We're in! The Great Dollar Hunt paid off!

Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
Trip End Feb 01, 2013

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Monday, January 7, 2013

Flying in from Bangkok, Yangon was our first port of call and our opportunity to see if “The Dollars” worked. Since obtaining them, we had spent several days treating them with more care than some countries treat their nuclear arsenal. We were not taking any chances. 

So imagine the relief (and sense of anti-climax after chasing those “perfect” dollars) when our precious Greenbacks were barely given a second glance by the cashier and exchanged for Kyat quicker than we thought humanly possible. We had expected either (1) some kind of fanfare for bringing such perfect examples of the American currency into the country or (2) at least a charade of checking that they were Myanmar Central Bank compliant. In any case, they worked. We were happy. We were now in Myanmar and would be able to eat!

The journey to our hotel was marked with exclamations of surprise from A: “they have shops!”; “there’s an ATM!”; “there’s a Mastercard sign”; “they have mobile phones”; “there’s another ATM!”. V had to remind him that the ATMs accepted Myanmar bank cards only and asked him exactly what he was expecting to see in the largest city in the country, if not signs of everyday, 21st century life - “it’s a modern country, it’s just been more restricted in it’s access to some of the outside world. What did you expect? Shacks and three headed people?”. A looked sheepish and mumbled “maybe...”.

We took to the streets of Yangon while it was still light and very quickly realised that the guidebook’s description of the pavements was spot on. These were at best atrocious and at worst dangerous. It’s as if a giant worm or mole has been thrashing around underground and disturbed everything at ground level. We treaded lightly and followed the locals as much as possible, with the ever present fear of falling through the pavement into the sewer beneath. Lovely. As if it wasn’t difficult enough in daylight, the danger was ten times worse at night...

...because Yangon does not have any street lights! Walking around the city or looking out at it from our hotel room, it’s as if a massive power cut has befallen the city. There are power generators everywhere and we could see why. Even though the city is very safe, it felt strange walking along poorly lit main roads. Luckily, we’d had our fill of colonial architecture before the sunset and so could focus on every step we took.

We spent a full day in Yangon visiting the sites. There were a few places we thought merited a visit and we were pleased that we’d found a guide who was keen to take us to some places that are not referenced in guidebooks/ that we didn’t know we could go to.

We kicked the day off with a trip to the Sule Paya, a 2000 year old gold temple which has pride of place in the middle of a development of modern life - a roundabout. After this, we took a local ferry across the Yangon River to a town called Dalla. The ferry journey was an experience in itself - no fixed seating - you just collected a small, plastic chair (which is common to SE Asia) and sat where you wanted. Our guide took the opportunity to catch up on some news from a privately run newspaper. Meanwhile, we took in the cityscape, which oddly, reminded us of Liverpool’s striking waterfront.

After a short ferry trip, we arrived in Dalla and hired trishaws, complete with betel-chewing locals to pedal us around, and explored the town and countryside there. Trishaw was a great way to get around and another form of transport to add to our ever-growing list of different methods of travel on this trip. 

The ride was scenic - beautiful countryside, bamboo shacks home to beauty salons (often with “romantic-”, “London-” or “Paris style” posted above the doors), pool houses, barbers (often promoted with words such as “fashion” or “romantic”), grocery stores and teenagers playing chinlon (which is essentially volleyball but played using their feet). As in Yangon, motorbikes are banned here, but the police leave the locals to their own devices and rarely check so there are quite a few motorbikes zipping around. Lots of people, men and women as well as the children were gawping at us, breaking into huge smiles when we answered any “hello” we received with “mingalabar”.

Sadly, you could still see evidence of the destruction Cyclone Nargis caused a few years ago. Houses and buildings were completely destroyed and the locals were not given any financial or other support by the government to help repair the damage. One of the guys pedalling us around told us that many people were still in the process of rebuilding their houses and that he himself had to build a new one after the cyclone. Everything that guy had was wiped out and he told us that it’s only thanks to UNICEF that he was able to continue sending his two children to school.

We stopped off in the middle of a country lane, overlooking a field, so that our “drivers” could have a “sky beer” break. About twenty metres from the lane, there was a shack, ostensibly the “bar” area and a few local lads who had been guzzling sky beer for a while and giving a not so beautiful rendition of “Hotel California”. The fact that we recognised it and were grinning madly (mainly because neither of us thought that anyone could be worse at singing than us) only sought to encourage them even more......yes, we enjoyed our sky beer to the tune of “Hotel California” on repeat track...

Sky beer is made from palm trees and offered us a chance to interact with some of the local children, who were amused by our “mastery” of the Myanmar language. In what was fast to become the first of many such requests, a little girl and her younger brother, asked our guide if he could ask us if we would mind having our photo taken with them. We didn’t mind at all and then asked the same of them. We were then able to show them the photo that had just been taken. The kids were so excited and our guide, who sees them every few weeks, is going to print off the photos and drop them off on his next visit. 

We stopped in at the famous Bogyoke Aung San Market (still sometimes referred to by its colonial name, Scott Market). While wandering around the huge market, which had sections dedicated to different types of goods, we came across some fruit juice stalls. We decided to sample one of the local drinks - avocado juice - which turned out to be avocado mixed with condensed milk and, we think, some sweet syrup. It was delicious. We also road tested some local pancakes - one sweet and one savoury - which were, how can we put it? Horrible.

We searched the market for the sex toys, which we’d read in the Lonely Planet, could be found for sale all over the streets of Yangon. A thought these would make perfect gifts for two “young” women he knows who share a flat in Wimbledon (you know who you are...). For those of you who don’t, yes, it’s his sister-in-law (V’s sister) and her flatmate.

We’d very quickly established that our guide was not only a passionate member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) - he’d told us earlier that “The Lady” was going to build a well in Dalla. He also ran a shop from his home selling party merchandise to raise funds for the NLD 2015 general election campaign. He had been talking freely to us all day about politics and was keen to take us to NLD Headquarters to have a look around. On the way there, we shared a glance with each other that asked “are we going to get arrested?” but, once there, that niggling concern didn’t stop V from buying an Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirt. A immediately started looking for signs of government surveillance. The icing on the cake was then stopping off at “The Lady’s” house, which looked more like a prison with a three metre high fence, topped with barbed wire. And that’s only the outer perimeter wall. Apparently the wall used to be lower but “the people” were concerned for her safety following her release from house arrest and insisted that the wall was made higher.

We didn’t stop for long outside The Lady’s house - just enough time to take a quick snap - because it was on a really busy road and then made our way to Chaukhtatgyi Paya to see the enormous reclining buddha image of the same name. You have to see another person in front of it to fully appreciate the size of it. There was a lovely view of the city from the terrace behind the buddha image and we also saw an image of the much revered Pomin Ghwang, a famous local medicine man, known for always wearing a checked longyi, white shirt and brown jacket. A highlight of our visit to this place was seeing the women volunteers cooking mohinga, thin rice noodles in fish broth, for the monks’ breakfast the following day.  The women were more than happy to let us come in and have a look at how they were preparing the food and it’s fair to say that the sight and smell made us both very hungry!

We hopped across the city to Schwedagon Paya, the most striking golden pagoda in Yangon, the most impressive in Myanmar and possibly also within South East Asia. We had some time before sunset to wander clockwise (don’t go anti-clockwise as that’s bad luck according to the locals!) around the complex. It was an odd mix of locals meditating and praying in front of the various buddha images and both Myanmar and foreign tour groups. We found our respective buddha images and lucky birthday animals and, in local tradition, poured three cups of water over each of them to bring good fortune. 

The big draw of coming here for sunset was so that we could experience the softening of the golden colour of the stupa as the sun lowers in the sky. After sunset, our guide took us to “his secret place” where we could see yellow, pink and green light reflecting from the 76 carat diamond, which sits at the very top of the stupa and which is not visible from the platform below (outer circle, between North Gate and North elevator!). If you think that’s a bit bling, the weather vane beneath the orb on which that sits contains 1100 diamonds, totalling 278 carats and hundreds of other precious stones (again, none of which are actually visible from the platform, although there are posters which show these).

While in Yangon, we ate at a place called “Global Food and Drink” (which is also, by coincidence, the name of a convenience store in Wanstead). It was very much a local place and, as white foreigners are still relatively uncommon in Yangon, we received a few curious stares as we walked in. We immediately endeared ourselves to the locals by attempting to say hello, ordering two beers and saying what we think means “cheers”, which brought out a lot of smiles of approval. The food was sensational, the local beer was terrific and the evening was topped off by winning a free beer. There was a promotion running and after every five beers bought, one of the boys working behind the bar would bring out a scratch card to the table of that beer drinker. Every time this happened, the entire bar would gather round to see what had been won. The guy behind us won an umbrella and, in addition to our free beer, we were given a lighter by one of the locals.

It was on this great evening that we suddenly realised why the Afghans have to pay at least $5 more than other nationalities for a visa into Laos (this had been baffling us since we’d seen the visa prices on arrival in Laos) - we reckon that it’s because, whenever the Afghans book anything online, their country of residence is the first place that comes up in the scroll bar. Now, we’ve done a fair bit of online booking on this trip and get very frustrated at always having to scroll down to find “United Kingdom” - so, quite frankly, fair play to the Laotians. The Afghans should be paying an additional five dollars!

All in all a great night, despite no street lights on the way home!

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