Myanmar or Burma, so closed off for so long is now very open, and very much seeing a rise in tourism from the west. My feelings about Myanmar, like most places I visit are complex and it is difficult to write about.
Myanmar is a land of monks, gold, and Buddhas. The landscape really tells you a lot about the place. Looking out from airplanes, hotels, or any vista what you see is an endless sea of pagodas popping up in a smoggy (someone optimistically tried to tell me it was haze) sky. Buddhism it seems comes first. Monks are everywhere and they are revered. Everyone spends time serving as a monk, beginning as a young boy, all men spend at least a week in religious life. The ever useful Wikipedia tells me there are about half a million monks in Myanmar and believe me they are everywhere.
Most of Myanmar is old, and relatively untouched (I use this term loosely). Yangon however is undergoing extreme development; foreign money is flooding into the region developing condos, malls, and business spaces. Additionally despite signs of positive changes in the government, most citizens that I spoke too seem bitter, frustrated, and most of all fairly pessimistic about the state of affairs. The most common saying I heard was some form of “we will see with the upcoming election.”
Having said all that being in Myanmar is like stepping back fifty years in time. Computers are nowhere to be seen, everything is hand written and credit cards are practically non-existent. Imagine this system in hotels, where house keeping is radioed upon check out to survey the room for missing items before you leave to ensure your bill the is paid properly. Better yet close your eyes and imagine this system in an airport, how exactly would an airport function without computers? Creatively, with a complex sticker coding system and books upon books of logs. Crisp $100 bills are required. I had heard this before I came and rolled my eyes a bit but it is in fact true. US money is better then gold. Additionally Myanmar seems to be flooded with American counterfeit cash. I even had the pleasure of receiving a fake $50 bill as change from my hotel upon checkout.
While westerners are increasingly visiting, locals were fascinated by Nicholas and I. Ever wonder what it is like to be a celebrity, take a walk in a pagoda in Yangon.
Nothing seems to summarize the very contradictory aspects of the place than my experience at the domestic terminal (lets call it the domestic hall for the sake of description) at Yangon Airport. Upon trying to collect my tickets for Air Mandalay, I was informed that the airline was no longer operating. Thus I sat while a young woman made phone calls, in a tiny back office crammed with 10 people seemingly doing nothing. Reservations were made by calling each still existing domestic airline on a landline and than manually writing up a flight plan, while her coworker surfed facebook on a computer. I was than asked for cash (USD) for flights on three different airlines. Needless to say we found an airline that booked online. We did however still need to print out our tickets, as like I said before there are no computers available to aid with check in.
Fun Facts and things to do when traveling in Yangon:
My favorite thing in Yangon was the British Imperial Mansions. Many are in disrepair, but they are beautiful, and very much a reminder of the Burma of the past. The Governor’s Residences, a hotel now run by luxury operator Belmond is worth a visit.
Motorcycles are banned in Yangon, due to an incident with a general being hit, which leads to traffic but in general quiet streets. Taxis are the only way to get around.
Due to the proximity to China, noodles reign supreme. Eat at 999 Shan Noodle Shop. It is delicious.
Enjoy the gold and cosmic lighting. I love gold, but this culture takes it to an extreme. The Shwedagon Pagoda is in the center of the city and really is dripping. Myanmar is a country that seems in love with sparkle and glitter!