Yangon where east meets further east
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I'd shown someone round the north west of
Thailand and my reward, due to someone dropping out, was a free hotel for three nights in Yangon,
Myanmar. Formally named Rangoon this city had held a fascination for me since I
was a child looking at posters for P&O Cruises, so I jumped at the chance.
I got an e-visa on line so didn't have to
send passport off or wait in an embassy for hours. All you do is just
download and print the document they send you and that's it except for the
hefty charge of £50 plus although considerably less if obtained in UK.
We flew in from Chiang Mai, northern
Thailand. The first thing I noticed in the airport arrivals were men in skirts
and everyone spoke broken English, as I said to my friend it's like Glasgow
only the kilts are longer.
My friend joined a queue to get some local
currency for the taxi as I spent my time trying to figure out an easy mental
conversion for the money, it came down to roughly 60p for 1000 kyat but still
made paying for a beer an instant "How much!!?" when asked to pay
1500 kyat. The taxi instantly quoted the price in US dollar which my friend had
just changed but settled for 8000 kyat for an hour’s drive down through the
city to the old part off the city. I leave you to do the maths. This area is
old colonial with magnificent buildings still in use as government offices,
narrow streets housing every conceivable profession and that overwhelming smell
of street-cooking, spices, exhaust fumes with just a hint of open sewers. It
brought back memories of Singapore when I first went there back in 1963.
Our hotel was located down a narrow dim
street that I would normally avoid or scurry through. We drew up at a scruffy
doorway and out stepped a smartly dressed doorman who took our bags and ushered
us in the door and up a small flight of stairs to a lift. The lift stopped at
the third floor and opened into the 'Tardis', the hotel had somehow
bought all the floors of the adjacent buildings above the first floor and
extended upwards crowning it all with a rooftop restaurant/ breakfast area that
gave views of the busy river and the shining pagoda Shwedagon Paya that
overlooks the whole city.
After checking in it was time to explore
the locality. The hotel was between China town if you turned left and little
India if you went right. The aromatic aroma at the end of the street was an
appetising mixture of Far East and even further East spices. Our hotel was
ideally situated for savouring the real untouched Yangon unlike some of the
better hotels in the newer parts that are in a more clinical surrounding.
The streets were full of shops selling
anything you could wish for interspersed with street stalls plying iced drink
from an open bowl with communal cups others rolling a beetle nut in a slaked
lime mixture then into a leaf which the purchaser put inside their gum to give
energy. Then there were the spice shops with both cultural areas having their
distinctive identifying smells that instantly told you which quarter you were
After a roof top dinner watching the sun go
down, the after dinner stroll led us to 19 Street a narrow road about 300
meters long with all manner of bars, restaurants and food shops. Keen to try
the local beer I stopped outside a packed bar on a corner at the end of the
street and stood longingly looking in as the owner invited me in for a beer
"no room to sit" I said, "no problem sir just wait a
minute", so I did. They proceeded to back a truck up to the pavement and
loaded on tables and chairs, a set of steps then invited me on to sit and
drink! Unfortunately the tour round the streets didn't happen but I certainly
got a lofty view! It became apparent that US dollars are the preferred currency
as most things, including the hotel, are priced in dollars.
Next day we decided to do the sights so telephoned our taxi driver for his services. He took us to places no tour would normally venture to with lunch in a locals food market and after a huge reclining Buddha the Jewel of the city Shewadagon Paya pagoda. It's on a steep hill and pilgrims labour up the forever steps but I took the lift it was too hot for exertion. There are five ways in and very easy to loose where you came in so taking note of something that isn't gold helps to find your exit. A big minus is they make you take your shoes off to walk on the shiny tiles inside the pagoda complex. Not a problem at night but under a tropical sun? Bad news, with everyone vying for what little shaded areas there is to walk on. Now I knew what ‘hot footing it’ meant. It sounded like a monkey park with the tourist ‘ooh oohing’ everywhere and of course the monks walking around serenely and not even flinching. Handy tip; take socks. A stunning pagoda covered in real gold tiles they told me, how much would that have costs? As I expected the views over the city are exceptional. We looked in at a pier on the way back, its pontoon was the boarding platform for the scores of small boats ferrying people back and forth across the wide river. Our driver told me the other side was where the slums were. Looking around me I thought it's got to be bad if it's worse than this. It was a good day out totalling seven hours and all the driver charged us was roughly £6. The evening meal was taken in 19 Street as the food places there had a great selection of local fare. It was only after the meal that I strolled to the men's room only to find it tucked into the corner of the kitchen next to where the dishes were washed! I didn't let my dining companion into the secret I had found. Handy tip to self; check toilet out before you eat.
The next morning was greeted by loud bangs,
odd sounding music and a lot of hubbub. On arriving at the top of our street we
found a Chinese dragon accompanied by loud firecrackers that make your ears
ring and played havoc with my Tinitus. Escaping to the right we came across an
Indian celebration whose centre piece was an ornate carriage drawn by four
white oxen also decorated and dancers with hats made from what looked like tea
bushes, everyone was dressed up and their faces decorated with patterns painted
yellow using the bark from a Thanakha tree mixed with water. It was some start
to the day and snapped me out of my slow wake up I was having.
My companion moved on to take a cruise up
the Irrawaddy so I opted to take a train that runs around Yangon very much like
the M25 does London. I was assured the train had air conditioning which I was
looking forwards to after my mile walk from the hotel in 34C temperatures. What
I actually boarded was an extremely packed, windows open, fans in the roof
train full of people walking through hawking every kind of food and drinks. All
of them shouting their wares trying to be louder than their opposition with a
confusion of smells from exotic fruits to less hygienic bodies. After a few
stops the passengers thinned out a bit and I managed to grab a seat. It was a
three and a half hour journey through the slums, open fields and back to slums
on a railway system built during the British empire days and not much
maintenance done afterwards. Back then to the hotel for my last night and maybe
sit in the back of a lorry for a few hours.
A thoroughly worthwhile experience sampling
everyday life in Yangon.
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