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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Yangon, Myanmar aka Rangoon, Burma



Travel Dates 14th-16th and 28th-30th November 2012.
Click on any picture to see a larger version.  

I am a long way behind in my posts for past travel. Later on I will attempt to catch up with posts for Sarajevo, Budapest, Russia, the UK and Eire from my 2011 trip; Mexico, USA and the US Virgin islands from my 2008 and earlier trips; and China from April this year but I have decided to post about November's trip to Myanmar while it is fresh in my mind.

I cannot help thinking of this town as Rangoon and of Myanmar as Burma. But I tried hard to refer to it as the locals do, or more particularly, as their government does, while I was there.

The flight from Bangkok on AirAsia was early and brief; in fact I spent longer getting through the chaotic AirAsia bag drop, followed by security and immigration than I spent on the plane.

My bag arrived swiftly on the carousel in the new International terminal at Yangon. The old terminal is next door and now operates as the domestic terminal; I flew out of it to Mandalay a couple of days later.

I went immediately to the official bank currency exchange near the carousels. At 8am the bank counter was just opening so we had to wait while they set up. The official rate was 844 buying, 857 selling. In minutes my US$600 made me a half-millionaire with 500,640 kyats bulging in my pocket. When preparing for the trip I made sure I obtained pristine mint condition US$ with no CB prefixes; that prefix was used for counterfeits in a past era but no-one accepts them since. It seems that they have relaxed a little in Yangon for note condition, but it can still be difficult to pass non-mint US$ in country districts. Usually only US$ and Euros are accepted, although I was told by a traveller that their Singapore dollars were accepted at a Yangon bank. One of the main problems with a lack of ATMs, together with uncertainty of US$ acceptance and exchange rates in the smaller towns, is judging how much to exchange on arrival and then finding somewhere safe to carry such a large wad of notes around. It helps that the 5000 kyat note is now generally accepted. I met people later who were given their half-million in 1000 kyat notes. I decided the official bank exchange counter was much safer than using black market exchangers. In preparation for this trip I read too many reports of 'accidental' miscounting of kyats from those. Later I found many of them near the entrance of every bank, all offering better than bank rates (most were 900 to the dollar) but if you decide to use them count your fat bundle of notes very carefully on receipt. 

Later I noticed a few ATMs around town. The one in use was restricted to cards from a Myanmar bank; these were being prepared for the future. Change is in the air.



Immigration and Customs was quick and simple. Just be sure not to have any 'immortal' materials with you.



I ignored the taxi touts and took the first cab on the rank to the East Hotel. The ride cost 8000 kyats and took the best part of an hour. I thought it was peak hour from the traffic; later I realised that peak hour lasts all day. Despite the traffic Yangon is noticeably less crowded than any of the Chinese cities I visited. Most buildings outside the city centre are four storeys or less and even down-town there are few skyscrapers.

My Agoda review for the East Hotel (it is the pink building in the picture) is here, dated 16th December, if you want more details. 


It is reasonable by Western standards but they have some improvements to make. They got the important things right: a comfortable bed, a quiet room, a super-quiet air-conditioner that worked and plumbing that also worked if I was patient for the hot water to arrive. The restaurant was so-so. One massive plus for them is that they are the first fully non-smoking hotel I have stayed at in all of my travels in Asia. The room was totally free of that smell of old smoke that I had become used to in other Asian 'non-smoking' rooms.

Apart from the Shwedagon Pagoda I did not have any particular tourist sites to visit in Yangon so I did my usual thing of walking, walking and more walking. So, of course, I had blisters on my little toes after the first two days. That is par for the course on every trip so I got the band-aids out and kept on walking. I wear New Balance shoes; I found they are the best for me but even they only go as wide as EEEE. I think I need EEEEEE. They don't design shoes for people who went barefoot to Primary School.

The hotel is close to the Sule Pagoda, which dominates the centre of Yangon. 

 
Most of the locals seem to treat it as just another pagoda and as the centre of a major traffic roundabout, unlike the Shwedagon Pagoda which I visited on the second day. It will be the subject of the next post.

There is a lot of building and reconstruction happening. Every building site has big signs promoting safety in English for workers who appeared to blithely ignore them. Maybe it was a language problem but I suspect they would do the same if the signs were in Burmese. 

 
As I wandered on foot I visited the famous Strand Hotel, a relic of the colonial days, and had a draught Dagon beer (3000 kyats or $4, very up-market) in their bar. It was a grand hotel in every sense of the word: straight out of the '30s. I would not have been surprised to see Hercule Poirot step into the bar for a tisane; it was that style of hotel. 

 
Sadly, unlike Shanghai's Bund, another relic of the colonial era, the Myanmar government has allowed the district to become simply a working docks area. The area surrounding the Strand is no longer salubrious. The potential is there to re-create a true waterfront Strand, but that does not appear to be on the plans at the moment.


It is very wise to watch where you put your feet while wandering Yangon footpaths. This was near the Strand.


They have made a start on restoring some of the old colonial buildings by fencing them off and declaring them historic buildings, but there is a long way to go. Some appear to have been abandoned for decades.


Yangon is yet to be discovered by the Golden Arches, KFC and Burger King. Thank goodness. However that means it can be difficult to find acceptable places to eat for a Western palate. Breakfast was included at my hotel. Much of the street food looked rather unappealing; I will include more photos of it in later posts. But some is OK. For a morning snack on my first day I tried some street food at a small tea seller's near the Strand. I bought a glass of tea; while I drank that a boy appeared with several choices of snack. A nearby gentleman who spoke English assisted in my choice and I had a delicious snack that was a cross between a samosa and a pastie with a filling based on minced duck. For lunch I used this restaurant, basing my choice of meal on a long and involved mutually incomprehensible discussion with the waiter and the pictures on the wall. 

 
This was the result; a delicious chicken and vegetables with flat noodles soup:




For dinner I tried the East Hotel restaurant on the first night; that resulted in a disappointing Myanmar fish curry. On the second night I tried Traders Hotel across the road. The atmosphere in the Gallery bar was sadly smoky, so I sat outside on the mezzanine. The food was unmemorable but I had a pleasant conversation with a couple, Tim and Sally, who hailed from the UK via Singapore. Nice folks; it is always pleasant to meet fellow-travellers to compare notes.

Lunch on the second day was in a competitive 'food hall' in the Bogyoke (Scott's) Market. There were eight or ten tiny kitchens set into alcoves around the walls and they seemed to have tables allocated to each. As each potential customer walked in they were greeted with all the women representing each kitchen shrieking and waving for the customer to eat at their tables. 


I chose a rather pregnant lady who seemed to need me most. It seemed to be a family affair; this was her daughter:



The food was fine; I stayed safe with chicken and vegetables; some little samosas appeared to as part of the deal. Delicious. I suspect I may become jaded with chicken and veges by the end of this trip. Later, I ate lunch there again when I returned to Yangon. 




On my return after visiting central Myanmar I stayed at the Myanmar Life Hotel because it is near the airport; I had an early flight back to Bangkok on the 30th. My experience was better than that of other reviewers; my review is awaiting approval. I recommend it if you need to be near the airport or want a round of golf.

I spent the morning of the 29th on the Circle Train, Yangon's equivalent to a public transit rail line. It is definitely not rapid transit as it takes three hours to complete the circle, with a train in both directions passing each station each hour. 




I enjoyed the trip from Pa Ywet Seit Gone station, not very far from the airport, to Central; watching the constant flow of passengers, hawkers for all sorts of goods and foods, traders carrying goods for market stalls and the slowly passing landscape of suburban Yangon.



Later I took the ferry over the river to Dale; by that time I had seen enough pagodas and villages so I wandered the area on foot.



For the first time on the trip I was constantly pestered by trishaw men trying to convince me to take an hour's tour with them. I declined but eventually I simply gave up and returned on the ferry. This young lady was in the queue and was obviously puzzled by my appearance.


Using the head as a means of load-bearing is common all over Myanmar; usually for women but occasionally for men like the one pictured above on the train. This lady sold watermelon slices on the ferry:




I ate at the Junior Duck restaurant in the evening, next to the ferry jetty, watching the river-taxis moving in and out as I dined.



I enjoyed wandering around Yangon. Many of the tourist guides suggest you spend as little time in Yangon as possible and head inland to Mandalay, Bagan or Inle Lake. I disagree; I found Yangon to be an interesting and relaxed introduction to Myanmar. At least they have lots of taxis to hail in the street, something I later found lacking in the rest of Myanmar.

Cheers, Alan

6 comments:

  1. Lovely travelogue. I am from India and have always dreamt of traveling to Myanmar by road. The British actually built a road called "The Burma Road" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma_Road connecting India, Burma and China. It is almost impossible to traverse this road now. And entry to Mynamar by road from India is problematic too. Hopefully, some day :)

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  2. Anonymous12:48 pm

    Hi Alan,

    Thanks for this post! My wife and I are thinking of going to Myanmar late thisnyear. Did you use any knd of guides or travel agents for you prep or in the country? Also, didnyou fly within the country?

    Thanks!

    Marc

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  3. Thanks Marc

    In Nyaung U I hired a horse cart driver who spoke English to spend half a day in Old Bagan. In Mandalay I used a driver (see the blog post on that) to see the 3 cities. Apart from that I wandered myself, after spending a lot of time browsing reports and history on the web. I also read "Finding George Orwell in Burma".

    I used an agent (Bravo) to purchase my flights which were Yangon to Mandalay and Heho to Yangon, both on Air Bagan. By chance I was on the F100 that crashed a month later. I must write my final report on Myannmar which includes that. In my own case both flights were uneventful.

    Cheers, Alan

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  4. PS I also used a boat driver/guide for the tour on Lake Inle. More on that in the next post.

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  5. Love your humor. I had visions of myself lugging a suitcase full of cash. I am a similar type traveler to you- not much on over organized stuff.
    Thanks for this great report. I am going to Burma in mid Oct for 3 weeks. One question I have is I am flying into BKK (from San Diego) but the Air Asia to Mandalay goes from the other airport-is there a shuttle there do you know or should I just count on a taxi over?
    Meanwhile I will enjoy reading your other reports...

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    Replies
    1. G'day Reena.

      I'm glad you enjoyed it. Here is my post on transferring Between BKK and DMK:
      http://loraltravel.blogspot.com/2012/11/bangkok-transferring-between-bkk-and-dmk.html

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