeding’ – but that investment is coming in fast and it’s going to be interesting to visit again in 10 years or so. Time to go, however, the road to Mandalay awaits.