Bewilderment and Buddhas in Yangon

We admittedly decided to go to Myanmar not knowing much about the country but thinking that it sounded like an adventure, so when we arrived we spent the first little bit mostly being bewildered. But in the best way, because as it turns outs Myanmar is quite delightful!

We flew into Yangon from Manila via Kuala Lumpur, and the flight was very exciting due to several reasons, which are a) we flew on Myanmar Airways International, an airline I didn’t even know existed, b) we got bumped up to business class and ended up in the very first row of the plane, a place I have never gotten to sit before, c) we were sitting next to a monk, and d) we were the only non-Burmese people on the airplane. We may have been the only non-Burmese people in the airport, I think we actually woke up the ladies at the foreign passport immigration counter when we showed up. At the airport we took out $200 CAD in Burmese Kyat and got a stack of bills so big they wouldn’t fit into Chris’s wallet. Then we wandered out of the airport and were confused because all the men seemed to be wearing skirts (I now know these are called longyi). Then we got into a cab, and the steering wheel was on the right. But the cab also drove on the right. All in all it was quite a bewildering hour.

The cab took about an hour to get to our guesthouse, so we had some time to get a handle on things. The radio was playing a fun Burmese cover of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and the traffic was much more orderly than everywhere in the Philippines (they follow the lanes here!). This may have something to do with the fact that motorbikes are illegal in Yangon.

We arrived at our guesthouse after walking the last block due to traffic, which was up another 4 flights of stairs, much to Chris’s chagrin (I should note he was carrying almost all of our bags). They did have some motivational signs on the way up though.

Motivational Engrish on the stairs up to our guesthouse.
Motivational Engrish on the stairs up to our guesthouse.

We were staying at Chan Myaye Guesthouse, which is right downtown and has extremely friendly staff. After we had drank our welcome juice and got settled, they gave us a map of the area with the local sights highlighted, and we decided to go walk around a bit before the sun set.

It was about 4pm, so the local markets and street food vendors were out in full force. We were near to Chinatown and Little India, so we took a walk through both to look at all the crazy things for sale.

Street BBQ.
Street BBQ.

When we decided we needed a break, we headed over to Maha Bandoola Garden, a cute little park right by City Hall and Sule Pagoda where lots of locals were just hanging out.

Maha Bandoola Park.
Maha Bandoola Park.

We actually saw very few tourists the whole time we were out. Myanmar is a lot less touristy than most other places I’ve visited in SE Asia, which is quite nice because you can walk around all day without people constantly hollering at you to try to sell you something or give you a ride somewhere. Just a lot of Burmese people going about their day.

Nuns collecting alms.
Nuns collecting alms.

Myanmar is also one of the least Westernized countries is SE Asia (due to being under military rule until 2011), so there ain’t no Starbucks to be seen. Just this summer they opened up the first America fast food franchise in the country, a KFC in downtown Yangon.

The first and only KFC in Myanmar. It's two levels and next to a Hindu Temple.
The first and only KFC in Myanmar. It’s two levels and next to a Hindu Temple.

Almost all the women wear these gorgeous long dresses when they’re out and about. The dresses limit skin exposure (the country is quite conservative), but make up for it by being immaculately tailored. It seems most women’s clothes are custom made; when you go into a “ladies fashion store” here, it’s actually basically a fabric store where you pick a material and pattern, and they sew it up for you.

Colorful dresses in People's Park.
Colorful dresses in People’s Park.

The guys all wear longyi or tight jeans and shirts. I don’t think most clothes are made in Chris’s size. Also, almost every single person carries an umbrella to protect from sun, rain, and prying eyes when necking in the park.

Ladies in skirts and men in longyi.
Ladies in skirts and men in longyi.

They next day we were up early and fed a delicious breakfast of tomato omelet and banana toast at our guesthouse. Then we set out to go to the biggest attraction in the city – Shwedagon Pagoda. You need to remove your shoes to go inside, and they can hold your shoes for you at the entrance, but what most of the locals do is carry them in a plastic bag. That way, if you want to leave by another entrance, it is easy to do.

We walked up a long dim hall of people selling toys, statues, pictures of buddhas etc. and made it to the actual pagoda entrance, where as a foreigner you have to pay 8,000 kyat. Then you get a little sticker so that the security knows you’ve paid. In the continuing trend of “Allison looks like every type of Asian”, they actually initially only charged us for one foreigner, but then Chris got all honest about it. When we stepped out onto the terrace we were immediately blinded by all the gold everywhere. These people love their gold. There are also about a thousand buddha statues relating to different situations.

Shwedagon Pagoda.
Shwedagon Pagoda.

The Burmese calendar is broken up into 8 days (Wednesday is divided into 2) and the day you were born on determines which plantetary post you are supposed to go pray at for health and prosperity. We didn’t know what days we were born on but luckily a helpful old man pulled out a book which gave all the days. Of course Allison had to be born on a Wednesday to make things complicated. Since we didn’t know what time she was born we just went with morning since that is more auspicious (although turns out it’s actually evening, whoops). Chris’s day is Thursday. The guide (he was now our guide) led us over to our respective points to pray for health and prosperity and bless us. Of course then he asked for 10,000 kyat.

Pouring water on the Buddha for luck and prosperity.
Pouring water on the Buddha for luck and prosperity.
Chris getting spiritual at the Thursday corner.
Chris getting spiritual at the Thursday corner.

We wandered around and saw a few other Western tourists, but 95% of people there were Burmese – praying, hanging out, eating, and relaxing.

Monks taking smartphone photos.
Monks taking smartphone photos.
Locals visiting one of the many Buddhas.
Locals visiting one of the many Buddhas.

After we had had enough we retrieved our shoes and went to YKKO for some liquids as we were dehydrated. Turns out that it is attached to a mall, which is attached to the entrance to People’s Park, so we went for a look-see. In typical dictatorial fashion, there were some sweeping boulevards and some fountains, which unfortunately weren’t running.

Massive boulevard in People's Park.
Massive boulevard in People’s Park.

It looks like the park is actually turning into some kind of theme park, as they are putting in a roller coaster to go with the merry-go-round and other rides. But the real reason why Allison wanted to go to the park was to explore Lover’s Lane.

LOVE.
LOVE.

Turns out this is the area you go if you are a young couple in Yangon and want to make out. There must have been 50 couples hiding behind umbrellas in different quiet corners, on different benches, and under little huts. Public displays of affection are frowned upon, so this must be why they all congregate here.

Young love.
Young love.

Then we went to Kandawgyi Lake (actually artificial, but quite lovely), where we walked on a long wooden bridge around the lily pad filled water. It was being repaired at parts, and for good measure, as a lot of the boards were rotting away and you had to be a little careful about where you stepped. As it then started raining and Chris was dying of hunger, we went to attached Kandawgyi Nature Park to find food.

Boardwalk at Kandawgyi Lake.
Boardwalk at Kandawgyi Lake.

We ate at Off the Beaten Track Restaurant, which based on its logo seems to have been made specifically for people like us. After downing more liquids (pineapple milkshake, mango smoothie, water) we had corn soup with crab meat and a very spicy chicken curry. It had giant slices of ginger, onion, and whole cloves of garlic, so we weren’t sure if we were supposed to eat all that stuff and mostly ate the chicken and broth. And avoided the green chili peppers (seeds still inside) after Chris ate one and exploded his face.

We were pretty full and tuckered out after that, so we made the trek back to our guesthouse and fell asleeeeeep.

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