The high praise and recommendations for Myanmar better not have ruined my experience. I’ve mentioned before how little I’ve known about the places I’m visiting, that I like to figure things out as I go along and go with an open and empty mind (within reason!).
Myanmar was not on my list when I left home, it hadn’t been considered. I didn’t know much about the country, hadn’t met anyone who had been and it just wasn’t on the radar. I think I also thought that it was still a no-go country and there simply wouldn’t be the possibility of going.
I realise that is not the case, the country has been working hard over the past few years to open up to foreigners and try and make good in the world again. I don’t know much of the history here, perhaps I never will. There are still vast areas that are completely off-limits to foreigners and I feel that even just wondering the streets of Yangon that there are still many secrets that will never be revealed.
Aside from all of that, I’ve come here because of the recommendation of people I’ve met on my travels. So many people have said that Myanmar has been their favourite country in South East Asia; that the people and culture are unlike anywhere else and you must absolutely go. I saw pictures of the fields and fields of temples in Bagan, golden pagodas and fishermen on lakes and I got caught up. This is a place I had to to visit.
I’ll be honest – I have only been here three nights, but the hype has yet to be lived up to. Yangon is the commercial capital of the country, and quite frankly, it’s a dirty, messy city. Traffic is chaotic and the footpaths are scrambled and falling apart. The buildings are a complete hodgepodge of old mixed with new, with wires hanging around all over the place. Satellite dishes hang from apartments, big spots of blue interrupting the grey and rusty colours of the concrete buildings, with yellowing air conditioning boxes filling in the other gaps. It does not look attractive.
There are some beautiful buildings – you can see they once were stunning with British facades and large columns – but they are in a massive state of disrepair. But the majority are just big, stark concrete buildings without character. At least the streets here make sense, they are in a grid like system (thank you!!!) so it is easy to walk around down town and find your way. Most of the lanes of traffic are one way, however that doesn’t stop the impatient drivers tooting their horns at other drivers, at pedestrians and anyone or anything else that gets in their way.
My hostel is on a main street in downtown and all day you hear the cars and buses rumble past – mainly the horns blaring and men yelling out of the buses announcing the route and stops. It does stop at 10pm, so getting to sleep is not a problem, but during they day – I may as well be back in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City!
It is also rainy season here. I’ve been a believer in not letting the weather disrupt your travel plans – we live on a planet that experiences all types of weather of which all are important for the planet. Some areas experience extreme weather, and others don’t. SE Asia gets extreme rain from May to October. It happens and it allows the land to regrow and refresh. Local people deal with this year in, year out. Why should us travellers allow a little rain to prevent us from visiting an area?
I’m not going to say I regret coming here, as I absolutely do not. I’m not going to wish the rain disappeared, but I do wish it would back off a bit. There have been a few dry spells throughout the days, but the sun hasn’t come out. The city is covered in a grey haze, with the sky completely overcast by low rainclouds. I’m sure with a blue sky and bright sun the city could be much more attractive.
So, my initial response to Myanmar was a mix of awe and fascination with a big side serving of disappointment. My flight from Bangkok was uneventful and pleasant, the flight wasn’t full and there was a spare seat next to me. Immigration was quick and simple – we all fought for a space at the small writing counters to complete our customs and arrivals cards – then straight to an immigration officer to present my passport, visa and documents. I was stamped into Myanmar with a slight nod and sent on my way. Had the officer not chatted to the security guard a little way off, I’d have been done much quicker.
I took the opportunity while waiting for my bag to use the ATM and withdraw some cash, hoping that 300,000MMK (Burmese Kyat) would be sufficient for now – at just under $300AUD I should be fine for 10 days… hopefully! Then my bag arrived, I didn’t have to fight crowds to get to the luggage belt and I was on my way. I handed my customs card to the guard by the green nothing-to-declare line and exited arrivals.
There were a number of people waiting and I found my name on a piece of paper, having arranged an arrival transfer with my hostel. He was a lovely older gentleman wearing a white business shirt and longyi – a sarong worn by men tied with a large knot at the front. Many of the men were wearing these and I tried not to be too obvious at looking at them all. I was thankful I had covered my shoulders, but was aware of my skirt barely skimming my knees.
The drive into town took over an hour – it was only 20kilometres away. The traffic was ridiculous with cars pushing in front of each other and seemingly making up their own road rules. We seemed to be stuck at an intersection for an exceptionally long period of time – as we passed through, I noticed some local men waving their hands about – acting as traffic controllers as the lights were not working. This was going to be an interesting journey.
As we got closer to town, I people-watched. The women were wearing beautiful brightly coloured skirts down to their ankles with matching tops, their dark hair flowing; the look of elegance. Many had what looked like dried mud on their faces, yellow circles on their cheeks, lines on their noses and foreheads. I’ve since learnt this acts as a protector against the sun and also is a type of make up – it makes you look more beautiful I was informed.
On arrival at my hostel, I was greeted warmly by Suu and checked in with no issue. I was shown to my dorm room – a four-bed room where I was the only occupant. The room had the smell of fresh paint and was clean. Oh so clean! I was told that another girl might check in later that night.
Whilst the city is wet and unattractive, the people are anything but. They are friendly and kind and full of smiles. I’m trying to smile as much as possible, build a small connection with people as I walk by and nowhere have the smiles been returned like they have been here. People talking to each other, on the phone or sitting at their stalls – they all smile back at me. Their eyes crinkle and their cheeks spread. Thailand is known as the land of smiles, but I think Myanmar may soon take that over.
Whilst I have not warmed to Yangon as a city, I have warmed to the people, the culture. Ugly buildings in disrepair and dirty footpaths covered in cracks and holes do not make a country’s essence. The people do. And so far, the people of Myanmar have not failed.
My first impressions are just that – my first impressions. As much as I’ve listened to everyone’s impressions – which are yet to be lived up to – I do still have many blank holes to fill on my own. There is plenty more to see and do in this country. I’ve only been here three nights and am moving on tomorrow night, there are plenty more impressions to be made.