Post By: David
Myanmar is one of the last countries in SE Asia that was on our list of places to visit. We’d been putting it off for sometime because we either never seemed to have enough time (in my estimation, you need at least 2.5 weeks to do it properly) or it wasn’t the right time of the year (summer and fall are the rainy season so spring or winter is best). So for this Xmas/New Year’s break, we decided it was time (side note–we originally were planning to go skiing in South Korea and northern Japan, but when we started looking into it six months in advance, all of the cheap accommodation was sold out so it would have been much more expensive).
We began our trip to Myanmar (aka Burma) in Yangon (aka Rangoon), the capital city. After a free airport pickup from our hotel (not bad for $30/night, though hotels in Myanmar are actually a lot more than most other places in SE Asia), we headed straight for the # 1 attraction in Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda, the # 1 religious site in all of Myanmar. We arrived right before dusk, paid the requisite $6 fee (only for foreigners), took our shoes and socks off (no socks was sort of annoying), and spent an hour or so walking around the pagoda. It’s in the northern part of the city but is supposedly visible from almost anywhere in Yangon. It’s basically a huge upside down cylinder coated in gold. It was packed with both locals (mostly praying) and tourists. It was very pretty, but not as breathtaking as we’d read it was.
After exiting the same way we entered however (there are four entrances, one on each side), we decided to take a lap around the outside of the pagoda. Upon reaching the northern entrance (we started at the southern), by now, the sun had set and the pagoda seemed to be glowing in the early dusk. So we decided to enter one more time (we still had our tickets) and this time it was much more beautiful.
After departing the 2nd time, we headed back towards downtown (where we were staying) but instead of heading back to our hotel, we decided to just head straight out to dinner (it was already 7pm, or so we thought…) in Chinatown. We had read that 19th street (we were staying on 38th but the blocks are very small so it’s only about a 15-20 minute walk between the two) was the best drinking/eating street in Yangon, so of course we headed straight there. And we were not disappointed.
Although a small, alleyway like street, it’s filled with bars/restaurants all of which set up plastic chairs/tables/stools right on the street outside their establishments. Each one has a “bar” but instead of ordering drinks, you just pick out a bottle of alcohol (we chose a small $2 bottle of whiskey) or order one of their 50 cent drafts (they have light and dark beer). Sitting next to us was a table of about 8 guys drinking very heavily. We had thought the Burmese were rather subdued drinkers, so this caught us by surprise, until we realized all of these guys were Thais, which then made perfect sense (in case you hadn’t realized by now, the Thais drink more than any other people I’ve ever seen, particularly whiskey). After chatting them up for a while (they were all on a job assignment with Haliburton, the American military company if my memory serves), we ordered the obligatory whole fish, skewers of meat and veggies and a fried rice. It was all delicious and a perfect start to our Myanmar trip.
The next day we started out by doing the 2.5 hour walking tour of downtown Yangon in the Lonely Planet (we’ve done several of their self-guided walking tours and have enjoyed all of them). The first stop was a traditional Burmese breakfast place right next to the 2nd stop, the 2nd most popular pagoda in Yangon. Although we had already eaten breakfast (almost every hotel in Myanmar provides free breakfast, basically coffee and toast with a fried or boiled egg), at 30 cents a cup of coffee or tea, we decided to indulge (actually a German guy who was staying at our hostel and asked if we could join our walking tour treated us, but then left us shortly thereafter; perhaps he was put off by our story of eating dog in Vietnam before we learned he was vegetarian). The 2nd pagoda, Sule Pagoda, serves as a roundabout right in the heart of the city (like the Arc de Triumph in Paris). It was similar to Shwedagon, but smaller.
After the Sule Pagoda, we continued on the walking tour which took us through a nice park with a huge Washington Monument type statue, the Yangon Post Office which was closed or else we would have mailed our parents a postcard, a swanky hotel from the same owners as Raffles in Singapore (Robin, remember that place?), and several other historic buildings. After the walking tour, we headed over to Bogyoke Aung San market, the biggest market in Yangon. Before the market, however, we stopped for a quick streetside lunch of the famous Myanmar curries and veggies (basically, everywhere in Myanmar on the sides of the roads, they have cauldrons of curries and veggies and you just get a plate or rice and fill it with whatever suits your fancy, all for $1.50 a plate). It was delicious. The market, which we heard was similar to Chatuchak in Bangkok, was less impressive but still worth a nice stroll. I actually picked up a new pair of leather sandals for $10.
After the market, we headed to the last of the Big 3 pagodas in Yangon, this one Botataung Paya which was located on the river. When we arrived, however, we decided to skip going in since we figured it was probably very similar to the other two (but another $4 fee pp) and we could actually get a pretty good glimpse from outside the pagoda walls.
After a quick rest stop back at our hotel, we returned once again to 19th street to the same bar/restaurant we went to the night before. This time, however, we just went for drinks before enjoying a nice Indian meal in the neighboring area on the way back towards our hotel (there’s a bunch of Indian restaurants in Yangon and after a heavy Burmese lunch, we decided to mix it up with Indian for dinner; grilled meat, naan bread and some veggie dips).
Our 3rd and last day in Yangon, after a quick stop at the bus ticket depot (not the bus station, which we were told is 1-2 hours outside the city, but the bus ticket depot where everyone books their bus departures from Yangon), we took a $2 taxi (unbelievably, taxis are even cheaper in Myanmar than in Thailand) to Kandawgyi Lake, a pretty but artificial lake near the Shwedagaon Pagoda. After a quick peek from Utopia Tower (the viewpoint overlooking the lake; 30 cents pp), we walked around the lake, towards Shwedagon Pagoda, eventually reaching Aung Thukha, which our book described as being a very local, longstanding Burmese restaurant which is always packed and a great way introduce yourself to Burmese food, particularly their famous curries. And packed it was (we were the only white people so we knew that was a good sign). Unlike our streetside lunch the day before, this time, you pick out which curries or vegetables you want and they give you a small plate of each one, plus a plate of white rice and several free sides. We decided on spicy pork curry, shrimp curry (huge pieces of shrimp), a corn souffle, bean puree, and fish cake curry. It was all delicious but probably a bit too much, especially for lunch (we also weren’t aware of the free sides before we ordered). It was also a lot more expensive than our streetside lunch the day before, but still only $10 total.
After lunch, we headed to our last spot of the day, People’s Park, which we thought was a city park like Central Park in NY or Lumpini Park in Bangkok, but instead ended up being one of the stranger yet impressive “parks” we’d ever seen. It was 30 cents to enter, and included everything from a small amusement park (we rode the log ride for an additional $1 pp), numerous open fields where young couples were picnicking, a kids’ zone with games, mazes, more rides, etc., treetop viewpoints of the city and a huge “mall” (like the Washington Mall in DC) with views of neighboring Shwedagon Pagoda, and most amazing, a water park filled with teenagers partying to American dance music like it was spring break in college. Regarding the latter, we’ve never seen anything like it. Though some were drinking, we suspect many others were high on something or maybe just high on life. For an otherwise reserved people, these kids were rocking out in the middle of the day on a Sunday. And most bizarrely, all of the guys were dancing together, holding hands and some of them literally grinding with each other, all whilst getting soaked by sprinkler heads and the surrounding pools. Of course, I had to jump in the action for the photo op and experience, and needless to say, I was a huge hit with the teenage Burmese boys. In fact, I’m already contemplating my Burmese boy band.
After the spring break madness, we returned to our hotel (we actually had to switch to another nearby hotel for our last night due to a mixup on our part), and a had nice last dinner near our hotel (eel, pork meatballs and an intestine salad, all delish, plus the compulsory $2 bottle of whiskey), all while chatting up a local Burmese real estate agent/tour operator who was telling us how Myanmar real estate and tourism is going to take off in the next 5-10 years; I don’t doubt it).
We then turned in for an early bedtime to prepare for our 4:45am wake up call (or so we thought again…) for our supposedly 1-2 hr taxi ride (for $7 total) to the Yangon bus station before boarding a 4-5 hour bus to Mt. Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar’s 2nd most religious site, all in route to our ultimate destination, Kalaw and Inle Lake where we’ll spend 3 days trekking between the two.