When my other half and I first embarked on our trip 18 months ago I was all for avoiding big cities. Well we did start in India where a city isn’t just a city it is a mini universe. We had just left our jobs, homes, families and friends and the thought of all the noise, smells, people and chaos was a bit off putting. Then we found ourselves in Sri Lanka and whilst I enjoyed Colombo for a day trip I wouldn’t recommend staying there. By the end of three months in Vietnam I had definitely had enough of the noise, smells, people and chaos and was ready to get out of Hanoi as quick as possible.
But then something changed and I am not quite sure what. Now I find that when the time comes to sit and down and write about my travels I hear the cities calling me. “Write about us – you know you love us really!” and it seems I do. First came Bangkok, a place I was all set to hate and actually really enjoyed. Then Kuala Lumpur, somewhere that I thought was going to be too expensive but has so much to offer for the budget traveller. And now Yangon. I think that now I realise that yes they are big, hot, busy and overcrowded, they can be hard work but for a little extra effort you get back so much more.
Every city has its list of “must see” things to do and Yangon is no exception. Most people land, visit Shwedagon Pagoda and maybe a couple of other Payas and then are on the bus to Bagan or Inle. But if you stop for a moment, take a day to adjust to the chaos and start to look beyond it then Yangon has so much more to offer. Now don’t get me wrong
Shwedagon is very impressive and worth a visit and if you like your Buddhas big then you can’t miss the beautiful reclining statue at Chaukhtatgyi Paya north of Kandawgyi Lake. I think that Sule Paya has got to be my favourite roundabout in
the whole world and Botataung Paya by the river makes a nice sunset visit. But don’t just rush around the temples ticking them off and move on without getting a feel for the ‘real’ Yangon.
On my first visit to Yangon in Oct 2012 we ‘did’ the temples. But we took 5 days to see what most people do in one. On our second visit in Feb 2013 we had seven days in total and didn’t step inside a single temple. Lucky us I hear you say, have all the time in the world. Well not quite, okay maybe, but we still only had 28 days in Myanmar and I really think that Yangon is somewhere that is worth spending some time.
I was impressed with the temples but equally I enjoyed sitting in a teahouse or a local Myanmar beer station watching the world go by. How nice is it to watch the world and have to it smile and wave back at you. Not because it wants anything, just to say ‘Hi’.
As you walk the streets of Yangon you start to notice the little quirky things that are just part of daily life for the people of Myanmar. On one street an old lady sat on a balcony throwing left over rice to feed the pigeons. A little further down the
road was a young girl selling small plates of nuts so that you too can ‘feed the birds.’ Back home in Nottingham I would chase the pigeons away, cursing them and their mess. But here in Yangon they are as cherished as any other bird that flies into the city and I must say they are very well fed!
Every place I go to I like to walk around the markets and Yangon is one big market. Admittedly they don’t really differ so much but each time I notice something new. I am not a massive fan of the dried fish section but can handle the chicken and fresh meat if I am having a good stomach day. It is so interesting to see that people use every single last part of the animals that they kill, it is all there to buy: ears, cheek, tongue, intestine, liver, testicles mmm mmm. Then there are the enormous varieties of fruit and vegetables. If I am not sure what it is I just ask, if the seller can tell me they are proud that I asked and if they can’t they just laugh and smile and even offer me
some to try. Never had that before in England. The colours of the flowers always grabs me as well, especially in Yangon. Huge bunches of pink, white and yellow flowers are bundled up and tied to the backs of bicycles (no motorbikes here thank you very much!) The smells are amazing, especially if you took a wrong turn and ended up walking past the dried fish to get here!
Another great part of life in Yangon is the food. It is everywhere. There are
plenty of indoor restaurants, there are plenty of street restaurants and there are absolutely loads of people with a little portable barbeque cooking up street snacks to keep you going on your walk. You can get large filled to the brim samosas or tiny bite size samosa snacks, you can get friend corn and fresh fruit, you can get fried chick
pea fritters or chili flavour wadis, you can get folded pancakes with beansprouts or herbs or tiny flying saucer shaped pancakes filled with tomato and chilli (and occasionally a quail’s egg!) and all of this will cost you pennies. In Yangon you will never go hungry.
If you want a slice of Yangon life but really don’t have that many days to spare then you really must take the train. The circle line loops around Yangon, taking you north of the city to the airport and back down again. Some trains go the full loop and others get to the top and
come back the way they came. Ours was the latter and we enjoyed the return leg every bit as much as the first. Either way the journey takes 3 hours and will cost you one of you perfectly flat US dollars and what an experience it is. Just head towards platform 6/7 at Yangon train station and many friendly locals will point you in the direction of the ticket office. If nothing else you get to marvel at the amazing balance of the
local people as they disembark with a tray of flowers on their head or they stand in the middle of a crowded swinging carriage making betel to sell. We met a fantastic young girl and without words to communicate we found other ways, smiles and gestures generally work. She kept us entertained and now she can go about life in Yangon having learnt how to make a paper dart and use an elastic band as a catapult!
If the train doesn’t quench your desire for local transport then take the ferry over to Dala. It has gone up in price since certain guide books were printed and will now cost your $4 for a return trip, although other than the guy who sold us the ticket not a single person looked at it in either direction. The trip across
the water from Pansodan jetty (near the Strand Hotel) takes about 10 minutes, in fact it takes longer for everyone to board and then disembark than it does to cross! Whilst on the ferry you can buy hats, toys, fruit, cigarettes, it really is like a floating market. Once in Dala you will get
asked ‘where are you going’, ‘do you want a rickshaw’ and if you do want to go further out to Twante or to see some of the sites then you will have plenty of choice. The best offer we had was 1000ks per person for a 50 minute tour but if you just want a walk around the town you don’t need transport. This was really the first experience
we had of persistent pestering; these guys really are fighting for business, so perhaps if you want to do a good deed for the day hire one, at least then the others will leave you alone. For us it was a bit of training on what to expect when we return to India next month. There is a brightly painted mosque in Dala next to an even brighter Hindu temple and a gold and silver Zedi across the other side of town. But it is also just as fun to sit and watch the locals leaving the ferry jetty and counting how many chickens they have tied to their bicycles!
We took some time in Yangon to visit a couple of local charities working with orphans and other disadvantaged young people. Coming on a flight from KL we were carrying with us donations of books and clothes from friends and friends of friends who live in Malaysia. We had found one contact on the internet, Ming, who volunteered at an orphanage run by Buddhists outside of Yangon. Then as we were walking down the street we came across a Salvation
Army centre and popped in to say hello. They ran three children’s homes north of Yangon and were more than happy to accept our gifts. It is so easy to do something practical when you are travelling. Even if all you have are some freebie toiletries from a plane or hotel, or perhaps some clothes that you don’t plan to travel on with, they will be gratefully received but these two great sets of people who welcomed us even before they knew we had anything to donate.
After my two visits to Yangon it is fast becoming my favourite ‘capital’ city. (I
know officially the capital of Myanmar is Nay Pyi Taw, but nobody goes there.) Where else in the world would a lady wearing joke clown glasses and a scowl try and sell you a book on ‘International Foreign Investment Law’, through a taxi window? Where else would they tarmac a road without lane closures? Where else do you have a long piece of rope with a bulldog clip attached hanging out of your window for deliveries if you live higher than ground floor?
The pagodas of Yangon are worth a visit but not at the expense of the rest of
the city. I know I already said this but I think it is a good point to revisit at the end – How nice is it to sit in a teahouse or a local Myanmar beer station watching the world go by. How nice is it to watch the world and have to it smile and wave back at you. Not because it wants anything, just to say ‘Hi’.