Tag - yangon

An Introduction to Burma

Introduction to Burma

Introduction to Burma

Introduction to Burma
Often still referred to by its former name of Burma, Myanmar is a beautiful diamond-shaped country spanning roughly 575 miles (925 kilometres) from east to west and 1300 miles (2100 kilometres from north to south.

Myanmar is part of Southeast Asia and is bordered by Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. This is a country rich with natural beauty, culture, wildlife, forests, coastal resorts and temples and in many ways is the perfect tourist destination.

However, Myanmar is ruled by a brutal military regime, and many people avoid visiting Myanmar in order to avoid supporting this regime. However, the sad truth is that most tourist services such as guesthouses, restaurants and tours are run by the people themselves and not the government. The recent reduction in tourism has simply meant that the people of Myanmar are forced to suffer from lost earnings in addition to the numerous hardships and constraints imposed by the government. As long as you are careful to avoid government run hotels, buses and other services, it is possible to experience the most of this captivating country and possibly make a bit of a difference at the same time.

Although various parts of Myanmar are currently closed to tourists, the tourist numbers have been rising over the last couple of years, allowing many resorts to reopen. The Irrawaddy River runs through the centre of the country and this is a great way to travel and see the countryside.

Travelling through Myanmar feels like stepping into the past. Even though the capital city is fairly modern compared with the rest of the country it is still perhaps half a century behind many modern Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, while the country’s remote villages have changed little of the last few centuries.

This is a large part of Myanmar’s charm and as you explore you will discover ancient marvels such as the 4000 sacred stupas which are scattered across the plains of Bagan and the mysterious golden rock that somehow manages to balance on the edge of a chasm. As you ride in a Wild West stagecoach you will pass grand British mansions and men wearing traditional long skirt-like cloths around their waists.

Despite their years of suffering, the people of Myanmar are friendly, gentle and have a unique sense of humour. As you wander through villages and small towns you will probably be invited to get to know these people and share a part of their lives, an incomparable experience.

One of the best things about Myanmar is that it hasn’t been inflicted by the blight of Starbucks, McDonalds and other chain outlets that cover most Asian countries. Myanmar’s charms are subtle but they are authentically Asian and this is one of the few places in the world where you can experience true Asian culture without the integration of Western consumerism.

Read more...

Yangon, Burma

Yangon, Burma
Yangon, Burma
Yangon, Burma
Formerly known as Rangoon, this large, vibrant city is full of gleaming temples, markets and interesting buildings. The focal point of any visit to Yangon will probably be the much photographed Shwedagon Paya. This ancient Buddhist shrine is said to be more than 2,500 years old and gigantic golden stupa can be seen from all over the city, much like the Taj Mahal in Agra. 

There are many sides to this fascinating city. Wander along the waterfront and you will discover aged streets full of British colonial-era architecture, while other streets such as the Strand or Pansodan Street have been renovated and have an ultra-modern feel.

In many ways Yangon feels like a Western city with tree-lined avenues, picturesque lakes and colonial architecture. A trip to Chinatown offers a different dimension to the city and this is a particularly good place to get an evening meal and wander through the bright lights and colourful decorations.

Most tours of the city will start with its temples and pagodas and there are certainly plenty to see. Top of the list should be the ancient Sule Pagoda, the mirrored maze inside the Botataung Pagoda and the Maha Pasan Guha.

Despite its often chaotic feel, there are plenty of places to relax in Yangon. Take a walk through the Mahabandoola Garden and you will find a beautiful rose garden, while there is a water fountain and informative museum in People’s Park.

Take a boat trip on the large Inya Lake before viewing the traditional Burmese royal boat at Kandawgyi Lake.

Those interested in the city’s history can visit Aung San’s house, which has been turned into a museum of sorts, before visiting the place where Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest for so many years. 

There is plenty to see just outside Yangon such as the Naga-Yone enclosure near Myinkaba. Here you will find a large Buddhist statue, while the Golden Rock Pagoda at Kyaik Tyo is an 18 foot high shrine built on a gold-plated boulder on top of a cliff.

Take the The Dallah Ferry across the river to visit the pretty village of Dallah. The ride itself is beautiful and provides an interesting inside into country life as people try hard to sell their ways and compete for attention.

Read more...

Pyay, Burma

Pyay, Burma
Pyay, Burma
Pyay, Burma
Formerly known as Prome, the town of Pyay has plenty of places to look at for those who take the time to stop and explore. For many, this is simply a place to refuel on the way to places such as Yangon, Ngapali Beach and Bagan, but there is plenty of good food and comfortable accommodation here, making it a good place to stop for a while. If you arrive in Pyay by bus you will first notice the statue of Aung San on horseback near the bus station and as you wander around the town you will come across a number of striking pagodas. The Bebegyi Pagoda is the town’s oldest religious structure, while the 45 meter high Bawbawgyi Pagoda is the oldest stupa and a pretty impressive sight. Also worth visiting are the Payagyi and Payama Stupas, which predate the stupas of Bagan, and the famous Shwesandaw Pagoda, which is constructed in the Mon style. Nearby, the Se Htat Gyi is a magnificent 10 level Gigantic Buddha Image. This Buddha image was built in 1919 and people travel from all over the country to visit it. This pretty town was a major trading town due to its excellent roads and also the capital of the Pyu Kingdom from the 5th to the 9th century. To find out more about the interesting history of this area pay a visit to the Hwa Za Archaeological Museum. Here you will discover a large number of Pyu artifacts such as terracotta pots and stone Buddha images. For those wanting to sample the traditional food of this region, head to the night market, which opens around dusk. Here you will find a fantastic range of dishes served fresh and hot at a number of small stalls. This is also a good place to pick up a bargain or two and indulge in a little people watching.
Read more...

Ngwe Saung Beach, Burma

Ngwe Saung Beach, Burma
Ngwe Saung Beach, Burma
With more than 10 miles of pure white sand and clear blue sea, Ngwe Saung Beach is a great place to recharge for a day or two after travelling around Myanmar. One of the cleanest beaches in Southeast Asia, you can guarantee rest and relaxation in picturesque surroundings where the hot air is moderated by cool sea breezes blowing through the palm trees.

Ngwe Saung Beach has only recently opened to tourism, so now is the perfect time to visit. Although you won’t find many cheap places to stay, this is a good place for those with a little extra to spend who appreciate beauty and luxury.

Although relaxation is key here, there is also plenty to do for those with energy to spare. Beach volley ball is a popular past time, and are water sports such as kayaking, wind surfing and fishing.

After a busy day of sunbathing and swimming, you can soothe aching muscles in one of the beauty spas located along the beach, or ride in a bullock cart as the sun sets. Hiring a bicycle is also a good way to explore and the narrow lanes and roads around Ngwe Saung Beach are in good condition.

Another great way to see the area is by going on a boat trip, while thrill seekers will enjoy the speed boat rides. The tropical rain forests and the towering Rakhine mountain range make an excellent backdrop to this beautiful resort and are also good places to explore.

This is a great place to eat fresh seafood and a large number of beach front restaurants have delicious seafood BBQs in the evening where you can simply choose from the catch of the day and eat at a candlelit table on the sand.

A great way to reach Ngwe Saung Beach is by taking the tourist ferry from Yangon. The ferry goes at night and the trip takes around six hours, giving you plenty of time to catch some shut eye or look at the stars as you sail.

Read more...

Location and History of Burma

Location and History of Burma
Location and History of Burma
Location and History of Burma
Covering an area of 676,552 square kilometres, Myanmar is bordered by Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. The capital city is Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon and Myanmar’s population is around 49 million.

Although the official language is Myanmar, there are over 100 dialects spoken in this diverse country and English is generally used when conducting business. The majority of people (around 87%) are Buddhist, with other people being Hindu, Muslim, Christian and animist.

The history of Myanmar is turbulent to stay the least. Originally named Burma, the country’s proximity to so many dominant nations has mean that wars and land right disputes have been going on for centuries and the territory wasn’t reunified until the middle of the 16th century. Years of war followed as this now unified nation invaded first the Mon people and then Thailand in an attempt to gain more land. 

Burma became part of British India towards the end of the 19th century, during which time the British helped develop the country and establish trade relations. The British were driven out of the country during WW II and Burma became independent in 1948. However, the hill tribes, communists, Muslims and Mons within Burma all revolted, causing chaos.

General Ne Win led a revolt in 1962 and basically seized control of the country, eliminating the democratic government. The economy crumbled over the years that followed and people started to demonstrate in 1987 and 1988 in order to get Ne Win to resign. The general resisted and conflicts between the between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military ended in around 3,000 deaths in just six weeks.

General Saw Maung and his State Law & Order Council (SLORC) took control of the government after a military coup and there was an election. However, despite the fact that the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi scored a massive victory, the party leaders were prevented from taking office and were actually arrested under very dubious circumstances while a know drug baron took over the running of the country.

During her years of imprisonment, Aung San Suu Kyi has attempted to spread the world of Myanmar’s dictatorship government and her illegal house arrest, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and finally her freedom in 2002.

The state of affairs in Myanmar was finally put into the spotlight in 2007 when thousands of monks marched in protest at the unfair beating of three of their fellow monks were beaten at a protest march. Although the government tried to suppress the march by firing on the crowds and closing communications, the word was already out and people around the globe are becoming aware of the conditions opposed on the people of Myanmar.

Although things are still tightly controlled in Myanmar there seems to be hope on the horizon and many are optimistic that the situation will soon improve.

Read more...

Types of Transport in Burma

Types of Transport in Burma
Types of Transport in Burma
Types of Transport in Burma
Although a lot of Myanmar is off limits to foreigners, there are still plenty of areas to visit and you are free to explore the towns and villages within these areas.

Plane
There are more than sixty airstrips located within Myanmar and this is by far the easiest way to travel. There are four domestic airlines, although many people prefer to avoid Myanma Airlines as it is run by the government. The three private airlines are Air Bagan, Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways. One-way tickets need to be bought at least a day in advance and are cheaper at travel agencies than airline offices. Unfortunately, flights tend to be irregular and the safety record is not the best, so it might be better to consider other options.

Boat
There is an extensive river network running through Myanmar and travelling by boat is by far the best way to see the country. The service between Mandalay and Bagan is particularly popular with travellers and you can choose between the ferry or speedboat service. Boats can sail along the Irrawaddy River even in the dry season and places such as Bhamo and Myitkyina are easy to get to, while Yangon can be reached via the Twante Canal. However, boat trips can only be arranged as part of an organized tour group, which limits your options and the journey takes a lot longer than by road or air. 

Bus
Bus travel is cheap and the buses run regularly, making this a convenient form of transport. While it is better to avoid the old, crowded buses, the newer long distance buses are quite comfortable. The older buses break down frequently and are often delayed by several hours. Try to buy you ticket in advance to snag a good seat. Bus fares are priced in Kyat and can sometimes be bought from guesthouses as well as the chaotic bus station. The front of the bus is always the best as the back is usually crowded and uncomfortable.

Train
Myanmar Railways is owned by the government and it is best to avoid travelling by train. In addition, foreigners are forced to pay at least six times the standard fare, and train travel is slow and quite dangerous as the trains regularly derail.

Car and Motorcycle
Although it is possible to hire a car or motorbike in places such as Mandalay, International Driving Licences and British licences are not accepted and you must apply for a Myanmar licence at the Department for Road Transport and Administration in Yangon first. 

Around Town
Local transport options include bicycle rickshaws or trishaws known as sai-kaa, horse carts -myint hlei - ancient taxis and modern Japanese pick-up trucks. Fares are negotiable and it is essential to agree on the fee before getting in. 

Read more...

When to Visit Burma

When to visit Burma
When to visit Burma
When to visit Burma
Like much of Southeast Asia, Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate with three distinct seasons. The hottest season is from February to May, and this is also the driest time of the year. The monsoon or rainy season lasts from May to October, while there is a cool season between October and February. The weather also tends to be quite dry in the cool season.

Most people prefer to visit Myanmar in the cool season, probably arriving around November and heading out by the time the weather starts to turn at the end of January. Temperatures start to climb dramatically in the middle of February and April is scorching hot, peaking at around 45?C. The rains arrive in the middle of May and cool things down considerably, although this time of year can also be rather humid.

You can expect rain showers pretty much every day during the monsoon season, although in many places such as Yangon the rain tends to fall in two short showers, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. In other parts of Myanmar such as Bagan and Mandalay the rainfall is rather low.

If you are visiting Myanmar in the summer head to the hills as temperatures tend to be much lower here than in the rest of the country, meaning that you will need warm clothes if you are visiting during the cool or wet seasons.

Read more...

Staying Safe in Burma

Staying safe in Burma
Staying safe in Burma
Staying safe in Burma
Although it is only common sense to be careful with your belongings while you travel, theft is virtually unheard of in Myanmar and you don’t have to keep looking over your shoulder here. Of course, there are people who will try to make an easy dollar and the main scams involve dishonest money changers and drivers and guides who take you to certain shops in order to receive a commission.

Local people can get in serious trouble for discussing politics so avoid bringing up the topic. If you are keen to find out local opinion be discrete and wait for the subject to be raised by others.

Power cuts are frequent and although most places have their own generator it is best to check before paying for a room in a guesthouse as it can get pretty hot at night without an electric fan to cool things down.

Although the local people are honest, Myanmar is one of the world's most corrupt countries and it is common for officials and other civil servants to discreetly ask travellers for bribes. These requests are rarely reinforced however and refusing to understand generally does the trick. 

Although there have been bombings in Myanmar in the past these have now stopped and the main danger zones are off limits to tourists anyway. The situation in Myanmar is constantly changing and tourists and banned from several areas. Make sure you get the latest information before you go to avoid problems. It is possible to apply in Yangon for a permit to enter restricted areas, although such requests are seldom granted.

Read more...

Money Matters in Burma

Money matters in Burma
Money matters in Burma
Money matters in Burma
Myanmar’s official currency is Kyat, pronounced "Chat” and usually written as K. The Kyat comes in K1, K5, K10, K15, K20, K45, K50, K90, K100, K200, K500, and K1000 notes and is the best way to pay for small items. US Dollars are also accepted throughout Myanmar and larger fees such as hotel rooms and transport are quoted and paid for in US Dollars.

Changing your Money
Plenty of people will offer to change your money for you as you travel around Myanmar, although the best places to change money are guesthouses, shops and travel agencies. Of course, exchange rates fluctuate between places, so make sure you take a good look around before handing over your cash.

You can only exchange US Dollars and Euros, and rates tend to be slightly better in Yangon than in the rest of Myanmar. Check the serial number on your bank notes carefully as US Dollars that start with AB or BC are often refused.

ATMs
There are no ATMs at all in Myanmar, so it is a good idea to stock up with cash or traveller’s cheques before entering the country. Traveller’s cheques can be changed at a few chic hotels in Yangon for a commission of between 3% and 10%.

Credit Cards
Although not widely accepted, some major hotels, airlines, international shops and restaurants will accept credit cards, but Master Card is not currently accepted in Myanmar.

Tipping
It is common practice to add 5 to 10 per cent to hotel and restaurant bills as a tip.

It is important to remember that the import and export of local currency is strictly prohibited.

Read more...

Food and Drink in Burma

Food and Drink in Burma
Food and Drink in Burma
The people of Myanmar love their food to be hot and spicy, with most dishes liberally dosed with plenty of chilli, garlic and ginger. Local food is actually a blend of traditional dishes with influences of Chinese, Indian and Mon culinary styles. Characteristic dishes are curry-based with chicken, seafood and mutton as pork and beef tend to be avoided. Rice is the staple dish and vegetarian food is widely available throughout the country.

Food in Myanmar tends to be cheap and tasty, making this a great place to experiment. There is plenty of fresh fruit available in the markets and food stalls can be found on practically every corner in the towns.

Although coffee can be hard to find, tea is popular, served with brightly hued spices. Most bars and select restaurants sell locally produced beer, whiskey and gin. Toddy juice is made from fermented palm sugar and tastes a lot like rum.

There are a large number of Chinese and Indian restaurants throughout Myanmar and Western food can be found in most hotels and an increasingly growing number of independent restaurants, although there are no fast food chains in Myanmar, which is probably a very good thing.

It is not safe to drink the tap water in Myanmar, but bottled water is cheap. It is also best to avoid ice as this may be made with tap water.


Here is a selection of the dishes you are likely to discover in Myanmar:

Lethok son – a very spicy salad using rice and vegetables.

Mohinga – filling fish curry soup with thin noodles.

Onnokauswe – a slightly sweet and creamy dish of rice noodles, chicken and coconut milk. This curry is strong and pungent.

Mee swan – noodles in a thick broth served with herbs and meat.

Palata – known as paratha in India, this thin bread is fried and served with sugar for breakfast and curried meat at lunch and dinnertime.

Read more...

Festivals and Holidays in Burma

Festivals and Holidays in Burma
Festivals and Holidays in Burma
Festivals and Holidays in Burma
The people of Myanmar like to celebrate and attending their festivals is a good way to get an idea of the country’s traditional songs, dances and costume. Most Buddhist holidays are set according to the phases of the moon rather than standard calendars, so dates tend to vary from year to year.

Here is a list of some of the most prominent festivals with details of what you can expect to experience.

Independence Day
This national holiday is celebrated on January 4th. Most businesses close for the day and foreigners are not permitted to join the ceremonies.

Ananda Pagoda Festival
Held between January 10th and February 1st in the city of Bagan, this lively festival features singing, dancing, plays, and film screenings. A large number of stalls set up and this is a good time to purchase local produce.

Mahamuni Ceremony
Celebrated in Mandalay in the second week of February, monks gather here to chant and the festival is also full of singing, dancing and traditional theatre.

Union Day
On February 12th people gather and the hill tribes dance in their traditional dress.

Shwe Saryan Pagoda Festival
Take a boat along the river from Mandalay to witness this colourful festival and buy traditional products such as toys, boxes, baskets and mats.

Pindaya Cave Festival
Held on March 16th in Pindaya, this two day festival features much singing and dancing.

Water Festival
Similar to Songkran is Laos and Thailand, people throw water during this festival in mid April and most things are closed as everyone joins in the fun.

Sand Stupa Festival
In Mandalay in the middle of April intriguing sand stupas are built in different parts of the city using traditional techniques.

Waso Full Moon Day
Buddhist Lent begins in the middle of July and people gather at the temples and stupas to donate good to the monks.


Martyr's Day

On July 19th ceremonies are held to mark the assassination of General Aung San.

Taung Byone Festival
Travel to the village of Matara near Mandalay on August 8th to witness the traditional Nat dance.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival
During this 2 week festival Buddhist images are placed in decorated barges and floated on Lake Inle.

Elephant Dance Festival
This vibrant festival is held on October 9th and 1oth near Mandalay.

Tadingyut Festival
On October 11th the whole country celebrates the end of Buddhist Lent

Fire Balloon Festival
This special three-day festival starts on November 16th in Taunggyi. Taunggyi the festival is celebrated with competitions of decorated hot-air balloons in different shapes and forms of animals such as elephants, cattle, the mythical Hintha bird and hens as well as with fireworks and firecrackers in the evening.

Robe Weaving Contest
Held in all major cities on November 7th, teams of women compete against each other to gain recognition as the best robe weavers.

Read more...

Do’s and Don’ts in Burma

Do's and Don'ts in Burma
Do's and Don'ts in Burma
Dos and Don'ts in Burma
Paying attention to the social norms and cultural practices can make a big difference to the reception you will receive in Myanmar and your overall travel experience.  Most things are common sense and can be easily observed, while others are subtle and based on years of traditional.

Greetings
People usually shake hands when they meet and use full names with U (pronounced oo) at the front for older and respected people, Aung in the case of younger men, Ko for adult males and Daw when you are greeting women. People often give small presents to each other when they meet. 

Respectful Dress
People always cover their arms and legs in public so you should avoid wearing shorts and miniskirts, especially around sacred places. Shoes and socks must be removed before entering any religious building and often private houses as well. If you want to keep cool, don the traditional long skirt known as a longyi, which is worn by both men and women.

Religion
Dress respectfully around the temple and make sure you take off your socks before entering. Showing the soles of the feet is considered disrespectful, so make sure you sit with your feet tucked underneath you and never point to things with your feet. Women are not allowed to enter certain areas of the temple and everyone should avoid touching relics within the temple.

General
There are severe penalties for drug taking and trafficking, which range from five years’ imprisonment to a death sentence and homosexuality is also illegal in Myanmar.
Make sure you know which parts of Myanmar are out of bounds to foreigners and regularly check for updates.

Read more...

A Weekend Walk in Yangon

A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
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.

Read more...