Myanmar is just another world to which I will hopefully be returning so that I can explore more places and meet more wonderful people that Burmese certainly are. It’s just a dream. Yangon itself feels like going back in time. In a good way. It’s a place with a charm and vibe that is hard to find anywhere else, at least to me, of course until Myanmar gets discovered by mass tourism, which I deeply hope never happens. It’s a place for souls that seek peace, serenity, beautiful simplicity and genuine happiness. First I will take you to Yangon where I stayed for four nights only but believe that even a longer time would be worth considering. I don’t think you can run out of things to do, see or observe. Even wandering about in the city is an adventure on itself and there’s simply always plenty to discover, smell and feel. So get ready for some pouring of superlatives here, folks.
First things first, exchange your money at the airport. I guarantee it’s the best option of all. I changed dollars with two ladies right after getting out from the passport control. They were the first ones I saw and had a reasonable rate. There are other money changers as you progress further with very similar, if not the same, rates. Exchanging in town will be possible too but expect lower rates. Still tolerable though. Most importantly, just make sure your notes are new and crisp to avoid unpleasant surprises.
As much as I love Myanmar and have almost nothing bad to say about it so far; and as much as I enjoyed staying at each and every hotel, there is something colossally bad about some of them. And that’s the exchange rate. Avoid exchanging in hotels, unless you have verified the rates with them beforehand. Most hotels have them outrageously and insanely unreasonable and therefore you are in for an amazingly blatant rip off. If your pennies are dear to you, stay away.
Having said that the first hotel I stayed in (Mawtin) had a fixed rate (8,000 kyat) for the airport drop off which was a nice surprise. However, you shouldn’t expect prices as low though. Grabbing a taxi from the airport took some dealing and bargaining and it cost me 10,000 kyat. However, the second time in Yangon it was already 12,000 kyat and my attempts for bargaining, which I have honed over the years in the region, were completely futile. What’s more, the fare hike occurred just within the span of 10 days. As you can see prices are volatile as well as many other things in this beautiful country.
Get maniacal with pagodas
Above all, Yangon boasts spectacular pagodas. Going to Yangon without visiting at least one is like eating tom yam without chili. It’s nice but it tastes bland. It’s in or around the pagodas that you see the spiritual, and not only, life unfold. Believers and families gather there to worship the Gods, have a chat, picnic, or just enjoy a day out. Going to pagodas is pretty much comparable to a social event or gathering. Make sure you are properly dressed – no shorts, singlets and you will be asked remove your shoes (as much as I try to be environmentally aware, a plastic bag will come in handy).
This one is just in the city centre and therefore, if your time is limited, look no further. It is relatively small and not so majestic as her sister Shwedagon but it still gives you a pretty good idea of the Yangon’s pagoda culture. If you visit, just beware. You may be approached by nice looking guys offering pieces of information and unsolicited guiding for which you will later be asked to pay, of course under the pretext of contributing to poor kids as well. Don’t fall for it, obviously it’s a scam. Say thank you and move on. On the plus side, it is not crowded and you might be just one of the few visitors.
If you are like me and tend to make things a bit difficult for yourself, you can definitely walk. At the time of travelling, I still somehow wasn’t aware of offline Google maps and so I walked using a regular map and previously researched routes. Since it’s Asia, don’t be surprised when you ask locals for directions and they may not even know what you are asking about, even if the pagoda is say just a few hundreds of meters away. “Yes” is often a universal answer to everything even if your question is not a closed-ended one. Anyway, I somehow managed to get there and must say it was worth the walk, though today I would definitely take a taxi. I paid around 2,500 kyat on my way back, but again, that might have changed. The pagoda is especially beautiful at sunset or sunrise times. I did both and it was worth it. Don’t rush it. Enjoy the atmosphere. Sunrise is serene and magical while sunset lights the pagoda with beautiful dusk colours but there will be crowds.
It’s the busiest one I’ve been to. Many locals gather here as part of socialising and worshiping God. There are food stalls everywhere with all kinds of delicacies that will whet your appetite and you can also enjoy observing life under the sunset from the crossover leading to the pagoda.
Alright guys, so let me spout some superlatives here again. This is absolutely the most funyangontastic experience I’ve had not only in Yangon but overall in Southeast Asia. Trust me, it’s a complete ‘mingle with locals’ activity and if you are like me, a soul longing for unique, raw, invigorating and genuine stuff, this is bloody it!
The train runs a couple of times a day. I took the morning one. Departure scheduled for 8.20am. The actual time of departure 9ish. But it is fun to be waiting on the platform. It’s part of the package already.
It takes 3 hours with all the delays and waits. However, it’s certainly worth it. In Yangon it will get crowded and you may feel a strike of disappointment or fear – ‘Oh gosh am I really going to stand all the way?’ I remember thinking. Absolutely not! Locals are willing to squeeze in, some even give their seats to us tourists, how nice and noble. As you progress people get off and the train becomes emptier and emptier with every stop. On the way back to Yangon the opposite happens, it gets more crowded as you approach the main station.
At first I thought I wouldn’t see anything, which may happen as locals tend to use the blinds, depending on which side of the train the sun hits – something to consider when you choose your seat. On the way back though, I sat at the front of the train and the ride was absolutely perfect! Locals are incredibly but incredibly friendly and humble. You can chat to some of them a bit, or use hands, legs and a smile. The vendors spice the ride up. Simply, you get to see life in its raw form – mothers breast feeding, children monks hopping on an off regularly, youngsters going from and to school, elderly running simple errands, workers commuting, slightly crazy individuals – adding to the otherwise already strange ambiance. Simply, an amazing mix of people and tiny natural events. This was the highlight of my trip to Yangon, for sure! I’ll never forget the smiles and waves I exchanged with all the people, the feel, the atmosphere. Beyond all doubt an unforgettable experience that I have cherished to this day.
I need to warn you though, there is rubbish along the way, shanty towns and it’s not exactly picturesque landscapes you will see along the way. This is not what the ride is about. By the same token, it may get slightly smelly and dirty, so just don’t wear white Gucci pants or so and you should be fine.
To sum up, I must say that the Yangon Circular Train left great impressions on me and if I didn’t do it again, it was only because I wanted to keep my first memory of it alive and not override it. The city itself is truly an incredibly inspiring place but the train sets the bar even a bit higher. Therefore, if you fancy a bit of raw Yangon ‘scent’, go for it. Most fellow tourists I saw on the train enjoyed themselves amazingly. Some of them had candies which they gave to local kids as a form of ice breaker. While at that time I found it perfectly fine, in hindsight I must admit I dislike this behaviour. This is what may ultimately change the nature of the country if more westerners come and offer candies. I’ve seen this happen in other countries. This certainly contributes to creating an illusion that westerners are there to give just for the love of altruism and others are supposed to wait with arms stretched. I would say think twice before you decide to spread your love in the form of food or other items.
Food and drink
Very simply, just hit the 19th Street and sit anywhere to your liking. You can’t go wrong here, really. All restaurants offer a great selection of local delicacies and I ate there every single day.
Yangon from Top
If you want to enjoy Yangon’s skyline, head to the eloquently named Yangon Yangon sky bar. The staff are not that friendly as the average Burmese but I guess that’s a thing with a lot of rooftop bars I have so far been to in Southeast Asia. The view is pretty spectacular, but forget a real sunset experience as other high rise buildings block it. The entrance fee is 5,000 kyat which is weird, I know, but since they are probably one of the few sky bars, they try to capitalize on that. On the plus side, it includes a cocktail (which actually tasted good). Technically there is no free drink, given the entrance fee, so all in all it’s a slightly unusual way of marketing. Otherwise, beer is for 5,000 kyat too, though if you fancy cocktails, prepare to pay more than that. I found the prices still reasonable though, compared to rooftop bars in other countries. I have especially fond memories of this bar since I met there a couple of friends. We have kept in touch to this day which makes it all the more worthwhile.