Arriving into Bangkok for the third time this trip saw us much better equiped at using the local system to get to Khao San Road instead of expensive tuktuk-ing. But, after an 18 hour bus from Laos, it also meant we had to wait at the local bus station after midnight, where there were plenty of homeless souls wandering around talking to themselves, and yelling the odd gibberish in my direction. We had a week here to organise our visas for Myanmar before our flight to Yangon. Had a little chuckle in the Embassy of Myanmar when the girl in front of me explained her complexion as ‘yellow’…
Unfortunately for us, our goal of ‘no flying’ would be impossible if we were to include Myanmar in our plans as the country was still closed to land-border crossings. Even more unfortunately for us, they opened a single land-border with Thailand the very week we were in Thailand – after we had bought our flights.
We, along with friend Izzy, boarded the plane to Myanmar with feelings of excitement and very little idea of what to expect when we arrived.
Some quick facts on Myanmar:
The full name is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, although it was formerly known as Burma (some countries continue to use this name)
The area of Burma was an important battleground between Japanese and Allied forces during World War 2
It was under the control of a military dictatorship for 49 years which officially ended in 2011 (although the military still hold prominent positions within the government)
The capital was secretly moved from Rangoon (Yangon in English) to Naypyidaw in 2005, and the Government gave civil workers only two days notice to move with it
Both men and women wear skirts (called longyis, like a sarong, but still…)
Barely an hours flight from Bangkok, it was amazing to see how different this country appeared from above: no sprawling masses of cities, and green – so green. A sign of much less development. The airport was large, empty and quiet. We changed our clean, crisp American dollars – the only currency that used be accepted for exchange, but now not so strict – into the local Kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) and wandered through to glimpse our first sight of Yangon: men in skirts. It was an odd sight to behold when I come from a country where men are commonly found parading hairy legs from beneath a pair of rugby shorts, but it quickly became normal – although Angelo wasn’t keen to blend in.
As is customary, we were quickly led to a beat up old taxi, bundled into the back, and tore off into the city ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD. The cars were normal – right side drive (shhh Europeans and Americans) – but we seemed to be also driving on the right hand side. This feels funny… Speed limits were obviously not an issue here either; we weaved and swerved our way through traffic and residential areas at a comfortable speed of around 80km.
We spent two days taking in the sights and sounds of the city and sampling local foods: samosa salad (chopped up samosas, and lentil patties, in a chickpea and lentil gravy); pickled tea leaf salad; faludas (a popular Persian dessert/drink made from milk or ice-cream with vermicelli, rose syrup and tapioca pearls or jelly); and Myanmar beer (that counts as food, right?). Yummo. Walking at night was a bit of a mission as there was minimal street lighting and multiple drain covers (and chunks of pavement in general) missing.
A bit intimidated by all the hawkers lining the walls of the Sule Pagoda, we decided to keep moving towards the Bogyoke market to window shop Burmese treats such as jade, jewellery and all manner of other pretty things that I couldn’t buy. Sigh.
It was here that I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the begging. It’s not that it was worse, or more prominent than what I’ve seen in Thailand, or Laos, or South America even, it was just, well, sadder. Each dircection I looked would bring into view another child trying to sell me a fan, or a carved stone elephant. But these kids were different. They were quiet, almost shy, and there was a faraway look of sadness in their eyes. Maybe it was the lack of tourists around making me feel more guilty – it’s much easier to dismiss someone when you’re not the only foreigner in the crowd. Or maybe it was a vague awareness of how these people have suffered under a relentless regime. My life felt so priviledged, and spoilt in comparison. And it broke my heart.
A little ways on, weaving through long dusty streets in the monsoon heat, we came to a park (called “Happy World”) which, we hoped, would lead us to the Shwedagon Pagoda – arguably the most important monument to Buddhists and Buddhism in the country. We strolled alongside a scummy pond with locals circling about in faded duck shaped peddle boats, peeked inside a kind of children’s amusement park, and quickly dodged past a freakishly painted man on stilts dancing to blaring pop music that I’m thankful not to recall.
And there it was, in all its golden glory. We came back to visit it the next day because it was already late afternoon by then. Despite all our efforts to get past the guides at the front gate I had a guy wander up to me and start talking, and before I knew it we had a guide leading us around that we didn’t know how to say no to. Crap. After a couple of hours weaving in and around the many smaller monuments and trying to figure out his stories in broken English, he looked at our K5,000 (about $5) and politely pointed out that he usually received K10,000 for his tours – “if that’s ok.”
As I was admiring the buildings around the pagoda an old monk waved me over to sit with him in the shade. After a short introduction he soon leapt into the throngs of Buddhist thought and talked me through the importance of being mindful of ourselves and our actions otherwise karma will grant us bad luck in the next life. “It’s best not to be angry or jealous either” – or Muslim it seemed – because he continued: “those Muslims are obsessed with money and it gives them bad hearts, and creates wars.” Whoa, Ok.
You don’t really expect to hear bigoted slurs like this from Buddhist monks, but then it shouldn’t really be surprising when you look at the recent and ongoing religious, and racial, tension in the country.
We decided to find a quiet space in the shade to sit, take photos and watch the people walk by. It was during this time that we were approached by a rather ‘merry’ local man who wanted nothing more than to engage us in conversation – some of which, included political talk, which we had heard would be fairly unlikely between locals and foreigners. The situation soon evolved into an impromptu tour of Yangon, which was an odd and entertaining way to fill up an afternoon.
The next day we were heading south. Upon our arrival at the bus station we were surrounded by a sea of people – we were still in the car – who would fight, amongst each other, as to which bus company we would use. Tourists pay a fairly decent price when it comes to domestic travel in the country so we were looking like a pretty good deal to them. Stuck right up the back of the bus we were the most interesting things anybody had seen. We had people walk up to us and snap a photo on their phone (without saying anything to us), people gathered at the windows just to stare, and hawkers selling goods on the bus stopped in their tracks when they saw us, until the bus started moving and they had to quickly hustle back off. I guess we’ll have to get used to this…