Destination Myanmar

Yangon, Myanmar. 24th Dec’14

Entry 1 of 4

So here are a series of posts on my little trip to Myanmar, over the X’mas of 2014. Before I launch into the trip report, it would be prudent to highlight that despite having been to most of Southeast Asia, my only experience of Myanmar thus far has been a single day’s cross-border trip, travelling from Mae Sot in Thailand to the border town of Myawaddy. My experience involved crossing the Friendship Bridge, leaving my passport with the border guards, and collecting it when I returned at sundown. On the Burmese side, I was approached by an entrepreneurial local who took me on a whirlwind tour of the pagodas around Myawaddy, ending off at the local market where I bought a heap of longyis, the distinctive skirt-cloth worn by men and women here. That was way back in 2005.

A lot has changed since then. The government has transitioned from an isolated military controlled junta to a civilian-led government slowly opening to the world in 2011. The tourism industry is steadily growing, with investment money fed by companies eager to have  a piece of the pie. Case in point: Even the Friendship Bridge I took is now an official border crossing open to the public. No need to return by sundown any longer. It would be interesting to see how Myanmar is like almost 10 years later.

My Jetstar flight landed in Yangon International Airport. Last time I was in Myanmar, Yangon was the capital. Now it is Napyidaw, 330 kilometers north of Yangon. My first impression of Myanmar now, and Yangon in particular, as I sat in the taxi headed to Downtown Yangon, is that it was very clean and well-kept. Relative to other Asian cities, Yangon is pleasant and liveable. (I had yet to experience the crazy traffic jams at that point in time).

The other thing that struck me was how diverse it was. I always pride myself on being able to distinguish between the different ethnicities of Southeast Asians with a decent degree of accuracy. But here, the cab driver who looks like what I thought was Burmese isn’t. There, that pedestrian on the road looks more Chinese. This one looks Thai. And there I was sure the vendor was an Indian lady, with the distinct red bindi on her forehead. And she was wearing the longyi!

The highlight of my day in Yangon would of course be the visits to the numerous pagodas. Starting from Sule Pagoda, a bastion of serenity that was unbelievably located in the middle of a busy intersection in Downtown Yangon, I visited temple after temple, culminating in Shwedagon Pagoda, the principal pagoda in Myanmar. It was breathtaking of course, and deserves a full write-up on its own. But to say that these were the only religious monuments I encountered would be erroneous. For I did come across plenty of mosques, Hindu temples, Christian churches and even one (albeit closed) Jewish synagogue.

Naturally, the diverse ethnicities and the history of Myanmar, influenced by centuries of Burmese empires expanding and contracting, coupled with a period under British rule, would result in different cultures coming together. And this is reflected in the varied Burmese cuisines.  Ahhhh, the food!

My first meal in Yangon was in an Indian restaurant serving authentic South Indian thali with generous dollops of rice and dhal, as well as paratha. Over the next few days, I would be eating biryani rice, Burmese mohinga  (a tasty fish broth with rice noodles, recommended), Shan food and sumptuous Chinese Muslim delicacies.

The sights. Following Lonely Planet’s default recommended walking route takes us around the old downtown area. We looped around the colonial district, went into the Strand, one of a series of luxury hotels set up by the Armenian Sarkies brothers in the 20th centuries. One such hotel back home is the Raffles Hotel, a Singaporean landmark. At the Strand, we walked around the lobby and used the fancy toilet there. Leaving, we continued through the busy Indian and Chinatown area where shops selling all sorts of daily knick knacks spilled their goods into the sidewalk. Pots and pans, cups and sauceers. Business shirts that were on sale for a fraction of what they would cost in Singapore. All manner of socks. Second hand books in English and Burmese, some with very profound titles. One particularly enthusiastic vendor hawked his Indian sweets in front of me. Gulab Jamun, here in Yangon? Who would have thought!

I crinkled my nose at the sight of the betel leaves offered by another street vendor, before mentally noting to myself that I did not see the characteristic red splotches on the ground, the kind usually seen in other countries where betel leaves are chewed. Then they were the caged pigeons. For a small donation, you could release a few pigeons, thereby making merit, a concept very highly regarded and practised by the Buddhist community here. The cynical me thinks that they should not have even captured the pigeons and caged them in the first place, but that’s just me. I should have released a couple of pigeons of my own, instead of just standing there while my travel buddy released hers. Maybe had I done that, I would not have ended up fracturing my collarbone the next day.

Read on for next story – Day 2: In Bagan with a broken collarbone.