I arrived in Yangon, my first destination in Myanmar (Burma), after spending almost one month in Thailand and immediately realized I wasn’t prepared for it.
In retrospect, I think it was the cultural shock on top of the one I’d experienced when I first set foot in Bangkok a few weeks earlier. Like many other Westerners, I suppose I was fooled by the relative comforts offered by Thailand to first-time solo travellers, which had made me think I was ready for anything SE Asia may want to throw at me.
In my previous research I’d formed an opinion of Myanmar as a much tougher country to travel in than Thailand. Everything sounded annoyingly complicated: from the, later debunked myth (at least in my experience) that only impossibly pristine US dollar bills would stand a chance of being accepted at currency exchange counters, to the, totally accurate, depiction of accommodation options as generally inadequate and poor value for money.
I also knew that Myanmar is a much poorer country than Thailand and was aware of the implications of this. Of course, there was the allure of Bagan and Inle Lake, the only two destinations in Myanmar I was absolutely determined to visit. I’d also heard that Burmese people were, generally speaking, a nice bunch. That alone was enough to make me look forward to my trip there, despite the inconveniences.
Yangon, the former capital, proved to be a shocking introduction to the country. This is a city where your senses will be immediately assaulted in many ways, not all of them nice.
The heat, the noise, the dirt, the smells, the crazy traffic, the inconceivable amounts of garbage on the streets, the crowded sidewalks (for lack of a better term), the decaying buildings, the colours, the chaos… you can’t take a stroll in central Yangon and not feel initially overwhelmed by it all.
Once you manage to get through all that, you start to appreciate some of Yangon’s charms. Like its vast collection of British colonial buildings, unparalleled in SE Asia and comprising houses, apartment blocks and palaces in all states of conservation, from fully restored to their ancient glory to almost completely dilapidated (personally, I found the latter more interesting). Or its beautiful temples and golden pagodas (like Sule Pagoda, below, or Shwedagon Pagoda), and the kindness and friendliness of its people.
I remember noticing all that in my short stay in Yangon, but, in retrospect, I don’t think I enjoyed this city as much as I could have. I didn’t really visit long enough (three days in all, split in two) to get to know Yangon like it deserves.
True to form, I spent far more time roaming the streets (despite the stifling heat) than visiting attractions. The hectic pace of the streets of Yangon is both daunting and intoxicating. If you want to experience it, just start at the west end of any of the three major roads (Bo Gyoke Rd., Anawrantha Rd. and Maha Bandoola Rd. and weave your way in and out the side streets crossing them north to south.
In the evening, you should head to the corner of Maha Bandoola Rd. and 19th street, in Chinatown, and sit on a terrace to sample some freshly cooked street food washed down with a cold beer.
It is right there, while enjoying the food and watching the evening unravel on the crowded sidewalks, that I decided I would come back to Yangon someday.
Have you been to Yangon? I’d love to hear your impressions!