I arrived in Myanmar apprehensive and unsure of what to expect. I had heard many stories from fellow travellers who had been there, most of whom gushed about the unfailingly hospitable people and the stunning scenery. As with most things, there’s a catch. Because this country has only recently opened to tourism and has only seen an influx in the last few years, things like booking accommodation and transportation are not easily navigated. For example, there seems to be a dearth of affordable guest houses and few of them take online bookings. So backpackers trying to call ahead are usually told the place is full even though if you rock up around check out time, there will be spare beds. The owner of the popular backpacker haven White House Guest House told me this is because some people will book ahead and then not show up. And because demand is greater than supply, the guest houses are expensive by South East Asia standards, about $12 for a dorm bed or $25 for a double room, and expectations for cleanliness should be kept pretty low. I was also told to bring in all the money I will need for the entire trip in perfectly crisp American bills, because that’s the form of payment expected for hotels and tourist attractions and they’ll turn away folded or creased notes. After the first day however, a Canadian from Alberta pointed me to an ATM where he could withdraw the local currency, kyat, using his Canadian bank card. I was able to take out 100,000 kyat, about $120 US, from the ATM of a major bank.
But all this is to say that whatever travel hassles you might experience are well worth the payoff. Most of Myanmar’s most stunning gems are frequented by more locals than tourists and everything maintains and air of authenticity unlike countries like Thailand which has been corrupted in its easy bend to Western demands.
Yangon, the bustling urban centre and former
capital is a cultural and religious mecca centered around the iconic Shwedagon
Inle Lake is a tranquil lake dotted with fishermen in slender boats the shape of palm leaves and flanked by mountains tinted blue by the hanging mist.
Bagan is an ancient relic with 3,000 pagodas from the 12th century, which seem to stand sturdy despite years of battering by monsoons, earthquakes and human feet.
Wandering the streets of Yangon is the best introduction to urban life in Myanmar. The men wear the traditional longyis which are long tubes of fabric tied in a knot at the waist, while many of the women wear perfectly tailored garments, colourful long skirts with delicate patterns and matching short sleeved tunics. The faces of the women and children are painted with thanaka makeup to keep their skin young and healthy. The Burmese people are incredibly friendly, always asking where you’re from and how long you’re visiting Myanmar. Their hospitality makes any travel frustrations quickly dissolve.
My first day in Yangon I met a 25-year-old Canadian named Paul, who funnily enough, is a fellow Carleton university alum. He graduated in December in human rights and is doing some travelling through China and South East Asia before moving back to Toronto where he works in immigration law. Paul is a poster child for Canadian friendliness, always smiling, sparking up conversation with people, and making an earnest attempt at using the local language even if the accent is a bit off at the start (my attempts at “min ga lar ba,” the Myanmar greeting, was much worse, but we both got the hang of it eventually and, in Canadian fashion, waved and said “min ga lar ba” to everyone who would look our way. It usually sends the kids into fits of hysterics.
Paul and I made great travel companions through Myanmar and people would meet us, laugh and say, I thought you guys were Canadian, everyone says Canadians are so friendly. People were also shocked we had only met days before because we had the air of childhood friends.
We decided that first day to hit the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest of Buddhist temples in Myanmar, but we took our time wandering though the streets, which are flanked by colonial building in mint green or teal deeply stained with age.
The air is filled with the fragrant smell of street food, most of which is deep fried but appetizing nonetheless. The crumbling sidewalks are cluttered with people selling fresh fruit, roasted peanuts, seasoned tomatoes or paan, a national vice for many men who chew the mixture of areca nut and cured tobacco wrapped in betel nut and then spit the blood red juices onto the ground. There are portable food vendors —women selling samosas cooked in a little wok of oil over a flame which can be carried away to a busier spot — book stands and random piles of rubble or garbage. It makes walking in a straight line near impossible but forces you to slow down and meander through the streets. A Spanish man I met named Nacho eventually had to teach me his lackadaisical saunter, laughing at my unconscious tendency to speed walk to everywhere I’m going. This habit was particularly treacherous around government buildings such as the City Hall where I scraped my calf on a barbed wired-wrapped barrier, producing a cut nasty enough to make me thankful I’d had a tetanus shot — “nothing saying democracy like barbed wire,” Paul said.
But the streets are always bustling, in the heat of midday or after sun set. People make calls at human pay phones — little folding tables with three or four land line phones manned by someone who collects a few thousand kyat per call.
The sound of honking cars, buses or trucks is always mere seconds away, as most drivers honk to announce their arrival or to pressure slower drivers or pedestrians out of the way.
You can find respite from the heat and dust under a shaded canopy of a stand selling the delicious sugar cane drink which is extracted by crushing the sugar cane through a hand-cranked vice.
Of course this city life is only how a fraction of the people live, as the majority live in the country side in villages and farms, where bamboo huts with straw thatched roofs are common.
The Shwedagon Pagoda isn’t hard to find amid the tangle of streets. It’s at the centre of the street named after it and even from a distance it glows like a brilliant beacon day or night. Paul and I went around 4 p.m. to make sure we could catch the sunset. Two giant lions stand like sentinels before the Southern walkway, a covered hallway of dark teak wood lined with vendors selling flowers, water and souvenirs. We checked our shoes, head inside and the 112 metre high stupa blinded us with the reflection of the hot afternoon sun. Worshipers poured cups of water over small Buddah statues, then lit candles and knelt down in earnest prayer. Burmese monks draped in burgundy robes walked around peacefully, sometimes leading young monks in training, kids about six or seven or eight, all with shaved heads and wide smiles.
Paul and I remarked that despite being one of the most popular attractions in the country, tourists were vastly outnumbered at the Shwedagon Pagoda by religious worshippers. There’s something fascinating about watching the sun set without actually looking at the sun. We watched the stupa change from gold to a vibrant orange which seeped its way from the pointed top down to the wide base. At one point, a line of men with brooms shuffled past, taking up the whole of the walkway as they brushed the dust away. Behind them were three more lines of women sweepers, so that by the time the sweeping was done the marble floor shined spotlessly. When the sun was gone, we waited for the sky to go completely dark, which is when the stupa is lit up by Hollywood-style spotlights. The act of kneeling down in worship looks even more powerful when lit by flickering candles.
Surrounding the pagoda are many street food vendors, selling different Myanmar curries and dishes in silver tin trays. My friend and I shared four dishes (served in small tea saucer sized plates) with rice for 2,000 kyat or just over $2. We tried two fish dishes, a beef and a vegetable. All were a bit oily but overall flavoursome and satisfying.
In the evening, many of the guests of the White House guest house sit on the roof top patio, huffing and puffing after the eight flights of narrow stairs, and share a drink. The conversation ranges from politics, to travel tips in Myanmar, to where to find the cheapest rum. One night, an international bunch from France, Germany, Belgium Australia, a hippie Canadian from Alberta (yes, I found the only one) and myself played a few rounds of poker, chipping in 5,000 kyat ($6) per round.
That’s when I got to know Laurie, a larger than life Queenslander (Aussies know that’s different from an Aussie) with a cheeky sense of humour. He has a habit of getting himself into just enough that it makes for a really good story and you want to hang around him hoping that you’ll be part of the next unpredictable adventure.
Laurie’s run in with Myanmar’s secret police is the stuff of spy novels, or perhaps Mission Impossible as he has a tendency to compare himself to Tom Cruise, if only he would shave the handle bar mustache. Laurie went to Moulmein but left his passport at the Chinese embassy in Yangon where he was applying for a visa. He neglected to bring a passport. When he couldn’t produce it upon check in at his hotel, they called the immigration police. Two uniformed immigration police officers showed up with three plain clothed “secret police” officers, as they described themselves. The five interrogated Laurie — who is double the size of Burmese person and about six foot three — for hours, asking him what his intentions are in Myanmar, where he’s going, when he plans on leaving and out of which airport. He was then told to stay in Moulmein until they said so. When Laurie went out for a walk one afternoon, he noticed someone duck behind a tree to evade detection. He managed to make eye contact with one of the secret police officers from the day before, who was blatantly spying on him. Laurie smiled and waved, startling the rookie spy perhaps more than if he had cocked a gun. Laurie ended up leaving the hotel on a Sunday, when the secret police weren’t working, making him a fugitive with some ‘splaining to do when he does decide to leave the country.