Myanmar series part 2 - Yangon
I arrived at Yangon International Airport via Bangkok Air, late on a Friday afternoon, after a somewhat bumpy ride from Bangkok. This isn’t surprising since early June is the beginning of the rainy season. Upon landing, I was pleasantly surprised to find an organized and efficient arrival process (passport control, luggage, customs) in what seemed to be a fairly modern airport. In fact, it was one of the quickest entries I’ve ever made into a country. Now, you might think, it should be quick since there are not a lot of tourists comparatively speaking. However, considering this is a country that just recently opened their doors to the outside world, there might be a lot of scrutiny of the tourists who are arriving. There wasn’t. The airport officials were friendly. It was nice.
After going through the well-organized entry process, I entered the chaotic arrivals hall. I was searching for the hotel driver who would have my name, and probably the hotel’s name, on a sheet of paper. Taxi drivers eagerly solicited rides into town. In many cities, this can be a very aggressive situation; however, not here. After saying I was looking for my hotel’s driver, they moved past me. Not finding my driver, I asked at the tourist information booth, conveniently placed before the outside door, if they could contact my hotel. The English-speaking agent was happy to assist.
While driving through Yangon, previously known as Rangoon, on our way to the hotel, I got the sense that I was in a time 30 years ago. A society that had been cut off from the rest of the world for most of the last half century was re-emerging and trying to deal with an influx of visitors – both tourists and business people from around the world. I got the sense they seemed eager to take on this challenge.
After a leisurely 15 to 20 minute drive through the city streets, we were pulling into the driveway of the Classique Inn. Setback from the residential street along a narrow driveway were two impressive colonial-style houses – one was the guesthouse, the other the owners’ residence (which has since converted some rooms to guestrooms to increase room inventory). It was beautiful, relaxing and seemed romantic. The solid Trip Advisor ratings led me to this little oasis in the middle of a hectic urban environment. Before I even stepped out of the car, Kalya, the inn’s gracious owner, was there to greet me. I would find her to be friendly, helpful and informative over the next several days. As I checked in, I felt good about the decision to stay there. I felt like a guest in someone’s home.
My first stop on Saturday morning was the travel agent I had contacted a week or two earlier – Mr. Kyaw (pronounced “cho”) Khaing of One Stop Travel & Tours. I learned of Kyaw from a TripAdvisor forum post by a guest who had a positive experience on a recent trip. My goal was to finalize my itinerary for the next two and a half weeks. By the time the taxi reached the travel agent’s office, the sky had opened up. With umbrella open, I ran across the street and up the two flights of stairs to the small 3rd story office. After being greeted by the office staff, Kyaw went about finalizing an itinerary based on his experience and my budget. Included on the list were the ‘big four’ as they are known here – Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. In addition was Golden Rock – one of the main pilgrimage sites in all of Myanmar. I usually don’t use a travel agent. In this case, I’m glad I did. I didn’t have a lot of time to plan the details for this trip. The itinerary that Kyaw developed included airfare from one big four to the next, hotels, driver and/or tour guide on various days and a driver to take me from Yangon to Kinpun Base Camp (drop-off point for Golden Rock) and then back. It’s difficult for tourists to purchase their own domestic air tickets. They’re not available online and most tourists don’t know one airline from another. Only Myanmar-based airlines fly domestic routes within the country. If you’ve never been there, you’ve probably never heard of any of the airlines. Many people prefer the one that is least connected to the government. A travel agent is vital if you want to travel within the country by air.
With my itinerary set, I headed, again in a taxi, to the Bogyoke Market (formerly known as Scott’s Market) to try and find a currency exchange place. Being Saturday, most of the banks were closed; however, there are informal places to exchange USD into kyat at a decent rate. One of the booths in the jewelry section acted as a currency exchange center. The process was efficient and friendly. The only issue is that the booth had only 1K kyat-notes, which meant I received over 80 notes for a 100 USD exchange – that’s a lot of paper to stuff into your pockets.
At this point, I walked the downtown area for a few hours. After lunch at the well-known Trader’s Hotel, I reached the Sule Pagoda – a Burmese style stupa with a golden dome said to be over 2,000 years old. Nearby are the architecturally impressive City Hall and several colonial-era buildings that appear to be right out of the 1800s.
It rained off and on during my time in Yangon. The biggest downpour occurred just after entering the Shwedagon Pagoda late Saturday afternoon. It was coming down in buckets as I sat under one of several pavilions located next to the pagoda. We don’t really see this much rain, in Southern California, in such a short period of time. I watched and waited for about an hour for the rain to abate. Few people were braving the elements to walk around the outside pagoda. It didn’t seem like it would ever let up. I had an opportunity to relax and reflect on things for a while. It was nice.
One of the most impressive sites I have ever seen, the 2,500 year-old pagoda, covered extensively with gold plates, enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and reaches over 100 meters skyward – the top of which is covered with over 4,000 diamonds the largest being 72 carats. When the rain lessened, I walked, umbrella in hand, around the outside of the main pagoda. It was such a calming experience. I felt like I didn’t want to leave. While standing and observing one section, I was approached by one of the local monks. He struck up a conversation in English. In order to practice for his English class, he asked if he could provide me with a tour of the area. After a thoroughly delightful 45 minutes of insightful comments from the monk, he had to leave to continue with his evening prayers. I continued strolling a little longer when I decided to head back to the inn. For more information about this not-to-be-missed site, go to shwedagonpagoda.com.
I had a little trouble catching a taxi back to the inn. Some taxis do not want to drive through the residential area when it rains because of the poor road conditions and the potential damage to their cars. I found one but at a little higher price.
Being a little tired each evening, and located in the middle of a large residential area (meaning not a lot of choices within walking distance) and not having a big food budget, I decided to eat dinner the first two evenings at the Alamanda Inn which was just around the corner from the Classique Inn. The flashlight I packed came in really handy because it was fairly dark in the residential area. The Alamanda has a small, outdoor French restaurant that was just in my price range. Nothing fancy, but the food was good and the local beer was nice and cold.
On Sunday morning, I took off on foot from the inn, which is located in the Bahan Township – a residential and very prosperous area of the city. The homes are elegant with many having security gates and high walls topped with barbed wire. Sidewalks are non-existent so you have to walk on the roadway. It’s not a good area to walk when it’s raining because the roads are in poor condition and the rain leaves huge pools of water. After a leisurely walk, I exited the residential area and reached the main road. It’s a little tough walking on some of these roads because the sidewalks are in very poor condition. You have to make sure you don’t fall into one of the many holes and also stay out of the car’s way when going around the holes. There are a lot of vehicles on the streets of Yangon; however, one thing is missing in the city – motorcycles. It’s against the law to ride them within the city limits.
It took about 40 minutes to get to the Shwedagon Pagoda area. Without going in to the pagoda today, I meandered through the adjacent beautiful park area. From there, I headed off to Kandawgyi Lake. There are a number of roads that lead through the park. I was reminded of my younger days because there was one parked car after another along the roads with just a young man and a young woman sitting in the car. I guess this is Yangon’s version of lover’s lane. The lake area is quiet and peaceful – a great place to get away from the hectic city pace. There’s a great photo op at one point with the lake in the foreground and the Schwedagon Pagoda in the background.
It was early afternoon and I was getting hungry. I came across a rather busy restaurant with tables both outside and inside. Feel Restaurant is one of the most popular in Yangon. I passed through an outside seating area as I made my way to the front door. Inside, it was really crowded with a lot of activity. I stood and got my bearings for a few moments. Shortly, someone approached me and asked in pretty good English if I had been there before. After I indicated no, he asked me to follow him. He took me to an area near the kitchen but still in the front part of the restaurant. There were a number of small pots - each one with a different item. I realized this was the menu. It was traditional Myanmar food – exactly what I was looking for. He said to point to the items I wanted and my server, who had approached by this time, would bring them to my table. My server, who I could also communicate with in English, did an excellent job explaining the different dishes. After ordering, my server guided me to an empty table where I waited for just a few minutes until the food arrived. Wow. I didn't realize I had pointed to so many things. I barely got through half of it before I was stuffed. Good food and a great experience.
This was a good day for sampling the local cuisine. I reserved dinner at the Classique Inn. They provide a complimentary breakfast each morning; however, they ask for advance notice for anyone wanting to eat dinner there. In turn, they will prepare an incredibly delicious homemade Myanmar meal for you. It started with a tasty traditional lentil soup. The entrée was a very savory and tender curry chicken that was still on the bone accompanied by steamed rice. For dessert, fresh mango slices layered on vanilla ice cream was very refreshing on this warm evening. In all, the meal was simply delicious. Yes, I am definitely enjoying Myanmar food.
As I headed off to bed, I was a little nervous about the upcoming flights. I’m usually not bothered by flying; however, not knowing anything about air travel in Myanmar and the basically unknown airlines (Air KBZ and Asian Wings Airways) and their propeller driven aircraft (the ATR 72), it got me thinking a little too much. Oh well, nothing I can do about it. Lights out.
With a box breakfast in hand (that Kalya’s team had prepared) and the taxi (she had reserved the night before) waiting at the front door, I was on the road a little after 5 AM heading to the airport for a 6:30 flight to Bagan. Most of my flights were early in the morning, which worked out nicely because I still had a lot of daylight for sightseeing when I reached the next destination. After checking in and clearing security, I got to the waiting area. The domestic airport operations are not as technically advanced as you might find elsewhere. When checking in, you’re provided a sticker (logo’d with the airline you’re flying) to attach to your shirt or blouse. Waiting in the departure hall, you look for a staff member from your airline that walks through holding a sign that reads your flight is now boarding. As a second precaution, I just looked for other people who had the same sticker on their shirts. When they got up, I got up. For domestic flights you exit through a door leading outside, board a bus and head out onto the tarmac where your plane is waiting for you to board using a ramp with stairs.
As we took off, I thought of my brief time in Yangon – the country’s largest city and a previous capital. It was my first glimpse into this mysterious land. I really enjoyed the people. They were friendly, courteous and eager to help you. There were signs in the train station reminding the local residents to provide assistance to tourists. I enjoyed the local food. It was very similar to many other foods I had previously tasted; however, the sauces and spices (especially the curry) created a unique taste. I’ll never forget the time spent with the local monk strolling around the Shwedagon Pagoda with a light rain falling. The 1980s taxis that were badly in need of repair and the streets and sidewalks that were crumbling reflected the times this country has been through. Above all, I felt very comfortable being here. I knew the people that I came across over the next few weeks would look out for me.
On to Bagan!