Yangon (first impressions), Myanmar
Myanmar is in a time warp much like Havana. Yangon (Rangoon), the capital reminds me of Bucharest, Romania just after the fall of the Berlin wall, which at the time was one of the most unkempt cities I had ever visited. Like Bucharest in June of 1990, Yangon’s boulevards are shrouded with weeds and scrub growing among uncared-for shrubs and trees, giving major city roads the essence of importance without the reality. Areas where the general public live are cluttered with many eight-story ram shackled, unpainted cement apartment buildings lacquered with a patina of dirt intermixed with small cafes and little shops, some, mere indentions into the walls of these buildings.
Men and women still wear the traditional Longi (a long piece of material worn in a skirt like manner). There are neither western chains, nor fast food shops of any kind and much of the town’s transport is either by rickety automobiles (every car owner must be a amateur mechanic) or by sidecar bicycle rickshaws.
Behind my hotel, the Motherland 2 guesthouse, it is littered with trash weathered by a dry hot sun. The dry season will soon end and I am told heavy hot sultry rains will descend upon the whole country. Motherland 2 is on the edge of the city very near the railroad tracks. Between midnight and two AM every morning passing trains sound their high-pitched whistles. The hotel has four floors with a labyath of staircases ultimately leading to many of the same rooms. Our rooms are clean if utilitarian and we have hot water and TV, ‘though mine never worked. There is a dining room which serves a free western breakfast or if you order the night before a Burmese noodle breakfast, as well as meals throughout the day. There is Internet in the lobby of one US dollar and hour, but it generally doesn’t work.
Free pick up at the airport is on a rickety old ‘school bus,’ painted white with red trim. Upon our arrival, about other 20 people and their luggage boarded the bus with us in the cover of darkness, and then we headed for our Hotel. But wait a minute! We took a detour to let one passenger off at the famously breathtaking Shwesadrogon Paya, the internationally renowned temple with spires that sparkle in the day and glow of gold at
night. When we finally reached our destination, the bus stopped in front of a dirt-covered sidewalk, next to an arid grassy area with bits of plastic bags strewn about, bordered by a brick and broken corrugated fence. What a shock; this was a major travel book’s top budget pick? Unbelievable. Trip Advisor, where are you now that I need you? Albeit the service was outstanding and friendly, the room rate $16 a night and the guests international, I still couldn’t get passed that old wooden building smell, the noise and the surroundings.
Except for the temple, the whole city has a rancid smell about it. Yangon is tired, worned out, more like a withered octagenean, ready for a face-lift. What has happened to all the euros and US dollars taken in by the government? A government that only deals in crisp fresh dollars, Euros, and scabby Kyats. I have heard that for the generals, Singapore is their Paris of the East. Much like the Emirates, where deposed dictators go to morph into comfortable, if anonymous silence, Singapore obviously keeps its countance.
Also, the generals have spent a massive amount of money building their new underground capital city, Naypidaw, as well as a massive above ground new parliament (I have heard that the government commandeered citizens as slave labor to build both of these projects) at the same location, both of which are said to have cleaned out their financial coffers. Yet it is rumored, they are currently building underground bunkers near by; is there a hint of paranoia here?
Because there are no foreign banks in the country (gross human rights abuses caused George Bush’s administration’s to impose such strong sanctions on the country that all the foreign banks left), there is no way to use international ATMs or credit cards. All transactions are in cash, US dollars, Euros or the local Kyats. Added to this inconvenience is that all foreign currency must be in perfect condition, a creased/folded bill or one with bent corners might easily be rejected. Because the exchange rate is vague, I was at odds to know how much cash to take. I had been quoted anywhere from 650 to 1160 Kyats to the US dollar (we got 860 using $100 bills). In one travel guide it stated that the cost for a mid-range vacation for a week, was $750. I took 1800 crisp fresh US dollars for two people for nine days and found that was cutting it close (this is not a cheap country in which to travel). Albeit we flew to all our destinations, and eat in the restaurants of our choice, this did put constricts on our choice of hotels and some of our shopping. Beautiful peach colored pearls, although inexpensive, were out of our reach and much of the lacquer work, some of which is exquisite. Another $600 would have covered a change in our hotel room choices in Yangon, Bagan, and an upgrade in rooms in Ngapali, plus a pearl pendent. As for the lacquer, a piece of excellent quality can be pricey and one would have to figure into their budget a sizably bigger amount. Also the concern of having to carry so much cash is worrisome. Most of the travelers are European; there were many German tourists this year on package tours at the beautiful, pricey Ngapali beach resorts (most rooms priced from over a $100 to beyond $300 a night). This makes the cash problem a lot easier as their trips are pre-paid and it is only necessary to carry cash for souvenirs, transfers and dinning out.
Samantha and I, contrary to previous impressions, are great walkers. Sam designed a walking day, which took us down to a temple by the Ayeyarwady River to a great restaurant, Monsoon for lunch. Then passed some lovely but crumbling British Colonial architecture ending up by early evening, at Shwedagon Paya.
It’s spellbindingly beautiful main Stupa’s dome ‘rises 322 ft. above its base,’ and although it is many years older, its golden dome has been the symbol of Myanmar (Burma) since the 1500s. Between the golden domes of the temples and stupas, it’s massive size and the gems throughout; it is not only a religious symbol of the country but also the ultimate Burmese work of Art.
Upon our arrival, we decided a guide was in order and Mrs. Khin Saw Aung charged us five US dollars for a wonderfully descriptive walk throughout the enormous enclave of temples, Buddhas, bells and statuary. Near the end of our tour, at the one of the many famous bells, Mrs. Khin and I both banged the mallet on the ground than struck the bell three times as we each made a wish.
Although since being in Yangon, I have read about another good restaurant in Yangon. The Monsoon was our favorite (see Eat your heart out), and we ate there twice.
As we only had nine days, we spent three nights in each of our destinations: the Capital Yangon, the Bagan Archaeological Zone, and Ngapalo Beach.