Yangon where east meets further east

I’d shown someone round the north west of Thailand and my reward, due to someone dropping out,  was a free hotel for three nights in Yangon, Myanmar. Formally named Rangoon this city had held a fascination for me since I was a child looking at posters for P&O Cruises, so I jumped at the chance. I got an e-visa on line so didn’t have to  send passport off or wait in an embassy for hours. All you do is just download and print the document they send you and that’s it except for the hefty charge of £50 plus although considerably less if obtained in UK.

YangonWe flew in from Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. The first thing I noticed in the airport arrivals were men in skirts and everyone spoke broken English, as I said to my friend it’s like Glasgow only the kilts are longer.

My friend joined a queue to get some local currency for the taxi as I spent my time trying to figure out an easy mental conversion for the money, it came down to roughly 60p for 1000 kyat but still made paying for a beer an instant “How much!!?” when asked to pay 1500 kyat. The taxi instantly quoted the price in US dollar which my friend had just changed but settled for 8000 kyat for an hour’s drive down through the city to the old part off the city. I leave you to do the maths. This area is old colonial with magnificent buildings still in use as government offices, narrow streets housing every conceivable profession and that overwhelming smell of street-cooking, spices, exhaust fumes with just a hint of open sewers. It brought back memories of Singapore when I first went there back in 1963.

Our hotel was located down a narrow dim street that I would normally avoid or scurry through. We drew up at a scruffy doorway and out stepped a smartly dressed doorman who took our bags and ushered us in the door and up a small flight of stairs to a lift. The lift stopped at the third floor and opened into the ‘Tardis’, the hotel had somehow bought all the floors of the adjacent buildings above the first floor and extended upwards crowning it all with a rooftop restaurant/ breakfast area that gave views of the busy river and the shining pagoda Shwedagon Paya that overlooks the whole city.

YangonAfter checking in it was time to explore the locality. The hotel was between China town if you turned left and little India if you went right. The aromatic aroma at the end of the street was an appetising mixture of Far East and even further East spices. Our hotel was ideally situated for savouring the real untouched Yangon unlike some of the better hotels in the newer parts that are in a more clinical surrounding.

The streets were full of shops selling anything you could wish for interspersed with street stalls plying iced drink from an open bowl with communal cups others rolling a beetle nut in a slaked lime mixture then into a leaf which the purchaser put inside their gum to give energy. Then there were the spice shops with both cultural areas having their distinctive identifying smells that instantly told you which quarter you were in.

After a roof top dinner watching the sun go down, the after dinner stroll led us to 19 Street a narrow road about 300 meters long with all manner of bars, restaurants and food shops. Keen to try the local beer I stopped outside a packed bar on a corner at the end of the street and stood longingly looking in as the owner invited me in for a beer “no room to sit” I said, “no problem sir just wait a minute”, so I did. They proceeded to back a truck up to the pavement and loaded on tables and chairs, a set of steps then invited me on to sit and drink! Unfortunately the tour round the streets didn’t happen but I certainly got a lofty view! It became apparent that US dollars are the preferred currency as most things, including the hotel, are priced in dollars.

Shwedagon Pagoda, YangonNext day we decided to do the sights so telephoned our taxi driver for his services. He took us to places no tour would normally venture to with lunch in a locals food market and after a huge reclining Buddha the Jewel of the city Shewadagon Paya pagoda. It’s on a steep hill and pilgrims labour up the forever steps but I took the lift it was too hot for exertion. There are five ways in and very easy to loose where you came in so taking note of something that isn’t gold helps to find your exit. A big minus is they make you take your shoes off to walk on the shiny tiles inside the pagoda complex. Not a problem at night but under a tropical sun? Bad news, with everyone vying for what little shaded areas there is to walk on. Now I knew what ‘hot footing it’ meant. It sounded like a monkey park with the tourist ‘ooh oohing’ everywhere and of course the monks walking around serenely and not even flinching. Handy tip; take socks. A stunning pagoda covered in real gold tiles they told me, how much would that have costs? As I expected the views over the city are exceptional. We looked in at a pier on the way back, its pontoon was the boarding platform for the scores of small boats ferrying people back and forth across the wide river. Our driver told me the other side was where the slums were. Looking around me I thought it’s got to be bad if it’s worse than this. It was a good day out totalling seven hours and all the driver charged us was roughly £6. The evening meal was taken in 19 Street as the food places there had a great selection of local fare. It was only after the meal that I strolled to the men’s room only to find it tucked into the corner of the kitchen next to where the dishes were washed! I didn’t let my dining companion into the secret I had found. Handy tip to self; check toilet out before you eat.

YangonThe next morning was greeted by loud bangs, odd sounding music and a lot of hubbub. On arriving at the top of our street we found a Chinese dragon accompanied by loud firecrackers that make your ears ring and played havoc with my Tinitus. Escaping to the right we came across an Indian celebration whose centre piece was an ornate carriage drawn by four white oxen also decorated and dancers with hats made from what looked like tea bushes, everyone was dressed up and their faces decorated with patterns painted yellow using the bark from a Thanakha tree mixed with water. It was some start to the day and snapped me out of my slow wake up I was having.

YangonMy companion moved on to take a cruise up the Irrawaddy so I opted to take a train that runs around Yangon very much like the M25 does London. I was assured the train had air conditioning which I was looking forwards to after my mile walk from the hotel in 34C temperatures. What I actually boarded was an extremely packed, windows open, fans in the roof train full of people walking through hawking every kind of food and drinks. All of them shouting their wares trying to be louder than their opposition with a confusion of smells from exotic fruits to less hygienic bodies. After a few stops the passengers thinned out a bit and I managed to grab a seat. It was a three and a half hour journey through the slums, open fields and back to slums on a railway system built during the British empire days and not much maintenance done afterwards. Back then to the hotel for my last night and maybe sit in the back of a lorry for a few hours.

A thoroughly worthwhile experience sampling everyday life in Yangon.

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Steve Francis

Thailand tour guide

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