After five nights in Mandalay, three in Bagan, three in Nyaungshwe, one in a monastery in the hills, and two in Kalaw, it was time to go back to where I started, back to Yangon. As you can probably guess from my extended stay in Mandalay and the fact that I opted for a day bus to Yangon rather than a time-saving night bus – I was really in no hurry to return. After all, I mainly remembered the noise, the heat, and the nine flights of stairs to get to my shitbox fan-cooled room.
I realize my first impression of Yangon was a bit skewed of course, as I was coming from Bangkok. It was kind of like going from New York to Baltimore. Sure, Baltimore is nice enough, but it feels like a total backwater when coming in from the big city. This time, coming to Yangon from Mandalay, it was obvious that Yangon was the most modern, cosmopolitan place in the country.
When I first came into Yangon, I immediately noticed the large percentage of the population that wore traditional clothes, say 72% of the populace verses Bangkok’s 0%. On my return, the 28% or so of Burmese people wearing western clothes (dudes in jeans or board shorts! chicks in short skirts!) was much more noticeable, since that percentage upcountry is probably more like 2% (and, sadly, 0% on the short skirt front). I was also surprised how relatively impressive the skyline looked, how varied the restaurants were, and how many air conditioned eateries were available compared to the hinterland.
I stayed in the Okinawa Guesthouse this time. While better than the White House, the Okinawa was still a dump compared to the hotels upcountry. $15 got me a fan cooled room with an under stuffed-mattress on the floor with a bathroom down the stairs. Like at the White House, only one plug outlet worked, so I had to choose between charging my iPad or using the fan.
Hotels are a real problem in Yangon. Mid-range joints that are listed at $25-30 in Lonely Planet now all charge a minimum of $60, tough to do for a backpacker, particularly in a country that doesn’t have ATMs or take plastic. Budget rooms are a bit pricy for a budget room, $15-20, and they tend to be much worse than a $10 room in Bangkok. Even worse, Yangon hoteliers had a banner year during the high season, so every hotel plans to jack up its rate 30% this fall. I only stayed at two different Yangon hotels, but every traveler in Myanmar passes through Yangon at some point, and when I asked for recommendations from others on the road, nobody had anything good to say.
I woke up early on my last morning in Yangon, in Burma. As I opted to keep my fan plugged in overnight, I wanted to do some touring and to charge my iPad while I did. After hotel breakfast (which was the local variety and really tasty – high marks for the Okinawa in that regard) I walked along the colonial streets to the old colonial grande dame of Yangon – the Strand Hotel. I often like to get a drink in the fanciest hotel in town, but I was too tired to bother going out the night before. Instead, I stopped at the Strand for a coffee. Full disclosure: I would have gotten a Bloody Mary, but the bar wasn’t open at 8 a.m.
Next, I followed advice from a friend and headed down to the jetty so I could take the boat to Dallah, a smaller town on the other side of the river. I overpaid for the boat using kyat rather than dollars, but this was good for two reasons- a) I got rid of a couple thousand kyat, which would be worthless to me in a few hours, and b) the government didn’t get any hard currency. I rode a trishaw and checked out a pagoda on the other side of the river, but I didn’t linger long, I was more interested in the boat ride itself than Dallah.
I considered taking the bus to the airport, but I opted for a taxi simply because it was more expensive, and I was on full-on kyat-dump mode. Plus, I got to stop by Yangon’s main market for the first time and buy a couple souvenirs on my way out, leaving me just enough kyat left over to catch a buzz at the airport bar.
On to the Yangon pics – for the second time.