Unexpected Myanmar: 24 – 26.10.2013

The alarm went off at 2:45am on the morning of the 24th; with our eyes feeling as though they were hanging out of our heads and our bodies heavy after only three or so hours sleep, we hauled our packs onto our backs and walked out into the dark, empty streets of Kuala Lumpur in an attempt to find a taxi.
The taxi dropped us at KL Sentral Station, where we were instantly able to board the bus bound direct for the airport – one hours bus ride meant one more hours sleep, and I woke as we pulled into the International Departure Drop-Off area. I didn’t feel ready for Myanmar in so many ways, but I guess, as per usual, the unknown was the scariest part. With out knowing what the country would be like and with so much conflicting information, it was hard to know what we were heading for… an odd mix of hesitation and excitement began.

Arriving into Myanmar, we flew over several golden pagodas emerging from the landscape below and glistening in the morning sun. We were here, finally, in “the land of a thousand pagodas.” Somewhere amongst the sheer exhaustion and uncertainty of what this country had in store for us, I felt excited.

With our bags collected and clinging to our pristine, clean, new US dollars, we headed for immigration – past a very large – empty! – VISAS ON ARRIVAL counter with several customs officers sitting, waiting… Flash backs of the absolute ordeal that was getting our Myanmar visas in Kathmandu, Nepal, were suddenly entering my mind – but it didn’t matter; the lady stamped my passport and ushered me through. We went directly to the money exchangers at the airport; regardless of what the guide book says, the best exchange rate for USD to Myanmar Kyat was surprisingly at the airport; confusing – yes, but true!

Feeling suddenly very rich with a thick wad of thousands of kyats in our hands, we headed towards the exit and walked out into Yangon’s morning heat. Headed for our guest house in the city centre, we hopped into a car with right hand side steering wheel, with a driver that drove on the right hand side of the road… and sometimes the left… and sometimes in the centre…or anywhere he really felt like, or fitted, really…

The city centre was an hours taxi ride away and as we rolled towards our guest house we tried to take in the sights and sounds of a new country whizzing past our eyes. We were instantly reminded of Laos and the fact that we were absolutely not in Japan any more. Pagodas shimmering in the sunlight were dotted amongst buildings and greenery. The roads were filled with traffic that was still hectic compared to say, Japan or Melbourne, but nothing like what we’ve experienced else-where in Asia. We immediately felt a sense of calm here. The cars on the road were older, some rusting, lots of Japanese models… it was quickly obvious that one classic style of transport found everywhere else in Asia was missing… where were the motorbikes? Turns out, there are none: motorbikes are illegal here in Yangon.

When we eventually arrived at our budget guest house – which we’d paid a whopping $45 US dollars for (yes, that is for just one night in a basic room with shared bathroom) – we were at first a little (and by a little, I mean, a lot) taken back…We’ve not paid more than about $17 for any accommodation this entire trip and when we have (which has been very rarely) we’ve gotten absolute luxury in return. From our past experiences in Asia – particularly in South East Asia – we recall paying around $5 for a decent room or dorm room with a bathroom, so it was a very rude shock to our budget to find out that $25 – $35 per night is pretty standard for budget accommodation here in Myanmar…
So, our first impressions? We needed to make a bit of an adjustment to our budget (and our mindset), which we’d been expecting to sit around the $35 per day mark. Shit…

After sleeping away the morning, both of us woke feeling groggy and run down. We ventured out to find a place to eat and ended up walking through the streets – passing so many friendly and curious faces, avoiding large gaping holes, rubbish, upturned rubble and uneven ground on the footpaths, breathing in car fumes and delicious smelling street food.

Yangon seems quieter than other Asian cities we’ve been to but still full of traffic, people and life, buzzing with activity, little shops and street carts, open air food stalls, men carrying large bird cages full of birds on their backs, women cooking on ancient stove tops fueled by hot coals and fresh fruit for sale that is always so tempting… so much is happening and it feels great to be back amongst the grungy, homely Asia that I fell in love with…

Street food lined the roads and footpaths we walked by – the main foods seemed to involve varied noodle dishes or big pots with a boiling stock, surrounded by bits of skewered meat that looked very much like organs of some description. Vendors were mixing noodle salads by hand under the shelter of their tiny carts or under larger tents set up like make-shift restaurants; people were everywhere eating on tiny child-sized colourful plastic seats. The food all looked so interesting, so delicious (although maybe not the organy looking things…) and it smelled beautiful and fresh; at the same time I felt the need to proceed with caution – I wasn’t ready yet to dive into the street food scene here. Maybe tomorrow…

The Burmese, it seems, are crazy about tea – sweet, milky tea which can be found almost everywhere. Every second building seemed to be a Tea House; complete with concrete floors and child waiters with cigars behind their ears, wooden seats or tiny plastic ones, and people everywhere, sipping tea and making smoochy noises to get the waiters attention.

I love this tea culture we seem to always be following regardless of what Asian country we are in. Although, it’s safe to say I have a severe sweet tea/sugar addiction after the copious amounts of tea we have been consuming in the past 4-odd months and the threat of diabetes is starting to worry me ever so slightly. Asians seem to love their tea SUPER sweet – if you can taste the tea, it’s not sweet enough apparently – and we’ve gotten somewhat used to wincing away the teeth-pain every time we take a sip.
Whilst funny, it wasn’t all that surprising to find a menu in a tea house displaying a number of different options for tea:
Little sweet
House Special (more sweet)

“…aaah, yes, I’ll have the diabetes, thanks…”

We walked gladly through the streets, watching and observing. It’s nice to be surrounded again by a new and different culture yet, oddly it feels really familiar. We keep being reminded of Laos and other areas of South East Asia… and then something new or different is discovered or revealed.

The boys and men here mostly wear lungis – much like the ones the men wear in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal – and it’s quite normal to see people (men and women) with faces and skin smeared with a cream coloured powder – especially all over their face; the traditional make-up of Myanmar that has been worn for thousands of years.

The people here are friendly and curious; their stares are warm and no one tried to cheat us or bother us – apart from one man who offered us a very generous exchange rate on the street – a little too generous – but he was polite when we said no thanks… we knew his tricks!

We eventually found a very local looking restaurant packed with people, took a seat on the tiny red plastic chairs and ordered Burmese tea and a bowl of Shan noodles; our first Myanmar meal. The verdict: delicious.

Our second day in Myanmar was spent doing not a lot at all; it rained heavily in Yangon for most of the day; thunder clapped and the roads and footpaths – even some shops – began to flood.

Feeling so unwell from a nasty coldy-virusy-thing that took hold overnight, venturing out of our room to the downstairs restaurant (that doubles as a strange mobile phone shop) to simply get our breakfast was an effort in itself. The pouring rain meant we spent a lot of time resting today and I didn’t have to feel so guilty about not being outside exploring and sight-seeing.

When we did venture out around lunch time it was still drizzly weather and we were amazed to see roads flooded with brown water, people driving through massive puddles that had become small rivers, men hiking up their lungis to wade through the water and women scooping water out of the shops with dust-pans and stick brooms.
We spent some time just walking along the accessible bits of footpath and taking photographs.
Unable to cross any roads, we were limited to where we could walk without the threat of falling into a flooded pot-hole. We found a little local eatery nearby our guest house and experienced some local food: fermented tea leaf and rice salad and another type of Shan noodle soup.

Our afternoon was quiet as the rain continued to fall. We spent some time trying to plan out our rough route and itinerary. It was quite difficult to plan a route for some reason: I think we were not sure what the best options are, what is available and what we should/must see/do. Furthermore, we were wondering if we need to start booking accommodation now: it’s getting into peak season and it’s become quite clear already from what we’ve seen and heard that there are many tourists in Myanmar and not enough guest houses. This is absolutely something I wasn’t expecting nor planning for – I think the both of us were expecting to be able to travel here like we have done previously in Asia – just show up and take it from there, plan nothing and see what happens… I’m not sure that’s possible here – at least not in high season…
The standard of accommodation also seems to be either very good at a very high price, average to good at an affordable price (although still WAY above our backpacker budget) or horrible (think horror film scenes) at a budget, but still over-priced price. Seeing as I refuse to sleep in a grimey prison cell, we decided we need to at least book ahead a place before we arrive there.

When we were researching Myanmar before we left Australia we used our guide book as a rough guide. $7 – 12 rooms seemed reasonable-isha and we imagined it to be quite easy to get accommodation. Amazing how the latest guide book is already SO out of date. This country is obviously changing rapidly and I certainly didn’t expect the level of tourists that are here to be so many. I think it’s safe to say that both of us grossly underestimated Myanmar; the guide book information has now been deemed pretty much useless – besides the maps – and we have not much else to rely on besides word-of mouth.

Our second evening was spent at the local night market which was alive and full of people. I adore Asian wet markets and never tire of seeing them in action – they always have something new, exciting, interesting and often foul-smelling on offer. It’s so impressive and fascinating to see bare footed women and men sitting on – again – tiny plastic chairs, cutting open animals on the ground with massive knives in one big chop. Chickens are displayed – beheaded and befooted(??) – right next to the massive river fish sitting alongside tied-up crabs, flicking prawns and the organs and heads of pigs.
The colour at this night market was intense and I loved it – it could be seen in the countless types of fresh fruit and vegetable as well as in the coloured clothing that everyone seems to be wearing. Black-clad fashion conscious Melbourne would go into shock with all these wild colours and patterns.
There were no tourists at this night market, no tacky souvenirs on sale or people pushing us to “only looking – looking is free.” We wandered about enjoying ourselves in the cool night air, finding serenity in the loud buzzing and pumping of generators and the harsh light of the powerful fluorescent lamps.

I seriously love Asia.

On our final day in Yangon – for now – we had good intentions to visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda… but it never happened. Whilst the weather was better today, both of us were still run down with a nasty cold and decided to spend a decent portion of our day planning out and organising the rest of our trip.
Whilst I usually hate planning in advance and would much rather just ‘wing it’, judging from what the guest house owners and other travelers have said (one couple told us it was virtually impossible to find a room on arrival at some of the bigger tourist destinations they went to), it seems pre-booking accommodation in advance during high season was pretty much a must.
With the assistance of the incredibly helpful and generous staff at our guest house, we were able to call and reserve accommodation. I was amazed to discover how difficult it was to reserve a room at even the most basic of guest houses; at one point we had to try five different guest houses before we could find one with availability for our visit to Inle Lake in two weeks time.

We booked ourselves seats on the night bus to Bagan for the evening and requested VIP seats on the “best bus;” we handed over $18 each and wondered what standard that would result in – memories of our “Ultra Deluxe Bus” in India that was in reality much more like a prehistoric rust bucket sprung to mind…

At around 6pm we left our guest house to take a taxi to the bus station, which was more than an hour drive away from the city centre. It took a while to find a taxi that would even take us  there– apparently none of the drivers felt like sitting in traffic or driving us that far…
Eventually – thankfully – one agreed to take us and the next hour and a half was spent stuck in traffic jams, hectic traffic and near misses. Our taxi driver kept phoning the bus company and confirming that we’d be there on time – I think he was worried we’d miss our bus which was making me a bit nervous, but we made it there at check-in time at exactly 7:30pm (that was after our driver stopped twice to casually urinate on the side of the road) – what a guy!

Arriving into the bus station was like driving into a mini city with a thousand buses and people and cars and taxis all trying to move through a small space. Our taxi driver took us right up to our bus company station where he then got out of the car, took our bags, took us to the counter where we handed over our tickets, passports and luggage, helped us with whatever we needed and then made sure we got on the bus and waved us goodbye – again, what a guy!

Stepping onto the bus, we found it hard to believe this was a bus in Myanmar. All those horror stories about “some of the worst buses in the world”… prffft. This was the most luxurious bus I have honesty ever been on. We were greeted immediately by a female staff member who turned out to be the bus stewardess, and smiled and welcomed by the portly bus driver. The bus was clean, new and had only three seats across each row: the seats were massive, comfortable, they reclined and had foot rests. I know this is a lot of detail to be giving out about a bus, but it needs to be understood that we were all in a state of shock – this type of luxurious transport has been non-existent during our travels to date and we were not expecting to find it here in Myanmar – we were overjoyed.. Even more so, there was no neon deities adorning every section of wall and ceiling and no loud tacky karaoke. Holy shit – we might actually get some sleep tonight…