India was behind us but when we arrived to Yangon we could tell pretty quickly we had some kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Where is everybody? Why all the silence? What’s up with the organized traffic? Where did all the cows go? The difference was evident – we were officially out of the craziest country we’ve ever been to.
After shaking off the trauma, we then realized we were in Myanmar! Of course we had mixed emotions about it. We were in a country that wasn’t completely open to tourism until a few years ago due to a military dictatorship. Not only that, but the country has been in the international spotlight lately due to a conflict between the military and the resistance movement of the Rohingya – a Muslim community not recognized by the government of Myanmar. Since 2015, thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been expelled from their homes and have been crossing the border into neighboring Bangladesh. It is awful to think that events like this keep happening around the world – like if we haven’t learned anything from history or the importance of being decent human beings.
Because of this, the constant question on our minds was “should we go to Myanmar?” Matt and I decided to go and see the country for ourselves, to learn about it first hand.
Do I recommend it? Yes! Politics aside, the people were nice, helpful and the Burmese culture proved both interesting and worth knowing about.
When we arrived in Yangon, we weren’t sure what to expect. Will there be ATMs with money available? Will we have wifi? Do people understand English? The answers to all those questions was a firm YES. To our surprise, the town was open for business. They had all the infrastructure a place needs to cater to tourists from all over the world.
The first day we were exhausted as we didn’t sleep at all in Kolkata due to the Christmas noise (read Matt’s latest lamentation for more on that) and also because we had to catch the flight at 5:00am.
We decided it was going to be “recuperation day” and we would take it easy.
We checked into the hotel almost in the dark. The electricity went out (something that apparently happens very often in the city) and it occurred right when we were getting to our room. Headlamps adjusted, we unpacked and headed out to go for a nice stroll.
As we started walking and turned the corner, a very western mall revealed itself right in front of us. Shops like Prada, Coach, Armani and Clinique could be found. This confirmed that Myanmar had joined the globalized world. Not only that, but a big Christmas tree adorned the main floor with a bunch of millennials taking selfies with it.
After our interesting shopping encounter and a very necessary nap, we had dinner at a popular place called Rangoon Tea House. It was time to try two traditional dishes I was excited about. The first one was the tea leaf salad – made out of fermented tea leaves with peanuts, cabbage, cilantro, ginger root and other delicious ingredients. The second one was mohinga – a tasty fish soup. The place didn’t disappoint.
The next morning, our tour guide for the day picked us up at the hotel. She was a young and charming woman called Nann.
The itinerary included very interesting places all around the city. The historic building that now houses the post office, The Strand Hotel which seems to be the most fancy one, Karaweik Hall Royal floating palace, a church, the Independence monument and so on. This, while we walked around the center of the city to absorb the daily life.
From all the things we saw, there were two that I liked the most.
The first one was the venerated and impressive Shwedagon Pagoda. It is the most sacred pagoda in all of Myanmar so of course we needed to pay a visit.
When we arrived, we could see a bride and groom wearing traditional outfits and taking wedding pictures. After a few photos, they went to the entrance to buy flowers and proceeded to the temple to place them in front of one of the Buddhas to ask for a happy marriage.
After removing our shoes, we entered the complex. There were a lot of people going around and praying in the different temples. This was the first time I saw women wearing “thanaka” on their faces – a moisturizing treatment people (mostly women) use in Myanmar as makeup and to keep their skin refreshed.
The complex was big and had different pagodas donated by different members of the Buddhist community. Each person goes to the pagoda they feel more connected with to say their prayers.
One particular pagoda caught our attention as people can fan the Buddha to keep him cool. Matt wanted to contribute to this action.
As we continued to walk around, we were lucky to catch a ceremony of initiation for young monks and nuns to-be. It was like a festival of color! The outfits were beautifully made for the special occasion.
Aside from this, there are buddha sculptures surrounding the main pagoda – each one with a day of the week: Monday, Tuesday and so on. Tradition says that if you pour water on it based on the day you were born, you will cleanse yourself. Because I’m very into all-things-cleansing, I went ahead and participated. I was born on November 5th, 1981. That was a Thursday, so that’s where I needed to go.
The second thing I enjoyed the most was a place called Chauk Htat Kyi. It is home to a 70-meter long reclining Buddha. The funny story about this specific place is that the original Buddha was made by Indians and to tell the truth, it wasn’t very pretty. The Burmese people agreed to this and decided to re-do it. Here you can see the before and after.
On our third day, now without our tour guide Nann, Matt and I decided to do some window shopping at a famous bazaar in the center of Yangon called Bogyoke Aung San Market (a.k.a The Scott Market).
Since the moment we arrived in the country, I noticed the gorgeous dresses the Burmese women were wearing. I was hoping to get one at the market. To my surprise, most of the dresses are custom made so when you arrive at the stalls rolls of fabric with different patterns to choose from are on display. After picking your style, someone starts working on your dress. I didn’t have time to wait for one as we were leaving for the next destination the following day, but it was interesting to see all the seamstresses at work.
Later that day we took the “circular train” (a local tram that goes around the city) to reach the north where there’s a big lake called Inya.
Because sometimes Matt and I can be fancy, we decided to go to Le Planteur, a restaurant near the water that serves high tea.
This is how we said goodbye to Yangon. We loved our time there and were excited to see more of the country.
The next morning we flew to Inle Lake.