Our mindset in Yangon could have been better. It feels terrible to say now, but I really longed for the creature comforts of the West. I wanted proper sidewalks (really, just a side walk without huge chunks of concrete missing would have been good). I wanted street lights. I wanted to not feel like a dick every time I had an interaction with a local in English (because in Amurica, you speak English! So with that logic, in Myanmar, you speak.. English?). AND I JUST WANTED RELIABLE ELECTRICITY AND HOT WATER. I know.. poor me. Like, I really do get it. I’m super lucky and super entitled.. and I’m super grateful I’ve had a life which has created these types of expectations. And I checked my privilege quite regularly during our times in SE Asia, but by the time we arrived in Yangon I was ready to move on. Trust me when I say, it is difficult to spend 5 months in a place far outside your comfort zone.
But despite not being in the best of spirits, I think we were still able to take away quite a bit from our experience in Yangon. I really, really liked Yangon. It is amazingly different from other big cities in Southeast Asia. First of all, the infrastructure is crumbling. As I mentioned above, most of the sidewalks have large chunks missing. The sections of sidewalk that do remain are stained red from the locals spitting betel juice. Numerous times we saw huge sections of sidewalk or road being worked on with holes 5 feet deep into the ground and the equally high mounds of dirt sitting next to it. Then you would see men climbing out of the hole entirely covered in black. No safety equipment at all. Pigeons and feral dogs roamed everywhere, with most of the latter looking like they parented too many pups and participated in too many street fights. Many buildings remain from the British colonization, however, they are slowly being overtaken by the black creep of decay. I know right about now, you’re probably wondering what exactly it is that I really liked? It isn’t all like this. There are some newer buildings, and there are dazzling pagodas all over the place. And I don’t know, the combination of the new buildings and the crumbling buildings just seemed to fit together.
And I haven’t even gotten to the people. The culture is just so.. nice. It’s different and.. charming? I don’t know.. it’s hard to not sound like an utter cliché. Don’t get me wrong.. there are many problems in this country. But I just loved the longyi (long skirt worn by both men and women) and the thanaka (a light yellow-ish cosmetic made from ground bark that many Burmese people wear on their face) and the lack of emphasis on cheating tourists for every last penny. Maybe they were cheating us.. but it never felt like it. You know, it will probably come.. and I won’t blame them. You do you, Burmese people. I’m just thankful I got to be a part of it now.
A fairly terrible night bus with seats that reclined like an airplane (rather than a full on horizontal shape like we’ve been used to for night buses). The bus station is quite a distance away from downtown, but there are many transportation options at the bus station. Taxi up.
Lotus Bed and Breakfast. This place was lousy. The staff was very pleasant, but we didn’t have power or hot water (we overlooked this when booking, so really our fault) when we arrived, and there were plumbing problems in the bathroom. On the good side they had delicious, authentic breakfast. The location was also in the downtown area, and the price was right.
Thanlwin Guesthouse. We moved to this guesthouse after a few days. It’s close to Inya Lake and super expensive (for us, at the time). But the guesthouse was gorgeous, and the food was inexpensive and delicious (seriously, eat ALL THE SHAN NOODELS). It was a good decision for us, but I’m glad we also stayed downtown for a few days. Balance, yo.
Hawker Noodle Place. Any time you see a place with a bunch of plastic tables and small chairs, full of locals, without any sort of order whatsoever. Sit down. You won’t regret it. Well, actually you might, but at least you’ll have a story to tell.
999 Shan Noodle Shop. Touristy authentic food. Delicious, cheap, and you can order in English.
Rangoon Teahouse. Expensive for a backpacker but really cool atmosphere and delicious food. Their tea was, not surprisingly, on-point.
Walking tour of the city. Yangon has a free walking tour, but unfortunately, it didn’t line up with the days we were there. We were bummed because it has great reviews online. Instead, we just looked up the highlights of the city, and we walked around by ourselves. As I previously mentioned, the architecture is really cool, but some of the buildings were crumbling. They still look really neat.. but the integrity of the structures is definitely questionable in some places.
Sakura tower. We went to the rooftop bar, and it was pretty cool. Drinks were expensive, but it was a fun experience, and the views were great.
Circle train. Oh, wowza. This was an experience. It was interesting to watch both the people on the train, and the scenes going on around the train. But first things first, the circle train is a slow, bumpy, old train that goes from the downtown area in a huge circle to the very outskirts of town (really into the country) and then sweeps back around the other side into downtown again. Inside the train, there were locals of all sorts going about their daily business. We saw the tattooed, strong-armed badass (like seriously, I think he could have killed us if he wanted to) who proceeded to buy the daily newspaper from a vendor and read it for the remainder of the journey. We saw middle-aged boys horsing around. We saw women carrying huge bags (I mean huge… If I curled up in a ball, I probably could have fit inside) of fresh produce. Vendors came in carrying trays of food on big platters balancing on their heads to sell to the riders. Outside the windows, things were just as interesting. We saw Burmese people tending to plants in patches of water up to their waists. We saw incredible poverty. There were so many shacks on stilts that looked to be one good rain away from complete flooding. There was garbage and muck and ragged looking dogs everywhere. And then a few blocks over were nice houses. It was one of the most eye opening things we did during our whole trip.
Shwedagon Pagoda. This pagoda is probably the biggest tourist attraction in Yangon. It is huge. And gorgeous. And full of locals (or at least Burmese people, I’m sure some of them were tourists themselves). And it was pouring rain when we went, but it didn’t make it any less cool.
Sketchy track workout. Sam wanted to do a track workout. And can ya believe it, Yangon has a track! So we set off to find it. We found it after walking through a series of decrepit gates and multiple packs of dogs on guard duty. There were obstacles on the track (per usual in SE Asia) and workers in the middle. A few cheered on Sam, but most just stared (per usual in SE Asia). After a few laps, a guy came up to Sam and said “no training” and basically insinuated that he would accept a bribe, otherwise we had to leave. Screw you dude. We left.
Ran around Inya Lake. A lot of expats run around Inya Lake. There is actually a running group that meets a few times a week in the area. A loop around the lake is approximately 10 kilometers. Probably 5K of this is on great sidewalks (those that are around the actual lake), while the rest of the loop goes through neighborhoods near the lake. Overall, it was as painless a running loop as one can find in Yangon.
Hip Hairstylists. The hosts at our second hotel hooked us up with a haircut place about a block away. They charged $1 for a haircut, and although it wasn’t the best haircut Sam got, the guy who gave it to him probably had the best hair cut of anyone that cut Sam’s hair.
Did I mention that I miss normal sidewalks?
Yangon vs Rangoon. This was confusing for us. Rangoon was the name of the city during British rule. Once the military Junta came into power they changed the name to Yangon because it is closer to the native name of the city (or something like that…I’m paraphrasing here). So in my understanding it is similar to the Mt. Everest/Sagarmatha debate.
Sam’s Face Infection. In Bagan it was dengue (probably). In Yangon, Sam somehow managed to let a small shaving cut turn into a full blown face infection. SE Asia – it really tried to kill him.
Lack of photos. We didn’t take enough pictures in Yangon to do it justice. I saw THIS article in the Air Asia sky magazine, and I really liked the pictures in it. It perfectly captures Yangon (although some pictures are from Mandalay).
Rohingya. I think we’ve mentioned that Myanmar is recently reopened to tourism. Myanmar had an oppressive government for many years. Recently, the USA has opened relations with Myanmar after some improvements of human rights and liberalization of government. However, things are not perfect. There are still ongoing conflicts with some ethnic tribes. A perfect example is the Rohingya population. The Rohingya are a Muslim group living in the northern mountains of Myanmar, and they have been termed as one of the most persecuted peoples in the world. Basically, as we understand it, the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations. But the Burmese government (and many Burmese people) refuse to accept the Rohingya. They believe them to be illegal immigrants from other countries (namely Bangladesh). But these other countries will also not accept them (once again, Bangladesh). This situation has led to the Rohingya people living in daily persecution and many have been placed in “refugee camps” of sorts in Myanmar with absolutely no rights. Many have tried to flee to other countries, and all sorts of terrible things have happened.
We met a girl at our second hotel that works for an NGO in Myanmar. Her work centers around issues with the Rohingya population. The NGO provides food and resources for the Rohingya population with literally no end in site. At this point, it’s not temporary relief. There is no plan to allow Rohingyas to have citizenship in Myanmar. The girl we met worked with victims of domestic violence. She told us how they essentially have no path of retribution (due to Myanmar not acknowledging them as citizens), so all she can really do is listen to their stories and try to help them cope. The other thing she told us is that the NGO has to provide services to the non-Rohingya population in the area as well in order to be accepted into the area. If they provided services only to the Rohingya population, they would face massive pushback from the rest of the society.
Sad, sad, sad stuff. Please read THIS to learn more.