yangon (rangoon)

Posted in myanmar, yangon by moonwire on November 22, 2009

I got my Myanmar visa sorted on Thursday afternoon and on Friday morning I caught the plane from Bangkok to Yangon. When I got off the plane, I immediately sunk into culture shock. I expected it to be somewhat like Cambodia. Somewhat still quite familiar, but it was totally different. Outside the taxi drivers were waiting, chewing betel nut and wearing longyi, some sort of sarong.

When I actually got to the taxi, I was completely shocked at the state of the taxi. The seats were half gone, the inside of the back door was gone and so was the window. Natural airconditioning! When the driver started the car, I was afraid it would blow up or break down. And a lot of the cars on the road are like that. Not only is it very expensive to own a car, the import of cars is also restricted so they will drive them til they fall apart, and then drive them some more.

I didn’t have a hotel yet, but I had done a bit of research and I asked the driver to take me to the Okinawa Guesthouse downtown. The ride was interesting. While keeping an eye on the door in case it would fall off, I watched the people making their way around town. Really old buses packed to the max with people on the roof top. Wreck like cars that would have been taken apart for scrap metal two decades ago in any Western country, people riding rickety bicycles. But not a single motorbike in sight. As it turns out, motorbikes were banned from Yangon twenty years ago. Probably a blessing.

When I got to the guesthouse, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a tiny little house in a  run-down street with the biggest potholes imaginable. They had a few private rooms and a small four bed dorm upstairs. I checked in, took a little nap and then walked around downtown looking for food. Yangon must be cholera cart capital. I ended up settling for some Indian style food, which was pretty awful. Not at all the Indian kind of food I’ve tasted anywhere else. Very bitter and sour.

Later in the afternoon I decided to walk around in order to find a place where I could get a drink at night. Mmmmmm no such thing. There are no bars. Instead I headed back to the guesthouse to have a Myanmar beer there. It tasted actually really good so all was well. At the guesthouse I met a Belgian guy, Lieven, who had been to Myanmar four times already. I asked him about bars and he said he knew of a place up the street where you could get cheap Myanmar draft. So off we went, to this tiny hole in the wall restaurant. We had a couple of beers there and ended up hanging out for the next few days.

We had more awful food, more cheap Myanmar draught, walked around town and visited the Shwedagon pagoda, as well as the meat market. Absolutely shocking. The meat market is in a damp basement of an old building. When we went in, the power was down (which is very often the case) so it was pretty dark but we carried flashlights. The floor was covered in blood, dirt, guts, shit and god knows what wildlife was running around there. The cut up animals were just lying on the dirty floor, rotting away. And this was meat for sale. It sure made Phnom Penh look like Singapore compared to that. We didn’t stick around too long as the stench was just horrendous but it sure made a deep impression on me.

A few interesting things… First of all, money. When you arrive in Myanmar you need to have USD on you (though Euro’s can also be exchanged, but only in Yangon). The bills need to be new and pristine. No ink stains, no creases. You cannot buy the local currency, Kyats, outside of Myanmar, so you’re at the mercy of the black market money changers. This is tricky. I needed to change some US dollars and was well aware of the money changing scams out there. A guy approached us on the street, he showed us a stack of 1000 Kyat bills. Counted them in front of us, but he did it very quickly. I said I wanted to re-count myself. So while I was counting, one of the guys held out the counted money in front of him. I was wearing my sunglasses so he couldn’t see my eyes and while I pretended to be counting the money in my hand, I watched his hands and I noticed that in a split second, he took a few bills from the bottom of the counted stack and put it behind his back and into his pocket. I looked up and told him ‘I saw that’. He denied. I gave him the Kyat back and walked away. This is a very common scam and you have to be very careful when changing money. Of course, never give the US dollars til you have ensured you are getting the right amount of Kyat.

Electricity… Or lack thereof. It seems completely random, and perhaps it is. There might be electricity for a few hours, then it goes off again for hours at a time. Lots of shops and restaurants have generators and the sound is deafening. Unfortunately, the Okinawa guesthouse does not and at night it was very hot. Just imagine about 35C and being forced to sleep under a mosquito net that doesn’t let any of the breeze in, if there is any. I guess I’m a bit of a princess but I found it very hard to deal with and did not sleep well at all.

Also, perhaps related to the lack of electricity… there isn’t any at night, so almost everything shuts down at around 9 PM and the city goes black. A flashlight is an absolute necessity to carry with you at all times, especially at night walking the streets because the potholes are huge and there’s a lot of open sewers.

Another interesting thing is mobile phones. There is no international roaming in Myanmar but you are given two options. One of them is to buy a temporary sim card, which costs 20 USD and cannot be reloaded and will expire after a month. Those 20 USD won’t get you far, making/receiving calls on a mobile phone is very expensive. The other option is to buy a post-paid SIM card. Just the card itself costs USD 1500. Needless to say, very few people have mobile phones in Myanmar. It is sheer luxury.

However, on Sunday night we decided to live it up a bit and we went to see the Michael Jackson movie ‘This Is It’. The theatre was surprisingly nice. Quite retro for our standards but the screen was good, and so was the quality of the movie. Though most memorable was when the movie was over and the lights went on…. the garbage left on the floor was shocking. It was as if a garbage truck had crashed and toppled over right there. Very strange, because the Burmese take a lot of pride in appearance and they mostly look well groomed and very proper. We were about the last people to leave the theatre because we couldn’t stop looking and couldn’t get over the mess all around… and the sad looking empty garbage cans nobody was using.

Another interesting visit was a stop at the Myanmar Tourist & Travel office. Lieven wanted to go see the Sea Gypsies in the South. He wanted to find out how to get there by bus and boat. Well, the answer was ‘not’. The only way he’d be able to go was to sign up for some $1000 tour and apply for a permit (turn around time about two weeks). He’d have to take a plane as foreigners are not allowed on the roads in that area. He asked about other places. The answer was pretty much ‘no’. As a foreigner, you are highly restricted in your movements around the country. You can go to Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Bagan and a few places to the North and West but that’s it. He ended up taking a bus to Pegu, to visit a monastery with a 100 year old snake and I ended up taking a 12 hour night bus to Mandalay.

In the next installment, my impression of Mandalay a variety of other tidbits and why you should go to Myanmar.

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