After a short beach break in Koh Chang in Thailand, I am ready to go to one of the countries that I had been most excited about visiting – Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
A country with a complicated past, I had been intrigued by Myanmar since I was at school. The country emerged from 50 years of military rule after historic elections in 2015 that brought Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power in the first democratic election in 25 years. In the country’s previous election in 1990, Suu Kyi and the NLD won a convincing victory, but the military junta held power and Suu Kyi, or ‘The Lady’ as she is fondly known in Myanmar, was put under house arrest. Her name became synonymous with power for the powerless until her release in 2011. It was at this point that she dropped her opposition to tourism, as long as it was done responsibly, and since her party swept to victory in 2015, Myanmar has opened its arms further to tourism beyond just the Governent sanctioned operators in previous years.
From my first couple of days in Yangon – the commercial heart of Myanmar, though no longer its formal capital – it was clear that The Lady is dear to the hearts of people in the country. You can find her portraits lining market stalls and cafes throughout the city, affection for her proudly and boldly displayed in a way that would have been dangerous for locals a few short years ago.
Although they live in more optimistic times, it is still not advisable to ask people in Myanmar about politics unless they prompt the discussion. It is a sensitive topic and people have long memories. Also, while the possibility of secret police monitoring conversations no longer poses a threat, Myanmar is by no means free of its problems. There are still parts of the country where fighting and suffering continues, and tourism is still limited to certain areas. Nevertheless, from the moment I arrive in Myanmar I encounter warmth and friendliness wherever I go. People seem genuinely happy that foreigners want to come and visit, and there is a sense of pride and positivity about the future that is palpable.
I arrive in Yangon and check into Shwe Yo Vintage Hostel – it’s a charming family run place with basic bust comfortable rooms and excellent Burmese breakfast made with ingredients from the local market that morning.
When I hand over my passport – something I am required to do along with my eVisa number at all of the places I stay in Myanmar – the little girl of the family is excited to learn that I am Irish, as her teacher is Irish too. As it’s Ireland’s first match of the Six Nations against Scotland that evening, I tell her to ask her teacher about the rugby on Monday. She looks at me a bit blankly as I try and explain rugby. She says that he told their class that Ireland are very good at football, and I think to myself that’s a level of poetic license you could really only get away with while talking to a captive audience of 10 year olds who’ve probably never seen an Irish football match.
Once I’ve dropped my stuff, I search for a sports bar that might be streaming the rugby. I’m in luck as I find the very western feeling 50th Street Bar and Grill, packed with European tourists and expats watching the pretty decent stream of the match. Despite the result, I have a good night chatting to some English people in for the the next match, and enjoy a few local beers before heading back for the night.
When I get a taxi back to my hostel later that night I realise my phone is dead and I cant’t totally remember the name of the street I’m on – it’s unfortunately not one of the helpfully numbered ones. My taxi driver also doesn’t speak English, so when I eventually get out where I think my street is, it’s dark and there’s nothing open, my only company a few stray dogs wandering around. Used to Bangkok with late night 7/11s and minikarkets on every corner, the empty dark streets give me a moment of panic. I spot a few taxi drivers waiting nearby and decided to chance my luck that one of them speaks English. I find one who can, and he kindly points me towards my hostel, just around the corner. I thank him and head on my way, reminding myself to always take the card of the hostel as soon as I arrive, for just such a situation.
The next morning I head to Bogyoke Aung San Market, otherwise know as Scott Market, for a wander around. The large indoor market is famous for its colonial style and numerous cobbled pathways. I happily stroll around the colourful displays of longyi – traditional Burmese wraparound skirts – and jade jewellery.
I have to be very restrained not to buy anything, as I know I am going to be travelling for some time, and being tempted by beautiful clothes and trinkets will be a regular occurrence for me. However, after an afternoon of wondering around in Yangon very conscious of my denim shorts among all the locals who wear nothing above the knee, I decide that investing in a longyi might be a good idea – particularly for covering up when visiting the beautiful temples of Myanmar. The next morning Scott Market is closed, but I find a lovely floral longyi in another market near Chinatown for about £5.
Yangon is probably best know for the iconic golden Shwedagon Pagoda. Visible from almost any point of the city, it is an impressive structure which attracts locals, visitors from other Buddhist countries and tourists at all times of the day. I arrive just before sunset, when glowing late afternoon light perfectly falls on the golden exterterior of the temple. It’s a very worthwhile, if not totally serene, experience – it’s pretty packed with visitors and every corner of the temple is taken up either with crouching photographers or people praying. It’s fascinating to watch even the monks overcome with the impressive structure, posing for selfies and trying in vain like the rest of us to capture its beauty on camera.
Like any major tourist sight, it’s not without its minor annoyances – on my way into the temple a young boy offers my a plastic bag to carry my shoes in, as visitors must go barefoot. I know this is something that children do outside the temple to gain tips, and sure enough he puts his hand out for money. I try to decline the offer, but he’s taken my shoes, put them in the bag and is holding tightly to the top. After a brief stand off I realise it’s give him money or give him my shoes, so I hand over 500 kyat and head inside. As with most instances of being tricked into parting with money, it’s not the amount but the fact it happened that smarts – particularly when such scams involve children, as exploitation often lurks behind the cute children and every time the scam issuccessful, it just encourages more to try it.
Dinner is at one of the many restaurants lining 19th Street, or ‘beer and barbecue street’ as it’s known among expats and tourists. I’ve joined forces with an American guy I met at the Pagoda, and he is sold by the incredibly cheap mojitos and pork skewers in one place. Having recently decided I would give my stomach an outside chance in Asia and steer clear of meat, I opt for a Myanmar beer and some fried bean curd – honestly, it’s better than it sounds! It turns out to be incredibly tasty, crispy on the outside and served in a light spicy sauce, and we end up getting another portion to share as my companion likes it so much. The Burmese really know what they’re doing with soya beans!
The next day I spend just walking around the streets of Yangon. I am really taken with the food stalls that line the streets, the colonial style colourful apartment buildings atop jam packed electical stores, the hustle and bustle and the slightly nerve-wracking traffic. The streets are narrow and the cars and bikes constantly beep; I quickly learn they’re just letting you know they are behind you, rather than telling you to get out of the way.
I also notice the beautiful traditional dress of the women, and how many of the women and children have thanaka on their cheeks – a paste I learn is made from tree bark and worn to protect their faces from the sun.
The one thing I didn’t have time for during my trip to Yangon is the circle train that winds around the city ina three hour loop. It is supposed to be a wonderfully authentic experience, and I tell myself I will have time when I come back at the end of my time in Myanmar. Little do I know how much I will get sucked into the other parts of my adventure in Myanmar and end up cursing myself for booking an outbound flight. The next evening, I hop on a night bus to Bagan, ready for sunrises and its awe inspiring ancient temples.