Published on August 17th, 20155
Myanmar Memories: Part I – Yangon
Yangon (a.k.a. “Rangoon”) – is there any place name that conjures up more exotica? Likewise the mysterious whole of Myanmar (until recently, better known as “Burma”). The last country in Southeast Asia that I explored before jumping a couple few continents and landing here in Ecuador.
And oh my! Such a unique and fascinating land it turned out to be. Truly the cherry on my Asian ice-cream sundae.
Yeah, so… why have you waited so long to tell us about it, Dy?
True. It’s been waaay too long. More than a year since I left Asia, and nearly two since I wandered the backroads of Myanmar. What can I say? I’ve been busy. Busy moving to the other side of the world. Busy scribbling lesson plans to drum a bit of English into cute “cabezas” of Ecuadorian youngsters. Busy realizing life-long travel dreams to those luscious Galapagos isles and Easter Island. Shoot, just plain busy creating a wholly new life here at the tippy-top of an 8,000+ foot mountain in the Andes.
That and… actually a big part of my seeming reluctance to share my many memories of Myanmar sooner – was the daunting task of wading through the ***1,300+*** images I collected in my 3 week odyssey there. Ah but recently, I managed to whittle those many pics of Yangon, Kalaw, Inle Lake, Bagan, Mandalay and Hsipaw (not to mention a 4 night whiz on the back of a motorbike though the Burmese countryside visiting remote Hill Tribe villages) – down to a much more manageable 300 or so.
Still… no way can I post 300-odd pics here without rolling your collective eyeballs to kingdom-come (am I right?)
Rather, so as to spare you the eye-glaze, I’ve kindly opted to begin the not-so-simple task of pecking no less than SIX separate posts (one for each of the corners of Myanmar I explored) – tossing at least a dozen or two pics into each of them.
Along with a bit of Myanmar history:
The history of Burma, Myanmar, Burma, Myanmar (your choice, whichever flavor du jour strikes your fancy) is long and tumultuous at best, and I don’t presume to grasp but the barest bit of it all. For me as a traveler (and one who strives hard to be a “world citizen” rather than judge other cultures and/or get mired in global politics) I simply try to connect with and befriend the local people of any given “country”. But I do think it’s important to at least try to understand Myanmar’s history, so for those interested, I offer the BBC’s excellent (if dizzying) Myanmar’s historical timeline.
Now then, for this week’s TravelnLass Myanmar edition – I offer you a glimpse of the high (and low)-lights of my 5 day stay in Yangon.
No “lows” really, and some decidedly unique “highs”. Just perhaps a bit more time in the city than I’d recommend to others who might follow in my Myanmar footsteps. Not exactly the most picturesque city on the Planet, dear Yangon is a jumble of mostly crumbling shanties set along a river that’s most definitely not the Seine. Nonetheless, I learned to embrace Yangon for… if nothing else, its untouched bedraggled lovableness. And the people? Oh my, among THE most openly friendly, and oh so innocently wide-eyed curious about these strange new Westerners lumbering about.
Besides, while I was excited to explore Myanmar, I had a secondary reason for hopping out of Thailand: I needed to grab that 3 month visa extension that I so dramatically botched in my brief visit back to Vietnam in October. Furthermore, the day I’d intended to spend in Bangkok nabbing a Myanmar visa was a national holiday in Myanmar so the Myanmar embassy was closed and thus I had to wait an extra day to get my visa.
Fortunately… I learned of the embassy holiday closure whilst doing my Myanmar research, and accordingly booked my flight from Bangkok to Yangon for the following Thursday.
Then again, UN-fortunately, that put me A. on an Air Asia plane en route to Yangon whilst my friends and family back in my native land chowed down on Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie (sadly, I had to make do with a “Subway” turkey sandwich that I bought the day before in Bangkok and toted on the plane).
And B. the plane dropped me in Yangon Thursday night with only Friday to head to the Thai embassy. Thus – after dropping off my passport, I of course had to wait until Monday to pick it up with the new Thai visa. In short, rather than my preferred 2 nights in Yangon (not a fan of big cities in my travels, much prefer heading out into the countryside), I necessarily had to spend 4 nights there before I could move on.
ANYWAY, I did get my 3 month Thai visa easy-peasy, and the extra time in Yangon proved… if not filled with spectaculars, then at least gave me a chance to truly get “down ‘n dirty” with the lovely Yangon locals.
Indeed – there is nothing I enjoy more in my travels than the serendipity of mingling with the local people in their day-to-day world. More than the iconic sights and the delicious exotic foods I’ve sampled ’round the globe, it is the chance encounters with locals that are the very reason I travel. And so it was that with little more than 12 hours on the ground in Myanmar, I was already skipping through the streets of Yangon, snapping photos and soaking up the local color.
Turning a corner, I spotted a cluster of folks squatting along the curb, playing… OMG, could it be? Why it’s BINGO!
Happily, noting my interest in their game, the ladies swiftly made room for me, and I plopped down right there on the filthy street, paid my 100 kyat (pronounced “chat”, about 10¢) and was handed a paper BINGO card.
To my surprise I “won” the very first round, and so naturally had to keep playing until all my winnings were returned to my new Burmese friends.
Needless to say, it was truly a local experience I shall never forget, and one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar.
(btw, only later did it dawn on me that… um, perhaps “gambling” in the streets might well have gotten me tossed into a Burmese prison!)
I also didn’t waste any time in sampling the infamous “betel” wad in Yangon (a legal narcotic chewed by all, and arguably a rather nasty habit as evidenced by the ubiquitous splotches of red betel juice that litter the streets and dirt lanes of Myanmar). Sold on every street corner in Yangon (a don’t recall, couldn’t have cost me more than 50 kyat for my wad), the “treat” consists of slapping a dribble of white lime paste on a betel vine leaf, adding a smidge of ground cloves, aniseed and cardamom, plus a crumbled bit of betel nut, and a pinch of tobacco soaked in alcohol. All this, neatly folded into a bite-sized packet.
My Michelin rating on this little amuse-bouche? Um, not even a single star. Indeed, after but a courageous chomp or two, I had to spit the whole wad out for the bitterness of it. I guess it’s an acquired taste.
Conversely, I did enjoy stuffing my face with my fair share of Myanmar’s delicious “tea-leaf salad”, and (naturally) I found a geocache at the Bogyoke Aung San market (my first cache find in Myanmar, woo-hoo!)
You can read further details of my Sunday Stroll in Yangon (the only post I managed to peck whilst on-the-ground in Myanmar), and here’s some of those 300 pics I promised, to give you a sense of the flavor of Yangon:
Stay tuned for future weeks of (finally!) sharing details of my many adventures throughout the incredible land of Myanmar. Next up: Surprising Kalaw followed by my 4 day motorcycle romp though Burmese back roads and Hill Tribe villages en route to (disappointing) Inle Lake, the bazillion temples at Bagan, the globe’s most rickety train to Mandalay and (my fave) sweet little Hsipaw.