March 4, 2014

Day 147 – From Bangkok to Yangon – Nothing quite like Myanmar

Having wanted to go to Myanmar for so long and being only across the border, I thought why not. I mean it would be wrong not to – right?  Unfortunately, it is not possible to cross the border via a bus like the rest of Indochina so I ended up flying from Bangkok which took 45 minutes.  And here I’m only 6 and a half hours behind London!

I landed in Yangon, first impressions, a lot of cars, right hand drive and no motorbikes.  Whilst this makes a refreshing change, Yangon is like Saigon – chaotic, busy, cars keep going, the biggest vehicle gets priority and the constant beep beeping is all you hear.  The roads are considerably better and cleaner – not yet seen a rat or cockroach!

The Karaweik along Kandawgyi lake in Yangon

The Karaweik along Kandawgyi lake in Yangon

Street food is plentiful like most of SEA, I mean you don’t even need a pavement; people sit, sell and eat pretty much anywhere.  Its practicality over comfort, so plastic chairs/table is the way forward.  It’s also cheaper to buy, to stack and if you can squeeze that extra person/family in – why not? I couldn’t help but try some street food – samosas – and yes they were good but dripping in oil.

One of the many street food stalls

One of the many street food stalls

The Indian influence is evident both in terms of food and the culture.  Along with the street food, for instance, you have lots of stalls selling betel leaves so you then in turn, see lots of people chewing and then spitting red-betel juice on the streets.  I mean you could be walking anywhere, on the road/pavement, you could be sat in a taxi and mostly men, will be unable to resistant spitting three/four times minimum.

Betel leave stall

Betel leave stall

That said, people here are really friendly and helpful.  Yes, initially, it was hard to listen to directions given to me by a man with a mouth-full of red-betel juice but you soon get used to it.  I’ve had people walk me to places and been given numbers should I encounter any problems. I’ve said hello hundreds of times and mainly get asked where I’m going or where I’m from.  Unlike Thailand, most locals aren’t caught up in trying to sell you something or rip you off.

Women here, like the rest of SEA, do not welcome a tan so to ensure they don’t get any darker, they put on traditional make-up, thanakha, effectively sun-screen lotion.  Men can also be seen with this on their faces.  In terms of fashion, both men and women wear a longyi, again similar to South India; this is ultimately a straight skirt which is tied up conveniently at the front.   Very few people wear jeans and few men wear trousers.

One of the street food markets in Yangon

One of the street food markets in Yangon

Moreover, there is little to no Western influence in terms of food and drink.  There are no fast food outlets like Burger King or KFC or cafes.  That said you can find a Tokyo Doughnut store and one café with Starbuck prices.   Supermarkets are scarce and again no big brands can be found other then the odd bar of Kit Kat.  You can find some designer outlets for instance they sell Ray Ban glasses and All Star trainers.  No Apple outlet but LG and Samsung are on most high street corners.

Smart phones are yet to take over and revolutionarise the streets.  Currently, you have street phones, not pay phones or phone booths, oh no,  it’s stores or tables on the streets with phone connections so you have locals sharing personal conversations/discussions/disagreements so those passing by can hear.

Given few people have smart phones, there is little to no need to have wifi in cafes and restaurants.  Thankfully there are a handful and there are internet cafes but there is no great need here to be online. Unlike the West, where we have our phones attached to our hips and enjoy having wifi at every other café/shopping centre and hairdresser, here it’s simply the opposite.  You see more locals talking to one another, face-to-face, engaged in conversations or having a laugh over a coffee, unlike us, they don’t have half their attention elsewhere – surely that’s a good thing?

There is no nightlife culture of drinking or clubbing.  Yes there is the odd local bar/pub but on the whole there isn’t a club where you can let your hair down.  It’s simply not the done thing here, instead you see locals gathered around the television; men mainly watching football and women catching up on dramatic Burmese soap-operas.  Yes, men drink Myanmar beer and smoke traditional cigarettes but you don’t see them smoking weed or getting ‘high’ on drugs.

What else can you witness here? Well, like Laos, you see monks take to the streets early in the mornings gathering offerings – food/money from locals.  What I love is monks on motorbikes or watching traffic give way to a monk crossing the road.

Young monks in Inle Lake

Young monks in Inle Lake

There are fewer tourists here or at least their harder to spot in Yangon.  I spent a week or so in Yangon on my own before taking the bus to Bagan.  Now, unlike SEA, locals outnumber the foreigners, that said I got talking to Spanish girls and then eventually got talking to two German girls.  Neither of us had a hostel booked and we then got talking to an American who was in the same boat.  Little did I know that I would end up travelling with these two German girls for the next two weeks.

Fellow German travelers

Fellow German travelers

Like most night buses, they arrive at the given destination at some ungodly hour, so we all made it to Bagan at 5:30 and of course you can’t check in until 11am! Brilliant! It’s cold, you’re tried, yes you managed to sleep a little but all you really want to do is lie down but instead what did we do? We went to see the sun rise!  And yes, ok, it was amazing to watch and of course it was worth it but I seriously wanted to back out initially and just sleep.  But sat there, amongst other fellow travelers,  watching the sun come up, over the some 4000 sacred stupas and then watching the hot air balloons float down,  over the stupas – well there’s nothing quite like it really, the sheer beauty of Myanmar is evident in towns like Bagan.

Sunrise over the stupas in Bagan

Sunrise over the stupas in Bagan

It was here; that we also got to travel on horse and cart, rather than getting a taxi, we got our luggage hurled onto the cart and rode to the hostel – pretty amazing.  So old fashioned but then you also have e-bikes!  So many times you see things or something happens and your left marveling at that wonderful moment.  Take our hike to Inle Lake, yes it was hard, yes I over packed but the landscape was breath-takingly beautiful.  I was left questioning, once again, how did I make it here? How did I get this far? And I was left standing, feeling nothing but thankful, grateful for all the amazing people/experiences that I’ve gained along this trip and appreciative of all the great family and friends I have in my life.

Old school style, horse and cart ride in Bagan

Old school style, horse and cart ride in Bagan

I’ve been on the road for coming up to 5 months now and in those 5 months, I was travelling by myself for less than 4 weeks.  I’ve managed to find other fellow travelers and become good friends with people I’ve just met on a boat or a bus – back home it doesn’t happen but here anything is possible.  I love making friends as I go along because it means I can both rant when I need to but also have a good laugh because let’s be honest we all get home sick – I certainly have on the best of days but then you come back, take in the present, sink it all in and what it means to be so far from home.  I know that I’m lucky, lucky to be here, experiencing so many great things, and after that well I can’t stay miserable for much longer.