As July 2017 approached, our second stay in Thailand drew to a close. This time around, in our 18-month stint, we’d managed to squeeze in revisits to Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, to beaches and dragon-infested islands and even conferences. Somehow though, we again missed that last South East Asian country on our list. We didn’t visit Burma. So, just before we left that corner of the world for a while, we realised we had to rectify this situation with my birthday trip.
Is it Burma or Myanmar? Where’s Rangoon and what’s Yangon???
Well, it depends who you ask. I’m gonna try to offer a bit of history here. I might add that all of this has basically been gleaned from the internet. If you think I’m wrong, let us know!
Anyway… so apparently, the government changed the name from Burma to Myanmar as far back as 1989. But this change wasn’t recognised by everyone – including the UK and the USA, although the UN as a whole acknowledged it. As far as I understand it, the government changed the name, as they would, without asking the people, and that is the main bone of contention. But then, this all gets more complicated when you find out that apparently Burma and Myanmar are derivatives of each other and both have a history of use in the country. Allegedly, ‘Myanmar’ is the formal name, and ‘Burma’ is the informal name. The waters get further muddied when we consider that the British called the place Burma during the colonial days (‘Burma Days’ – George Orwell, would say).
So that’s sorted that out then….?
So what about Yangon? Or… erm… Rangoon? Well, yeah, Yangon used to be called Rangoon. Apparently, Yangon was the original name and this was twisted, somehow, to Rangoon during the aforementioned colonial British period. So, as of 1989, it’s Yangon again.
Let’s get back to the blog-thingy….
Visas and entry
You can now get a visa online – which we did. You then print out confirmation once it’s approved (which took less than a day, as it turns out – but then so far I’m not an enemy of the state) and pass through immigration pretty easily. From there, we jumped into a taxi (arranged through the guesthouse) and we were off into a damp and clammy Yangon…
Checking in and checking out (the city)
We booked a room in a little hotel – the Cozy Guesthouse – in the centre of town with a really interesting location. We were basically down a side street from the main road and the alley was full of kids playing footy and people drinking tea under big plastic sheets.
We dumped our stuff in room 101 (seriously, there’s a convoluted George Orwell reference there again…) and we were off to have a wander. So here are our first impressions in a quick list because I know Kate loves internet lists……
It rained a lot. Yes, we went in wet season, but we’re no strangers to SE Asian rainy season….but this was more persistent than we’re used to. Like, we literally didn’t see the sun for days. It was warm though! Shoes were a waste of time, so we switched to flipflops as walking on the street was much like paddling on the shoreline. One of the first things we bought from a street vendor was an umbrella! Souvenir of Myanmar!
Blending into the crowds
It’s a crowded place, but we actually saw very few foreigners. Again, this was probably because it was wet season. Despite this, no one batted an eyelid at us. Not that they should, but we’ve been places where people at least take a second glance at the obvious foreigners wandering through the local market. We hardly experienced this at all.
The pavements are pretty slippy and hazardous. There are also quite deep drainage ditches near some pavements so you could quite easily slide into one if not careful. Some pavements were covered in algae type growths and it was the nearest thing I’ve come to the experience of walking on ice in the tropics.
People chew a lot of betel nut here. On every street corner, there’s a weird little booth where people are making these little leafy packages. This is betel nut and it’s addictive and carcinogenic and pretty nasty. But as with many things addictive – people seem to love it. The disturbing thing about it is it stains people’s teeth red. It’s not uncommon in Myanmar to meet someone with a blood red smile – which can be disconcerting. Also, chewers have to spit up the goo and the goo is red… so when walking on the streets watch out for the red splattered pavements.
And oh yeah, people have red teeth, and they also have white painted faces. It’s common for people to use natural make up made from ground tree bark called thanaka. This is made into a paste and acts as a medium for painting bizarre patterns on people’s face – or non-descript splodges – up to you, I guess. It apparently also acts as sunblock. Anyway, combine this with red teeth and people can cut quite an image on the street that could only go unnoticed on the streets of Myanmar, I guess.
A final observation – there are no motorbikes on the streets of Yangon. Seriously. None. They were banned in 2003 and the reasons seem to be a bit murky. Everything from a motorbike rider being rude to a general, to a rider distributing pro-democracy leaflets (see this post for more information). The upshot is, no motorbike taxis in Yangon…
Now, enough of the lists, this one wasn’t even a top 10, only a 6. On to the important highlights…
We should probably start with the Shwedagon.
This is the central and most important temple in the country. Its gold spire can be seen shooting into the sky from miles around, even in the pouring rain. Of course, being British, the rain didn’t put us off, and we climbed the many steps to the complex through drizzle. At the ticket office, we met a guy offering guided tours. ‘Why not?’ we thought and what followed was a really fascinating walk around the complex. We’d highly recommend you getting a guide if you visit.
Our guide was a former monk who’d been on a pilgrimage to India and did his best to explain the intricacies of the Burmese brand of Buddhism to us. This included revealing to me that, because I was born on a Friday, I’m a hamster and Kate, being born on a Monday, is a tiger (sigh). This comes as no surprise given that according to the Chinese zodiac Kate gets a dragon and, me, I get a goat… (on the plus side, if you believe Mystic Meg’s brand of astrology, I’m a lion. Roar.)
So off I went, pouring blessed water on Buddha statues and over sacred hamsters in an act of faith greater than any I’ve ever even considered doing in a Christian situation…
Then as the rain intensified, he took us under a temple roof to sit with a monk and have tea and biscuits. As we drank our tea and watched the bouncing rain, he commented:
“It’s no wonder the British liked Burma…”.
It wasn’t devoid of evidence of the evils of colonialism mind. One of the temple’s vast bells was nicked by the Portuguese to make into cannons …and dropped into the river ….and another bell was swiped later by the British …and also dropped into the river.
Needless to say, the Shwedagon is vast and beautiful and for that reason, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
An interesting point to notice about Burmese (interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be an adjective for ‘Myanmar’) temples is that you have to take your shoes off at the gate and keep them off throughout. Unlike temples in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, where you just take them off before the temple buildings, in Myanmar you’re barefoot from the moment you enter the compound. This can be a bit uncomfortable and leads to very dirty feet. Which is kinda interesting, because I get that you take off your shoes to keep the temple floors pristine, but if you’ve been walking around outside in bare feet already….your bare feet get the floor dirty. Also, be careful of what the temple dogs and cats leave around on the floor…
Anyway, over the course of the next few days we spent a lot of time in temples that we stumbled across – wandering the city streets in the persistent rain and getting very, very dirty feet in the process.
During our first few nights in Yangon we obviously had a thirst for this imaginatively named ‘Myanmar Beer’ which we’d heard so much about. But where to get it? While wandering the muddy sidestreets we finally happened upon one – 19th Street, filled with small, mainly al fresco café-bar type places serving bottled and draft beer under plastic tarpaulins. It was a rough and ready affair, but of the sort we quite like. So we settled down in a plastic chair, sheltered under a plastic Myanmar Beer awning and watched the world go by on a narrow Yangon street.
Here in Yangon, we had our first experience of Myanmar’s BBQ beer station thing. These places that serve beer on the street are called beer stations apparently and their main other form of sustenance offered is various BBQ products on display in a glass cabinet. This can include seafood and sausages and chickenhearts on sticks. Basically, you take a plastic basket – invariably a pink one in my experience – and fill it with the things you want cooking. Then you give this to the waiter and half a Myanmar beer later – there you have your freshly cooked meat products ready to consume at your plastic table. Yum. This practice continued beyond Yangon and we continued sampling it.
Yangon Food Tours
On the subject of food, we’d heard that Burmese food wasn’t that great. Being the ex-scientists that we are, we weren’t prepared to just accept this as fact. To find out more, we arranged to do a tour with Yangon Food Tours. You can read about our experience, and our cooking course near Inle lake, in this post: Yangon Food Tour and Burmese Cooking course.
Away from the streets
So we didn’t only spend our evenings on the street under plastic sheets. There are western-style bars in Yangon too and we did seek a few out – though the beer stations felt like a more authentic experience. I mean, we were living in Bangkok, we got enough of western-style bars there.
One notable bar-visit was to meet up with an old mate now living in Yangon. A friend of mine who I used to work with in Vietnam had since relocated to Myanmar and, after meeting up with him several times in Bangkok, we realised the Yangon trip gave us the chance to see where he was hanging out. Trent suggested meeting in the rooftop bar of the Esperado Hotel one evening for sunset, so off we popped in a very confusing taxi journey in Yangon’s snarled up rush hour.
The hotel ….. had epic views out over the city, taking in the gold spires of several temples and it was an inspired choice that we wouldn’t have happened across without Trent. The only drawback being that we set off a little late and missed the best part of the sunset, though we were assured it wasn’t that good due to the weather. Given the right conditions, this would be an amazing spot for sunset drinks – and very reasonably priced too.
After that we headed to a nearby bar that was mostly very local and played live music. Despite being encouraged to take to the stage, I declined and we headed home from what was our latest night out in Myanmar – it was after midnight!
On one last stop before we left the city, we visited Yangon National Museum….which proved…erm… eclectic….
Downstairs in the museum you find beautiful representations of Myanmar culture. For example, the traditional dress of the various ethnic groups. Then, most notably the throne of the last king of Burma.
It’s not so much a throne as a very grand door up some stairs. It must have made for very grand, if predictable, entrances. I mean, you couldn’t have made a surprise visit if they had to manoeuvre a giant silver door into position every time you turned up. Anyway, sadly, the last king of Burma was dethroned by the British Empire and exiled to India. More on that later…
Meanwhile, on to the upper floors of the museum where the eclecticism awaits….
A jaw bone.
A Moon rock.
A description of painting.
Yes, it’s all there. There is a room in the museum devoted to fragmentary pieces of animal jaws and the labels only give their scientific names. Now, I’m no stranger to animal parts due to qualifications prior to being an English teacher, but I had no idea what these things were about. Apparently, though they were important and Burmese.
And then there was the moon rock. Apparently gifted to Myanmar by the United States after 1969. Randomly there at the end of a hall.
Then, on the top floor, there are displays of Myanmar metal work and art. If you read the display they give detailed explanations of metalwork and painting…..not specifically…but literally what painting is. Like – “Painting is applying coloured fluids to a surface to produce an image”. They even explain what a blacksmith is.
We learnt a lot and then went outside to the deserted coffee shop where I ordered a cappuccino which turned up as a black instant Nescafe.
I didn’t complain though.
First world problems….
After a few days literally ‘soaking up’ Yangon, it was time to move on. Our next Myanmar destination was a-calling…
Nuts and Bolts
How to get to Yangon from Bangkok
We flew to Yangon from Bangkok Don Mueng Airport with Lion Air. The flight took only about 1 1/2 hours and cost about $70 each.
Where to stay in Yangon
Accommodation in Yangon is not cheap compared with nearby cities like Bangkok and Saigon, but not ridiculously expensive. We stayed in the Cozy Guesthouse which cost $88 for four nights on Booking.com. We had a double room with en-suite bathroom and air con, and there was breakfast served on the top floor each morning with views across to the Shwedagon Pagoda. They organised a pick up from the airport for free.
How to get a visa for Myanmar
You can get your Myanmar visa online these days via an official Government website. We had to upload a recent passport photo and pay the $50 fee and we got the visa within the same day. Quick and easy.
Wifi is not the best in Myanmar and our phones didn’t roam, so we bought a simcard at a phone shop in Yangon. We paid 1200 kyat for the simcard and 799 kyat for enough data to last us for the whole trip. The staff in the phone shop spoke English and set everything up for us.
We paid 8000 kyat to enter the grounds, and then 15,000 for the guide to show us around. It was well worth the money.