We arrived at the hotel in Yangon and into organised chaos, a narrow but tall colonial building with steep narrow staircase packed to the rafters with foreigners and numerous young men wearing longyis (the traditional skirt/sarong that most men here wear) and white shirts scurrying around the building as they performed their dual role as porters and housekeeping. We’d emailed 6 hotels and this was the only one that replied. Our bags got carried up for us by the porters and the air con got fiddled with until it came on. It was good to have somewhere to sleep for the first night but it was more than we wanted to pay and we didn’t particularly like it, a small room that smelt slightly damp and a tv that could barely be tuned to one channel, then the never ending organised chaos. Still it served a purpose and they did a great breakfast (though even that was chaotic).
We freshened up and headed straight out to find food. It wasn’t 7:30pm but Malaysian time it was nearly 9pm and we were famished. It was dark and we quickly discovered that side streets like ours didn’t have anything resembling a pavement (and where they do have them they’re hazardous anyway, uneven, wobbly and full of holes). We followed the locals and on the small roads walked down the road dodging the traffic and on the bigger ones walked slowly and carefully down the pavement. It was dark and we didn’t feel like getting lost on the first night so we didn’t venture far, basically stopping at the first place that looked like it did edible food and was busy.
After dinner we went on a mission to find another hotel for the rest of our time n Yangon. We found one only two streets away and it proved what a rip off our current hotel was but that is often the case when places get a listing in the guidebook, the price increases by 50%. We were chuffed to have found somewhere better and for two thirds of the price. Locals outnumbered the foreign tourists there too.
After breakfast and moving hotels the next morning we got ourselves ripped off by following the advice of the guidebook and changing money on the black market (last year you got a pathetic official rate and 10 times more on the black market, close to what the official rate is now of around 850-870 kyat to 1US$) on the black market they’ll offer up to 900 to 1 US but rip you off in the process so you actually get a worse rate. It was only after we had changed money that people started to tell us to use banks and don’t change on the black market as they rip you off. We weren’t silly enough to change much, we only changed a relatively small amount to test the water so luckily it only cost us a few dollars. They had given us the kyat in 1,000 bills which equalled a massive bundle we had to count and keep track of, they helpfully gave us an elastic band at the end and they’d given us 1 note extra which of course we’d given back. There was 2 of them and it was raining. We were annoyed at ourselves for making such a rookie mistake to get ourselves ripped off. But it was a Sunday so we had no other options anyway and it meant that we didn’t have to spend the day worrying if we had enough to see us through to Monday morning.
Now we could afford to pay for them we decided to get our bus tickets out of Yangon for a couple of days time. We made a new friend, an old man who picked us up at a junction and started talking to us as it gently rained. He insisted on taking us to the bus company offices and showed us the best one for Mandalay buses, they wanted a fair price as we had already asked at the hotel how much it should be, though we still got a little bit off and a free transfer to the bus terminal thrown in when we said we wanted to look at what some of the other companies were offering. The price was much less than the hand written prices we spotted on the wall behind the desk. There is competition on the route though and it is supposed to be low season. We thought it reasonable so went with it. Tickets for a night bus to Mandalay the next day were in the pocket.
Our new friend then insisted on showing us the train station and showing us back to our hotel. He is a woodwork teacher and works for the government. In return he gets a house to live in and free healthcare but only $50 USD a month to eat and live on. We think he was bored and liked talking to tourists. The only thing he asked from us was if we had any thai baht change we could give him, He said he likes the notes so he collects them. We’d heard of this before coming here. Its not a scam as such but a way to get a little extra money by asking tourists for useless change, collect enough and it becomes worth something. He wasn’t bothered when we said sorry we don’t have any.
It poured with rain after we got back to the hotel, a proper monsoon shower. After it finished, with practicalities now out of the way, we ventured out to explore properly. Yangon is full of old colonial buildings that have seen better days, many look damp and have greenery growing out of them as a result of weathering many monsoons. Roads are hard to cross but motorbikes and scooters are banned from Yangon streets which means that while it requires patience, it is at least possible. The state of the pavements and the number of obstacles on them such as people hanging out and street stalls make it slow going actually using them but with a daytime temperature of 29c and humidity we weren’t going anywhere fast anyway. First we visited Sule Pagoda, a 2000 year old golden temple that occupies the centre of a major roundabout, crossing the road to get to it was difficult. From a distance it is a stunning pagoda, up close it is still stunning but the wet tiled floor meant we spent more time carefully placing our feet than we looking at it, so we found a spot to sit and hang out for a while. It was very peaceful (particularly considering it is in the middle of a roundabout).
Eventually we dragged ourselves away and took a slow meandering route to Botataung Paya. We passed the independence monument, stopped at a coffee and doughnut place and declined numerous offers for taxis, answering the question ‘where do you go?’ with ‘just for a walk’. Botataung Paya contains a strand of the Buddha’s hair. It is different in that its stupa is not solid but hollow and you can walk through it. The grounds of the Paya are really big and held many Buddha images, including a big bronze one. We explored while playing the try not to slip on wet tiles game. Afterwards we had a wander to the jetty on the Yangon river nearby and watched the street sellers and water taxis departing. We took a different backstreet route to the hotel, eventually checking with some locals that we were still going the right way. We were, they were very helpful, the first person we asked couldn’t read our hotel’s business card as he didn’t have his glasses so he stopped someone else and between them they worked out detailed instructions for us.
We tried somewhere different for dinner it was really nice fresh food and very well presented but we’d ordered 2 different dishes yet basically got the same meal with different noodles (Emma’s noodles looked and tasted suspiciously like spaghetti) and it didn’t resemble either meal we’d ordered. Maybe the chef was a one trick pony?
We have to return to Yangon to fly out of Burma so we were under no pressure to try and fit everything in. The next day we changed money at the bank and walked to Shewedagon Paya just on the outskirts of the city centre. This Paya is probably the most famous sight in Burma and is the most sacred to its people. Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to massive crowds here in 1988 and the temple was at the centre of the 2007 monks protests (the Saffron Revolution). We entered via the southern covered walkway up the hill on which the paya stands two 30ft high chinthe (half lion half dragon guardian figures) mark the entrance. The main stupa rises almost 120ft high. The bottom part is covered in gold leaf while the top is covered by 13153 plates of gold measuring 1ft each. The top most vane is gold and silver plated and studded with 4351 diamonds and 1383 other precious stones. At the very top is a diamond orb studded with 4351 diamonds weighing a total of 1800 carrats and topped by a single 76 carat diamond – this is serious Buddha Bling!
We spent a long time exploring the place trying to take it all in and we also explored the temple just south of it before heading back dodging light showers, although we had invested in umbrellas the day before (unlike Wellington the rain falls vertically).
- They don’t use air con as much here, they use fans more, we think this is far more sensible than the freeze/heat approach in Malaysia
- There are generators everywhere on the streets of Yangon poised ready to kick in when there is a power cut
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