Yangon

Trip Start Oct 30, 2012
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Trip End Feb 06, 2013


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Flag of Myanmar  , Yangon Region,
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Well, what do we say about Yangon? Our first encounter with Burma, or Myanmar. Arriving at the airport is nothing special, except that we were too early for the money exchange counters to open. No banker works before 9 AM apparently, not even in Burma. We get into a very old taxi, feeling the springs pricking our buttocks, which at first isn't too bad untill we get to the old center where the potholes become deeper and more numerous. And then the driver tells us he is available for tours across the country and shows us different itineraries, for 1 week, 2 weeks or even 3. Very nice but in this car on these roads? We have been warned that cars on longer hauls (like Yangon to Mandalay) tend to break down and you get stuck somewhere in the middle. Now we know why.

Arriving at the Queens Park Hotel we already get a glimps of the surrounding area: dirty, busy, everything happening on the street, old buildings in decay. All in all not a bad impression untill we start walking around and we are in shock. We hadn't imagined this when reading the Loneley Planet (which, by the way, is very outdated even when it is the 2012 version. Especially the prices mentioned are not anywhere near the reality). The nice thing about Yangon is that people tend to leave you alone. They live their lives and are not really interested in tourists, generally speaking. You do get stared at sometimes and if you smile they mostly smile back, but the street stalls are there for the Burmese people and not for us. Everything around us is old, dirty, broken, smelling (bad or good). We are reminded more of neighbouring India than of closeby Bangkok. Very nice are some of the teahouses where you can eat and get as much tea as you like for free with it. On the street we see a lot of people sitting behind a table with an old fashioned telephone on it. For a few Kyat you can make a call.

Later we learn that this part of Yangon, although it is the official town center, is now seen as quite hopeless and (or because it's) mostly Muslim. That is the equivalent of 'no good' in Myanmar. If you go further north, towards the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, you see a different Yangon. Cleaner, more facilities, better housing, nicer shops, mobile phones and better dressed people. That first night we are still a little in shock and tired from our first impressions when we get into a taxi to meet Pierre, a friend of Nicole who is living in Yangon since a couple of months. We meet at the Savoy hotel and step into another world again: the Western enclave in Yangon. We have a very nice evening together, talking mostly about life in Myanmar and Southeast Asia in general. Expectations for the coming years are high, although opinions vary how quickly it will move. The 2015 elections are crucial as the government will then have to show it's true colors: will they honour a result that is not in their favour? Foreign investments, especially from big hotels are coming in, especially after Obama's visit last week, but the government is unpredictable so it is all still a risk. Rumour has it that they want Yangon to become the next Singapore in 5 years....... We don't see that happening, at least not so soon.

Tuesday morning we use to really truly arrive here, meaning sleeping long, reading and talking. Then we go for lunch near the Shwedagon Pagoda at a place called Aung Thukha, a teahouse that apparently is somewhat of an institute here. And it is amazing! Full of people, as soon as you come in one of the nice waitresses takes you under her wings, assigning a table, showing you the food which you pick at a counter and explaining everything. Real Myanmar food, curries of pork, venison and hige prawn, oily as the food here is, but very tasty. We also get a dish of peanuts with fermented tealeaves, which is a common salad here, a new, interesting taste for us; a traditional soup with ginger and something that looks like wood and doesn't taste edible and a plate of cucumber and lettuce which we ignore with respect for our much tested intestines. All in all an inspiring Myanmar food experience.

Then we are off to the Shwedagon. Or so we think. A very heavy rainstorm prevents us from doing so. Luckily we find shelter just in time under the porch of a karaoke place. It is raining so hard that we cannot believe it will last very long, so we decide to waitit out. Wrong! The rain will last the whole afternoon and we get stuck there for hours, seeing the trendy and rich Myanmar kids come and go. Karaoke is big here as an afternoon activity.

Finally we decide to wait no longer and we walk to the pagoda in the rain. As tomorrow is the full moon festival the place is packed with people from all over the country, many of whom have not seen tourists very often. We are the real attraction here! In spite of the rain we have a great time interacting with the people, taking cover in different temples, looking at all the amazing Buddha images, glitter, lights and gold. So much gold! Tonight the pagoda will be open all night and people stay here untill the morning when the highlight of the festival is done: offering to the Buddha around 3 AM. Driving to the airport the following morning we see a lot of people walking and driving home from the pagoda.

We are really lucky to be here on this day. No sun, but the most special day of the year here. On one of the squares we see a big podium on which looms are set up. To the side a row of sawing machines. We learn from 2 students that a big weaving contest will start at 5 PM, making the robe for the Buddha. Teams of mostly women in colourfull outfit gather and then everyone stands in line for the procession around the pagoda. Great photo opp, so some of the touristsreally go out of their minds, pushing their big lenses into everyones faces. Although they don't seem to care, we are horrified how disrespectful foreigners can behave.
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