Saturday 10th March
We landed in Yangoon around 5.25pm. Passport and visa control and backpack pickup where really smooth. While exiting, we looked for a sign for the “Ocean Pearl Inn” hotel, as we had read in the Lonely Planet that they offered free pickup to their hotel if we took a room with them, while normally a ride to the centre would cost around 8 dollars. There was indeed a guy waiting there, and we joined a few people and headed to the exit to the minivan pickup they had reserved for us for a free ride to there and a room there.
The first thing that made me really laugh in Burma was to see men wearing skirts, ahahaha! They are called “longyis”. I had briefly heard about that but still, seeing them in real is quite funny. Wonder if they wear their longyis the way the Scottish wear their kilts? Uh uh?
Another thing I really loved was to hear birds, tons of birds. The very strange thing with Vietnam is that I didn’t see any birds there! In this tree here, there were tons of birds we couldn’t see but definitely hear, that were having a meeting or something and were incredibly noisy. I had seen a similar tree with similar crazy birds in Chiang Rai with Anais beginning of January.
In the minivan taking us to the hotel, we met Ross and Hayley, a British couple living in London, and it was cool to speak about my dear London with them and evoke tube stations and places where we had lived or worked. Although I don’t have the pretention to call it “home” after having spent my last three and half years there, it still feels a bit like talking about home, and that was cool. They had just started travelling and were going to travel for 4 months around South-East Asia. One thing we noticed from the window on the journey to the hotel was how poorly litten the streets were. Haven’t seen so poor lightening in other big cities of SE Asia so far.
We got to the hotel and checked in. Another thing crazy about Burma we discovered quickly is how relatively expensive compared to other SE Asian countries and poor quality for what you get the guest houses hotel rooms are right now in March 2012. We paid 24 dollars for our double room, for a quality that you pay 7.5 to 12 dollars in Lao or Cambodia. And while travelling with my dad in Vietnam, we stayed in a bit nicer hotels than where I had travelled first, but they still cost only 15 to 35 dollars, and were of much nicer standards that what we got in Yangoon.
The fact is tourism is booming since they liberated Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2011. Suddenly, in the last 4 months, everyone decided to go to Burma, but the hotels haven’t had time yet to develop and offer more hotel rooms of better quality or get the license to welcome foreigners. It creates a situation where hotels get full quickly, and can increase their price easily, without increasing their standards, which makes Burma a much more expensive country to visit than before. It also means for the traveller that often you have to book in advance one day at least, when you never had to in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao and Thailand for most places. Annoying, and frustrating.
Sunday 11th March 2012
We chatted with a few backpackers in the morning breakfast. There was a really cool atmosphere. We talked mostly about China, with Ray and Lyn, an older couple from Brisbane who had lived 4 years there and with Jean, a guy originally from Canada, who had been living in Beijing for the past 15 years, and with Hayley and Ross who came for breakfast a bit later.
Then the hotel told us they were not sure to have a room for us for the evening, so we went around looking for rooms in other hotels. On our walk, we ran into a few other interesting things about Burma.
First, we ran into a procession of monks going around with their round basket to ask for food and gifts from people. They usually go at dawn but maybe there was so many of them here that it took longer for them to organise and go around…or not. In the background you can see some of the wonderful buildings of Yangoon, crumbling and dirty but so cute to me.
We walked in some cool local street with not much traffic there, and the other thing you notice when you walk around is the yellow lines and rounds on the faces of women and children, not many men. It is called thanakha. It is a yellow paste which is used as a skin conditioner, and to cool down and as a beauty ornament.
The other thing we noticed, which is specific to Yangoon, is that there is not a single motorbike in town. This is apparently because a military leader’s car was hit by a motorcycle a few years ago and decided after that to completely ban the motorbike from the city.
Another thing you notice is all the telephone booths from which people call. The thing is that a SIM card costs 20 dollars for a short-term, one month. After that you would have to buy a new one, which means a new phone number every month. A long-term SIM card costs about 1,600 dollars!
This is one of the specific things of Burma compared to all other developing countries: people can’t own a mobile phone and call each other. It is definitely a smart way of limiting people’s communications. Add to that a very very slow internet connexion and you definitely cripple a country. Smart.
When we came back, the receptionist told us that finally it was ok for us to stay one more night. Cool. So we left the hotel for the nearby Paya called the Botataung Paya (definition of paya in the Lonely Planet = a generic Burmese term meaning holy one; applied to Buddha figures, zedi and other religious monuments). This is another thing with Burma, thousands and thousands of payas and pagodas (definition of pagoda in the Lonely Planet = generic English term for zedi or stupa as well as temple; see also paya). Really Buddhist country, with beautiful religious monuments, much more than the other SE Asia countries.
Inside the paya, there were people praying and giving donations to the statues there.
After that, we went to the street behind where we changed crispy flat perfect 100 dollars bills in exchange of kyats, the money of Burma for quite a good rate at 1 dollar for 813 kyats. It is a place with a few banks close to each other each. Apparently before there was no “banks” like this where kyats could be exchanged. Another new change in Burma.
Then we ate nearby, and kept walking in the streets. There was a heavy rain in the afternoon, so we stopped under cover and waited for it to stop. I really love the incredible colours and light you get just after the rain. Everything looks more bright and sharp.
Then we walked in Street 26, which is a market street, selling mostly vegetables.
We saw really weird vegetables there. I keep being fascinated by the kind of weird stuff we don’t have that Asia can have, like ocras and long beans and different shapes of aubergines.
After the market, we took a taxi and went to the Shwedagon Paya. This is a huge pagoda, which top is covered with gold. It doesn’t fit in a 50mm lens, damn it, stupid me for not bringing my wide-angle that evening, pfffff.
According to legend, it is 2,500 years old although archeologists suggest that the original one was built by Mon people between the 6th and the 10th centuries. It has a massive size, gold leaves and thousands of diamonds and other stones at its top, including a 76-carat diamond tipping the very top of the orb. We stayed there for a few hours, just sitting, contemplating it, walking around slowly, saying mingalaba to the people, chatting with kids, posing with monks and with anyone who wanted to take a picture with us. It has a really relaxed atmosphere, and is a really magic place where to come in the evening.
We watched little monks ringing the bell, anyone can do it, we were ringing the bell too.
The Shwedagon slowly changed colour and was also beautiful in the darkness.
We discovered what I call the “techno Buddhas”, Buddha statues whose head is circled with electric lights, very ugly. Apparently, that concept comes form China.
We ran into Jean again, and chatted with him for a while, and went to back to the hotel after that, and had some dinner nearby.
Monday 12th March 2012
Great breakfast again, chatting with the different backpackers staying there. Then asking about rooms for that evening, the receptionist told us that he was fully booked and asked us cheerfully: “So where do you prefer to go tonight? Mandalay or Bagan?” Ahah. No choice, considered the scarcity of hotels, we either had to spend a few hours looking for another hotel, or to move to the North and leave the room for the new people arriving. Fair enough. So we bought the night bus ticket for Mandalay and called to book a hotel in Mandalay. Then spent an hour on internet, oh the slow internet, so slow I decided that I was not going to spend my time on it this month for sure and publish these articles only in April. Beeee…We had some walk nearby. Another thing you notice is how really damaged the pavement is. You better watch where you put your feet!
We had some lunch and ran into Haylay and Ross again that we convinced to join us for a taxi ride to go visit the National Museum. We go there and learned while there that the museum is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Ahah. Something that didn’t even cross our mind for a second, but yeah Burma also has museums closing on Mondays and Tuesdays like other museums in the world do. So we changed plans and went to the posh hotel called The Strand to have a Dagon beer there and chat. We came back walking, had a shower, and shared a taxi with Yvonne and Angie, 2 Scottish girls to the hour-away bus station. On the way to the bus station, we saw a beautiful horse in the sky.
The bus station was incredibly huge, made actually of several bus stations. I had not seen such a huge one so far. Luckily the taxi driver knew exactly where to drive us. We got some dinner and boarded the bus.
It wasn’t a flat bed night bus as I had had with Neringa between Ventiane and Pakse, but just a reclining seats bus. Around 10pm we had a dinner stop and you didn’t feel in Burma, it could have been in America, seeing the area.
At this stop, one of the Scottish girls showed me some bites she had got on the top of her legs and I confirmed to her that was bed bugs. She had been terribly bitten, much more that what I had got in Laos. After seeing in Bangkok the bites from sandflies that Fabio and Giusy had and the bedbugs ones she had, I actually felt that what I had got in Lao was really nothing!
We had been warned that they put the air conditioning so high that night buses are freezing, so we were prepared, with the jumpers, scarfs, hat, socks, etc, ready and didn’t get cold. I still couldn’t sleep at all, really annoying. Luckily the bus didn’t break down. We arrived in Mandalay at 5am. We shared a taxi with the Scottish girls and checked in our hotel. We felt that the hotel was a real joke. The first floor on which we stayed really looked like a jail! We were so tired though that it didn’t matter too much, we slept really well until 1pm!
Here we were in Mandalay, ready to explore!