Arriving in a new country after dark is always an unsettling experience. The echoing airport, the weary taxi drivers, and the dark city streets all accumulate to create a kind of transitional limbo. Where time stands still and everything feels a bit warped and scary. I always try to land in a city during the daytime, but with conflicting time zones and flights, that’s not always possible.
We had landed in Myanmar at 7pm in a plane with just seven or eight other travellers. We were only hopping over the border from neighbouring Thailand on an hour long flight, but it felt a little like venturing into unknown territory.
Waiting for our luggage I approached a currency exchange stall (expensive place to exchange cash, I know) and exchanged a single crisp US hundred-dollar bill for a stack of greasy old notes too fat to fit into my purse. I returned to Jack, to find him chatting to an Australian man, who was saying he and his wife now lived in Yangon. “You will really feel welcomed in this country,” he told us. “The Thais tolerate tourists, they’re nice and they’re polite, but they aren’t as friendly as the people of Myanmar.”
The experience of driving into Myanmar’s capital city, Yangon, is adhered into my memory like glue. We wove through the maze of the city under the light of street lamps and the otherworldly glow of Shwedagon Pagoda.
Our hotel was halfway down a street that looked exactly like the street we'd just passed (or the one ten blocks further down) between an optometrist and a cell phone shop, with just a street sign above a single door to indicate that we have the right place.
Like many large cities the world over, Yangon is alive and active around the clock, with people out and about after dark, buying street food, sitting on porch steps chatting with friends, smoking, laughing, smiling at us as we walk by. Jack and I are on the lookout for a particular restaurant, and had it on good authority from our hotel owner that Sule Kitchen is the best place to eat in the area. As we walk our eyes are flying everywhere, looking at people and shops, watching traffic and crossing streets, and minding our feet so we don’t trip up on the cracked and uneven footpath.
The inner city of Yangon feels closed in. The concrete apartment buildings that loom over us on all sides feel a little jarring. The streets we walk are labelled numerically, 28th street, 32nd street, with a random Shwe Bon Thar Rd thrown in just to shake things up a little.
We soon find where we need to be when a local spots our confused faces and points out the little establishment we were hunting for. As we eat dinner (which was as delicious as promised), we have our favourite travel conversation; what are we going to do tomorrow? We both agree that exploring Bogyoke Aung San Market is at the top of the list.
Bogyoke Aung San Market is an undercover collection of more than 2000 shops that sell anything from slippers to jewellery, puppets to longyis. A longyi (pronounced with a ‘g’ as in general, not ‘g’ as in grape) is a 2-metre-long cloth tied at the waist and worn by men and women equally. What’s beautiful about the longyi is how widespread it is still worn in Myanmar, in a world where most cultures have adopted the fashion trends of the west.
We each bought a longyi, wearing them to browse the wares of the other shops. While beautiful, I found that I could not make my usual giant strides while walking, but rather quick and dainty little footsteps. I watched as a man untied and retied his longyi in public, wondering if it’s an acceptable practise. .
Visiting the People’s park was an unexpected highlight of my few days in Yangon. It was a place to relax, observe couples chatting, children playing on skateboards, and a funny little photo shoot of a few very beautiful Burmese women in front of a decommissioned Myanmar Airways Fokker. Nothing is ever dull in this beautiful country.
If you are interested in seeing Yangon at its day-to-day best, I suggest jumping on the circular train. Tickets are a measly 200 kyat or $0.20, and takes 2 hours to complete the circuit. The circular train can be crowded, sweltering and uncomfortable, but so fascinating to see the terrain change as we lugged around Yangon. We watched people hop on and off, and refreshment sellers roam the carriages with lukewarm water and food we didn’t recognise.
Be wary, however, the Yangon Circular Train is not for kids, or restless boyfriends. We hoped off the train after half an hour and caught a taxi back to our hotel for about 5000 kyat or $5.
I was a little bit flabbergasted to find myself in Myanmar, if I’m honest with you. Myanmar is a destination I’ve wanted to visit for the better part of five years. When you’ve spent so long wistful for something, how do you cope when you actually get it? I’ve wanted to see Myanmar since my early twenties, when solo travel was for people braver than me, and I’d spend my evenings after a busy night at work crawling the internet for stories of far flung destinations with unusual names. I liked rolling the name around on my tongue, My-an-mar.
Myanmar hit the spot. It was everything I dreamt and hoped it would be. I returned home feeling satisfied, but also a little lost. Where to now? Of course, I have a few countries in mind, all vying for first place in my prefrontal cortex.
People often ask me where I’m travelling to next and the answer of late has been a grimace and a shrug. Now that I’ve been to Myanmar, where’s next?
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