Travel

Myanmar – Part 1 – Yangon

When I travel, I always try to get off the beaten track, even if it implies to make compromises and go out of my comfort zone. I was aware that this trip was going to be challenging but I was mentally prepared.
I’ve always been attracted by Myanmar: the long necks tribes, Aung San Suu Kyi, the luxuriant forests, the monks, Mandalay… 
The fact that it was a closed country, one of the few we didn’t know too many things about, stimulated my imagination for many years. This is, I believe, due to my explorer side. I like to discover new things, but in a world where we can have access to almost all the information we want when we want and where we want, it becomes harder and harder.
I was somewhat concerned by the regime and didn’t want to encourage it. But I saw its opening to the world and therefore tourism encouragement as a great chance for the population to improve their living conditions.
 
I finally convinced my boyfriend to go Myanmar for 3 weeks in January 2013 and I have to admit that the timing of our trip wasn’t as good as I expected, but not as bad as it was after, if it makes sense.
He was quite reluctant, but after one year of long-long-distance relationship (I leaved in Geneva and he leaved in Sydney), he wanted please me.
As usual, I was the one in charge of the travel. So I bought « Lonely Planet » and « Le Guide du Routard », to have 2 different opinions. You should have seen me the day I received the books, I was crazy excited and began my reading without further delay.
I decided that we would go on adventure and only booked the 3 first nights in Yangon. It wouldn’t be the first time that we travelled like this in South-East Asia. But what was new was that we had to budget our trip. Indeed, at that time, Myanmar had just open to tourism and wasn’t equipped with ATM so tourists had to bring enough cash to cover all expenses during their stay.
 
As you’ll discover, this trip didn’t begin and finish well but we keep a good memory of the overall experience. The first incident couldn’t have been avoided, unlike the second. So I hope that our mistake, I should say my boyfriend’s mistake, will make you more vigilant.
 
When my mother drove us to the Marseille-Provence airport to catch our first flight, I was thrilled but for the first time a bit scared as well. What if it wasn’t what I expected at all? And more annoying, what if we ran out of cash?
We left Marseille at 8:30 am on the 31st of December 2012. I really hate New Year’s Eve except when I’m abroad and this is why I really liked the idea to be in a plane, not exactly knowing when and above which country we would be when we would enter the New Year.
 
In Paris, I began to feel bad just before entering the plane to Hanoi. It became worst and worst until the « Seat belt sign » switched off. Good timing, as I ran off to the toilet. I’ll pass you the details but I caught gastroenteritis and spent the 6 first hours of the flight between my seat and the toilets. I was very lucky that they were always vacant when I needed. Even if I managed to stay clean, which is a miracle when we know the extremely small size of plane’s toilets, I swore to myself to always bring a second outfit in long-haul flights for the rest of my life. We never know what can happen and can never anticipate enough!
My boyfriend made fun of me because I couldn’t do anything: eat, read, watch a movie, listen to music…. It looked like an endless flight… But my revenge came soon enough! When we landed in Hanoi for our 10 hours stopover, it was my boyfriend’s turn to feel sick. My gastroenteritis was viral and he caught it. So he spent all the time between the toilets and a cold steel bench, acting as if he was about to die, like all men do when they’re sick! But I didn’t made fun of him, even if the desire was strong!
He was still feeling bad when we took our connecting flight to Yangon.
We couldn’t wait to arrive, to take a shower and to sleep. 

The first image we had of Myanmar was the exterior of Yangon airport with its impressive sculptures, a sign of a totalitarian regime, which wants to show its power. The inside of the airport was brand new and spotless. The immigration control went fast so as the luggage collection.
The manager of the guesthouse I booked was waiting for us, but unfortunately with a very bad news…
It was the last thing we expected and wanted, tired and sick as we were. The guesthouse I booked months in advance and reconfirmed the day before we flew was full. How was this possible?
Simply because at this time, it wasn’t possible to pre-pay most of the accommodations. It was more like a promise: the persons made the promise to come and the guesthouse’s manager made the promise to have a spare room.  But someone must have extended his stay or walked in and the manager had preferred to give him what was supposed to be our room. Working in the Hospitality Industry, I totally understand that it’s better to be sure to be paid than to take the risk that the persons finally don’t honour their booking. Even if we were totally taken aback, I appreciated the fact that the manager came to the airport to inform us. He proposed us to stay instead in a sort of backpacker, sharing a dorm with 6 other people. If we haven’t been sick, it would have been conceivable as I remembered having read nice comments about the one he mentioned. But not in our actual state, we needed to rest and to recuperate fast to be in top form for the rest of the stay. This is why the manager finally offered us to get in his van and to drive us to Yangon city centre to help us to find another suitable place for the night. He stopped us in front of a place called “Everest” and we asked to have a look at the room. The room was on the fifth floor without elevator of course. A glance was enough to see everything: a double bed, a cupboard and a desk in dark wood, a window with bars overlooking the corridor and a bathroom blue from floor to ceiling with a window overlooking a courtyard with bars as well. The room looked like it had been cleaned a long time ago in a rush. But the bed was clean so we decided to stay for one night.
Like this the description doesn’t sound too bad but I can insure you that it was definitely the worst room we’ve slept in (even worst than in Bali, but this is another story!).  I decided to keep my clothes on to sleep because I didn’t want my skin to touch the bed, having seen the general state of the room.  I didn’t sleep that much actually, thanks to a dog that barked all night, the light from the corridor, the noise from our neighbours and the heath.
 
My boyfriend woke up early the next day and felt better whereas I was still feeling a bit dizzy. He went out in his quest to find a decent room for the next 2 nights. We finally ended up at the Queen’s Park Hotel in a simple but clean room with hot water and A/C. The only problem was the price…. It was much more expensive than the rate published in my guides. And as we would learn along our travel, accommodation prices had exploded in 2012 (between x4 and x8!), but quality hadn’t follow. Which meant that our budget was totally underestimated, even if I’ve been generous when I calculated it. I began to stress. What would we do if we ran out of cash in the middle of nowhere?? I believe the situation is now better, as we saw many ATM’s were under construction. But when we were there, there were very, very them. So few, that you could count them on your fingers.
 
Once settled, we went to a travel agency near New Bogyoke market to book domestic flights. I really enjoy travelling by bus and train with locals but my boyfriend is tall and quickly bored, a bad combination! And as our timing was short, it was more sensible to spend more time visiting than in transportations. The good news was that the prices were in accordance with the ones I checked on the airlines’ websites just before leaving. No surprise from this side: it was a relief for me and our wallet!
 
It was finally time to visit Yangon. It’s a very populated, cosmopolitan, polluted and poor city. Of course, there were no MacDonalds or Starbucks at that time but some international brands had already understood the growing potential of the city. 
2 days in Yangon were more than enough to visit the city, some people even decide not to stop. During those 2 days, we were on a mission: we had to find some tee-shirts for my boyfriend. He thought that it would be as easy as it is in Thailand, where he bought lots of nice tee-shirt during a previous trip. But it wasn’t, as you can easily imagine with someone measuring 186 cm. We didn’t find any and he was to wash or give to laundry the 3 tee-shirts he brought from France! But he doesn’t learn from his mistake and did the same this year when we went on a trip to Borneo… No comment!
The city is full of street markets. What surprised me the most was that they were not only on the pavement but also went over the streets.  Cars had to adapt and progressed with difficulties, while fish and meat were almost smoked by the fumes!
In New Bogyoke market, you can find everything except food: antiques, Burmeese handicrafts, jewelry shops, art galleries and clothing stores. The perfect place to buy souvenirs. But don’t go a Monday or you’ll be disappointed because it’s closed.
On the second day, we met a friend of mine that I met during my internship in Seychelles. We went to visit the famous Shewadon Pagoda, one of the most sacred place in Myanmar and to Lake Inga, a nice relaxing place where Yangon residents like to have a walk. We also take advantage of being with her to take the bus.

Then, it was time to pack again for our next destination: Bagan. I began to stress again because we didn’t manage to find a not fully booked and reasonable-priced accommodation.

Some tips for Yangon:
-The distances are long and if you don’t’ enjoy walking in the heath, it’s better to grab a taxi or to take the bus for a more genuine experience. 
-It’s very dark at night, so it’s better to have a torch to see where you put your foot. 
-There are not too many traffic lights. Most of the time, people cross the street where and when they want. The rule is that people avoid cars and cars avoid people. This is why I find it safer to cross the street in Yangon than in London, where car drivers don’t brake or even try to deviate. 

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