The air was pleasantly cool. Not quite a chill, but certainly not the muggy heat I am used to in Java. I shouldered my two small backpacks and walked up the gangway from the plane to the terminal, hoping that customs would go more smoothly than my trip thus far.* Welcome to Yangon! a sign over the unsmiling customs officers declared. Above the English greeting was some curly writing that looked like a string of partially-formed circles. Although I learned a few words in Myanmar language** during my time there, this new alphabet remains a mystery to me.
Immigration went smoothly. Not a word was said as the officer took my visa application letter, perused my passport, and silently decided to grant me a visa. I nodded with a mumbled “thank you” and took my passport quickly before he had a chance to change his mind. On the other side of immigration I stopped at an ATM, which underscored how little I knew about the country I was visiting. What is the local currency? Kyat. How many kyat per dollar? About 1,350. I hovered in front of the ATM, giving it my card three times and being rejected each time; not because of a card error but because of my own hesitance, unsure of how much to withdraw. I settled on 200,000 and tucked the clean blue and white bills into my wallet before making my way outside.
The first night was not too eventful. I wrote about it in the moment here. But what of the rest of my time in Yangon? I was there for two-and-a-half, nearly three days. The first day I had expected to be alone but was pleasantly surprised when a fellow solo traveler***, Andrew, suggested we do some sight-seeing together. I had zero plans for the day and was up for anything. We set out from the hostel and, following his recollection from the day before, went to the train station. He had heard of a train route that goes in a circle around the city and takes about 3 hours. We were informed that the train left at 10:35, so we still had some time to kill. We got some tea at Scott Market, used the facilities at the nearby Shangri-La, and were back at the train station in plenty of time.
The circle train was… okay. I honestly don’t know why travelers hype it up so much but there were plenty of other foreigners on this otherwise local transportation option. Perhaps that was the point: travelers seeking a “local” experience. I heard that phrase time and time again on this trip: “Oh, it’s so local! You’ve got to check it out.” Or equally, “It’s not local at all, it’s so touristy there.” I even used the term in the title of a recent blog post. “Seeking the ‘Local’: Backpacker trends in Myanmar.” I can see the title of my next academic paper already.
The train trip was nice if a bit uneventful. Andrew brought a portable speaker and played music the whole time. We reasoned that if people didn’t like David Bowie, the Rolling Stones (their new bluesy stuff), and other artists that made up the playlist than they could just move. We watched “local” life go by out the window. Andrew napped. I learned how to count to ten. We bought tiny oranges from an on-board vendor and marveled at their sweetness.
In the afternoon we called on the services of Peter, my airport taxi friend, who then took us to the University of Yangon campus. Andrew said he wanted to see what the future of Myanmar looked like by visiting on of its more prestigious college campuses. Lucky for us there was a graduation ceremony of sorts for the professors, which was cool to watch. Professors in full academic regalia and their families were taking photos around campus. Feeling conspicuous, we didn’t take many photos ourselves. This was a day of celebration for them and we didn’t want to turn it into a tourist spectacle. He tried to get me to ask some young people–who we presumed were students–about student life. Feeling both contradictory and shy, I refused. After all, if you truly want to get your fingers on the pulse of a nation you need more than a rushed afternoon to even think of the right questions to ask.
That evening Peter took us to a park near a lake to watch the sunset. He even went out to get us some beer, which we drank discreetly on a park bench. After that he dropped us off in front of a hostel where some other travelers Andrew knew were staying. From there we walked the length of a night market, getting acquainted amid the smell of fried meat and rice. We found a stall selling some Indian-like mix of chickpeas, vegetables, and spices that the purveyor mixed with his bare hands. It was so delicious that I had two heaping bowls. We ended the evening with drinks on Kosan 19th, an alley lined with plastic chairs and folding tables and packed with people. Perhaps that is what Bangkok’s (in)famous Kaosan Road looked like 30 years ago.
The following morning, Sam arrived. She claimed to have had the best night’s sleep on the Kuala Lumpur airport floor. She looked fresh, so the fact was hard to dispute. As always she was up for anything. We left the hostel mid-morning and didn’t return until we had a hair-raising taxi chase later that evening.
We had a proper brunch at the Rangoon Tea House, complete with wayyy too much food and “adult” beverages before noon. I had an amazing lychee Bellini that had hints of rose essence. I would fly back to Yangon just for another one of those! Then we made our way to the National Museum, which had pricey tickets but at least you got to see four stories of decent exhibits. We intermittently talked and admired the artifacts. By the time we emerged from the dark cathedral of culture, the afternoon was at its peak. Despite the threat of heat and hot marble on our feet, we decided to forge on and see Schwedagon Pagoda, perhaps the most famous pagoda in Myanmar. (Quite the feat because Myanmar is home to thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of pagodas.)
Like most other places in the country, foreigners enter through a separate entrance and pay exorbitant fees. We also removed our shoes at this entrance, respecting the local custom of visiting places of worship in bare feet. Schwedagon Pagoda is on a hill, but for the weary pilgrim escalators have been thoughtfully provided. Sam and I took the stairs.
The pagoda was magnificent. It offered grand views of the city and our timing turned out to be excellent. As the sun slipped toward twilight, the slanted rays illuminated the seemingly endless collection of gilt buildings. It truly was a golden hour, enough to impress even the most well-traveled tourist. We made the rounds, taking pictures and taking in the beauty. For a moment we even became part of the spectacle when some men in traditional dress motioned that they wanted to take photos with us. We turned the tables and asked for photos as well. They were only too happy to comply.
As the sun sank lower, Sam and I returned to the park by the lake that Andrew and I had visited the day before. As the sun sank below Schwedagon Pagoda, located across the lake, we bought tickets for a dinner and a show at Karaweik Palace. The Palace is on a barge in the lake. The barge is iconic, featured on currency and in many company logos across the country. And we got to go inside! Dinner was an expansive buffet, complete with options even for vegetarians. The show was a series of dance performances, featuring dances and costumes from across the nation. An announcer described each dance in English before the performance, though Sam and I were too busy chatting to take more than a passing notice. While we weren’t the most attentive guests, I am happy that we took the chance to do this. After all, you only live once!
The end of our day was by far the most exciting. We went to Kosan 19, that alley with the bars and plastic chairs. We grabbed a table in the alleyway and ordered only drinks (to our waiter’s chagrin). We had been sitting for a while when our waiter presented us with a box of Marlboro cigarettes. How curious! He motioned to a table a few rows over, placed tucked into a corner created by a makeshift wall in the street separating our restaurant’s space from the place next to it. At the table were two men. The one sitting facing us had leaned forward, intent on watching our reaction. His smile was wide under his thick eyebrows. His friend had turned around in his chair, also grinning clumsily at us. The eyebrows waggled up and down in a way left open to interpretation. His friend’s grin remained locked in place.
Confused and oddly flattered, Sam and I returned to talking and paid no mind to the red package on our table. We were watched the entire time. After awhile, when it became clear to our suitors that we had no intention of opening our gift, the waiter was sent to retrieve the box. As he placed it back on their table, we turned to them and shrugged apologetically.
“Should we talk to them?” an innocent question. It’s just talk. What could go wrong? Sam was indifferent but insistent that we hold our table. They were motioning for us to join them. We returned the same motion. “No, you come over here!” They didn’t need much encouragement. Within moments the grin and the dancing eyebrows were sitting across from us. Turns out that they could speak decent English, especially eyebrows. They were from a village near the border with India, living in Yangon for work. Eyebrows gave us his business card. He worked for the Church. Grin was Hindu. Eyebrows did most of the talking while his friend only grinned, especially at me. He was hypnotized by my dangling gold earrings. Are they real gold? he wanted to know. No! Cheap, very cheap, I said, laughing uneasily. It’s true: I had paid about $0.40USD for them. Real gold or not, he remained transfixed. He complimented them SIX times. Even eyebrows seemed uncomfortable with his friend’s unwavering attention.
We allowed them to buy us a drink but excused ourselves before they could order a second round. They wanted to know where we were staying, perhaps even escort us home. We claimed ignorance, saying that our hotel was somewhere “over there” and made vague waving gestures. We said our farewells and walked to the main street, checking that they weren’t following us. We waved down a taxi. The driver rolled down the passenger window and I leaned in, negotiating the price. Taxi drivers in Myanmar speak remarkably good English, especially when it comes to money. He wouldn’t budge from a price that seemed too high, so I stepped back from the window and was prepared to wave him on. I accidentally stepped on someone’s foot in my haste so I turned around to apologize. And who should be facing me but eyebrows! They had followed us and were standing entirely too close for comfort. He said something in Myanmar language to the driver, most likely asking where we were going. Sam and I looked at each other in horror. “Get in!” We jumped in the backseat, frantically waving the driver on and giving our pursuers our fakest smiles.
“Did you tell them where we are going?” Sam asked the driver.
“Yes! I thought they were your friends!” our driver seemed genuinely distressed.
“No!!” we moaned in unison. “We don’t know them! They followed us!”
Our driver seemed horrified but resolved to keep us safe. “No worries! I boxer!” he declared proudly, throwing a few jabs over the dashboard while careening through the streets and taking curves at high speeds. He seemed as thrilled as he was worried, driving like he was auditioning for the next James Bond film. Sam and I tossed around in the back seat, genuinely concerned we were being followed.
At last we arrived at our hotel, unscathed and, for the moment anyway, unfollowed. We happily paid the price that we quarreled about earlier. On the stairway up, I collapsed in a fit of hysterics. Now that we were back in the safety of our hostel, the entire situation began to seem quite funny. We stopped in the fourth-floor lobby to catch our breath and relive the evening, play-by-play. It was quite the evening.
Our final day in Yangon was not nearly as eventful. We walked around the city and, after meeting an earnest young man in the park whose aspiration was to be a tour guide, we began to hatch a scheme to come back to Myanmar and start a walking tour business in Yangon. This is a real possibility for after the ETA program–who knows where I’ll end up! We went down to the port and stopped in for another divine meal at Rangoon Tea House before heading back to the hostel for a shower and a taxi ride to the bus station en route to Bagan.
Yangon, I’ll see you again someday!
* I say this because that morning I had almost missed my first plane when my friend brought me to the wrong terminal. Usually not a big deal except the terminals in Surabaya are 8 kilometers apart and choked by traffic. Then I did miss my connecting flight in Singapore for reasons of my own making: I didn’t check the local time when I landed. What really hurt was the fact that I was at my gate, although I was sitting in front of it and hadn’t submitted to the gate-specific security check, when the flight left. I walked up exactly 12 minutes after the flight departed thinking that I was 48 minutes early. Rooky mistake! I ended up running through the airport to clear immigration and buy another ticket in person. I made my second flight with only minutes to spare. Not an auspicious beginning, but after this the trip was smooth.
** Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar is home to many different ethnic groups. The Burmese are the largest majority and their language has been adopted as the national language. While calling the language Burmese is not incorrect, the people of Myanmar will call their language “Myanmar language” when speaking in English. I copied that habit here.
*** It seemed to me that nearly everyone in Myanmar was traveling alone. It was very easy to meet people, especially in hostels. People like Andrew and the many other travelers I met reminded me of a saying I saw in Ostic House hostel in Jogja: “Be the kind of person you want to meet.” While I think of myself as an extrovert, I am also perfectly content to be alone and have solitary adventures. I LOVED traveling with Sam but during the solo leg of my journey I had more opportunity to reflect about the kind of traveler/person I am. Time and again, I noticed that other people initiated conversations with me far more often than I did with others. It is easy to talk to people: ask a simple question. What are you reading? What are your plans for the day? Where’d you get that necklace? How long are you in town for? Do you speak English? Easy! Next time I travel alone, I want to be more like all the people I met and be the initiator.