Yangon, Myanmar… Welcome to the friendliest country in the world!
May 12, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
The cultural and economic capital of Myanmar (and former political capital), Yangon is gross yet endearing, dirty yet charming, poor yet rich. Here, people sleep on bamboo platforms by their street food stalls, missing concrete tiles on sidewalks reveal slimy sewage underneath, and the streets are dotted with betel-juice spit and snot-rockets.
But somehow, between the empty ruins of beautiful old colonial buildings now left to rats and dogs, the street crossings that feel like you’re playing Frogger, a 2,500 year-old pagoda that is now downtown’s main traffic circle, and some of the friendliest people in the world, it’s a city you can fall in love with.
Added perk, there are no motorbikes allowed in Yangon, and unlike in Thailand, people drive on the right side of the road (although the steering wheel can be on either side). But what’s most surprising is that the people really are super friendly. You think it’s an exaggeration when you are told that Myanmar may be the friendliest country in the world, but we have never experienced this level of friendliness before, or these enormous smiles that burst from everyone’s faces.
Apparently the city used to be called Dagon since its founding in the 11th century or some such, based on the Shwedagon Pagoda. It was renamed to Yangon (“end of strife”) during a country-wide unification at some point, phonetically based on Dagon. Then, the British renamed it Rangoon for their own pronunciation during the colonial period. But for the past 25 years, it’s back to Yangon… but even the people who politically call the country Burma still call the city Yangon. (We met just one person who said Rangoon.)
One of our best friends from home, Reese, joined us for a few weeks of exploration in Myanmar. We ended up spending a couple of days in Yangon at both the beginning and end of our time in the country, some with Reese and some before and after she was there.
Visible culture: The Longyi, Sandalwood, and Betel Nuts
The traditional clothing in Myanmar, for both men and women, is the longyi… and it has survived through the generations. A huge number (maybe half?) of both men and women here wear longyi, although they’re most striking on men because on women it just looks like a long skirt. Men’s and women’s longyis are effectively the same construction of fabric, but there are different colors/patterns and different ways of tying/fastening them for each gender. What’s amazing, particularly with men’s longyis, is that people wear them across demographics – older traditional people, young hipsters (the stylish haircuts and glasses, plus longyi), business men, manual laborers. For sports and manual labor, you can wear it short or even tuck it up like a diaper Gandhi-style. And the longyi goes with everything!
Mitch, realizing that the longyi is super-comfortable in the heat, started to wear his daily, adding to his red-headed fame as people would point to his longyi and give him an enthusiastic thumbs-up or come over to shake his hand.
Another immediately apparent local tradition is the use of sandalwood. Most women and children paint their faces with sandalwood – typically big patches on the cheeks, but sometimes also foreheads, noses, and even forearms. Apparently it’s useful as sun protection, skin treatment and lightener, plus has a lovely scent.
We should also note a few of the more gross cultural elements. A lot of people here chew this weird betel leaf, betel nut, lime, tobacco blend that is prepared at street vendors and sounds like what is common in India, and a similar concept to chewing coca leaves in the Andes in South America. The streets are covered with the red spray from betel chewage that they constantly chew and spit, and people’s teeth are pretty gnarly-looking from it.
We can’t comment on the red betel-spit without mentioning this remarkably talented nose-blowing technique that adds to the street slime. Many people (both male and female) muster up whatever mucus they can, hold a finger over one nostril, and you guessed it – hock up a lovely snot rocket onto the street.
Or, how many little kids you see smoking cigarettes. Some of them must be 8 or 10 years old, and yet they’re sitting there sharing a cigarette with their father as though no one ever got the memo that this may not be the best idea. Anyhow….
Chan Myaye Guesthouse
We had pre-booked the Chan Myaye (or Chan Myae) Guesthouse based on web reviews, and we were not disappointed. Our room is nice, spacious, air-conditioned & fanned, and clean, with plenty of windows and a private balcony, for $35 USD per night for 2 of us (and $45/night when it’s 3 of us), including a good breakfast. We probably could have found a cheaper place to stay, but their staff and service here are super lovely, and we have been really pleased with it. If you need to stay after check out time or arrive before your room is ready for check in, you can take a shower in the dorms, which look super fancy.
One day, I gave a hoop lesson to some of the girls who work here. It’s interesting because some of them have never even tried hula hooping before, even as kids, and it was challenging to loosen their hips away from their shoulders – I wonder if dancing is not a part of the culture for women here.
From our room and our little balcony we can see a beautiful old colonial building across the street that now looks as trashed and packed with people as anywhere else, laundry hanging out the windows. At night, we can hear the incessant territory quarrels of 2 cats who share a roof across the street. Our poor little Neko would not survive a day here.
Food in a land of tiny plastic stools
Within Yangon, there are not many “restaurants” qua restaurants, unless you want to pay 10 times the appropriate price, and it is rare to walk through a “door” to go into an eatery. There are a ton of street food areas with some great food, and also a ton of semi-clean indoor restaurants that feel like they are only half-indoors. All that said, somehow none of us got sick.
Myanmar seems to have more ethnic diversity than many of the other countries we’ve visited lately, and culturally seems to draw from some of its neighbors, including Thailand, China, and India. As usual, food is a huge indicator of culture, and there are a ton of Chinese and Indian places to eat, and the local food seems to draw heavily on all these influences. The Indian influence is particularly strong, and apparently at times the British considered Burma to be part of their Indian colony.
We are big fans of Indian food and obviously excited by a plethora of Indian restaurants near Sule Pagoda (plus some scattered elsewhere). We had the best daal and biryani of our lives here, and some great naan that this guy would shape and bake right in front of us. Most of it is super cheap – we often paid about $4 for a meal for both of us, and that was at the westerner-ripoff-price.
Chai tea abounds, and it’s super delicious thanks to local spices and sweetened condensed milk. In Yangon, it’s is mostly at Indian restaurants and specific “teahouses” (and by “teahouse,” we often mean street food area). But in other parts of the country, you can go to these teahouse things (semi indoor, semi outdoor) and get chai tea with these fantastic heavy sweet-corn filled doughnut things. (Note: The below photos were actually taken in Bagan, but it was the same basic idea everywhere.) They do love their sugar here – and we had faludas for the first time, the stupid-sweet Indian beverages that I had only ever heard rumor of before.
In addition to chai, the other beverage of choice is Tang (you remember it?). Usually if you are offered “juice” or get “juice” with your hotel breakfast, it means Tang. Although on one night bus, through some glitch of translation, “juice” actually meant Coca Cola. Go figure.
A few nights for dinner, we walked to 19th Street, where you can get $0.80 mojitos and have a feast of Chinese barbecue. You can go up to the counter, point at what you want, then they grill it up for you.
In a fun treat/experiment, we went to Yhet’s Sushi & Soba for dinner, a Japanese restaurant that is brand spanking new (no English menu yet, grand opening next month) and run by this guy named Hiro who has been here 6 months. We had popped into to look at their menu because their outdoor sign was intriguing, and Hiro had told us we should go back the next day for a meal. Without a menu, we just let Hiro decide what dishes to serve us… Japanese leek, taro root, lotus root and shrimp cakes, salad, salmon, soba noodles eaten the traditional way (you dunk each bite of noodles into sauce then at the end add miso to the sauce to make soup, with noodles made in-house). It was an amazing meal, while Hiro taught the staff about quality service and was super lovely and attentive to us (we are now Facebook friends). We had a fancy ($18 for two of us!) dinner, plus Hiro gifted us a few things. We realized that, above and beyond, we were just thrilled to eat a different cuisine and style of flavoring.
We splurged a couple of times on super fancy cocktails… We went to the bar at the famed Strand Hotel, where on Friday nights they have half price fancy cocktails all night with free canapés. And on our last night, we decided to use our extra kyat (the local currency) for a fancy cocktail at the top (20th floor) of the Sakura tower, where we had a gorgeous corner-table view of the Shwedagon, plus delicious cocktails & Mitch’s last Myanmar beer. Note: their unadvertised 2-for-1 beer happy hour is 6-7pm, which didn’t help us when we arrived at 8:30.
Sule Pagoda & Downtown Wanderings
Yangon is a huge sprawling city, but the downtown area centers around the Sule Pagoda, a gorgeous 2,500-year-old pagoda built during the time of the Buddha that now serves both as religious monument and major traffic circle.
Walking around downtown, it’s incredible to see such diversity. We walked by temples of several different religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity (Catholicism as well as several Protestant sects), and Judaism. The Jewish synagogue was particularly interesting to us. Apparently there used to be a sizeable (3,000 people) Jewish community here, including the Mayor at one point, who descended largely from expats from Baghdad. Now, they are down to 20 Jews in Myanmar, including the guy who takes care of the synagogue. (I assume that did not include expats who don’t go to synagogue.)
Throughout downtown Yangon, it’s fascinating to see these beautiful colonial buildings that are totally fallen to shit, shells of the grandeur that once was. Some of these beautiful buildings (most of the government-owned ones) are completely empty or occupied just by one snoozing security guard or squatting families, or rats and stray dogs. Others are now packed apartment buildings.
We saw a protest that has been going on for a few weeks now… peasants against a Chinese mining company that seems to be forcibly buying people’s land. They are camping out by the side of a big park in the downtown area and marching around the park daily, with two guys carrying a table with the megaphone battery and speakers as they go. It’s memorable … “the distinguishing feature of universal poverty is landlessness.” So true.
One afternoon we chilled out in the main downtown park, which was quite lovely. There was a stage set up in the park for a music show, and they prepped it all afternoon until the park closed around sundown and they directed the speakers to people on the streets outside the park. It was bizarre… they must have asked a local DJ to begin with a short set to pump up the crowd, because all of a sudden there was this loud, super bassy, grimy, hardcore 10-minute electronic DJ set featuring a song whose main lyrics were “move bitch!” Super weird. From there, it transitioned to a gentle guitar trio that sounded like a Burmese Santana.
We thought the main market was a bit of a disappointment – lots of legit expensive jewelry and textile related stuff, but we didn’t see much else. It turns out that the more useful markets are just across the street and away from where the tourists shop. There are more markets in the Chinatown area and between Chinatown (19th St) and the main market, where you can get longyi’s and other necessities for life in Myanmar.
One day, we went off in search of a place to fix a rip in Mitch’s shirt and discovered a market full of people with sewing machines doing on-the-spot tailoring – I watched someone literally piecing a shirt together from scraps. This tailor-market was next to the area where you find the bags-and-jeans tailors, and near the upholstery-tailors.
On another wandering, we stopped by an adorable but pricey tourist-oriented gift store called Pomelo, where they have a 10,000 Villages vibe but work with specific disadvantaged groups.
The biggest tourist attraction in Yangon (possibly in all of Myanmar) is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a 99-meter tall giant gold pagoda complex in the middle of town. We don’t use the word “complex” lightly… it’s an enormous environment, with the huge stuppa in the middle of dozens of temples and hundreds of Buddhas in the complex. Buddhist stuppas apparently each have some artifact from Buddha or an important monk in the middle; this one apparently has 8 hairs, so it is very special. The whole thing glitters and sparkles with gold leaf, fake gold leaf, glass tile, and a variety of LED lights that would make any non-light-up Buddha jealous. There are literally TONS of gold in this thing (our guide said 5 tons just in the umbrella), plus THOUSANDS of diamonds, rubies, etc. It’s decadent to the max but worth experiencing. Although, at the same time, you can’t help but wonder how many of the poor people in this country would be less poor if some of these riches were distributed.
We hired a guide, Zolan, to show us around and explain things, which was fun and worthwhile, and we stayed through sunset, when the lights start to catch the shimmering gold and the LED lights really shine. Reese and I stopped by day of the week Buddhas – I was born on a Monday so I went to the Monday corner and poured 33 little cups of water (1 per year of life) onto the Monday Buddha and the tiger, the Monday animal. Apparently here, instead of using traditional zodiac signs, they rely on day of the week signs. (I’m Monday, a tiger. Reese is Tuesday, a lion. And Mitch is Wednesday morning, a tusked elephant.) And, apparently people don’t use surnames from their parents, but instead have names related to their day of the week. So you may hear on a job interview that your day doesn’t work well with other days – sorry.
It is interesting that here is this huge pagoda complex, with a handful of tourists… but most of the people here have come to pray or meditate, or are people (including monks) from different parts of Myanmar who have come here for their own site seeing or pilgrimages.
During most of the rest of our time in SE Asia, we have not seen many monks actually in meditation (seeing them snapping photos on smartphones or drinking Coca Cola is more likely), and we have seen more tourists than followers at most religious monuments. It seems to be different here in Myanmar; for the first time, it seems like people are actually praying and meditating in these spaces.
Kaw Daw Gyi Lake
There are two lakes within the city of Yangon; one day we went to the Kaw Daw Gyi Lake (ie: park) in the middle of town. We walked around the lake, which was quite pretty, with huge swathes covered in lotus flowers that seemed to be being cleared and/or collected. We stopped by the Utopia tower, a bizarre structure in the middle of the park with a viewpoint at the top and several establishments inside, including an overpriced gallery. We had lunch at “The Best” restaurant which was nifty because it was a platform that hung over the lake, so quite pretty. We’re not sure if the food was the “best,” but it was tasty.
We found an artist, Min Min Htun, who was selling his work and friends’ work and we bought a few pieces. Amazingly, we had seen a work by one of the same artists in a gallery for $250, but Min was selling them for tremendously reasonable prices. He said that he had studied at the visual arts school here in Yangon and met several of the other artists he was selling there.
We were inspired by some of the local art scene and went for a long walk around a few of the art galleries in the downtown area. There is some great work here, and a few sweet little exhibitions. One gallery had these phenomenally realistic and striking portrait paintings of novice monks. Others had more abstract paintings of monks, temples and pagodas, natural scenes, and there were a few really neat mixed media or heavily painted pieces.
One day, at the recommendation of friends who had recently visited Yangon, we took a cab to People’s Park. It’s in the middle of the city and a $5 entrance for foreigners to wander around. It’s super adorable because there is this whole love-themed area with heart everythings (benches, lights, shrubbery) and local couples whispering sweet nothings hidden under umbrellas. There’s also a little amusement park, as well as an old airplane that was just taken out of commission a few years ago, plus a beautiful view of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Across the river to Dala
If you wander to the Pansodan Jetty in downtown Yangon, you can get a short ferry ride across the river for $4 round trip per person (you probably don’t need to pay at all though – they never check tickets). Across the river is the town of Dala, where there’s much less of an urban feel than in Yangon.
We decided to give a few dollars to an 11-year-old kid to be our guide, which later became uncomfortable because he said he didn’t want to take our money because it was too little – which was likely a ploy, and it worked. After a “if you like it, pay whatever you want” spiel before we went with him, he ended up rejecting our $4 because it was too little and we ended up giving him $5. He says he is supporting his family and sisters, but who knows. Here it seems like the little kids are the ones learning how to rip off tourists! We also paid $6 each to a couple of bicycle rickshaw drivers who took us around Dala (they asked $8, we negotiated to $5, but then they deserved a tip).
We had limited time before Reese had to leave for the airport, so we just spent an hour or so in Dala… a quick stop at a market and a stop at a pagoda which houses a gilded monk corpse with one eye open or some such.
One of the rickshaw drivers, Sule, was amazing. He gave us tons of new words and information and had fantastic English. He apparently went to school through 4th grade and now supports his mom, wife, and 2 daughters. Obviously we can garner nuggets of information from our interactions here over two weeks, but it was striking just how much education people seem to have, and how good their English is. While this may be an overwhelmingly impoverished country, people seem to really value their education and that of their children.
Sule has one of those magical Myanmar smiles, and was so welcoming and happy to talk to us that he followed us onto the ferry back to Yangon so he could sit with us and we could all drink chai together in little plastic stools.
Walking Tour with Gino
Our hotel had a flyer for a new walking tour of downtown Yangon every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so we decided to check it out. It was definitely worth checking out… Gino, a nice Aussie kid who decided to leave his “normal life” and get a teaching job in Yangon, has been here for a year and had lots of enthusiasm and information. He may not be from Myanmar, but it seems like the local welcoming smile and friendliness extends to the expats here. He focused a lot on the major buildings in the downtown and the remnants that you can see now from Yangon’s colonial history, and Gino points out a lot of details you might not otherwise notice. Plus, he has a really unique perspective on local culture and daily life.
Extra great is that Gino sends a personal follow-up email to everyone after their tour along with some great tips about the city and stuff to see, which is how we found out about some of the things detailed here (including the best daal we have ever eaten). And he’s wonderfully personable – we ran into him at the Strand Hotel bar a couple of days after we met him, and he was warm, friendly, and then we ended up having dinner with him and a few of his friends. High praise and worth a couple of hours for a visit to Yangon.
Circle Line Train
The Circle Line Train is, surprisingly, one of the more touristed things to do in Yangon; we ran into about 8 other foreigners, which is far more than usual. It’s a 3-hour circle commuter train around Yangon that takes you through villages, markets, farms, industrial areas, etc. We got to the station at 10:20 and the next train left at 10:45am, but after the staff took our $0.30 fare each, they came out to make sure that we were on the right train… People here really do take care of “their” foreigners (whenever we are entrusted to their custody). It was a totally worthwhile experience even though it is one of the tourists-must-do things in Yangon.
One favorite moment… there were many people smiling and waving to the westerners aboard as we rolled past, but there was this one older couple who insisted, positively insisted, on giving us their plastic baggie with lunch snack (delicious sticky rice with beans and salty dried coconut) through the train window. The lady literally followed up my smile-wave-mingalaba (mingalaba means hello!) response to her smile-wave-mingalaba by rushing to the outside of the train window and forcing the snack bag into my hand. It’s yet one more testament to the generosity of this country, despite their “poverty” level.
As usual, here’s a collection of photos from our time in Yangon: