Bangkok to Yangon could be the longest one hour flight in the world. Beyond Theravada Buddhism and curry, these places are starkly dissimilar. I knew this going in of course, and it was readily apparent on my two-thirds empty Air Asia flight. The flight included a group of Thai monks who, I assume by their excitement and that they were all taking pictures, had not flown before.
(Quick aside – I’m by no means complaining here, but I wonder how Air Asia makes any money on this route. I paid $172 round trip to fly on a gleamingly new plane with maybe 20 other people. Everyone had his or her own row. I suppose I bought a water that was marked up 20 baht, but that won’t buy a thimble full of jet fuel. High marks for old Air Asia so far this trip. Hot stewardesses too.)
I had been excited about going to Myanmar for some time. I’m close with a couple of people from there, so I wanted to see their homeland. Plus, Burma is different. It’s like, real, man. Traveling through Thailand is great, but when visiting Ko Phi Phi, Ko Pha Gnan, Ko Tao, Khoa San Road, one could assume that Thailand is a country comprised primarily of white people, and that the national dish is cordon bleu. Like every other backpacker, I spent a lot of time complaining to other backpackers about how there are too many backpackers. Then we’d go get a pizza and a whiskey bucket.
Yangon and Myanmar are plenty different. In Yangon, the taxis are pretty much shitty old cars from the 80s without air conditioning. People drive on the right as in America and Korea, but many of the cars have steering wheels on the right side, as they were imported from Japan or Thailand or Malaysia and never altered. Burma is the first country that I’ve ever been to that doesn’t have McDonald’s or 7-Eleven or Heineken. It’s the first place I’ve been where I’ve needed to carry around two currencies, as local kyat is used for some things and U.S. dollars are used for others. There is plenty more I could write about the duality of the Myanmar economy and politics. However, I’m working on a separate overall Burma essay to discuss these matters. Right now, I’ll try to stick to Yangon and do my usual thing.
The hotel I stayed at was a 9th floor walk-up. Given that, I generally planned my days around coming and going to my room as little as possible. The owner told me that he locks the door at 11 p.m., so don’t stay out after that. 11! Often times in Thailand, I didn’t even leave to go out until well after 11.
A bit culture-shocked, I walked to the first place I saw with food and beer, a couple blocks from my hotel. It was a Dagon Beer Station. A glass of beer ran 500 kyat, which is less than a dollar. I went simple on the menu – chicken curry, and didn’t go for the special of the day – hot dry frog. This bar had girls singing karaoke and then doing fashion shows, which I couldn’t quite figure out. Amongst the artists that the girls covered – Celine Dione and Richard Marx, in Burmese of course. I walked on to the next bar, the Zero Zone Rock Club, recommended by Lonely Planet. More of the same, fashion shows, karaoke, cheap beer, bunch of dudes sitting around with other dudes at the tables. Based on the door guys and the atmosphere, there was a sort of seedy element. I think I’d inadvertently come across the Yangon red light district. So far as red light districts go it was probably on about the same raunch level as Salt Lake City.
I went back to the first bar, mainly (sadly) because I saw some white people there, and I wanted to ask them about Yangon. The bar closed up shortly thereafter, and I went home, hoping I didn’t miss my lockout time. Turns out, it was just 10:30. 11 p.m. curfew was no worry – Yangon closes early.
I got up early the next day and ate the free hotel breakfast, which apparently is standard in Myanmar. I spent the whole day walking around Yangon in the sweltering heat, but not wanting to take refuge in my hotel due to the stairs. At the river, I met a 10 year old kid selling post cards, and he spoke near perfect English. I couldn’t quite get over the cognitive dissonance here. Clearly this kid was educated based on his English level, so why was he out hustling? I never learned why.
I’ll cover the tourist sites in the pictures section (a long one). After seeing the sights, I repaired to the 50th Street bar. It was air conditioned, comfortable, showed NBA playoffs, had wifi, sold wine and a wide menu of western food, and could have been anywhere. It was nothing like any other place that I had been in Yangon. This would make sense if it were the bar in a five star hotel, but it wasn’t. It was in a random alley, not particularly close to anything else of touristic interest. Also strange was that I had no sense of place in this bar. It could have been in Bangkok or Boise. In fact, I got so engrossed in my web surfing that when I left the bar, the whole notion of Yangon kind of blindsided me, like waking up on an airplane.
The next day, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in Yangon another day or if I wanted to hit the road. I sat in my room researching further afield. My original plan was to take it easy for a day in Yangon, then head to Bago the next day, a short ride. As I only had one plug, I had to alternate running my fan and charging my iPad. My place to hang out was hot and 9 floors up. I read about Kalaw, a city to the north in the mountains with cool weather. I took a walk around the block while I charged my iPad, hating the heat, hating the noise, sort of hating Yangon. Back at my hotel, I noticed that they sold tickets to Kalaw leaving at 2. It was 11:45. I bought a ticket without thinking twice.
I shared a taxi with a couple French girls that were catching a bus as well. It took nearly an hour and a half to get to the bus station. It was quite far, plus traffic and the roads are terrible. No air conditioning in the sweltering heat and constant stops made this a Pantheon level horrible taxi ride.
Southeast Asia has a strange habit of putting bus stations far away from the center of town. In the U.S., we have it down – we just put the bus station in the closest terrible neighborhood to downtown. Kuala Lumper was annoying, and Melaka was a bit of a pain. In Iloilo, Philippines, the bus station is so far out of town that a metered taxi ride there cost more than the 300 km bus ride. Still, Yangon puts them all to shame, as the bus station is actually farther out of town than the airport. Once there, I was glad I overpaid for my ticket at the hotel, as it was unquestionably the most confusing bus station I’ve ever seen. There was no “station” per say, just blocks and blocks of little storefront bus stations with one or two buses each. The driver asked some guy where we should go, and the guy tried to shake down the driver for a tip to tell him. I guess bus station touts are bus station touts.
On to the pics!
The main drag downtown, with Sule Pagoda in the distance. Sule was kind of an impressive looking pagoda, and parts of it are nearly 2,000 years old. This is the only picture of it that I included, even though I took more. Why? Shwedagon Paya, that’s why.
Bam! Burma’s holiest place, and quite possibly the most impressive religious single religious building that I’ve ever seen. The next several pictures are of Shwedagon Paya. I could write some descriptive captions on its history and importance, but I’m lazy. Plus, you’re as capable of going to wikipedia as I am.