After a two-week(+) hiatus, I’m back from Myanmar/Burma with pictures and stories and fun facts to share. I mentioned in my last post that I had something prepared about the ethics of visiting Myanmar, but I’m saving that post for later on. I have some new insights that I’d like to add in, and I’m still gathering my thoughts on the whole experience.
But first, let’s backtrack: Alex and I have been in Myanmar, formerly Burma, for the past two weeks. Our trip went like this:
May 30th-June 1st: Yangon (formerly Rangoon, and formerly Yangon before that. Colonialism makes things confusing.)
June 1st-4th: Bagan
June 4th: Kalaw
June 5th-7th: Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. I remember exactly zero names of the villages we passed through on the way…great when you’re writing a blog, I know.
June 7th-10th: Inle Lake
June 11th-12th: Mandalay
If you’re sitting there thinking, “Wow, I don’t know a single thing about any of these places at all,” then you’re about where I was about a month ago. I was aware than Myanmar is a country located somewhere near India (right next to it, as it turns out), and that Yangon is the nation’s capital. I didn’t find out until I got to Yangon that it’s not actually the capital. 0/1 on my Myanmar trivia.
But Yangon is the only city you can fly into from Kuala Lumpur, and so it was our first stop. Despite no longer being the nation’s capital (it was moved to Naypyidaw in 2006), Yangon remains the largest city in Myanmar. It is chaotic and congested in the same way as many Asian cities. The sidewalks, crowded with everyone from tiny monks no older than seven to street vendors hawking tempting bites of fried food, must be carefully navigated in order to avoid bumping into anyone. The acrid smell of exhaust fumes permeates every breath one takes. Traffic, needless to say, is a nightmare.
That said, Yangon appealed to me in that it is the least Westernized city that I’ve ever visited. There were no McDonald’s or Starbucks dotting every corner (or any corner, for that matter). Aside from a few foreign visitors in the city and an apparently increasing number of donut shops, the West has not yet arrived in Yangon. I found this refreshing, though I doubt it will remain this way for long. While most people were welcoming, I also got the sense that a sizable number of people resent the rapid arrival of tourism in their once-isolated country. Mixed in with the kindness were more than a few disapproving looks. Though it’s difficult to describe exactly why, I found this weirdly refreshing.
Spending a couple days in Yangon was a great introduction to what the rest of our experience in Myanmar would bring. Here are some of the highlights.
Located in downtown Yangon, the Sule Pagoda is said to have been built over 2,500 years ago. In addition to being a Buddhist place of worship, it also served as a meeting place during the protests of 1988 and 2007.
The Shwedagon Pagoda, not to be outdone, is said to be over 2,600 years old. It is the most significant Buddhist site in Myanmar, boasting the largest pagoda in the country and an impressive array of smaller shrines. We went for sunrise one morning, witnessing the complex coming alive for the day. It was one of the most memorable aspects of the entire trip.
Yangon was also where we were introduced to Burmese food. My favorite dish was a bowl of rice noodles, topped with a spicy peanut sauce; cilantro; crispy, fried onions; raw onions and cabbage. It costed $0.50 on the street and even came with a bowl of soup. I had it on our first night, when it was pitch black out, but here’s a picture of a similar dish (because clearly I need to show you what a bowl of noodles looks like):
Unfortunately, our luck with food took a turn for the worse. On our last night, we went to 19th Street to enjoy some of its famous grilled “street meat.” Essentially, you choose from a wide array of skewered meats and vegetables (which have been sitting out for an indeterminate amount of time), which the restaurant then grills and serves to you. Well, that turned out as well as you’d expect. We both got food poisoning, which lingered for the next couple of days, and nearly caused us to miss our bus to Bagan the following night.
Luckily, the hotel (Hninn Si Budget Inn) where we were staying was owned by the nicest woman in Yangon, Khine. Not only did she let us stay way past check out time, but she even gave us medicine, electrolyte drinks and chicken soup. We wouldn’t have made it to Bagan without her!
While our last day in Yangon was sidelined by sickness, I found that our first two days there were enough to see the major sites and get a feel for the city. If anything, it made me anxious to leave the city and see what else Myanmar had to offer.