Monday, 18 September 2017

Myanmar: Yangon

Blimey, it's been a while since I posted about our six month South East Asian adventure - I suppose real life has caught up with me!

Myanmar was the fourth country we visited during our tour of Asia after the Philippines, Malaysia (albeit briefly) and Thailand. Be sure to check out my posts on how we spent our time in each, if you missed them first time round.

Warning: a strong possibility of wanderlust.

And after spending almost two months in relatively Westernised Thailand, arriving in Yangon - once Burma's capital - was a shock to the system. We went from being able to buy a cappuccino in a stylish cafe, speaking English without fear of not being understood, and staying in relatively luxury accommodation... to utter madness.

Yangon is not for the feint-hearted!

A brief history lesson
Myanmar was once known as Burma, when it was colonised by the British. Since gaining independence in 1948, and then being held under a military dictatorship from the 60's right up until 2011, Myanmar has suffered with extreme poverty and conflict. The current prime minister is Aung San Suu Kyi, who actually is a kind-of-president but rules under 'puppet president' Htin Kyaw, since she was constitutionally barred by the military-backed USDP when they were in power. She was held under house arrest for almost 15 years when Myanmar was lead by the military junta, during which time she won a Nobel Peace Prize. Today, Myanmar has once again opened for tourism and many international economic sanctions put in place during the military years have been lifted. There is still a huge amount of poverty and unrest, however, with Rohingya Muslims fleeing the country in fear of persecution and violence. In recent months Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire internationally for failing to protect the Muslim minority.

A few practical notes
Myanmar is relatively untouched by tourism (or at least it wasn't in 2016) and as a result we barely saw any Westerners - in Yangon at least. You will be stared at, but the people we met in Myanmar were just the friendliest people! Smile back, try not to be offended, and if they ask for a picture with you don't freak out. I lost track of how many random people in SE Asia asked for a photo of me with their mum / son / baby - it's the awe of the unknown thing, I think.
Dress modestly. Myanmar is a super religious nation, and your hot pants and cropped tops will not be seen as appropriate. It's can also be incredibly hot, though, so find yourself some loose light trousers and t-shirts. Unless you want more staring locals, of course!
Don't necessarily bother with dollars. Before travelling we were told to take only US dollars, and not to bother with the local currently - kyat. We actually found that most places took kyat and very few took the dollar, and therefore ended up getting our dollars changed. Hilariously, the currency exchange chap gave us a rate based on the crispness of the dollar note - the more worn it was, the less you got for it. Obviously, it is also important to support and help strengthen the local currency!
Watch out for public transport. We got a few taxis in Yangon as we were told by nearly everyone we met to avoid the local busses - when we saw one we realised why! Imagine a decrepit old bus absolutely jam packed full of people, stopping at each stop for maybe 5 seconds to let passengers off - before moving on, leaving the remaining few to jump off and new passengers to literally leap on, with the help of others' flailing arms around them pulling them up. Yeh. The taxis weren't much better to be honest, and the majority of drivers spoke no English (expected) and had no idea where anything was. We ended up using Google maps on our phones with the driver in an attempt to get us to where we needed to be! Do some research before you make tracks.

How we got there
We flew from (and back to) Chiang Mai in Thailand - the return flight costing around £100 each in April 2016 - directly to Yangon (was known as Rangoon when colonised). This was undoubtedly the easiest way to get in to Myanmar, where there are only a handful of land crossings and many of which are closed to commercial travel. In recent years the government has made steps to make these land crossings safer - there had been militia operating at some of the border crossings - after officially opening Myanmar for tourism once more. This was definitely the most expensive flight we bought during our six month trip, aside from our actual flight to/from the UK!

Where we stayed
We booked a double room in Hotel Accord for four nights, costing around £30 a night. On arrival we got upgraded to a suite - apparently no one usually stays for so long! And in hindsight, four nights was probably one night too many. Myanmar was really cool, but not entirely set up for tourism properly yet, meaning we struggled to fill our time. On our first night we ate in the hotel - we never do this as love exploring new cities and seeking out the best places to eat - but the madness of Yangon was so overwhelming, we just needed to chill!

What we did
As I say, I think three days in Yangon would be more than enough. Most travellers we met spent no longer than two weeks in Myanmar - max. It was really refreshing to visit somewhere that felt authentic; I think that's a bit of a rarity these days, especially in well-travelled SE Asia. That said, it hasn't been open to tourism for long, and the traveller scene is still emerging. We saw some absolutely incredible sights and did some amazing things in Myanmar, but you can 'do' the whole country relatively quickly.

Marvel at the Shwedagon Pagoda
The most sacred Buddhist sight in Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda stands at an impressive 99 metres tall and cannot be missed. Housing various relics of previous Buddhas and coated in gold plates, it is really quite stunning! Be careful when you visit however - you have to take your shoes off upon entering, and when it's hot outside it can be scorching underfoot. Go early in the day, if you can.

Browse Bogyoke Market
Once called Scott Market, when Burma was colonised by the British, this huge covered market is an experience in itself! You'll find jewels, antiques, fabrics, art, lacquerware... the list goes on, with over 2000 stores filling this gorgeous old heritage bazaar. Be sure to take a moment to sit down, grab a drink and take it all in at one of the street-side cafes - those tiny plastic chairs are comfier than you think!

Ride the circle train
Costing just 200 kyat or 12p (April 2016) each, a ticket for the circular train will be the cheapest ride you'll ever take! Taking around three hours and travelling over 29 miles, it is by no means a fast journey, but is undoubtedly the best way to experience Yangon and the surrounding area. We used this blog post to get an idea of the how-to. Take water, buy snacks on board, and soak it all in. A truly amazing experience.

Enjoy high tea at The Strand
Acquired by the famous Sarkies Brothers in 1901, who are famed for building the Raffles Hotel in Singapore amongst others, The Strand is a stunning example of colonial architecture. We enjoyed a Strand Sling - their take on the famous Raffles classic - and high tea in their opulent dining room, feeling like we could close our eyes and be back in London! At $17 each it wasn't cheap, but a must-do for sure. English classics such as smoked salmon sandwiches and lemon meringue tarts were set on banana leaves for that east-meets-west feel. There is also a Myanmar high tea for those not missing home the more adventurous!

Where we ate
To be honest we weren't blown away by the food in Myanmar. For local food, we ate at street food joints - but were a little more hesitant than we were in Thailand and Vietnam where it was so tourist-friendly. In Yangon we liked 999 Shan Noodle House, Feel Myanmar Food, Lucky 7 and Aung Thukha - all of which were cheap eats.

Restaurant wise, we visited the following:
Rangoon Tea House - upmarket local/fusion food in a cool setting. (Location: 77-79 Pansodan Rd)
Sharky's - Western menu, but overpriced - hell, even expensive! (Location: 117 Dhamazedi Road)
La Taverna - who knew, brilliant Mediterranean food in Myanmar?! (Location: 350 Ahlon Rd)

After the initial shock of arriving to the relative chaos of Yangon, we absolutely loved our few days here. Acclimatising after leaving Thailand look a little while - you forget how Westernised some parts of SE Asia have become - but once we had got used to seeing more squat toilets than seated and remembering most people don't speak English, we were fine! Yangon was a really incredible place to start our Myanmar adventure; the constant buzz of life was electric, with something unexpected on every corner.

I've said it before - we had backpacks, but we weren't backpacking as such. We stayed in a fairly nice hotel and as such I don't know how lively the traveller scene was. We didn't see another Westerner for almost two days! Which was totally refreshing, to be honest.

I wonder what will happen in this sense - if Myanmar will become like Thailand and be revolutionised by tourism. But for now, I'd get there whilst it's still real. 'Cos it was an amazing experience; one that we didn't get anywhere else in SE Asia.

More to come soon on the next chapters of our Myanmar adventure; Naypyidaw, Bagan, Kalaw/Inle Lake and Mandalay.


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