The first thing I noticed when getting off the plane in Yangon is that Myanmar isn’t how I expected. Firstly, there were tons of western people in suits presumably visiting for business and despite what my Lonely Planet says, there are also plenty of ATMs and what’s more, the airport even has a couple of branded coffee shops. The young guy who picked us up had an iphone and the bus we travelled on had Chanel seat covers, albeit fake. I wondered whether I was in the right country!
After about an hours drive Jaimie and I arrived at Motherland Inn 2, our home for the next two days. Advertised with air-con and wifi, these once taken-for-granted luxuries are non-existent and many Burmese people do not know what they mean, a reason for the false advertising maybe.
Jaimie had been in contact with an old school friend called Courtney who now teaches in Yangon and we arranged to meet her at a launch of The Lab, a new bar in town. We joked that having just stepped off a plane without a shower and our backpacks still on it would be just our luck that it would be a swanky bar full of beautiful people. Surely not in Yangon, after witnessing litter-ridden streets and wooden carts on our journey here. To our astonishment our taxi pulled up to a swanky wine and tapas bar packed full of well-dressed beautiful people, with the majority being western.
We couldn’t have felt more out of place and couldn’t wait to find Jaimie’s friend which was proving difficult having them not met in over ten years. We got chatting to a number of people inside and learnt that everyone there were expats from countries like England, the USA, France and India. After a big splurge on a strawberry daiquiri myself, Jaimie, Courtney and friends headed off to another bar in town. Once again, I was blown away by the size of the expat community living in Yangon and the contrast between the bar and the streets outside. This bar was also full of locals buying bottles of Absolute and Greg Goose vodka with their Ferraris and Bentley’s parked out front, a true contrast between rich and poor.
Yangon is crazy, you have to see it to believe it and what better way than taking the local circular train around the city. It was here I saw just how poor Myanmar is but also just how friendly the people are. From the moment we stepped off the plane I have not stopped returning the smiles and hellos from local people.
No one wants to scam you (apart from the odd taxi driver) like I’ve often experienced in the rest of mainland South East Asia and everyone is happy to help and eager to find out about my background. I met a man who explained that only in very recent years people are able to speak freely although the government are yet to listen and take action.
Traditional dress in the form of a sarong called a lungi or longyi is worn by most men and women although it is clear a strong western influence has recently emerged. In addition, thanakha, a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark, is worn mainly by women and children for spiritual and religious reasons and also act as protection from the sun. Men chew betel nut, a nut and tobacco wrapped in a leaf which makes their mouths red and teeth drop out, not something I wish to try no matter how curious I may be.
After a three hour train ride around the whole city we caught a cab to meet up with Jaimie’s friend Courtney at the weekly Hash, a local run/walk/drinking club attended by expats and a handful of locals. I chose to take the five kilometre walking route as opposed to the 11km run which took us through the countryside around 45 minutes outside of the city.
After the walk/run we reformed as a group and took part in some bizarre drinking rituals involving necking countless pints of beer and singing made up songs. That evening a group of us met on 19 street in Chinatown, famous for it’s cheap beer and BBQ food on the street. Ice cold Myanmar Beer goes down a treat in the 30 + heat and I managed to adopt a cute kid who we thought may have been deaf.
I called it a night after the next bar which boasted fantastic rooftop views of Shwedagon Paya (pagoda) which is the most famous in Yangon and the main tourist attraction there. The next day myself and Jaimie decided to explore the city on foot whilst James visited the pagoda as unlike us he was not planning to return.
As we wandered the backstreets we stumbled upon some children and men trying to hit folded up money with an elastic band. I couldn’t resist joining in this simple game that kept them entertained for hours.
We also met a man who told us that because his great-great-grandfather was Indian, he was regarded as a foreigner in Myanmar with no rights to a passport, benefits or the voting system even though the past four generations of his family have all been born in Myanmar. I took pity on his family for they were unable to get a decent job, healthcare or even travel out of the country.
After sampling some Myanmar pancakes on the street we headed back to Motherland 2 to pick up my laundry before catching a night bus to Inle Lake. A little word of warning; laundry is charged per item so 10 string thongs and a few socks ended up costing me around $4, an outrageous price for laundry anywhere let alone in Asia. The stories told by the people I met and the extreme gap between rich and poor I witnessed has heightened my wish to find out more about this fascinating country.
Living life, loving travel,
9 thoughts on “A city of two extremes: Yangon, Myanmar”
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