Myanmar (the country formally known as Burma) has been isolated from the rest of the world until relatively recently, having been under a military dictatorship since 1962, and which came to an end in 2010.
The country is trying to ‘find it’s feet’, which makes for a fascinating, authentic, nearly completely non-tourist view of the country.
Yangon is a city on the change, and an attack on your senses.
Every street has food/clothing/tools/juice/puppies (!!!)/rabbits(!!!!!!!!!) for sale. All squeezed between the pedestrians and the traffic.
Everyone calling out what’s for sale, the constant honking of horns from the road, music from shops, monks going about their daily routine of aquiring offerings from shop keepers. Then the smells hit you – spices, sewer (this smell is often), fruit, fumes from the traffic.
The traffic is terrible – the roads are constantly at a stand still, and the buses are just frightening! The speed at which they travel at down the roads is scary, considering they all look ancient. The bus drivers actually rev the engine up when at a stand still, so crossing the road becomes extra frightening!
The majority of buildings here are extremely old and run down following years of neglect by the government, however most are ex-colonial and make for some interesting viewing giving a glimpse into life during the British reign. Sometimes you feel like you could be walking down an unkept street in London. On the flipside, you have new flats and shopping malls springing up amist the dilapedated buildings.
The Bogyoke Aung San Market is a perfect example of an ex-british colonial building still being used. We learnt from a lovely old local, calling himself ‘Mr Toe’, that during the British reign it used to be called ‘Scott Market’, and at one point housed all the trams at night.
Mr Toe turned out to be quite an interesting man and we ended up talking to him for about 1/2 hour – he taught English and told us how his papa had told him as a child that it was so important he learn English.
Another good example of ex-colonial buildings is the main train station – it looks so old!
To buy a ticket you have to walk to the booking office as they don’t sell tickets at the actual train station! The ticket office was far from what you imagine too.
Interestingly, accomodation and laundry services are much more expensive here compared our recently travelled countries. Accomodation because the majority of guesthouses are owned by the government, and the ones that weren’t government owned had to apply for an expensive permit, therefore the booking prices were high to cover costs.
Laundry because apparently there is a lack of laundrettes so it is a more specialised service (the majority of the locals hand wash).
We concluded that because tourism is in its infancy there is less competition which would drum prices down.
Food and travel however are very cheap – the average street food lunch/dinner will set you back a staggering 60p each! Popular dishes include a samosa salad – chopped samosa with tomato, shredded cabbage, chickpeas in a spicy broth, and coconut cake (delicious).
Tea is a big deal out here – you will more commonly see people socialising over tea then beer. The Myanmar tea is made from a very strong tea leaf, with a heafty amount of sweetened milk. Even though it’s so sweet, you can taste the strong tea through the sweetness – i’m a big fan but Paul isn’t so sure!
Transport wise, we have booked an overnight train from Yangon to Bagan, which is a 16 hour journey, for £8 per person. However, we have heard/read some interesting things about the train journey, so maybe there’s a reason it’s so cheap….we’ll have to wait and see!
We visited the Taukkyan war cemetary which is located on then outskirts of the city. The cemetary is kept in immaculate condition, and is a very peaceful place of rest for over 6000 brave men who lost their lives fighting in Burma during World War 2. Always such a moving and thoughtful place to spend time, remembering what these young men did for their country.
Moving on from the peaceful and sombre tone of Taukkyan, we also visited Yangon’s most famous sight, and Buddhism’s most sacred site – Shwedagon Paya.
This 325 foot monument is covered in gold leaf, and decorated with thousands of diamonds. It’s beleived that eight hairs of Gautama Buddha are enshrined within the monument. Surrounding the monument are many other shrines, all decorated lavishly and glowing golden in the sunlight.
This is a place to people watch – countless people praying and worshipping. As you can imagine this area is also a Mecca for Monks young and old, male and female.
So far in Yangon we have seen far more female monks than anywhere else. Interestingly, it isn’t expected of females to become monks, but they can choose that way of life if they wish. Female monks wear pale pink robes, and still shave their heads – males and females do this as it gives you no reason to concentrate on your image and to prene oneself.
A little background knowledge in regards to Buddhist monks:
A boy under the age of 10 is expected to enter monkhood as a novice for only one year, this year of monkhood is expected to be repeated again at the age of 20. They can also choose this lifestyle permenantly from any age, which will be looked upon very highly for both them and their family.
The majority of people in Myanmar are Buddhists, but there are also Islamic and Christian religions too. The ethnicity of Myanmar is generally made up from its bordering countries, with large numbers of Indians and Chinese.
The people are incredibly friendly, many wave and say hello when you pass them in the street. They seem very happy to have tourists here, and are proud to welcome you to Myanmar. One very kind man bought us lunch (he paid for us before he even told us bless him), which is very humbling considering these people do not have much money at all.
As you tend to find in these developing countries, the divide between rich and poor is big.
Another common issue is litter – and here in Yangon it is the worst we have ever seen. The streams we pass in the city are clogged up with years and years worth of litter – primarily plastic bottles. The water looks so heavily polluted, and absolutely stinks. On a walk to one of the city parks we came across a small river which stopped running midway as a dam of litter had accumulated.
So very sad to see, however we must remember most of these people are poor and have larger worries than ‘why do we not have bin men’. However, it is a concern as how are they going to get ontop of the problem? Hopefully the development of the city will include some type of refuge collection, but these do not tend to be the priorities of some of the Asian countries we have visited.
Anyway, alot of information to take in here, however this is such an interesting country to be travelling in during such a huge transition period hence why there is so much to be said!
Lets see how our train journey to Bagan goes….!
Just to add on the end – we saw a music video being filmed on a busy street in the city – we may have come across Yangon’s biggest heart throb!