Sunday, April 19, 2009


A tour of Myanmar normally begins with Yangon (mispronounced as Rangoon when the British arrived). The only way to get to there is by plane. The land crossings are generally closed to foreigners for reasons known only to the Myanmar government.

The heart of Yangon is the gigantic Shwedagon Pagoda, a bright golden spire rising above the city. With its size and all its supporting temples and stupas, Shwedagon is a small town unto itself.

The taxi ride from the airport takes you down double-lane roads past markets and shopping areas and fairsize modern towers. There are a few distinct neighborhoods in the city, but downtown is my favorite area. I am inexorably drawn to its moldering colonial buildings and chaotic street life. Having fallenunder British rule for so many years, the buildings have a distinct look about them. Unfortunately, they have been much neglected over the decades and most of them, including the magnificent governmentbuildings, are literally falling apart.

While Shwedagonis gets all the action, there are other pagodas in the city. Shule Pagoda, right next to the stylish town hall, is a major downtown landmark.

After the decrepit edifices, the thing I found most immediately striking about the city is the numerous tea shops on the street. Instead of “proper” tables and chairs, and maybe watercress sandwiches, the Burmese tea shop consists of low plastic or wooden stools around small tables. You rarely find such a shop indoors; they're almost always right out on the sidewalk. The tea varies in quality, but it's quite inexpensive. It's primarily men who hang out at such places, discussing business and such.

While the tea shops certainly serve food, I prefer a full fledge restaurant – except that in Yangon there are few restaurants that resemble that which we of the West are familiar. No, here the restaurants are street vendors with a few squat stools and tables. The food is usually prepared right out in the open so choosing your meal is simply a matter of pointing to whatyou want. I rarely knew what I was eating, but it was generally pretty good (and most certainly cheap).

Of course, if you want to blow a lot of money needlessly, you could check out a few of the high-end hotels and their bars and restaurants. The two landmark hotels of the city are Traders and the Strand. Dying for a bit of air conditioning one afternoon, I ordered a beer in the Traders Hotel lounge. The place was not particularly impressive, certainly not by Thai standards, and the beer was four times the price of anywhere else I'd eaten. I had a look at the Strand's restaurant. It was quite colonial looking, but the price of a meal would be costly even by North American standards.

Every time I walked past the Strand hotel, I was accosted by precocious kids hawking postcards. They circle the place like vultures, looking for tourists. While they sell them at two to three times the price as you'd find them anywhere else, they're so cheap it's tough to pass them up. Every single kid has the same story though, “Me no money today. No sell. Need lucky money!”

Taxis are very inexpensive in Yangon, but there are other ways to travel. If you know what you're doing, you might take a chance on riding one of the antique buses. These things have been around since the second world war. I'd get on one and see where it would take me because I could easily get a taxi ride back to my guest house.

My absolute favorite way to travel in the city was by trishaw. Where ancient Asia was full of rickshaws, the bicycle version has since taken over. In Myanmar, they have a unique design. It's basically a bicycle with an open sidecar with seats facing forward and back.

What's really odd about Myanmar is that the country is generally considered to be poor, but you can buy any number of gemstones or gold right on the street. There are rows and rows of jewelery shops offering elaborate gold necklaces and bracelets while the sidewalks have vendors selling gems like trinkets. While the gold sells for just above market price (a real deal), the stones seem to be ridiculously inexpensive. Mind you, I know nothing of gemstones, but they sure look impressive.

Although there are plenty of markets in the city, the sidewalks are literally spilling over with vendors on the more popular streets. In addition to gemstones, you can find everything from to weigh stations to secretaries. I forget how many times I saw a woman squatting on the sidewalk with an old bathroom scale carefully placed on a sheet of old cardboard waiting for people willing to spend a few cents to weigh themselves. There were a few areas clustered with people at makeshift desks and old manual typewriters filling out forms. I simply could not figure out what it was they did other than type out information from a form in to the beautiful Burmese script.

Yangon is a sidewalk city. Everything seems to take place out on the street. While there are plenty of umbrellas to keep the sun off, the design of the city buildings help. Most of the North-South streets are very narrow with tall thin buildings. This keeps the sidewalks in the shade for all but a few hours of the day.

I generally tell people that two or three days is enough time to see Yangon, but it really depends on what appeals to you. Having visited the city on four different occasions, I recognize that there are still a lot of interesting back alleys, markets, buildings and neighborhoods to explore.

See more images in my Yangon album.

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