Myanmar: First impressions.

Friday, July 29, 2016
Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar
I've been pondering for a few days now what to say in this entry and how to start it and I still feel a little lost. We have only been here a few days and Myanmar has blown me away so far, it's been an incredible experience. Like stepping back in time. Compared with other countries in Asia it is a world away for so many different reasons. It is so less developed particularly with tourism and that is evident by the fact the other travelers here are of a different type to those you find elsewhere. I'm not sure what words to use but the type of other travelers we have met so far are your more serious experience/cultural chasing type, not the standard party seeking globetrotters that you find all over Thailand or in Kuala Lumpur or Bali. It reminds me a lot of Mongolia, everyone here is seeking that authentic experience and here for the culture and that's exactly what you get.

The people have been incredible . Although used to foreigners now since the country opened it's doors a few years ago you still massively stand out in a sea of locals and they are beautifuly friendly locals that greet you with a smile, happy to see you in their country.

We flew in to Yangon from Bangkok as a return flight was the cheapest way to get into Myanmar and back compared with over land travel. At the airport we exchanged our crispy fresh US dollars into a thick wad of monopoly style money and grabbed our taxi to the hostel. The taxi driver was happy to see us (obviously good money for him) and genuinely nice offering us water and wipes to make our journey in the unbearable heat a little easier. It has to be the hottest place we have been so far as well up there with the Penang heatwave a few months back.

Our hostel was good and clean yet basic compared to others you find in Asia. A little balcony at the front allowed us to look out to the small wooden school on the opposite side of the road where a gaggle of excited children waved franticly at us with big beaming grins on their faces inbetween their singing which they seem to do a lot of at the schools here . We popped down the road to a tea house for a bite to eat and the food is unlike anything we have sampled before. Asian for sure but different in a hard to describe way, I guess more 'earthy' is all I can call it. The tea house menu had no prices on it but was surprisingly cheap. Just over £2 for some delicous fried rolls and a main dish each. We have soon came to realise that the tea houses with un-priced menus are the cheapest places to eat so it's best to eat there with the locals and just ask the prices of the various dishes. After finishing our food we were keen to check out a local Beer station and soon found one serving tasty local brew at around 50p a glass.

After a stunning sunset we set off on the lengthy walk to the China Town area and soon found the Yangon equivalent of Bangkok's famous Khao San road, un-surprisingly named Ko San road! It was a small stretch of one street teeming with places to eat and small basic bars. It reminds me a lot of the small streets in Hanoi old town in Vietnam . The street though is heavily geared towards the tourists and it was hard to find a cheap meal in the area. A few beers later and a £2 bottle of local Myanmar rum from the corner shop under our arm we headed back for a good nights sleep.

The next day was our first and only full day in Yangon so we needed to make the most of it. An early breakfast on the balcony waving at the children and watching the line of monks below waiting for their food contributions from the locals and we were off out.

First stop was the Sule Pagoda in the town centre. We took a quick look the night before on our way to China town when it was lit up, gleaming like some golden beacon in the middle of a roundabout. It's not a bad Pagoda to go and see but there was much better to come later on so we didn't hang around too long before heading off to the train station to catch the local circular line train around the outskirts of town. It's quite an experience taking a tootle round the circular line here . It takes around 3 1/2 hours from leaving the central station to returning back to where you started and you certainly see some interesting sights both out of the window and inside the train. It doesn't take long to leave the main town centre with it's hustling bustling streets and to find yourself trundling past the less fortunate living out of their track side ramshackle homes made out of anything they can find. From bamboo to leaves and plastic sheeting they will turn anything they can into some form of shelter. It's hard to decide how you feel at this point about the traveling you are doing. Is riding past the less fortunate and needy on a train as some kind of tourist spectator the right thing to do? I'm still unsure I guess but it certainly makes you thankful for what you have and I feel that if you come away with a sense of being humble and appreciating those less fortunate around you then it's maybe not such a bad a thing.

As we hit the limits of the town the landscape changed to give way to some lush green fields with people plying their trade with Oxen and fishing and farming . Very basic thatched huts as their homes and at several stations there were crowds eagerly waiting to quickly throw on huge bags of produce to transport back in to town. These folk were real characters as well. Laughing and smiling at you once they had managed to throw the last bags on quickly hop aboard themselves. Before we knew it the green gave way to the grey of buildings again and we were back to where we started at Yangon Central station. It had been an eventful and fun way to spend an afternoon.

We headed straight from the station to the Shwedagon Pagoda in a Taxi driven by another great and friendly character. As we turned the last corner we headed up the final hill with the Pagoda standing at the top dominating the skyline. It stands at 99m high and it really is a sight to see. Built in the 6th century it is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in all of Myanmar and once you are at the site it is easy to see why. The site is vast and the large gilded golden stupa towers above the city below . I have seen it in pictures before and also seen a lot of temples over the past few years but this one is on another level. It is believed to contain relics of the 4 previous Buddhas of the current Kalpa. The staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Konagamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama. It is covered in real gold plating that has been donated by the people of Myanmar over the years to help maintain it (that is a lot of gold!) and the top is encrusted with diamonds and jewels. There are four huge entrances to it, North, South, East and West which you climb up many stairs to access before spilling out into the huge area at the top dominated by the main stupa. It really is unmissable and we arrived before sunset and stayed well after it turned dark hours later. Although very busy with mainly locals and a good handful of tourists it is an exceptionally calming place and we found ourselves just sitting looking at times quite happy to take the sight and atmosphere in . Again the locals were immensely friendly giving you big smiles and nods of approvement that you were there, it's a very welcoming place We probably could have stayed longer but eventually drew ourselves away and back into a taxi to take us down town to grab some well earned food at a pretty decent Chinese place not far from the hostel.

The following morning we slept in a little and had our back packs sorted by 12pm to check out before heading along to the Lucky 7 tea house for more great food and to decide how we would move on from Yangon to Bagan. We had two options either the overnight train or overnight bus. The bus being the faster of the two options. Eventually we settled for the train as we figured it was both cheaper and would offer a more interesting experience than the bus. A quick taxi ride later and we arrived with an hour to spare before the train departed. We were greeted again by a very colourful character that worked for the railways who went out of his way to describe the pro's and con's between the train and bus options. We had expected to get a sleeper berth on the train but found out that with it being quiet season there was no sleeper attached on this one and the best we could get was an upright padded second class seat. We settled for that for the princely sum of £4 each and headed off to our platform to wait.

I'll cover the train ride in my next entry and apologies if some of the above doesn't make sense or has bad grammar as I don't have the energy to proof read this entry. We've constantly been busy and on the move since we got here and the tiredness is starting to show, it feels great to be in a new country for a change and back to adventuring and the great unknown.....until next time folks.


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