Limits to visitors into the country until recently have kept Yangon more traditional than its counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries. The city is large and crowded, but locals dress in traditional longyis and thanaka. Street food is plentiful and small tearooms spills out onto the street while there is a refreshing lack of chain restaurants.
Day 1 – Wednesday February 18, 2015
Our flight touched down in Yangon around noon. Immigration and customs were not a problem since we had applied for an evisa several days prior. Taxi stands were set up outside of the airport and we hired a cab for $8 to take us to the guesthouse we had reserved. The taxi ride from the airport to downtown Yangon was a bit long. We went past Inya Lake, just north of the city, but couldn’t see it over the embankments.
On the cab ride we could already see several of the cultural traditions that make Myanmar unique. Men we drove past were often wearing a longyi and women we passed were in thanaka. Longyis are cloth wraps that men wear instead of pants. The wraps often appeared to be in plaid patterns that reminded me of patterns on men’s button down shirts in America. The longyis are not tailored, but instead are pulled around the waist and tied in a large knot in the front. Thanaka is a traditional Burmese cosmetic applied to the faces of mostly women, although girls, boys, and young men also wear it. Thanaka is made from tree bark and looks almost like mud. My limited research said it is worn for a variety of reasons including preventing sunburn, cooling the skin, and/or opening the pores. Mostly, it appears to me to be worn as a traditional makeup.
Our taxi would have taken us to the hotel door, except that the street was closed for construction so we had to walk half of a block. We stayed at the Chan Myaye Guesthouse, which was well marked from the street but required us walk up four stories to check in. The girls running the reception desk were very helpful and spoke very good English. They gave us a map of Yangon and highlighted where to go and also helped guests book taxis, buses, and hotel reservations in other cities. We had a private room with a shared bathroom. The room was small without a window, but was all we needed and had air-conditioning. The bathrooms were clean enough and had hot water.
After checking in we walked to the train station to plan our next destination. We were surprised to find that you can only book same day tickets at the train station. Two employees tried to direct us to an office in the city where we could book tickets in advance, but communication with them was very difficult and we couldn’t find the office. We decided to try again the following day.
Even though it was very hot, much hotter than Chiang Mai had been the previous day, we walked 30 minutes to Shwedagon Pagoda. Shwedagon Pagoda (8000mmk) is the number one attraction in Yangon and some reviews say in the country. To me, it was the only part of Yangon really worth making the trip there for. It is a very large gold pagoda said to house the hairs from 4 Buddhas. The stupa was mostly covered in scaffolding during our visit, but was still impressive. The area surrounding the stupa houses hundreds of buddha statues and small pagodas.
When we arrived Jon found that his shorts were inappropriate so he was able to rent a longyi to wear. It was nice to find that he could return the longyi to receive our full deposit of 5000mmk ($5) back and not have to pay anything for the longyi. We were then approached by a young man who asked if we wanted to hire him as a guide. We turned him down, but he was right about there being an overwhelming number of statues and having a guide to explain them and the history and architecture may have been advantageous. I would have felt better about hiring a guide if there had been an official guide office to hire through. Luckily, the pagoda did hand us a map with the most prominent statues marked and a brief description of them. We wandered around for a few hours with our map taking in the Shwedagon Pagoda.
The day was starting to cool, so we walked back to the city from Shwedagon Pagoda. We took a quick break and got fruitshakes at one of the very few modern looking cafes that we passed. We wandered around the streets some more. The city was crowded, rundown, and smelly. Most of the city’s shopping appeared to be done out on the streets. Small storefronts had tables of goods spilling out onto the sidewalks. The stores also seemed, for the first time in Asia, to cater to locals instead of tourists. There were less screen printed t-shirts and more teatowels and longyis. The food in Yangon appeared to be street food sold from carts and the occasional restaurant with tables out on the street.
We checked Lonely Planet for restaurant suggestions, and chose one close to our location. Many of the suggested restaurants were described by Lonely Planet as ‘being recognizable by the crowd even though there is no English sign’. The restaurant we choose, Daw Saw Yee, must have invested in an English sign since Lonely Planet popularized it. Daw Saw Yee was our first experience with Burmese food. We had a selection (chicken, beef, pork, fish) of what was called ‘curry’ although there was no curry powder in it. The curry appeared to be chunks of cooked meat in peanut oil with some herbs. The servings of curry were very small, only two pieces of meat in each serving. However, the curries were served with sweet and sour soup, a plate of raw vegetables with a spicy spread, and rice. We liked the curries and the soup was enjoyable because it was unusual, but overall it seemed that Burmese food wouldn’t become a favorite cuisine of ours. We had heard that Yangon starts shutting down around 9pm, so we headed back to the hotel after eating.
Day 2 – Thursday February 19, 2015
Breakfast was served in our guesthouse. Surprisingly big, and typical of Myanmar, we were given fruit, toast, and fried eggs. Our first priority was getting tickets for the night train to Bagan. Unfortunately when we arrived at the train station we found that they were sold out of the sleeper class and first class, leaving only the ordinary class seats. Ordinary class seats are wooden, so we didn’t think that was something we wanted to do for a 17 hour ride. We considered finding a bus (9 hours), but ultimately decided to take a night train to Mandalay and catch a bus from there to Bagan (3 hours, or so we were told). If we had to the chance to do it over again, we would have taken the bus.
We had no plans for the remainder of the day, so we walked around Yangon. We started by heading towards Bogyoke Market. Bogyoke Market was big and cool, but was retail shopping which we don’t do much of. The main area was filled with silversmiths selling jewelry. Aisles leading away from the center of the market had t-shirts, longis, and other souvenirs. The second floor of the market and the surrounding alleyways seemed to be mostly tailors.
Our next stop was Chinatown, which is located on Maha Bandoola Road near 19th Street. It was the Chinese New Year, so I was really hoping Chinatown would be busy and celebrating. However, Chinatown didn’t seem any different than the rest of Yangon except for slightly more red and gold in windows. It was disappointing.
We headed back towards our hostel and Paya Sule. Paya Sule is a golden pagoda in the center of town at a traffic circle. The exterior is surrounded by vendor stalls. We also walked through Maha Bandoola Garden, a rare green area in the city.
For lunch we went to Shwe Wel Tun Tea House. We were seated on stools on the side of the road. We asked to see a menu, but were given tea and ‘snacks’ which included samosas and fired potatoes. After eating several rounds of ‘snacks’ we asked again for a menu and were just told they have curries, so we split a curry. Once again it was served with rice, soup, and vegetables. Our entire meal at Shew Wel Tun cost 2600mmk ($2.60).
The night train we had booked for Mandalay left at 3pm. We got to the train station fairly early. The sleeper trains have compartments with 4 bunks in them. Before we were even seated in our compartment, local kids from about 5 years old to 18 years old flooded into the compartment trying to sell water, beer, oranges, and other snacks. They were incredibility persistent and didn’t like the word ‘no’. They would even go as far as trying to put the waters on our arms to insist we take them before they fall. Finally most of them trickled out to other compartments although they would walk by asking again and again.
Two younger girls who were selling water, stopped asking us to buy water when they noticed the friendship bracelets we were wearing which we had gotten in Vang Vieng, Laos. One girl asked for a bracelet so I gave her one of mine. She was delighted and soon lots of kids were asking for bracelets. Jon unsuccessfully attempted to trade a bracelet for a water. The first girl noticed I was sweating sitting in the unmoving train car, concentrating on untying and retying knots on the bracelets. She kept trying to wipe my face even though I told her it wasn’t necessary. The kids were also delighted by our digital cameras and to be in pictures with us. Soon all of our bracelets were given away.
Finally the train started to move and we were happy to find that no other people were sharing our compartment. Early into the ride our ‘waiter’ came past to take our dinner orders. One thing that Jon and I need to do is to figure out the dinning car and if we can go there ourselves. Similar to our night train in Thailand, we weren’t sure how else to get dinner so we went ahead and ordered through the waiter. The train ride was nice while it was light outside and we had a lot of space on our bunks. After the sun went down, we turned our attention to reading instead of watching the window and realized how bumpy the ride was. When our dinner arrived, drinking the beer we had ordered from mugs was nearly impossible and quite a bit was spilled on the floor. We were upset to see that the waiter did not understand our order (or took advantage of it) and brought us two plates of chicken over rice instead of steamed rice which resulted in us having four complete meals instead of the two we had ordered. For a while the waiter sat down and joined us and we had a pleasant time trying to talk with him about the country. The real disappointment was when we got the bill and the meals were much more expensive than we had been told originally. The waiter attributed this to the size of the meals being large whereas he had quoted us the ‘small’ price. We let him know we were upset and talked him down a few dollars, but ultimately I don’t think we will be trusting train waiters again.
Sleeping on the train was very difficult. Someone attributed the ride to being in a washing machine and they were sure right as occasionally we would wake up only to realize we were airborne. The ride must have become smoother and we both must have eventually fallen asleep because before we knew it it was 5am and the train was stopped at our destination in Mandalay.
Visas: A tourist visa is required for Americans entering Myanmar. Myanmar has an evisa which can be applied for online up to three days prior to arriving and costs $50. We found the website easy to use. Besides for your passport information you will also be asked for the port you are arriving through. Prior to entering the country it is advised you have continuing travel booked should you be asked for it, however we were never asked about it. After applying, we received visa approval in less than 24 hours. For more information see the visa website.
Money: The local currency of Myanmar is the Kyat, although United States Dollars (USD) is widely accepted. We were told prior to arriving in Myanmar that tourists must use ‘crisp, unmarked’ USD. I had even heard that USD is the only currency many hotels, train stations, and bus stations will accept from foreigners. Arriving in Myanmar we found that this is no longer true. The train station had a sign clearly stating that tourists must pay in kyat.
However, if you do bring USD it must be near perfect condition. Several times our USD bills were returned to us because of very slight folds or dirt.
ATMs are now much more widely available in Myanmar, especially in tourist areas, so it is not as necessary to bring USD into the country
Travel: While in Myanmar we traveled using several different methods; train, bus, and plane. Yangon is the largest city and is therefore a hub for all three methods. Traveling by train and by bus are both cheap, but schedules can be limited. For example only one train goes to Bagan each day. Additionally, the infrastructure isn’t good which results in long, uncomfortable rides when traveling between cities. For details on train travel check out www.seat61.com. Also be aware that the train station only sells same day tickets and advance tickets must be purchased through outside agents.
Buses ran slightly more often than trains but usually take longer than a train would. We did find the bus to be in nice condition and comfortable with air-conditioning, however the bus played religious chants, music videos, and clips of soap operas over the loud speakers.