2011
06.03

The plane had only traveled 45 minutes from Bangkok when it touched down in Myanmar (also known as “Burma“), but it felt as if we had been transported worlds away.  The first thing that hit us was the heat.  Steamy, sticky, sweat-pouring heat.  We tried to settle for a room with only a fan, but the stifling heat and humidity was more than we could bear.   So we moved from our personal sauna to the bustling streets of Yangon where, amidst the crowds, there was not a white person in sight.  Only hours before we were eating at Burger King in Bangkok surrounded by tourists; now, all we saw were street-side stalls selling chicken biryani manned by foreign faces.  Though for years I had anticipated my arrival in Burma, never did I imagine the culture shock that hit me that first night.

Though stripped of its capital status in 2005, Yangon (formerly Rangoon) remains the beating pulse of Myanmar and the hub of most economic activity.  It is in Yangon that most international visitors arrive and depart, as land crossings only exist from Thailand and China and sporadic violence had closed those to foreigners at the time of our visit.  Yangon is a bustling city filled with British colonial architecture and crowded street markets.  But this is no Singapore.  Here, the buildings are desperately in need of a paint job and the street vendors are more of a black market for purchasing goods in the absence of a substantial consumer infrastructure.

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Most notable for tourists is the complete lack of ATMs anywhere in the country which makes a visit to Myanmar particularly difficult. It took me two days of running between banks and money changers in Bangkok, getting cash advances on credit cards and exchanging Thai baht for crisp, clean dollars bills before we could even think about entering the country.  If there is a bend, a tear, the letters “CB” imprinted on your dollars, or even a drop of ink, they are utterly useless in Myanmar.  Credit and debit cards are also worthless as U.S. and E.U. sanctions prohibit credit card companies from doing business in the country.  To make things even more difficult, the only way to obtain local currency is from government-controlled banks that offer ridiculous rates or from the countless black market money changers on the street.  Like most tourists, we headed to the market on our first morning in town with brand new $100 bills to exchange for local money, called kyat.  With the U.S. dollar at a dismal low, a few hundred dollars 20110603_Burma_047bought us a few hundred thousand kyat.  So there we sat like a pair of drug dealers, huddled together on stools counting out over 300,000 in local currency.  Welcome to Myanmar.

With piles of money filling our bags, we set out to explore the city of Yangon.  The weight of the money we now carried was not so much a worry as it was a burden in the oppressive heat and humidity.  Within minutes my shirt was absolutely drenched in sweat.  There was no hiding it as I dripped my way along the streets looking as if I had just emerged from the nearby Yangon River.  When a breeze did blow, it was like a gift from God; but most of the time we walked through a wall of heat more stifling than a locker room sauna.  I tried to embrace the weather, but my water-logged shirt was a constant reminder; it was just too plain hot.  I promised myself that the next time I heard someone complain about stale air-conditioned air, I would suggest they spend a summer in Myanmar.

We alternated our sweaty walks with breaks in our new air-conditioned room where we washed our dripping bodies and sat motionless in front of the fan.  This would take some getting used to, we both agreed.  But still we continued to emerge from the comforts of A/C in order to explore more of the city.  We shopped at the market, strolled the streets, and sought solace in bars with bottles of cold Myanmar beer.  Then, in the afternoon, we followed Upper Pansodan Street to Kandawgyi Lake where I planned we would kick back with cold drinks and admire the scenery from the Lake Side Restaurant & Bar.  Unfortunately, we found this place no longer existed so we continued our stroll along the wooden walkways that cross the lily-pad covered lake.  Most of the path was uncovered and the sun beat fiercely down upon us, but we found welcome respite on tree-covered banks where young lovers cuddled beneath the shade amidst groves of colorful flowers.  It was a charming setting, made even more attractive by the golden spires that towered nearby and were reflected in the lake’s surface, beckoning us further along.

Reflection of Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

Only a couple of blocks from Kandawgyi Lake, we rounded a corner and found ourselves looking down a street linked with golden temples at Yangon’s most beautiful sight.  The glorious golden spire of the Shwedagon Paya rose high into the sky, glistening in the bright sun of late afternoon.  This remarkable paya (religious monument) is located within a large, lavishly-decorated compound surrounded by a hub of activity.  Monks in saffron robes strode away from the temple on stall-covered streets.  Vendors sold food, drinks, and souvenirs while locals gathered on small plastic chairs for tea and conversation.  Then, a long flight of stairs carried us into the brightly-colored compound where we climbed beneath a roof decorated in 3-D sculptures surrounded by souvenir stalls and devotees coming and going.

Road leading to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

 

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When at last we reached the paya landing, the scene before us was more remarkable than I had imagined.  The stupa itself is a fantastic sight, said to be covered in more than 58 tons of gold leaf.  The top of the spire is encrusted with more than 5000 diamonds and 2000 other stones and it rises 98m (322ft) into the sky where it can be seen from many locations in the city.  The monument is made even more fantastic by the 82 Buddha statues and small shrines at which devotees pray.

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Shwedagon Paya is undoubtedly the defining image of Yangon, as well as a symbol of Burmese identity, evident by the throngs of people that circled the stupa and worshiped at its base.  Others gathered in the shade of surrounding shrines where they rubbed prayer beads between their fingers and solemnly chanted Buddhist mantras.  The rest, like ourselves, just sat and stared at the fantastic sight before them and attempted to absorb its incredible grandeur.  I snapped photos constantly and tried to capture its beauty from every possible angle.  Without my wide-angle lens, it was difficult to capture the countless devotees that circled and prayed around Shwedagon Paya, including many monks, both young and old.  Among these were several who turned the tables on us by asking to take our photo.  Uncharacteristic of our previous encounters, we were happy to pose with a couple of friendly monks our age and even an elderly monk who grabbed my arm and practically demanded that Rachel take our photo together.

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Sunset at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

Evening scene at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

Sunset at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

Evening scene at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

Evening scene at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

It would not do Yangon justice to say there was little to see.  There might not have been an abundance of star attractions, but there were gilded golden stupas rising above the rooftops throughout the city.  These and other impressive monuments grabbed our attention as we were carried away from the city in the back of a covered pickup truck along with loads of goods and other passengers, all on our way out of Yangon.

It took 45 minutes from central Yangon for the truck to deliver us at a dusty station without a white face in sight.  One might have thought we were aliens from another planet by the stares that met us at the station.  When we sat down in a small room, packed with waiting passengers, every eye stared at us in disbelief.  Though such unabashed attention is not always welcome, it was the perfect sign that we had found the place we were seeking.  After the likes of Thailand and Nepal where we were grouped together with packs of roving white masses, it was a wonderful feeling to arrive in a place where we could stand out and truly be appreciated.  During our week in Bangkok, not once did a local (or a foreigner, for that matter) welcome us or attempt to engage us in conversation.  Most seemed to view us as some sort of intruder with whom they were forced to endure.  Once we had passed on their offers of food or massages, their smile and interest in us was instantly gone.  On the other hand, in Myanmar they simply stared at us in awe and wonder.  They approached us on the streets, shook our hands and asked where we are from, simply excited to meet a foreigner.

One man, a teacher from Mandalay, seemed to be waiting for me on the street every time I left the hotel.  He was constantly offering advice and telling me where to find the cheapest sandals or best coffee shops.  Though old and frail, he led us all the way to the bus stand upon our departure, then bid us farewell and disappeared.  We felt guilty to question his motives, but where else in Asia had we found someone who went so far out of their way to assist us without asking for money in return?  Clearly, we had arrived in a special place.

When the packed bus to Bagan finally arrived, it was no surprise that we were the only foreigners on board.  I barely even noticed the stares as we boarded, though I did see the heads that turned in disbelief.  It would take about 12 hours of overnight travel to reach our destination, but it would not be too uncomfortable a trip.  We had read about the rough conditions of bus travel in Myanmar, of wretched vehicles and potholed roads.  Instead, we found ourselves on a paved two-lane divided highway with almost no other vehicles in sight.  On this modern thoroughfare, we saw only buses, transport vehicles and a few passenger vehicles.  Most of the time the only lights to be seen anywhere were our headlights on the highway or a single bulb lighting a roadside bamboo shack.

Halfway through our trip, in the early hours of the morning, we stopped a roadside rest stop for the usual food and bathroom break.  We stood outside, dazed and tired, and I was flattered when a friendly, young fellow passenger fetched a stool for me to sit.  I struck up a conversation with him and though his English was poor, I could see he was delighted to speak.  Like most young Burmese, the little English he spoke he had learned not in school, but from watching American movies.  Since he lived in Yangon, I expected he encountered tourists frequently and asked him how many he had met.  “No’, he replied.  ‘You are the first foreigner I have ever met.  This is like a dream come true for me.”  As I looked at the wonderful smile and delight on this young man’s face, I realized that my own dream-come-true was just beginning.

2 comments so far

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  1. Very nice as always Kyle, my mother has taken to checking you out too. :)

  2. Nicely done Kyle. I enjoy reading your descriptive travel writings and viewing the fine photos you share with us. Your manner seems to be commendably accepting and appreciative of the people and places you visit. Kudos to you and may you never run out of interesting places to visit.