Myanmar I


Flying In

Yangon

[Myanmar]

I got my visa online for $80 USD (United States dollars), it was checked at the border leaving Bangkok to ensure I am able to enter Myanmar before departing Thailand. I recommend going to the embassy in Bangkok to get this visa as it about half the price. The visa states on it that it is valid only with proof of exiting the country so I booked a flight back from Mandalay in twenty-six days the night before I took my flight. With no issues at immigration I got onto the plane and a short time later landed in Yangon, Myanmar. I don’t have much knowledge about Myanmar but am seeking some new adventures.

I made a few Dutch friends passing through immigration and ended up sharing a taxi to a Okinawa Guesthouse on 32nd street, just a minute walk to Sule Pagoda. My friends and I split up the beds sharing the room for $10 USD (United States Dollars) each per night. Not cheap accomodation but I knew it would be more expensive in Myanmar. We ventured down to 28th street and had some delicious street food. The pineapple was amazing, likely the best I have ever had. Having a traditional dinner and a few Myanmar beer I called it a night early to rest up for tomorrow.

Walking down the street it is very common to see many local people with red stained teeth, spitting out red juices. I thought there was a gingivitis epidemic and was concerned for the oral health of the population. I soon found out that what they were chewing on and spitting out is betel nut. It is commonly used as a mild stimulant with or without tobacco.

I have used www.couchsurfing.com numerous times in the past and enjoy the opportunity it provides to meet and stay with local people. I arranged to stay with Koko from couchsurfing the day after my arrival.

The guesthouse provided a nice breakfast. I spent the afternoon hanging out with my Dutch friends, we set off to check out the circle train. It is a 3 hour slow train that goes along the border of the city. Within a few hours we saw people working in markets, locals hopping on and off, going to and from work, kids and youth heading home from school.

 A local man who could not speak English but had a translation book to practice offered a local cigar. Many of the locals smoke these throughout the city, it is made with tobacco leaves, I didn’t particularly enjoy it but smoked it to be polite. Head out the window or sitting with the door wide open watching the city function was a relaxing way to spend the afternoon.

Plenty of street art and interesting architecture (Yangon, 2016).
Plenty of street art and interesting architecture (Yangon, 2016).
Emergency vehicles lined up (Yangon, 2016).
Emergency vehicles lined up (Yangon, 2016).

Couchsurfing

After heading back to the guesthouse I picked up my things and called for a taxi. Koko had called me numerous times throughout the day to clarify my plan. Finally I was on my way over so I gave him a call and he spoke with the taxi driver. Meter taxis are not used so the price is negotiated before the ride. Unable to obtain a price Koko thought was reasonable, I hopped in anyways not minding the 2,000 kyat foreigner price mark-up. The taxi ride cost me 10,000 kyat (~$11 Canadian).

The traffic in Yangon is always busy, but becomes madness during rush hour. No motorbikes are allowed within the city. The number of cars, trucks, and taxis on the road has grown significantly in the past few years. There was a 90% reduction of vehicle prices sometime around 4 years age. Now the streets are flooded with vehicles. Licensing, obtaining a permit, and buying a nice vehicle would cost ~$400,000 USD a few years ago. Today the same vehicle is priced at ~$40,000 USD so traffic has grown exponentially.

The taxi ride I took was at rush hour. It was a draining two hour drive for a usually twenty-five minute ride. I fell into a deep sleep in the taxi and missed four calls from Koko, on the fifth call I awoke up surprised. The driver was laughing as I answered the phone. “He call you four times?” I checked my phone afterwards and laughed. “Exactly right” I said as I had picked up his fifth call. A quick update and we arrived shortly after at a local teahouse.

Koko introduced me to his father, mother and a few aunts as they were sitting having a tea. I had a tea and spoke about my journey and the long taxi ride. We chatted for a while, they were all kind people. I was not bothered by the pouring rain; it has been raining on and off since my arrival in Yangon.

We headed to Koko’s house on his motorbike where I met his wife and son. We picked up some Myanmar beer and whiskey from the store. The whisky is dirt cheap in Myanmar, about $2.20 Canadian for a 26 ounce bottle. Koko’s friend came over and we drank, played guitar and had a great time exchanging songs and singing along. I heard some great traditional and catchy Myanmar music. I spent the night in a guest room on a pretty hard bed but managed to get some sleep.

Waking up in the morning I went with Koko to the local market (3 minute walk down the street) and picked up some chicken and other groceries for his wife to make lunch and dinner. We headed out on his motorbike and he showed me where he went to university. I had my first traditional Myanmar massage. It was a bit less rough than a Thai massage though it still involved a lot of stretching and bending I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.

We visited an orphanage where 52 children live. There is minimal funding or support available for a multitude of reasons. The house that they all live in is very small, only rice and soup is served to the children because of the high price of meat. I spent some time playing soccer with a few of the kids. It’s an eye opening experience, many children are brought to the orphanage resulting from conflicts within Myanmar. Some families are in a position where they have to give their children up because of no money or opportunity.

Before I left one of the girls working gave me a package of information for providing donations. The orphanage was called Sunrise Home Youth Development Center. Donations and contact with them can be made through sunrisehome.student@gmail.com. If anyone is ever looking to donate I’m sure they would appreciate any help, they are doing good things here.

The mon we went to was just a three minute walk down the quiet street. It is a big building that provides English, French, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish lessons to students (and anyone) trying to learn a language. I met Koko’s friend, he is a monk that runs the facility. He explained to me how the programs work, the cost for each individual is only 3,000 kyat/ 3 months including books. I can’t believe that the cost is only $3 Canadian for 3 months of learning. It is a phenomenal opportunity for the youth and adults to learn English and other foreign languages.

I sat in a chair for a few minutes, hearing the children speaking with each other in English. The monk came over to me and said “alright, so Koko told me that you are looking to teach, do you have your program ready for today?”

I felt some sweat beads start from my forehead as I pulled on the neck of my shirt.

“Uhm, yes I think so”  I replied, unsure of what my program was going to be about. He then continued to tell me, “So you have from 4:30pm until 6:00pm.”  Wow, I thought to myself, what the hell will I do for that length of time. There was a guitar sitting by and Koko had mentioned kindly that I was great at playing and singing (as we had jammed for hours the night before). Playing and singing was now included in my program.

It was a bit longer than I had anticipated speaking for but with only 5 few minutes to develop my program itinerary, it developed quickly. I was going to talk for a bit, take questions, tell stories and then play some music on the guitar.

There were 70-80 people, mostly pre-university and university students, along with some older people and monks crammed into one room. With the understanding that they are at all levels of learning English; I was introduced and handed the microphone. It was exciting that on my third day in Myanmar I was getting the opportunity to speak here.

I talked about myself and my travels, my work in Canada as a nurse, the healthcare, political and educational systems. Because it was my third day in Myanmar it made for a bit of trouble when I started taking questions; some of them were hard to respond to.

One student asked, “what is your favourite Myanmar food?” “So far the street food” I said trying to explain it is what I have mostly eaten in my first few days.

“What can you say in Myanmar language?” I blanked out, having trouble remembering how to say hello. I asked the student for a quick lesson and they swiftly reminded me that “mingalaba means hello”.

“Are you single or married?” “Single,” I responded and the children broke into chatter. I couldn’t help but laugh at the follow up question.

“What do you think of Myanmar woman?” “Kind and beautiful,” I responded trying to be honest. Another student graciously pointed out that the girl asking the question was also single. There was an outbreak of laughter and chatter. Avoiding an awkward moment I took another question.

“What has been your favourite thing to do in Myanmar?” “Seeing Schwedagon Pagoda was beautiful but doesn’t compare with having the opportunity to speak with you guys (the students).” It was exciting and fun to have an interative time speaking with all the students; it is one of the highlights of my whole trip so far.

So many different questions and curiosities came up that I was able to get to know Myanmar people in a unique way. After an hour and fifteen minutes of speaking and fielding questions I was relieved by the monk who took over for a quick five minutes.

I spoke with a guy who was volunteering at the monestary and he recommended I sing Baby by Justin Bieber while he plays the guitar. In retrospect we should have sang Sorry because I know the words. Singing Baby was slightly embarrassing as the students surprisingly and gracefully sung out every word while I was at the front stuttering along with the microphone trying to keep up.

Enough of that, I played a few of my own songs and regained a bit of dignity. I checked the clock and it was 6:05 time was up already. I had a photo with most of the students and then went back with Koko to his home for dinner.

After dinner it was an early night to bed. I did some reading about Myanmar trying to figure out what areas I want to visit. I didn’t sleep much this night, over exhausted and too warm to find comfort I spent much of the night tossing and turning.

In the morning I went to breakfast with Koko, his wife and son. We had a quick bite to eat and I said thanks for having me stay with them for a couple nights. It was a great experience I would not have been able to have at a guesthouse or hostel.

Koko, his wife, son and I eating breakfast at a local restaurant (Yangon, 2016).
Koko, his wife, son and I eating breakfast at a local restaurant (Yangon, 2016).
Me and some of the kids from Sunrise Home Youth Development Center (Yangon, 2016).
Me and some of the kids from Sunrise Home Youth Development Center (Yangon, 2016).
Speaking with the students (Yangon, 2016).
Speaking with the students at the Monestary (Yangon, 2016).
My five minute break when the monk was speaking (Yangon, 2016).
My five minute break when the monk was speaking (Yangon, 2016).
DSC05958
Photo Time (Yangon, 2016).
A street view near Koko's sister house (Yangon, 2016).
A street view near Koko’s sister house (Yangon, 2016).
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Street view at the monestary (Yangon, 2016).

Back into downtown Yangon 

Headed back into Yangon with Koko’s recommendation I took an Aung minibus for 1,000 kyat and arrived on 39th street. I booked into a hostel called Little Yangon. Though a bit expensive it was a great spot just a few streets up from the Okinawa guesthouse I first stayed in. There was a comfy bed, air condition in the rooms and a nice shower. Easily the best shower I have used since the start of my travels. I met some great people at Little Yangon and the atmosphere was nice.

Wifi here is slow, difficult to access and unreliable, cellphone plans and data are cheap and easy.

Five years ago the cost of cellphone a SIM card was $400 USD.

Today it cost me 7000 kyat ($6 USD) for SIM card plus calling/texting with 1.35 GB data.

It rained daily in irregular patterns, though it always seemed to be raining it would sometimes stop for a few hours in the afternoon. It didn’t bother me, I expected a lot of rain coming here in the monsoon season.

I spent days wandering visiting a few temples, trying the local Shan noodles, having coffee chatting with local people and enjoying my travels. I visited a few teahouse Yangon is renound for and was impressed with the fresh coffee. I really liked the city of Yangon so I spent a few nights at Little Yangon. My return flight ticket to Bangkok is booked from Mandalay up north so I will not be back to Yangon.

The best nightlife in Myanmar is supposedly in Yangon. One night I went to a nightclub called Pioneer, it was expensive to get into at 10,000 kyat ($11 Canadian) but worth the experience. It was filled with 95% local people whose dance moves were definitely original. The DJ was a female and she had a hype woman beside her on stage with a microphone, she was encouraging the crowd to get crazy and enjoy the night.

I have been watching pieces of Milos Raonic (#7 World Ranking) play his way to the Wimbeldon finals, the first time a Canadian man has ever competed in a Grandslam final. I found out there are no televisions in Bagan so I stayed one more night at Little Yangon to catch the final match. It was disappointing to see Milos lose the match but we had a fun atmosphere with some British and Candian friends watching.

I walked to the train station and despite some resistance booked an over night train to Bagan for the next day at 0400pm. It was 02:50 pm so the man refused to sell me a ticket despite being open until 0300 pm. It took me 35 minutes to find the right spot so I wasn’t going to leave without the ticket. I eventually had him sell me a ticket for 16,500 kyat ($18 Canadian) and an older gentleman named Wayne from Australia was behind me in called in “I’ll take the same thing” and also booked a spot on the overnight train to Bagan. After a good nights rest I headed to the train station in the afternoon unsure of how my 18 hour train ride to Bagan was going to go.

Downtown Yangon (Myanmar, 2016).
Downtown Yangon (Myanmar, 2016).
Downtown Yangon (Myanmar, 2016).
View from the temple downtown Yangon (Myanmar, 2016).
View of Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon, 2016).
View of Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon, 2016).
Visiting in Sule Pagoda (Myanmar, 2016).
Visiting in Sule Pagoda (Myanmar, 2016).
Rangoon Tea House (Myanmar, 2016).
Rangoon Tea House (Myanmar, 2016).
Monks in front of a temple (Myanmar, 2016).
Monks in front of a temple (Myanmar, 2016).
View of downtown Yangon from outside of Sule Pagoda (Myanmar, 2016).
View of downtown Yangon from outside of Sule Pagoda (Myanmar, 2016).