We only had a few weeks free, money was tight, and it would have been much easier to stay in Thailand. Not to mention we knew the weather would be terrible. Yet still I pushed ahead with Burma – first stop Yangon.
Since the first time I went travelling and talked to people who had visited, Burma always held a fascination for me. But also a bit of a fear, since travelling there sounded more challenging.
A lot has changed in the past 5 years – for a start Burma has become far more open and well visited, apparently flooded with tourists during high season causing the obscene accommodation prices we are still paying in low season. Modern conveniences like ATMs and WiFi have become common. It all sounds in theory like it’s become anywhere else in Southeast Asia, but the reality is quite different.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect arriving in Yangon. I expected everything to be run down and in a desperate state of disrepair. From the taxi we saw our first glimpses of the country. It quickly became obvious that Yangon is a city of contrasts. Smart hotels, modern stores, electronic billboards. Everything you expect in a modern Asian city.
But at the same time it was obvious this wasn’t how the majority lived. Apartment blocks were old and grubby, roadside eateries and tea shops lively but very basic and dilapidated old buses jam packed with people passed us. My preconceptions were half right.
We also noticed the traffic. How could we not. It. Is. Appalling. Queues snake back miles, everyone honks at each other, all loathe to let each other out. I suspect it would be a lot more manageable if motorbikes weren’t banned in the city – a bizarre and ridiculous law.
Arriving at the guesthouse was a slight shock after the luxury we’d been used to in Chiang Mai – narrow grubby stairs and smelly buildings, although the dorm room was pretty awesome. I was a bit overwhelmed, which isn’t something that happens often after 7 months on the road!
The next day, suitably refreshed, we headed out for a walk. I have to say, out of all the southeast Asian cities I’ve been to, Yangon easily has the worst infrastructure. Sidewalks falling to pieces, and blocked in large parts with huge generators in preparation for the inevitable power cuts. Streets packed with market stalls, people and produce. Betal nut spit stains cover the roads.
However it does of course have some very photogenic colonial architecture, mostly covered in moss, probably because Yangon is insanely rainy and humid. Although the crumbling buildings make for good photos, it would be nice (for the residents) if they could be cleaned up at some point. Like a lot of the city.
We visited the Sule pagoda near our hotel, which despite being in the middle of a roundabout, was quite nice despite it undergoing renovation when we were there.
Nearby was the Independence monument and a green space to catch your breath for a second – there are not many of these places in Yangon. The most common is the ‘tea shop’ which is usually outside, on the road and thus not particularly relaxing at all.
Anyway we quickly got a sense of how friendly Burmese people are, as within seconds of sitting down we had 3 people coming over to talk to us and to make sure we liked Myanmar. It was great to have a conversation with people who are simply interested in talking, rather than the friendliness being a front for trying to sell you something. Such experiences are sadly rare these days.
Later we took a taxi out to Shwedagaon Pagoda, the most important religious site in all of Myanmar. The pagoda can be seen all over the city, especially at night when lit up, and it is beautiful, though it was spoiled somewhat by the relentless rain which made the whole complex treacherous in bare feet.
Showing the modern side of the country there was an elevator up to the Pagoda, and various ATM’s dotted about, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
I also had to spend the entire visit wearing a Longyi, the traditional Burmese skirt like garment worn by men and women, since my shorts were too short. It was an interesting experience, they are actually quite comfortable. There was a brief moment of horror when it came undone and I realised I had no idea how to tie it again, but luckily a local man helped me.
We had wanted to be at the Pagoda for sunset but arrived a bit too early. The complex is easily big enough for 2 hours as there is so much to see but after that we were bored senseless and praying (not literally, though it was the place to do it) for the sun to go down.
Eventually it did and we were underwhelmed, probably because of the rain. Although it looks nice lit up, the effect is more impressive when you are further away from it in my opinion.
The next day we spent most of riding the circle train, the orbital railway around the city. London Overground this was not. A ticket cost a mere 200 Kyat (£0.12) and the ticket office staff were very helpful, letting us inside their office to buy the tickets, and showing us which platform to go to when the train arrived, which is lucky as it arrived in a totally different part of the station than it was supposed to.
In case you’re wondering, Yangon central station is rather basic, as are the trains.
For the next 3.5 hours we trundled very, very, very slowly around the city. We saw stations, we saw animals, and we saw some pretty awful living conditions. The city centre may be run down but it’s a great deal better than what the majority (we assume) of residents have to live in.
After 3 hours we were both very tired and uncomfortable – the track isn’t in the best condition and the seats are hard, so it was a relief to get off. But it was a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting experience.
Once we had recovered from the train and grabbed some street side noodles in the Chinese Quarter, we headed to the Strand hotel for some colonial elegance and some tea.
We were originally going to go for cocktails but 5pm felt a little early so tea it was. To be honest, aside from the fact the hotel is famous, and a nice escape from the chaos of the outside streets, it wasn’t as impressive as I expected. From both inside and outside, the building looked nice, but not stunning.
Still on the lookout for a cocktail we got a taxi to the Sakura tower which has a slightly dated rooftop bar and restaurant, which most importantly was affordable and had happy hour! We got a great table by the window with a view of Shwedagon Pagoda as the sun went down.
So aside from lots of good food and walking around markets, that was it for our time in Yangon. It was a fascinating, eye opening and sometimes frustrating introduction to the country.
Where We Stayed
We chose Chan Myaye Guesthouse, and stayed in one of their dorm rooms. It’s seriously one of the best dorms we’ve ever stayed in, each bed had it’s own power, fan and light, and there was tons of desk and luggage space. Bathrooms were clean and the breakfast was good. WiFi was surprisingly good – we were expecting it to be unusable but it was ok.
Only downside is the high prices – $12 per person per night. But that is the standard in Yangon if you want somewhere half decent.