For the love of Yangon
January 1, 1970
Around noon I arrive at the airport of Yangon. I haven’t showered and I smell of beer and smoke. A heavy headache makes it impossible to think clear. Khao San Road leftovers. It takes a while before I am finally able to withdraw money from the ATM. Every five minutes there is a power outage of max. half a minute, which causes a bit of panic amongst the travelers. Generators take care of the luggage scan and other facilities for national security, but obviously the ATM is not a part of that. I have no clue how much money I can withdraw from the ATM, so randomly I choose 30.000 kyat. That’s about 23$, by far not the maximum amount. So far my good preparations.
I must have looked as a down-and-out, but luckily an older British couple took it as their good deed to ask me if I want a ride with them. I take the offer, but immediately when I’m in the cab I regret my decision. I can smell myself and with me, everyone in the cab probably. They pretend like they don’t though, and ask me a lot of polite questions. I try my best to be kind while all I actually want to do is sleep. My hangover doesn’t really work for chitchat.
My dorm is comfortless. That is not a surprise, but as newbie with a hangover it’s not very reassuring. Finally it’s time for my shower, which luckily is hot. Afterwards I force myself to go outside, but five minutes later I’m back in my room, panicking. The staring eyes, which slowly took in my blond hair and bare shoulders, and the voices calling me are still fresh in my memory. I take some time to calm myself down and then I put on a shirt that covers my shoulders. An empty feeling in my stomach lures me outside again, where I stroll for an hour to find food. I buy some small deep fried snacks, not nearly enough to satisfy my hunger. The lack of tourists makes me afraid of food poisoning and I don’t buy anything else. After this failed mission I crawl in my bed, crying. I am planning to cry myself to sleep, but my French roomies make sure I can’t by entering noisily. Without knowing, one of them gives me hope for the rest of my days. Eventually I fall asleep with red eyes, convinced that tomorrow will be better.
The charms of Yangon
Cliché but true: the next day I fall in love with Yangon. I spoke to people who didn’t like Yangon. Luckily I could also share my love for this city with a lot of people. I spend hours rambling through the streets of Chinatown. Unmaintained buildings, with moss on the walls and blue satellites: for me it actually makes the smaller streets more beautiful. Everywhere on the street you can buy food, there are big pans with hot water and herbs. While sitting on small stools, the Burmese happily cook all sorts of meat, mostly giblets. I turn down the invitation to eat with them (I’m not a big fan of giblets), but I do put the golden rule in to practice: ‘Eat where the locals eat’. The result is a happy stomach and a taste of real Burmese specialties. In every street I get the friendly questions: ‘Hello!’ ‘Where you from?’ ‘How are you?’ Answers are not expected and usually they don’t even understand it. But every answer I give gets a wide grin, the few teeth that are still inside often red from the betel nut. The beauty of this city is in the old English buildings, the markets and the smiling faces and welcoming words. Mind you, it’s not usual to stay out until late anywhere in Myanmar. Around 21:00 I was usually back in my hostel, tired and satisfied.
Wandering through Yangon
For me Chinatown was one of the nicest neighborhoods to wander. You don’t get lost easily, because the streets are made up in blocks. If you have a little sense of direction, it’s not hard to find your way back. I walked almost everything from my hostel in Chinatown and if you like walking it’s a recommendation. Sule Pagoda was one of the first things I visited and immediately a Burmese started talking to me. He took me to the entrance of the temple, made sure I paid and followed me closely. His English was not very good, but he did his best to point at every happening inside the temple.
My Burmese stalker
I continue my way with a travel guide in my hand, but the man stayed close by. A uncomfortable feeling came over me, because of course I knew he would ask for money in the end. But if I tried to shake him off, he wouldn’t understand. So I let him follow me. When I looked on the map, he looked over my shoulder and pointed at random things. When I saw I walked in the wrong direction and turned to go back, he would react as if he knew I was walking the wrong direction. While we were strolling he thought it very important to point out every old building. There is a lot of old buildings in Yangon, so every ten minutes our walk would be interrupted by him saying: ‘Old building.’ While he pointed at the building he meant. When I finally mustered up the courage to tell him that I didn’t need his help anymore I felt as if I was a horrible person. So when he asked me for cigarettes and money I gave it to him without much hesitation. For 2000 kyat (less than 2$) I walked for more than an hour with a complete stranger through a -for me at least- unknown city, complete with a very extensive explanation of the old buildings in Yangon. I am still very grateful for this experience.
Some tips for Yangon
If you only want to see the sight Shwedagon Pagoda you can do Yangon in one day. If you are also curious about the big Buddha’s (it’s worth it!) two days is more than enough. If you want to get to know the city better and if you want to get lost in the small streets of Yangon with the fresh fruit stalls and restaurants on the sidewalk you’ll probably need three days or more. I went to Yangon three times and although I saw every sight after two times, I was never really bored. One tip: if you buy souvenirs here, don’t get fooled by the sweet smiles. I got ripped off when I bought a longyi (a Burmese sarong), because I felt too bad to bargain about the price with the beautiful Burmese lady. But in the end it doesn’t really matter. On the corner of the street you’ll buy some fried snack for less than a dollar. You’ll try to have a conversation with the curious seller but that fails with a lot of smiles and giggles from both sides. And at the end of the day you’ll fall asleep super tired but with a smile, because that’s what Myanmar does to you.