We then travelled from one big city to another. We like to travel by land as often as possible. It means you usually travel in the same way at the locals, you get a real sense of the distance you’ve travelled and you get the best views out of the windows. So it’s not often we fly between destinations, but this one was an exception. We wanted to fit in a visit to Myanmar at some point on our trip and after some research we decided it would be a tricky country to enter by road. The borders have only just been opened to tourists, so entry via land borders is less than accessible at the moment, with bad road conditions, long bus journeys, entry only on certain days of the week, and strict visa allowances. So because of all this, we broke our no flying rule and took a flight from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was the country on our Southeast Asian list I was most intrigued by. I knew a lot less about it than all of the other countries (there’s simply less information out there for tourists), and I was curious what a country sandwiched between India, Bangladesh and Thailand would be like. The answer is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been! Oh, and the food is wonderful! But I’ll get to that bit later.
We got off the plane and were greeted by aggressively thunderous rain. We were getting quite used to rain by now, but this was a completely different story. The streets were quickly flooding and our taxi rumbled on along the roads that were turning into canals. Out the window I watched people wade through the water, which was now up to knee level, carrying shopping, chatting away like the water wasn’t even there. We quickly learned not to wear anything in Yangon we weren’t prepared to get very wet, and thus very grubby. I wasn’t convinced the rusty taxi would make it across the city, but I should’ve had more faith. Our car trudged slowly through heavy traffic in about three feet of water, the same as the locals seemed to do without batting an eyelid. We arrived at our hostel which was situated conveniently close to China Town, Little India and a wide variety of street food stands and local restaurants. We were all set, after all the best way to learn about a new country is to eat as much of its food as possible!
As I said, Yangon is another really big city, but it was completely different from places like Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok. It was a lot more tatty, there were more rats (but fewer cockroaches than Bangkok, thank God!), and there were lots of unfamiliar smells and sounds. It’s a very busy place, all around people are rushing about their business; people are dashing to work or negotiating with the fruit seller on the street or delivering newspapers and daily goods to residents (using a very clever and old fashioned pulley and bell system to get things up from the pavement to the top floors). We spent most of our time in the city just walking around. The best sights in Yangon were these snippets of everyday Burmese life. We people watched from cafes and restaurants, walked the streets and visited shops and the large central market.
We also visited the city’s most famous attraction, the enormous gold Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s 325 feet tall, gold plated and it dominates the Yangon skyline. It’s the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar, so it was a must-visit. We arrived at the pagoda and were hounded by women encouraging us to buy some flowers to lay at the shrines. I politely declined but when the others did the same they didn’t seem to listen. Before I knew it the other three had all, in a bustle of confusion, bought bunches of flowers. Nobody had really explained what to do with them, so we watched some locals and other tourists to see what was right. They laid their flowers at the foot of some shrines, blending in with the other visitors and not breaking custom – we think!
We walked, circling the pagoda and then explored other parts of the site where people were chatting, eating and worshipping. It had a nice atmosphere. It wasn’t strictly regimented, there weren’t lots of rules and it felt like people could enjoy the holy site in whatever way suited them. Whether this meant sitting on the floor eating food and chatting with friends or worshipping in absolute silence. We were stopped several times to have our photos taken with various groups of people, in fact once we agree do one photo it seemed to set a ball rolling. It had been raining a lot (no surprises there), so there are a whole load of Burmese people out there somewhere with photos of four soggy British people standing with their friends and family.
Yangon’s city centre is full of dilapidated, but still beautiful, British colonial buildings. A lot of the oldest buildings in the city have been left to decay, with vines climbing up the walls and the paintwork peeling off. I think in a few years time, with increased tourism, a lot of renovation work will take place in Yangon. It was a great change to be in a place where there were hardly any other tourists. We were stared at quite a lot, but not in an unfriendly way, and it was nice to feel like we were slightly off the well trodden tourist trail of Southeast Asia.
Yangon wasn’t a city with lots to do for tourists, but that was completely fine. A place doesn’t need to have purpose built tourist sites for it to be interesting. We enjoyed being in a new country, one completely different from ones we had visited before. We enjoyed eating a fusion of delicious Indian and Chinese food, which for us was as good as any tourist tour! We couldn’t wait to see what else Myanmar had in store for us.