My first impressions of Myanmar were well off my expectations. In the time leading up to leaving for wherever you may be travelling to, you see amazing photos of where you are going. They look incredible. Why don’t travel sites/magazines/agents etc show you some glorious beach with trash piled as high as sand-dunes? Well because they are selling you an illusion, a mirage in the desert. Would you want to go sunbathe on a beach like that?
All that I envisioned Myanmar to be revolved around the temples of Bagan, The U-Bein Bridge in Mandalay, the one legged rowers of Inle Lake, the list goes on. How many photos of Yangon have you seen? Well apart from the Shwedagon Pagoda. Not a whole lot I bet?
Most people like myself will arrive in Yangon. I know it’s going to be hard as you are all excited about your new adventure in Myanmar but try not to get too excited about Yangon. You will be left disappointed. Maybe my expectations were too high?
When the plane started its descent, I knew it was more than likely there was going to be rain. It was monsoon season after all, but it was holding off for the time being. We got a taxi from the airport to The Shannkalay hostel in downtown Yangon. It was a decent enough hostel for $20 a night. A room to yourself, air-con and breakfast included. Not a bad deal. Exhausted from the flight this seemed like a good a time as any to take a nap. After all who doesn’t like naps?
Waking up feeling refreshed and in need of some food, the Feel Myanmar restaurant had been recommended and it was also close to the Shwedagon Pagoda so I flagged down a taxi. To be a taxi driver in Yangon requires a few things. One: Concentration and two: You must show no fear or any kind of weakness to other drivers around you. As a passenger it was terrifying. At one point there were cars driving on the wrong side of the road towards us or maybe it was my driver on the wrong side? It was all very chaotic to understand what was actually going on. I’m not entirely sure there are any road rules or if you even need a license to be honest.
The relief at making it unscathed to the restaurant had certainly worked up an appetite. In the Feel Myanmar restaurant it is more of a buffet style. Not in the way that you strategically load your plate with as much food as humanly possible without it toppling over, but you go up and order what you would like and then they bring it over to you. By the time it has taken you to go up to the counter and order your food, you arrive back at your table to find a mass amount of food has already been delivered on top of what you have ordered. It was like a banquet but only two people were at the table. I cant complain though as I did my best to work my way through each delicious dish until I ran out of steam and couldn’t eat any more. The entire meal cost 10000 Kyat which was a little expensive but totally worth it.
The thing about Yangon is it’s pretty difficult to get around. There are no street signs, no landmarks and nowhere to cross the road so you would have to dodge the insane drivers. So I done what I thought best. I got in another taxi shut my eyes and told him to go to the Shwedagon Pagoda.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is beautiful. Maybe I just had a new appreciation for life after being in Yangon taxis? No, it is stunning. Not coming here would be like going to Paris and not going to see the Eiffel Tower or going to Rome and not seeing the Coliseum. This is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world. Made out of 27 metric tonnes of gold and encrusted with thousands of diamonds. Legend has it within the main pagoda lies strands of Buddha’s hair. There is a 8000 Kyat entrance fee but it is apparent that this money goes towards the up-keep of the pagoda.
As soon as I got here, paid my entrance fee and climbed to the top of the stairs, the rain I previously spoke of that was holding off couldn’t hold any more. It was as if the clouds had just burst open. If I were to describe the rain in one word it world be – Biblical. Out of nowhere a river appeared, flowing through the pagoda. At least the staff had the sense to put wet floor signs down which ironically were promptly swept away by the current. Trying to make the most of it we ventured out in the downpour briefly before seeking shelter again. I was approached by a man. An elderly man. He began telling me all about the pagoda and how it originated. I’ve read about how nice people from Myanmar are and they like to talk to foreigners to practice their English. Its wasn’t until he started showing me round a little that I realized I had been suckered. Well played tour guide. Well played. After saying “no tour” many, many times he finally got the hint and left me alone.
Accepting defeat from the monsoon and the fear of another tour guide looming round the corner I got yet another taxi to return me to the safety of my hotel. Little did we know that there was so much rain in such a short amount of time that it had flooded the city. There were parts that were at least knee deep. At one point the water had come into the taxi and was a few inches deep.
The rain continued throughout the next day although it was not as extreme as the previous day.To my surprise the flooding was gone. As if into thin air. Where did it all go? I’ve seen flooding on the news and cities have come to a stand still. Not here though. Everything was back up and running the next day. Incredible. So what do you do when it rains and you’re sitting around a hostel? You drink of coarse. It turns out that Myanmar has some pretty good beer. The most popular being called Myanmar. No points for originality but it definitely does the job. Relaxing in the hostel was a good chance to just kick back, recharge and chat with fellow travelers. It’s always good to share stories about where you have been or where you want to go. Sometimes this is just the kind of day that you need.
The rain receded the next day so it was time to get out and explore the city. One way to catch a glimpse into Yangon is to go to the train station and take the city loop train. The train is very slow and takes about 3 hours to go round the city so be sure to take lots of water and snacks with you. It only cost 200 Kyat as well so it’s a bargain. Taking this tour of the city is certainly an eye opener. The conditions that people live in are just terrible. Its really is sad to kids playing in lakes or puddles filled with garbage. This is their city though and this is how they have lived and its not up to me or you to change this, it is up to the people of Yangon.
I spent 3 days in Yangon and I know the rain played a big part in my disliking of this city but I think 2 days is probably enough time to spend here. I would like to go back to the Shwedagon Pagoda before I leave and also have a rummage through the Bogyoke Aung San market.
Where will I find the Myanmar I have seen in all the photographs and read so many great things about? Not in Yangon that’s for sure. I need to leave city life behind and look towards the more rural areas.
Top tips for Yangon
- Take taxis its much easier to get around. A taxi will cost roughly 2500 Kyat for a short journey.
- Rain or shine buy an umbrella.
- Watch out for tour guides at the Shwedagon. I’m still upset by this.
- Keep your passport in a zip-lock back to keep it dry.
- Even if the sun isn’t shinning drink plenty of water it will still be at least 30 degrees
- Take the city loop train to best experience what life in the city would be like.
Until next time bon voyage