It’s a gloriously sunny day. Squinting through the window I can make out the magnificent deltas of the Thanlwin, Sittaung and Bago rivers below, looking like hundreds of crooked bony fingers probing into the Andaman Sea. It’s a breathtaking view and I remain transfixed until we touchdown. Myanmar International airport is nothing to write home about and I find it strangely reminiscent of a visit to Tashkent Airport about 12 years ago, but with slightly less rubble to scramble over. That said, the customs staff in this peculiarly cool and airy arrivals hall manage to process the entire flight in minutes and still find time to exchange pleasantries with each passenger.
In most developing countries the newly arrived guest is accosted by hordes of taxi drivers and hotel touts, and Yangon International Airport is no exception. The only difference here is the remarkable politeness of these guys. They accept no for an answer, bid me good day and move to the next potential source of income. It’s a welcome and refreshing change. It’s at this point that I realise that investment in a guide book would have been money well spent. I negotiate with several drivers on the road outside the airport and settle on what seems to be the going rate for the journey to my accommodation.
Most taxis will take either Kyats, US dollar, British pounds or Yen. Dollars can be exchanged at the official money changer booth in the airport, presided over by a crusty old guy with a sinister appearance, where you will get about 450 kyats to the US$1. If you can wait and change money once you’re in Yangon itself you will get 1000 Kyats or more, a much better deal. Be sure to have a few dollars, British pounds or Yen with you on arrival though, just to get you away from the airport, and don’t forget to check that driver is happy to accept whatever currency you have.
As with most taxi drivers across Asia the one who drives me to my chosen accommodation is a Manchester United fan, and even has a brand new Wayne Rooney shirt in his cab, kept neatly folded in a plastic wrapper; apparently a much a prized possession. I haven’t the heart to tell him that I think Rooney, though a talented footballer, is a butt-ugly, foul mouthed thug in my humble opinion. I settle with just telling him that I support the Magpies and he embarrasses me by knowing more than I do about their present struggle to keep from relegation. I really didn’t expect an Yangon taxi driver to be so knowledgeable about the English Premiership; it’s quite a revelation.
I stay at the Classique Inn which is a lovely privately owned guest house nestled amongst the diplomatic residences along Golden Valley road and a short walk from where Aung San Suu Kui is held under house arrest. I arranged this accommodation online prior to my arrival and can strongly recommend their fast and courteous service. They charge US$30 per night for a double room with en-suite and breakfast and for a further US$2 they throw in a dinner too. Once there I change US$75 at a rate of 1100 kyats/US$1 and get landed with a gargantuan pile of the local currency that won’t fit into my wallet and has to be stuffed into an airmail envelope. A short taxi ride with yet another Man U supporter and I am in downtown Yangon, after a brief stop to change a deflated tyre for an inflated but bold one. The taxis in Yangon are almost exclusively white, Japanese, at least 20 years old and right hand drive; odd in a country where they drive on the right hand side. In fact most of the private vehicles are right hand drive also, not just taxis. Presumably a sign that they get most of their vehicles as second-hand imports from a country that drives on the left.
My aim is to explore Yangon on foot. Hot as it is, the climate is much more suited to walking than Bangkok and the traffic a great deal more pedestrian friendly. I walk for hours through busy streets, crammed with locals in sarongs busying to and fro, through markets with colourful displays of exotic fruits spread out on the floor, garment merchants selling material in all patterns and designs, sarong peddlers, men selling cheap plastic toys, book sellers and street tobacconists. Someone is selling something on every street, under every tree and on every corner. I try to install a new film in my camera but have a problem. I find a camera repair shop with far too many assistants for its clear lack of customers and try explaining my problem to a young guy at the door. He shares the dilemma with a few of his colleague and then collectively they refer it to a evil looking bearded guy perched on a stool at the other end of the shop. He takes my camera in complete silence, fiddles a little and then solves the problem in an instant. I ask how much but he just slowly shakes his head and throws me a knowing wink. All his underlings are suitably impressed by his performance with the foreigner’s camera and can’t stop smiling.
Everywhere I go there is an aroma of some kind in this city of fragrant streets; scent, food, tobacco, incense, pleasant and exotic cooking smells. Filthy canals and open drains don’t seem to be in as much abundance as they are in Bangkok. Yangon is in no way a romantic city and falls well short of being even picturesque at first viewing but it has a certain charm that, mixed with the friendliness of its people, is quite intoxicating. I read somewhere that Yangon was once the ‘garden city’ of SE Asia. Though it is undeserving of such a flowery monika at present it is easy to see that it would have been quite a place in its heyday. On this first day I already want to return and learn more about the country, wishing my stay wasn’t so short
The buildings are generally old colonial with modern cheaply constructed units dotted between them, and here and there more recent multi-storey monstrosities. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of colonialism the resulting architecture is surely an asset to any cityscape. Unfortunately even some of the colonial buildings that are still in use have been sorely neglected and look tired and miserable. It’s a city in need of a sympathetic makeover.
Busy as the streets are I can’t help feeling alone. Foreigners are scarce and once away from the absolute centre I’m soon aware that I’m the only white face around. At no point do I feel in danger or the need to worry, even when sauntering through the most run down areas of town or when, as on several occasions, I’m stopped from taking photos or going down certain streets by armed soldiers and police.
Several hours of walking and I have the town pretty much sown up and retire to the 20th floor of the Sakure Tower for refreshments and to view the city from above. The crumbling buildings look even worse from up here, roofs caved in on many of them. I was right about the makeover. The view reminds me of Cairo where you suddenly go from city to desert. Yangon is similar, but with considerably less pyramid. Stretching before me is the chaos of Yangon, right up to the river which acts as a buffer between city and nothingness. On the other side of the river is nothing, just open plains littered with the occasional cluster of trees.
I’ve been wanting to visit Yangon for some time and my first impression of it is favourable. I think you know if you’re going to like somewhere the moment you see it, and arriving in Yangon with no pre-conception of what to expect I am pleasantly surprised by what I find and know straight away that I like it. It’s a step back in time and is, I imagine, similar to Bangkok in the early seventies, but it has charm and the people are truly warm and welcoming. More than once I’ve been stopped by strangers for a quick handshake and to wish me well, leaving me wondering if I’ve just been the victim of a scam or theft of some kind. In fact it is just a refreshing and genuine attack of politeness and good manners from a people only too happy to see faces from outside grace their streets. Without exaggeration almost everyone I’ve made eye contact with has smiled and or said hello. The true ‘land of smiles’ if ever there is one.
Another taxi ride, this one with a chirpy Liverpool fan, and I’m back at the Classique Inn where the staff serve a fabulous local dish for dinner incorporating a wholesome vegetable soup, spicy chicken pieces with vegetables and a simple caramel nut dessert, all washed down with local beer and served alfresco on a quaint little patio beneath a large coconut tree that dangles heavy coconuts perilously above my head from about thirty feet.
I intend to go out and explore the Yangon nightlife but get sidetracked by the staff of the Classique who are keen to talk about Myanmar and all it has to offer. Later an American girl arrives fresh off the plane from Bangkok. She’s one of many foreigners I’ve spoken to who is visiting the country for a three month spell of meditation and we talk late into the evening over a several beers. Despite her best attempts I remain unconvinced as to the usefulness of spending three months sat cross-legged and going ‘ohm’ whilst depriving yourself of beer, fags and all your favourite food. Despite our differences of opinion we get along fine, though I decide it’s time for goodbye when she claims to have a ‘spiritual connection with the people of Myanmar’. A bold claim for someone who has only been in the country for a few hours.
Breakfast alfresco on the patio at 6.30 sharp and then I walk down to the famous Shwe Dagon pagoda. The original pagoda is said to date back some 2,500 years and contain 8 hairs from the Lord Buddha given to a couple of brothers from Myanmar on a pilgrimage to the north of India. Not being one for temples and pagodas I visit Shwe Dagon mainly because I had been told that it was a must for any visitor to Yangon. It is. As pagodas go this one is definitely the daddy. Built on a mount there is quite a walk up, barefoot, until you reach the base of the pagoda. But it is worth it. Standing more than 90m high from its base, which is greater than 420m in perimeter and in the region of 50m above the surrounding city, this golden ‘winking wonder’ dominates the surrounding complex of smaller pagodas, statues shrines and Tazaungs. Sarong clad locals are in abundance; praying, relaxing, meditating or simply, as it appears, chewing the fat with friends. There is a truly pleasant atmosphere and I would have stayed a while longer had I not been on a strict time frame due to my lunchtime flight.
From Shwe Dagon I continue north-east and make my way to Nga Hat Gyee, on the recommendation of one of the staff at the Classique, to view another temple and several hundred monks learning about meditation. Meditation appears to be quite a popular pastime for both locals and foreigners alike. At Nga Hat Gyee I’m told there is a Brit in residence who has been meditating now for six months solid, and for free. I politely decline an offer to meet him and continue my walk. I can’t imagine what I could possibly talk about to a guy who has been meditating almost exclusively for six months.
From Nga Hat Gyee I head south taking in the picturesque Kan Daw Gyi Lake and then along Zoological Garden Street, past the Aung San Stadium and back to the downtown area. It is in the area of the stadium that I am the victim of a money changer scam. Keen to change the pile of Kyats I still have left back to dollars I fall for the sales patter of a money changer and follow him back to his ‘shop’, a small, sweaty, hole in the wall affair populated by several of his countrymen. There’s a great deal of pushing and shoving, a fair amount of bullshit to distract me and I’m down 10,000 Kyats with nothing to do about it. We continue the transaction with the remainder of my money and I leave, somewhat pissed at myself for letting this happen. Two of them follow me out of the shop begging me to come back and solve our ‘misunderstanding’. Accepting my loss I suggest where they can put their solutions and move on. They hassle tourists in the area around the stadium and look Indian. Avoid at all cost or take extreme care.
Yangon is not for those addicted to the creature comforts of modern 21st century living. The streets are not awash with luxury shopping malls or American fast food retailers; though they do have a local equivalent complete with golden arches called Mac Burger and a doughnut shop that looks remarkably familiar. You’ll have trouble getting a mobile on an overseas network to work and your options for nightlife are somewhat more limited than Bangkok, Singapore or even KL. That said, it is a great place to visit to experience that something a little out of the ordinary. As for the moral argument about whether or not to visit just think about the people. Do you think they really want to be isolated? It’s easy enough to visit Myanmar and limit the amount of money you actually throw into government coffers. If you visit major government tourist attractions, fly with MIA or use the state transport system and hotels you’ll be contributing to the system and arguably prolonging the hell. If, on the other hand, you organise the trip yourself and use only privately owned accommodation, private taxis for transport and avoid anything with state involvement the only money you’ll be giving the government will be the US$10 airport tax on departure. One thing is for sure, the people of Yangon clearly welcome visitors to their country.