Thursday, 15 December 2016

Untouched Myanmar

Yangon, the old capital of Colonial Myanmar before it became riddled with civil war and corruption. What did I make of Yangon? Well, there are mixed reviews of Yangon, and I must admit, its not my favourite south east Asian city, it's big, it's loud, it's busy and it's dusty, but it does have a certain charm to it - mostly in that its not like most other cities where you get hassled everywhere you go. Nope Myanmar is still only an up and coming tourist destination. Its borders were officially (but with restrictions) open in 2012 and since then, many of us backpackers seeking untouched beauty have begun to venture to this mysterious land so beautifully shouted about by George Orwell. It is only 5yrs ago since we were allowed to enter and there are still restrictions in place in some states, that still have political unrest. For example most recently Rakhine state, but situations change everyday so a traveller here must keep eye on the officicial Myanmar government website for updates.

But for a country only so recently opened, it has a pretty good tourism scene already, and its almost as though it always had one. However, it's still very new to the aspects of the rest of south east Asia that ruin their ambience and I guess that's why we all come rushing in now, before it gets that way - for example, pestering you to buy things and do tours etc, there's definitely a presence, but its not a burden - yet! Because of that you are also a big minority, yes there are more tourists here every single year, but, there's still not enough to be such like the likes of Thailand, where you practically feel like a majority. And so the Myanmar people, are friendlier, more approachable and naturally more curious and I live that and that's what I wanted it to feel like!

You can also tell tthat its still in its developing stages. Accommodation is more expensive than the rest of Asia (more like $10-20 instead of $5-10 a night), but that's because there isnt a huge demand - yet, or competition. Also there are very few hostels, but these are slowly coming. There are more guesthouses in the smaller places and a few hostels in the cities. However food and daily living costs are even cheaper than mainstream Asia - if you eat local, and sometimes even in a restaurant.

Another thing I love? The lack of bars and alcohol. Yes you can find them but no the alcohol isn't 'as' cheap as you'd expect and no, there are no late night parties. And this is what I am beginning to appreciate with travel. Its cliche, but as you get older and as you go to more less developed countries, you begin to realise that partying isn't the be all and end all, yes it was great on my first trip, but now? I'd rather just have a good chat over a beer or two in a quiet bar and retire by midnight (or earlier) when it all shuts and then get up early to go explore. Sunrises are seen sober now, rather than stumbling home lol. But Myanmar, like India and its counter parts, has something I love even more, a tea culture. Every meal, every street side stall, has pots of free Myanmar tea for offer, you often see locals just sitting on the road on their little stools drinking tea by the pot load and eating little fried snacks. And before you leave you must have the tea they offer you (as long as its piping hot) as its a BIG part of their culture and super good for digestion I've been told!

So what is there to do in Yangon? Not much and in two days you pretty much see it all, but the best thing is just wandering the streets, trying the local food, shopping for things in broken English and sign language, getting lost in the maze of streets that is Chinatown.

When I arrived at the airport everything went super smoothly (it was hard saying goodbye to Pierrick for two months though!) My Evisa  for $50 was approved a day after applying and at immigration they stamp it in straight away. It is still the only way to enter so make sure you apply before you get there - no visas on arrival!

I then collected my luggage, changed up some pristine US dollar into Kyat ($100 is a wad of cash like no other!) Yes, Myanmar money changers do still only accept pristine condition US dollar - there are ATM's now but some of the smaller towns may not have them or may not accept your card so always take some spare dollar, and for god sake don't crumple it! They inspect every note and if they don't like it, they won't accept it and I still have no idea why this is.

Then I grabbed a taxi to my hostel, Sleep In on 9th street in Chinatown, the taxi costing 8000kyat which is roughly $6-7 and I pretty much showered and slept as it was 9pm by the time I settled in.

The first day I decided to throw myself into it and do a day of sightseeing, and decided to walk everywhere. The first thing you notice as soon as you step outside the hostel door...the traffic. Traffic in Yangon is all day, every day and crossing the roads is mostly like India or Vietnam, just walk, only stop in the middle of the toad to assess, being sure to have eyes everywhere...or follow a local lol. And there are many big main roads in Yangon to muster up the courage to cross. So first I walked along Chinatown checking out the market along the way to Sule Pagoda, the markets in Yangon sell just about everything you can imagine and more!

Then I decided to do what must be done in Myanmar, take one of the very slow, very bumpy but very famous trains. In Yangon there is the Circle Line, which takes 3hrs to do a loop of Yangon and its outer suburbs. Its hot, its not the most comfortable and its god damn slow, but its worth doing if you have a spare afternoon or day and only costs 200kyt (like 20cents!) I met a good group of people there, a group from Kuala Lumpur and an Aussie. And after the rather interesting journey watching local life take place we went for lunch together at Feel restaurant, with traditional Myanmar fair - lots of little curry dishes and rice.

I then spent the evening at Shwe Dagon Pagoda, one of the biggest and most important in Myanmar. Its covered top to tail in gold leaf and its magnificent. I went for daytime/sunset/evening which is when its at its best. Then I took a taxi back to Chinatown, had a massage for $7 on 19th street and had a famous BBQ dinner there too - 19th street is full of BBQ street stools.

The next day I spent shopping, navigated the chaos of the Myanmar central post office to send a package home and spent some time researching where to go next. I decided to head up to Kalaw, a small hill station where you can do 3 day treks to Inle Lake, a lot of people I spoke to in the hostel said this was one of their highlights. So I booked the 'V.I.P' night bus for the next evening, booked some accomodation and then headed on up to the peoples park to take in the views of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda during sunset and at night. Its 300kyt to enter and they also have a musical colourful founrain show! Lol Then I went in search of local food on my street - which ended up a feast at $1.50 for 10 BBQ sticks, noodles and egg pudding! Yum.

The next day I basically just hung around the hostel, with an american guy and german girl, had another massage too. I managed to convince the American guy to change his plans and head to Kalaw too so it meant we could share the taxi ride to the bus station together (which was a long way from the centre). He went for a different bus but I bet it was a mistake because the bus I got - JJ Express - well it was worth every $18 spent on it! It was a 9hr trip and I didn't sleep much as you never do on a bus, but it was like a plane; huge leather reclining seats, blankets, an individual TV screen (Madonna, Tom and Jerry and Myanmar films on repeat) food and drinks served by a hostess, tea and coffee, it was lush.

So my next part is a trek through minority hill tribes in Shan State. Myanmar has hundreds of ethnic minority groups, some which the government still try to suppress so its going to be good to get a very real local feel to Myanmar. We stay two nights in local homestays and its a 60km trek ending at Inle Lake with a boat tour. It was 40,000 kyat ($30-40) including all food and accomodation, guide and luggage transport, with Ever Smile, a local company owned by a local woman. So I will be offline until Sunday peeps, so thought I'd leave you this post in the meantime! :-)

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