I have been really excited about the portion of Myanmar on this trip, perhaps more excited about it than any other country on the trip (with the exception of Sri Lanka, which I'll be going to in July). I only blocked off two weeks here, and of course am wishing I blocked off three, as there is plenty to see and do. But, live and learn, I guess; that is the trouble with planning things requiring air plane tickets as you get kind of locked in to a certain itinerary (which is why I was so long in Vietnam, for example).
I flew here from Krabi, Thailand on Tuesday. The flights were pretty uneventful although I had a long four-hour layover at the airport in Bangkok (and not the big fancy one, but the smaller one). I indulged in a Starbucks chocolate chip cookie, since I'd heard that Myanmar is pretty un-westernised by most accounts and didn't think I'd be seeing a lot of U.S./European brands during my time here (so far I haven't).
As we were making our final descent into Yangon, the Dutch guy sitting in the seat next to me lifted up the window shade and we saw the most incredible rainbow stretching down from the clouds to the city. It was so beautiful, just this giant rainbow hanging down illuminating the buildings jutting up from the ground, and I took it as a sign that my Myanmar journey would be off to a great start.
I got through passport control and baggage claim in a very short time and made my way out to the main arrivals hall to find an ATM to see if I could take out money. I'd brought some cash but had read you can indeed get kyat withdrawn from the ATMs here and that in the big cities, ATMs were plentiful and even exchanging money at a decent rate these days. After getting a wad of 5,000 kyat notes ($1 = 1,109 kyat), I was approached by a man who asked if I wanted a taxi. Normally, I'm pretty wary of people pushing the hard sell for taxis as bus stations and airports, but he had an ID card dangling around his neck and seemed nice, so I went with it, especially since he said the ride was a mere 8,000 kyat into town. I noticed then that almost all of the local Myanmarese men at the airport were wearing traditional sarongs (called a longyi here), which made the whole place feel suddenly so exotic and authentic -- it's the first place I've been this trip where some element of traditional dress is being preserved not as a costume pulled out for ceremonies or for the benefit of tourists, but for normal, everyday wear. Besides, given the heat and humidity in this part of the world, wearing an ankle-length piece of lightweight, loose cloth wrapped around the body makes a lot of sense, you know? (Most men wear a button-down shirt tucked into the longyi, so it's a sort of hybrid east-meets-west kind of look.)
My trip into Yangon and to my hostel took place without incident. Trying to find the restaurant suggested to me for dinner by the hostel employee was a different matter. I set out enthusiastically along a road as the sky grew dark; the traffic was thick (three lanes in each direction) and I followed it to a roundabout, where I had to cross the street without killing myself. I managed to get across two lanes down, then crossed two more lanes so I could make a left turn. Then it started raining. Hard.
I walked along a sidewalk-less road, avoiding gutters, giant chunks of old sidewalk that were now just giant holes, rocks, puddles, and sleeping wild dogs. All along me, cars and motorbikes honked and chugged along, including a giant, windowless city bus with people packed into every square inch, which sped through a big puddle and splashed me à la the opening credits to Sex and the City. I kept consulting my map, keeping my eyes peeled for the restaurant, crossing the street again -- now in the dark -- and kept walking. I ended up at a Western restaurant way too far down the road so I turned around and started back to see if I'd walked by it without noticing. I walked twice up and down the road and, starting to worry about my visibility to cars in the dark, rainy night, hailed a cab.
The cab driver spoke no English but smiled a lot and we rolled through traffic in the complete opposite direction from where the restaurant was located on the map. After five minutes, I started to get worried, and worried aloud. The cab driver, having no idea what to do, pulled over in the front of a hotel and spoke with other men standing around in front about this restaurant. Another guy offered to take me there instead. Since none of the taxis here have meters, I kept insisting on paying the first guy, but he wouldn't accept. Finally I shoved a 1,000 kyat bill in his hand and he smiled and said thank you. The second guy took me back down the street I'd walked up and down a few times. He pulled up in front of the Western restaurant. No, I said, and repeated the name of the Burmese restaurant I was looking for. He kept pointing at the restaurant and I kept repeating the name of the Burmese restaurant. This went on for a minute or so, until he said, "But that is Myanmar food!" and pointed at the Western restaurant.
"I know!" I said. "I'm trying to have Myanmar food!"
He looked surprised. "Oh, that's back that way." He pointed to a hotel on the map that I'd walked (and now driven) by a handful of times. I gave him 1,000 kyat and walked back down the road that I was now a little too familiar with, and found the hotel. The hotel staff told me I needed to head down the road, and lo and behold, there it was, a little restaurant filled with locals, all glued to an important Myanmar v. South Korea U-20 World Cup qualifier match on TV. Dozens of dark curries sat in a display case so in my hunger, I picked out way too many and finally ate a much-needed meal.
The next day I set off with an Australian guy from the hostel in search of the train station to buy a ticket to Mandalay. We found the station and a man in a longyi and white button-down approached us about where we were from and what we needed. He walked with us to the ticketing office and helped me buy a ticket, which was a mere 9,000 kyat for the fifteen-hour, un-air-conditioned, 'upper class' ticket to Mandalay. From there, my hostel friend and I wandered to Sule Pagoda, grabbed some curry for lunch, had a tea at a teashop, and headed to Bogyoke Market and where we ran into the Dutch guy and his girlfriend from the plane! The Aussie guy had met them in the queue at passport control, so the four of us hung out for a while, wandering around the market and grabbing a beer in an outside café until it started raining. We walked to Sule Pagoda and the Aussie guy and I sat outside while the Dutch couple looked around, then we walked about twenty streets through Chinatown to the Dutch couple's hostel. From there, the Aussie guy and I shared a cab to Shwedagon Paya pagoda, where I got out and he continued on to meet his dad, who's working here for the UN, at a restaurant for dinner.
Having been in SE Asia now for over two months, I've seen quite a few impressive temples and pagodas, and went into Shwedagon Paya with few expectations (or even any expectations, I was just going because Lonely Planet said so). Walking down the corridor the main stupa came into view and it was a glorious sight. The giant stupa is covered with gold leaf, and in the late afternoon post-storm light was totally luminous and ethereal. Surrounding it are various shrines, all covered in gold and glass, so everything seems to shimmer reflecting the clouds and the sky. An old man approached me and offered to tell me about my birth day and walk around and explain things to me and for only 5,000 kyat, I figured, why not? He told me that being born on a Tuesday meant I am a lion, which means I am brave and fierce, loyal and faithful. He walked me to the Tuesday shrine and told me I had to pour 38 cups of water over the Buddha's head and say a prayer asking for long life, so I followed his instructions.
After soaking in the ambiance at Shwedagon Paya for a while, I bid adieu to the old man and headed back to my hostel and joined a group of Americans (all recent grads from Bard College) for dinner. And then it was back to the hostel and going to sleep as soon as I could as I had to be up at 4:15 am to catch my train to Mandalay.
I got to the train station around 5:15 am, which was a surreal sight as it was virtually empty minus the few people and families sleeping around the station. Granted, Myanmar is not nearly as impoverished or destitute as, say, India or even Cambodia, but it's still sad to see a family of five sleeping on a rattan mat on the ground. I guess the only thing that separates it from a scene out of San Francisco, though, is that in that case the babies and children would be taken from the parents if they were found sleeping on the ground. A train of commuters pulled in around 5:45 and I enjoyed watching the crowded train unload; I made my way into my carriage where my upper class ticket entitled me to a comfy, cushioned chair as opposed to a hard-backed wooden seat. Other than the seat, however, there were no differences to be found between 'upper class' and 'ordinary class' carriages. Neither had airconditioning or even fans that worked, so every window was flung open to allow for ventilation. If you want to fully comprehend the volume a train makes as it rumbles along the tracks, having all the windows open is the way to go. Never before have I heard such a roar of machinery until this train lurched forward out of the station and it roared and roared and roared all the way to Mandalay. It also jostled and bumped violently along, so much that at certain points of the trip, I was sure the train would be flung from the tracks -- I wondered how on earth the train could remain adhered to the tracks given the enormous amount of movement the train made as we chugged along. All day long, dozens and dozens of hawkers made their way up and down the aisles, calling out for snacks and fruits and meals; I was most impressed by the women balancing giant trays of pineapple and corn on their heads. I could barely walk to the toilet without falling down (and the toilet, by the way, was one of the most treacherous and character-building of the entire journey thus far).
We couldn't have been going very fast, though, because it took us fifteen hours to reach Mandalay, which was a pleasant surprise since the first quote was sixteen hours. As soon as we began to slow down as we reached the station, about five men appeared near my chair asking where was I going? Where was I staying? Did I need a taxi?
I tried to fend them off while also trying to find a sign in English that simply read "Mandalay" as I wanted to make sure I was at my station. The most persistent guy followed me and insisted he could take me in a taxi to my guesthouse. Weary from the very long train ride, I finally said, fine. Take me to my hotel. He gave me a huge smile and told me to follow him. We walked through a parking lot to dozens of motorbikes. Of course, I thought.
"I thought you said you had a taxi?" I said.
"Yes, yes, taxi!" he said, motioning to his bike.
Whatever. Fine. I asked if he had a helmet for me but he shook his head no. Whatever. Fine. I climbed on and we sped off to my guesthouse.
I checked in and weakly went to find something edible with which to nourish myself. I grabbed a bowl of noodles across the street and came back to the hostel and passed out, getting up early for breakfast and to join two others staying at the guesthouse who had hired a taxi to take them around to some important sites outside the city and wanted others to join. We headed off to Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura and had a very full day visiting various pagodas, as well as a gold pounder's workshop (where gold is pounded thin to make gold leaf), a wood-carving workshop, a silk factory, a monastery where we saw the monks head in for lunch, trotted around in a horse cart to see all the sites of ancient Inwa (known as Ava during the days of the Burmese kings), and finally concluded the day at the U-Bein Bridge, built in the 1800s entirely from teak.
Today I had a leisurely morning (in part because I had to switch rooms at the guesthouse), then set off via motorbike taxi to visit Mandalay Palace, Shwe Nan Taw Monastery, Kuthodaw Pagoda, Sandar Muni Pagoda, and Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda and finally up Mandalay Hill to Su Taung Pyi Pagoda, before heading back to my guesthouse around dusk. (Oh and there was also a blissful hour inside the very-well-air-conditioned CityMart grocery store/mall I discovered after Mandalay Palace where I found a kebab vendor and spent at least forty minutes wandering around the aisles of the supermarket looking at what products and brands were available in the country.) After grabbing a bite to eat at a café near the guesthouse, I have spent the night packing my bag for my midday bus to Bagan tomorrow. There I'll spend three days and hopefully head to Kalaw to trek to Inle Lake.
But yes, I titled this "first impressions of Myanmar" for a reason. Because my first impressions have been that the people here are very, very kind. In so many of these situations at the train station and airport, if I was in the US and approached by a man or woman offering to take me on his motorbike or help me buy a ticket, I'd say "no way" immediately and know it was a scam. But here, so far it seems that the people truly want to help. It is in part, I'm sure, to Myanmar not having much tourism until the last five years that there is an excitement and enthusiasm about wanting to assist visitors with a smile and helpful attitude (an attitude that is not found in, say, the over-visited islands of Thailand). But I think there something probably instrinsic to the Myanmar culture that is also at its heart one of genuine hospitality. I'm struck by the beautiful smiles lighting up the faces of so many people; there is just such a brightness that comes over the face, and with it such a trusting and kind expression. For a country that literally greeted me with a dazzling, enormous rainbow, I'm excited to see what else this hospitable, welcoming country has in store.