Well we have left Thailand and Bangkok, full of neon lights, fancy hotels and the Japanese families enjoying the pool at the Conrad hotel we booked for our last night in a non-Junta run country. Camilla and I were joined by our friend Sue who flew in the night before. After a long sleep-in and time for a delicious thai street food lunch we made our way to Don Mueng airport for the Air Asia flight to Yangoon. (Btw: Air Asia is the Ryan Air of Asia, be prepared to pay for everything.)
To enter Myanmar you need a visa which you usually have to get before coming. We had all been told (across three different countries - Denmark, France and the US) that it would take forever to get. Short on time, Camilla and I relied on a local fixer who had been recommended to us by a friend. We landed with only a printed email stating we had been issued a VOA (Visa on Arrival). Turns out it works beautifully. We handed over our papers to the very friendly visa staff who handed us back our passports with a cool looking and more importantly very legitimate visa stuck in it. This compared rather favorably to Sue's visa, which she had sought through the more official channels before leaving the states, and is simply a piece of paper stapled to her passport with a fuzzy stamp. We met a rep of our fixer on the other side and paid him the $75 dollars we had promised. Money well spent.
Speaking of money. We had a very interesting time getting the cold hard USD bills suitable for exchanging money and paying for anything in Myanmar. They are not kidding or equivocating when they tell you to bring only very crisp bills from post-2006 ($100 bills) and post-2009 (everything else). Getting those kind of bills in the US is very hard. Thankfully Sue's mother managed to procure some for us thereby turning Sue into our money mule. There are a few ATMs but this is a country without a developed or internationally connected banking system (international banks won't be allowed in till 2015.) One of the first things we did in Yangoon, after paying for our hotel with some of our $, was to exchange them. A couple of bills were rejected by the exchanger (best rate in Yangoon according to our friend who is living here) because of tiny creases.
We are very lucky in that we have a friend who is half-Burmese and has been living in Yangoon for the last 6 months. We met up on our first night and had a great tour of expat bars in Yangon. Don't think this is Phnom Penh, which has been a darling of the international development seen for the last 10 years. There are maybe 4 bars, including the very historically cool Strand Hotel bar which is and has been without interruption the "Raffles" of Yangon, kept in business even after the Brits left in the 40s. We also hit up the Traders Hotel, where apparently the UN is based, and 50th Street bar. The last expat bar, which we didn't make it too is Union Street. Next time I guess.
The next day we spent the morning at a travel agency getting ourselves organized (and working off a slight Myanmar Beer hangover - tasty stuff, there's an export product for the country). Unfortunately a lot needs to be handled through these agencies since they seem to be the only ones who can book flights and sometimes have special connections to hotels. We want to head up to Bagan and to do that we could either take the train, bus or fly. We opted for a flight because its faster but also because we were going to start our trip with a train to Mawlyamine, and flights need to be settled by an agency.
The afternoon was spent discovering Burmese food and the Shwedagon Paya. Burmese food is delicious and definitely a step away from the noodles and soups of SE Asia and closer to Indian subcontinent food. It is delicious but not vegetarian friendly, so don't come here thinking its all stir fry veggies or vegetarian curries, and a bit heavy on the oil. We had the traditional morning dish of Mohinga, a sort of cat fish and noodle soup (I realize that just counters my previous statement about noodles and soups, but it is definitely not like Pho). That may not sound appetizing but it is unbelievable tasty, with crunchy fish bits in a thick broth and slippery noodles. Delicious.
We walked up to the main temple in Yangon, Shwedagon Paya, to see the sunset and absorb some of the local Buddhist culture. It's really an impressive site, in part made more so because it still dominates the whole city. I imagine that soon, with all the planned skyscrapers set for construction it will be absorbed into a very different skyline. For the moment it acts like a beacon in the middle of the city and to my eyes a place for families to come, amble around the main stuppa, sit and chat and of course, pray. The Shwedagon is like a big complex with at its core a very large golden stuppa placed in the middle of a tiled plaza around which people walk slowly in mostly a clockwise fashion. We must have spent two hours walking, occasionally sitting, watching the sunset and the lights coming on and the candles being lit. There were a few other tourists, but I could count them on one hand. Watching the Burmese was the most enjoyable and fascinating element, made only better because almost all of them would smile and wave, saying hello or Minglabar, to us.
The friendliness of people in Burma is not exaggerated. People either wave and smile at us unbidden or if you smile first they break into a big smile and hello in return. Children are amazed at seeing us and we have had many instances of the Burmese equivalent of "hey look, white people, amazing", big smile, and wave! (Or so I imagine, clearly my Burmese is not up to any snuff.)
After a long sweaty day, we headed to the Governor's Residence hotel for a sundowner. This is the Orient Express hotel and does it fit the bill. The hotel is an old teak building which used to house the governor of one of the states that make up Burma. My gin and tonic was absolute perfection.
On our second full day we caught the train early for a trip south to Mawlyamine and Hpa'an. See the next post for that story.