This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.
– Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East (1898)
It was my first stop in Myanmar — the city called Rangoon during British rule. After spending so much time in more developed cities around Asia, it was interesting to see a major city undergoing such rapid change — the entire city felt like it was under construction. Unfortunately, with limited time, my impressions of Yangon may not be the most complete.
It was easier to form opinions of Yogyakarta as it was a smaller city; Yangon is much larger and spread out. I also only had two days to see anything in the former Burmese capital (it was moved to nearby Naypyidaw in 2006) before heading off to Bagan and realizing that my ATM card wouldn’t work in the country.
The modernization process is evident at every turn in Yangon — there’s construction everywhere. And much of that construction is adorned with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean company names because they’re the ones investing heavily in Myanmar’s development. This is a city, and nation, that is rapidly adapting to technology — mobile phones are still new to the population, but they’ve already become ubiquitous.
Arriving in Yangon
My arrival in Yangon got off to a rocky start as I was dropped off at my hotel that I had booked for the first night. The traffic from the airport was rather miserable, but I didn’t mind much as the taxi was air conditioned and I could watch city life pass by. However, upon arriving at my hotel, I was informed that it was full and my room wasn’t available. The staff assured me, along with an irate Thai couple in the same situation, that they had a second hotel nearby and they’d drive us there. I worried that I’d have a similar experience as in Hanoi, with the awful hotel that locked me out at 11pm as I searched for other hotels.
The second hotel was fine — it was the same company and probably just as comfortable (same price too). It was a smaller hotel and the lobby wasn’t as nice as City Star Hotel, but there was less traffic on the street. I quickly discovered that some of the streets are nearly impossible to navigate by car and it’s best to find a taxi heading in the right direction on the most convenient road; if a taxi needs to go around the block to turn around, you’re more or less screwed out of a half hour. Fortunately, taxis operate on flat fees.
The staff at Clover City Center Hotel was friendly and helpful, though sometimes it wasn’t easy communicating with them — they’re still learning English and how to deal with tourists, but they certainly tried their best to help out. Only real downside to the hotel was that they couldn’t book tickets for buses, trains, or flights–I had to find a larger hotel nearby that had its own travel agency for my flight to Bagan (the overnight buses were sold out).
Checking out the sights & people watching
After checking into my hotel and resting for a few moments, I headed out to Sule Pagoda, which was only a short, hot walk from the hotel. It took longer than it should have because crossing the street is as difficult as it is in Vietnam (and I wasn’t sure about the whole pacing to cross as I learned in Vietnam). As Sule Pagoda sits in the middle of a busy roundabout with no traffic light, it’s not a destination for fearful tourists; I survived, but it took a while to cross the street.
At Sule Pagoda, I noticed that while there were plenty of tourists, there were equally as many locals. Many were there to sell goods, but most were there to pray or mingle with neighbors.
After my first pagoda visit, which was covered with bamboo mats for restoration work, I wandered around to the nearby Maha Bandoola Garden. I wandered through the park, watching the mostly young people relaxing in the grass; many of them were taking selfies or picnicking. I walked along the surrounding streets, around the old bus terminal, and stopped off for samosas on the sidewalk.
One aspect of the crowds of people in this area of Yangon that struck me was the presence of Muslims. Considering the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, I was surprised to see such a large Muslim population. Unlike the violence that fills the news stories about the Rohingya, everyone in Yangon appeared to interact peacefully. Of course, I can’t comment on the ethnic background of the locals because I didn’t have a chance to really interact with any.
Other things I noticed about the people was that they’re colorfully dressed. There was definitely more bright colors, particularly for women, in Yangon than in Bagan. Of course, this isn’t uncommon around Southeast Asia with the batik industry in Malaysia and Indonesia. But Yangon felt more colorful, or maybe it was just wandering through the market with all the fabric vendors.
I wandered farther away from my hotel in search of dinner. Somehow I ended up in Chinatown. I found a large, busy restaurant overlooking the city — I figured a view of life while I ate would be a great option. I ordered my beer and food and waited. It took about 10 minutes for the beer to arrive. 20 minutes later, as I was halfway through said beer, I asked where my food was. I asked again 10 minutes after that. After I finished my beer 10 minutes after my second request for my food, I walked up to the counter and paid for my beer. I was told that the food was on its way, but I flat-out refused to acknowledge the existence of the meal at that point.
As I later discovered in Bagan, food service is incredibly slow in Myanmar and it’s fine to continually ask staff for updates on the food (it might even speed up the process in rare cases). Myanmar’s service sector has yet to catch up with the tourism boom.
I ended up back near my hotel at a little cafeteria-style restaurant for a light meal–at this point I was more tired than hungry. After wandering around a bit more in search of travel agencies that I hoped would be open (I ended up going back the next day), I found a small busy restaurant close to Sule Pagoda that served my first Burmese beer. As the evening wore on (it was only closing in on 9 pm), the crowd on the streets grew younger. This is a rather young city to begin with, but it felt even younger after dinner. This could be a mindset of the older generations after decades of authoritarian rule and curfews.
The only thing about Yangon, and Myanmar in general, that actually repulsed me was the prevalence of betel nut. It was worse in Bagan than in Yangon, but it was still obvious everywhere I walked — the sidewalks were covered with red betel nut spit. This is a habit that’s still fairly common in Taiwan as well, but it isn’t nearly as noticeable. I found it difficult to talk with people whose mouths were coated red with betel nut juice. Fortunately, they’re respectful enough to not spit in the temples where everyone has to be barefoot. People were even kind enough to offer me some betel nut (I politely declined).
Other than the betel nut chewing, there’s also the pigeon population. At times I thought I was in a Hitchcock film. Seriously, what’s with all the freaking pigeons in Myanmar?
Overall impressions of Yangon
As I noted, I don’t feel like I spent enough time in the city to get a real feel for life and the people; I only had superficial encounters with locals. There were also plenty more sights to see–I would’ve liked to spend time along the Yangon River or in the parks.
From what I experienced, I found a city transitioning into a business hub and coping with the rapid changes. Yangon certainly isn’t a city in which I could see myself living — the traffic alone would drive me insane. But like the rest of Myanmar (or so I was told by the expat I met at the airport), the people are friendly and honest. For such a busy city in Southeast Asia, it felt safe as long as you discount the issues with crossing streets.
Had I stayed longer, I might have sampled a bit of the nightlife, but I know there isn’t much of that yet. As I didn’t get to see enough of the country due to my own lack of planning, there’s a good chance I’d plan another trip to Myanmar with another stop in Yangon.