Today we finally left Thailand for Myanmar. We checked out of the Loog Choob Homestay and took an Uber to Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport. Our flight to Yangon on AirAsia was only 1 hour 15 minutes long. Myanmar is on its own time zone -0:30 from Thailand and the rest of the Indochina countries. Going through immigration in Yangon was easy. We got our taxi from the taxi queue and were on our way.
The distance between the airport and our hotel is only about 6 km, however the traffic in Yangon is horrible and the total ride took us about 50 minutes. Five minutes into our taxi ride, the driver asked us:
– Do you want candy?
– Sure, ok.
– Do you want a soft tissue?
– No, thank you.
– Wet tissue?
– No, thanks.
– City map?
– Hand cream?
– Uh yeah sure!
This cabbie had it all. He was taking out items from atop the dashboard, from the seat next to him, pointing at things in the seat pockets in front of us, etc. He was well stocked and eager to please. He gave us his business card and asked us to call him when we go back to the airport. He remained patient and upbeat through the traffic-filled slog. The major intersections in Yangon have stoplights with 120 or 90-second countdown timers. Cars form a superlong queue just to pass a stoplight. As pedestrians we were also blocked by this extra long stop many times in the next few days. Interestingly enough, motorbikes were outlawed in Yangon in 2003. So despite their ubiquity in nearly every Southeast Asian city including other cities in Myanmar, there were none to be seen here.
After the taxi ride we checked into our hotel. Hotel Accord is a relatively new mid-range hotel catering more towards business travelers than leisure travelers. The front desk staff were helpful with good English and the lobby was minimalist and well-maintained. Our room was clean, new and of a decent size. My only complaint was that our only window looks onto the wall of the next building, two feet away.
The hotel is located a 20-minute walk northwest of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The immediate neighborhood is mainly residential with large, well-worn buildings and crowded alleyways full of street vendors.
Walking to the closest avenues U Wisara Road and Dhammazedi Road reveals a different scene of large mansions serving as embassies, NGO offices and upscale hotels each closed in from the sidewalk by private gates.
We wandered the broad Dhammazedi Road in search of a late lunch, it was 3 PM after all. We struck a few places off the list for serving only Western food, being ludicrously expensive or both. Eventually, hungry and hot we landed on Friendship Restaurant where we ordered fruit juices and some Burmese (or at least Asian) dishes.
Then we continued our walk onto the north entrance of Shwedagon Pagoda. Two large mythical lions known as chinthe guarded the entrance. As soon as we spotted the first steps into the pagoda area, a six year old boy ran up to me and put a plastic bag in my hand. A slightly older boy did the same with Maurice. Having just arrived in Myanmar, I didn’t quite understand what just happened. I thanked the boy, he explained the bag is for my shoes and then just stood there. I looked over to Maurice to see how much we should tip them. Maurice the pragmatist asked: how much do you want? The little boy exclaimed: 200 kyat! About $0.16. He pulled out two 200 kyat bills from his wallet, one each for the boys while a little girl screamed: no, 500 kyats! She tried to teach the boys a thing or two about hustling. We both ignored her.
We walked through a gracious covered staircase leading up to the hill where the iconic golden stupa and the rest of the temple complex is situated. Shops selling flowers and other Buddhist offerings lined both sides of the staircase.
Maurice and I both gasped in wonder at the top of the steps when the golden stupa revealed itself. It was a technicolor Buddhist fantasyland. While the stupa traced its origins to ~500 BC (perhaps based more on legend than archaeological evidence), most of the surrounding temples were probably from the last century.
Other than for the visible use of mobile phones, Yangon looks like a city stuck in the 1970s or 1980s. Many of the temples’ Buddha images have halos made of bright pulsating LED lights, giving them a carnival look-and-feel. In this short video you can see a mass of volunteers ceremonially sweeping the marble floors of the Shwedagon Pagoda area. Two actual workers trail them with a dustpan and a trash bin each. They’re the ones who actually clean the dust off rather than just push it around with a broom.
After walking around the massive stupa snapping a dozen photos, we realized that our DSLR camera ran out of battery. We both forgot to charge it last night. Since Shwedagon is the feature attraction of Yangon, we agreed we would come back tomorrow or the next day fully equipped with battery life.
As we continued walking, a thin old man with a grey top knot approached us. He asked where are you from, like most of the freelance tour guides and touts who approached us previously. Unlike them, he was a character and his English was truly excellent. His introduced himself as Uncle Kaing, 69 years old and living in Myanmar his whole life, he explained that he is an English teacher to Burmese students and a Burmese teacher to foreign students. He also gives comprehensive tours of Shwedagon Pagoda. As testimony, he showed us an old notebook filled with at least 100 pages of reviews written by previous clients mostly from Western Europe and some from the US. We read a few of his reviews from Americans including a lawyer from New York who wrote that she is normally skeptical of tour guides but Uncle Kaing’s tour was fantastic. He told us a detailed tour (1.5 hours) would cost $20 for the two of us and a condensed tour (45 minutes) would cost $10. We thought the detailed tour would be great, I took a photo of his business card with my phone and agreed we would call him tomorrow or the next day.
We walked back to Hotel Accord and took a short break resting and writing yolomimo blog posts. Then we decided to check out a nearby shopping mall and get dinner.
It was Saturday night 8 PM and the streets were bustling with people, consisting mostly of local families taking a post-dinner stroll or settling down on small stools eating whole street food meals on large tables. We even encountered this group of boys playing soccer in an enclosed area underneath an elevated road.
We went to the shopping malls Dagon and Dagon 2. Dagon was a previous name for Yangon. We bought snacks and water at a supermarket in Dagon, which had definitely seen better days. The mall looked like it was built in the 80s and had a sad Soviet concrete-block feel. Dagon 2 was the newer, shinier glass-and-steel mall. Nonetheless, it still hit me that Myanmar has truly been closed off from Western commercialization since the only Western brand / store at either mall was Adidas. At Dagon 2, we had lychee iced tea at Kung Fu Tea and by the time we went to check out the restaurants at 8:30 PM, one did not have any vegetarian options and the second one was closing.
Hungry again, we walked through the side streets back in the direction of Hotel Accord. The streets were still filled with people. We walked through the alleys until finding a block of three restaurants / bars on the street each full of locals, mostly men. None of these restaurants had a romanized sign, however the one in the middle had an LED light banner that said something in English. I took that as a good sign and decided to step into that one. The staff handed us an English menu with no prices listed and handed us each a mug of Myanmar beer without us asking for it. We asked how much our food orders were going to be afraid of them gouging the unexpecting tourists. The prices were fair and the food was not bad but not memorable. At one point the power on the block went out. A few people cheered ironically. A man climbed up the closest electric pole and fixed the problem within five minutes.
We walked back home and bought a bunch of mini bananas from an old lady, she probably price gouged us but whatever things are overall very cheap here anyway. For tomorrow, I planned to explore downtown Yangon.