First let me just say, after a month alone in India, I’m terribly happy to have some company for the next three weeks. Lochan and I meet at the Bangkok airport and take the quick flight into Yangon together, and driving out of the Yangon airport and into the city we are both thinking the same thing: The city looks surprisingly pretty, well kept and clean, and this is in contrast to everything I’d heard about Yangon beforehand. Their version of ‘bad traffic’ conjures up a bit of a chuckle in comparison to India, and even upon arriving into the downtown area where we are staying, the chaos just doesn’t feel that chaotic… and all this is a very pleasant surprise.
The locals are incredibly friendly and the overall feel is very welcoming. I believe the booming tourism is partially responsible, as the locals seem happy and excited to show their hospitality to the rest of the world, but I believe the kindness is an inherent part of their culture as well. Shop and restaurant workers are quick with their smiles and service, and overall, the entire feel here is pretty easy going.
This is not to say it doesn’t still feel like a bustling urban environment… it does. The sidewalks are tightly lined with vendors and street food carts, and the traffic is dense in areas, but it’s just so manageable. You can safely and easily cross the streets, the stop lights are actually observed and there is very little haggling over say, the price of a cab. In fact, several times we hopped in for a short ride without asking for a price beforehand, and the driver just took whatever we fairly offered them upon arrival. What?!
Our first dinner turns out to be a fantastic affair. We head to Chinatown (every city has one!) for their renowned BBQ and the one-block long street is packed to the gills with people, tables and carts full of pre-skewered food for you to choose from… every kind of meat, seafood and vegetable you can imagine.
Music blares from large speakers being pushed on a cart through this delightful chaos and the only person approaching you to buy something is a cheerful man selling little garlands of the most fragrant freesia you’ve ever smelled, which mixes surprisingly well with all the delicious food smells drifting through the air. Every restaurant on the block is overflowing and children run in and out, unattended, banging on drums or expertly navigating little razor scooters through the crowd, happy as could be.
We pick a spot and sit at one of the outdoor tables tightly packed with other people, order beer and then go grab a plastic tray and start filling it up with countless skewers. The restaurant then cooks it all for us and delivers it to our table, and when it arrives we are not disappointed. In fact, we take our time, knowing seconds will be in order… and so along with more skewers and more beer, we also opt for a whole tilapia, blackened to absolute perfection. I think it’s pretty safe to say, this is not only one of the best meals of my trip so far, it’s also a whole lot of fun.
After catching up on some much needed sleep and stopping in at the local travel agent to figure out logistics for getting through the rest of this developing country, we venture out for some sight-seeing. First stop is one of the beautiful parks, Kandawgyi, where a rickety, old wooden pathway guides us around the lake.
Next is the breathtaking Shwedagon Pagoda, a thousand year old pagoda said to house strands of the Buddha’s hair, which at the time of the pagodas construction purportedly instigated some mystical happenings. The main pagoda is surrounded by a large complex of beautiful temples, all in worship of the Buddha and this place is nothing short of a golden visual feast.
The perimeter of this enormous centerpiece is surrounded by statues of Buddha in varying size and form and there are candles and incense to be lit by both tourists and locals alike. People sit, pray and snap photos, and while there is a general buzz of activity, the feel here is one of quiet reverence, partially facilitated by the occasional group of monks meandering by.
I leave here feeling as if I’ve just spent the last few hours inside a fairy tale… and I get to take that magic home with me.
Before leaving town I wander the street stalls and manage to find the perfect souvenir… a beautiful hand-crafted brass lantern from the flea market area… and then we have a delicious lunch with the best tea leaf salad to date.
Our final stop is the Chauk Htat Gyi, also known as the giant reclining Buddha.
And as seems to be the case at all of these temple sites, the ‘main attraction’ is surrounded by many other Buddhas in varying forms… all artistically lovely.
As we head out of town toward the bus station for our overnight ride to our next destination, we discover what the locals are talking about when they say ‘bad traffic’ and we nearly miss our bus.
This situation, however, was an excellent example of the Burmese kindness I spoke of earlier, as our taxi driver went above and beyond for us, calling the station several times to let them know we were on our way and ultimately arranging for the bus to stop on the side of the road to pick us up, since we’d never make it through the highly congested and complicated parking maze at the station in time. And it worked! We boarded roadside and were on our way.
Sadly, I also have to mention this bus ride turned out to be one of the worst nine hours of my life. This bumpy, swaying drive through the night time countryside was the moment my body finally chose to host some sort of nasty stomach bacteria… and it was a doozy (still is.) I suppose I’ll laugh about it some day, but definitely not today.
But it seems like a bad idea to end this chapter on that sour note, so instead I will end with a photo of cute kitties… because, cute kitties!