The colonial charm of Yangon

Three weeks travelling in one of the most touristic areas of Southeast Asia was enough: time to change completely, destination: Myanmar!
After years of isolation due to the military government, Burma opened its borders to tourism in 1995. But it was only from 2009 that the inflow of visitors started to grow progressively. There are still now many parts of the country where the local army is fighting for autonomy against the government army and consequently foreigners are not allow to go; for some other areas a special permit is required and trips can be organized only by government aligned touristic agencies. For this same raisons some borders cannot be crossed by land (not long time ago the only way to visit the Myanmar was getting in Yangon or Mandalay by plane). Today two borders are open. Nevertheless if you don’t want to spend a couple of days travelling between Thailand and south Myanmar by land, the easiest way to arrive in Yangon is still flying from Bangkok.

We arrived in downtown are of Yangon at 11pm, quite late for this country (streets are dark and empty) but the taxi driver knew the guest house we were looking for so everything was easy. We were told that hostels and guest houses in Burma has not the same quality than in the rest of Southeast Asia but we did not realize at which point the situation was different until we saw our room and the toilets at the guest house. One thing we learnt along this year is to adapt ourselves to certain situations and, after the first night and shower, we felt in good mood again.
Before leaving Europe Cadu searched for information about crossing borders and permits but things changes every day and in the first morning in Yangon we went straight to the MTT office (Myanmar Tourism & Travel). Good news for us: no more permit and guide to pay to cross the border with Thailand in Tachileik; the bad news is that we still have to take the plane to go to there.
We spent the first day wandering under the sun to get familiar with this city still new at our eyes. People dress different here: men and women wear the longyi: a piece of fabric 2m high and 80cm long which they tie around the waist and totally covers the legs. Stripes and checks are the most common patterns for men’s longyi, but they can also be in plain colors; for women’s longyi the patterns vary a lot: from flowers to geometrical shapes and motifs depending from which regions the fabric comes from. On top men usually wear a shirt and women a top with the same colors of the longyi. The result is very elegant and it seems very comfortable. Cadu bought one and it was fun to see the girl in the shop explaining him how to tie it and how to wear under it!
Wandering on the streets of Yangon is a pleasure for those who like to discover the life of people without the filter of a guide or an organized tour. Buildings, as we were expecting, are old and decayed but they can still transmit the wealthy colonial times; sometimes they seem inhabited, but no… life conditions are hard to allowed waste of living spaces. We did not go to Chinatown; we only walked around the Indian district where the streets were fully occupied by products simply displayed on a blanket on the floor. Onions, garlic, chili and coriander are everywhere; they mix their colors with dry fish, meat, living chicken, fruits, vegetables, tobacco and all kind of rice and noodles.
The most common transports are bus and motorcycles for locals and the taxi for both foreigners and locals. Taxi do not work with taximeter so it must be negotiate before getting on, they accept to bargain but do not expect to cut the price in two. As taxi are very cheap for our standards we only took the public bus once, to go to the intercity bus station: one hour and a half standing in a overcrowded and overheated bus trying to leave some space for the backpack and people to pass. Not easy but fun. The door was always opened and the tickets inspector standing up in front of it screaming all the destinations when it approached of a bus stop. How we took the right bus? The lady who sold us the bus ticket for Bagan took us to the bus stop and waited for us to jump on the bus. Burmese people are like her: kind and gentle with tourists and probably between each other because for the moment we did not see any arguments (like we did often in China, for example).

What about the food? We trusted in street food like everywhere else and like always we eat only where a lot of people were eating too. For sure, it’s not a warranty of cleanness but at least is a sign that the food is fresh cooked. We tried a soup made with samosa, onions, potatoes, salad and chick peas; we had that for breakfast! It was so good we had it twice (and we keep missing it). We also tried a kind of noodles soup that they eat for dinner: it’s a made with meat and some vegetables and served with crunchy fried pasta. The last day we went to a Burmese restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet called Feel Myanmar Food; it really worth to eat there because everything is tasty and well cooked. The most different dish was a rice salad with all kind of bean and peanuts; we also ordered a special soup which had a broth very similar to a Japanese ramen and the Shan Noodles.

Shwedagon Pagoda (Paya): it’s the biggest pagoda of Myanmar and Burmese people go there at least once in their life to pray and to take a picture that, once hang home, will protect the house and the family. You will not only feel in a religious site but also in a kind of Attraction Park for locals: they spend a lot of time there and for consequence they eat, talk on the phone and speak like everywhere else. It’s nice to be there before the sunset to watch the huge golden pagoda changing colors.
Market: it’s a good spot to buy souvenirs or simply wants to check what Myanmar handcraft looks like. We spent a lot of time looking for all kind of longyi and fabric. We did not buy anything only to keep our backpacks light, we regret a little because prices are very competitive and the quality of the handcrafts high.
National Museum: huge building with five floors consecrated to Myanmar history and culture. The ground floor is the most visited but the others are also interesting. The displays were done many years ago and never changed. Bring water, upper you go, hotter it gets!

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