"This is Burma", wrote Rudyard Kipling, "It is quite unlike any place you know about." How right he was and over a century later Myanmar remains a world apart - Ok, I stole all of that from the Lonely Planet, but they speak the truth!
"T.I.A." said Leonardo DI Caprio in Blood Diamond, and that definitely holds true here, albeit a slightly different acronym; This is Asia! We've had a good taste of Asian culture so far on our journey through Malaysia and Thailand, but both countries are still relatively Western. You've still got your McDonalds and Subway and Starbucks just around the corner. You could avoid the Asian lifestyle completely if you wanted. Not here though. Now we're really in Asia. Hardcore Asia!
As I mentioned in the last entry, we left Bangkok on our way to Myanmar (very nearly missing the flight too!) with a fraction of the money we needed for our week and a half stay there. And although the Lonely Planet (our bible for this journey) said otherwise, we still held out hope that there was an ATM somehwere in the country... anywhere... surely... There wasn't. On top of that, there were no currency convertors either, no legit ones anyway. We read that the best way to change your money to the local Kyat, or the also used US Dollar, was to go to a street market in the city and find a vendor who will change your money for you. Also, you had to be careful of dodgy vendors who will short change you or just run off with your money altogether... Great! We were also told not to change your money at the airport as you will only get half of what it is worth...
So, here we were with less than half the money we needed, in the wrong currency, and the only way to change it was to find a street vendor to change it for us (somehwere?!) and get him to give us a good rate and not just run off with our money (somehow?!) Also, most of the signs here are just in Burmese, making it virtually impossible to find our way around...
We had to collect our tickets too for our flight to Bagan that afternoon. We were really lost, in every sense. We didn't even have a notion where to start sorting things out. We went and grabbed a taxi to the city centre, as we guessed that was where we needed to be (even if we didn't know exactly where we were going). We really needed a miracle... and boy did we get one! It came in the form of our taxi driver, Zaw Hein, our Burmese guardian angel. We weren't planning on telling him our tale of woe, but he was so nice and we got such good vibes from him (also, his English was excellent!), that we told him everything. He really took us under his wing.
First he took us to an outdoor market where we could change our money. He needed to change money too so he came with us to show us what to do, and to make sure we got the best rate. The exchange "office", if you'd call it that, was at the very back of the market, down a series of small back alleys (we'd never have found it!) and consisted of a 15 year old boy sitting on a step with a box of money and a calculator... this is such a funny country! We changed our money to a mixture of US Dollars, which is used for things like accomodation and flights, and Kyat (pronounced chtt! - not a typo) which is used for food, drink etc. We felt so rich after changing our money though! I changed about 50 quid's worth into Kyat and got back this massive stack of notes, I couldn't even fit them into my wallet!
Next, he took us to a travel agent to get our tickets for our afternoon flight to Bagan. Now, the more observant of you may have noted that the title of this entry is Yangon, not Bagan... That's right, another problem. We were told that with Burmese flights you had to collect the tickets 24 hours before the flight (which is a stupid system seeing as you can only fly into the country through Yangon, so anyone hoping to fly somewhere else in the country has to stay in Yangon for at least a night). So, another disruption to our plans! It just seemed to be one problem after another in our trip to Myanmar. From the Visas, to the ATMs, to the flights...
We were stuck in Yangon for the night, that much was certain, so we were sitting in the travel agents with two choices:
- We already had flights back to Bangkok paid for in a week and a half, so seeing as we had so little money, we could just slum it in Myanmar til then, spending as little as possible, and just endure our time in the country til we could fly back to Bangkok.
- Or, we could stay the night in Yangon, cancel our flight in a week and a half and just run back to Bangkok the next day with our tails between our legs...
We were really tempted to choose the latter, as we had become so disheartened at that stage... But, in the end we said fuck it! We're getting the most out of this country no matter what! Forget plan A or B, we're taking plan C! We're going to spend the night in Yangon, have a laugh, then get a flight to Bagan the next day, spend all the money we have for as long as we have it, and then get a new flight back to Bangkok when it all runs out! It meant losing the flights we had already booked, and we wouldn't be able to go to the other places we wanted to go to, Mandalay and Inle Lake, but we had no other choice.
There was a lot of planning to do before all of that though. First we actually had to find flights to and from Bagan, and in fairness, the two girls at the travel agents (April and Soe Moe Moe) couldn't have been more helpful. They spent about 20 mins ringing up various different airlines til they eventually found a flight out the next day, with Air Bagan, and a flight back three days later, with Yangon Airways. They also rang the place we were meant to be staying in Bagan to change the days of our stay, and make sure we didn't get charged extra for it. (While they were on the phone, Zaw was letting us know what was happening too) The two girls really couldn't have done more for us!
So, next stop was finding us somewhere to stay in Yangon for the night, as cheap as possible! And our man Zaw came up trumps again for us, taking us to a lovely hotel and getting us a double room for $12 a night. (On a side note, he also offered to loan us money and gave us his calling card in case we needed anything while we were in Yangon. What a guy! It was so touching that this Burmese taxi driver was offering us 'rich Westerners' money cause we were in need) We took the room anyway and sadly that meant the end of our time with Zaw. It was a teary goodbye... He even refused to take money from us for his services cause we couldn't afford it, but we made sure he took $10. We'd have given him more if we had it! He also said that the next time we're in Yangon, we'd have to go to his house for dinner with him and his wife, and we're welcome to stay with them too. I said it before but, what a guy! We made sure to get a picture with him before he left, and he got a picture with us on his phone as well!
So, the hotel room... it was hilarious! We knew for $6 a night each that there must be something up... and I guess there was. It was a great room and a great hotel, I've no complaints about the place. We had our own TV, bathroom, air conditioning, fridge, double bed, everything! And the room was pretty big too, well, in two dimensions anyway... the ceiling was literally 5 feet tall! And the door to the room was about 4 feet, we had to crawl in! I wouldn't change it for the world though, it was great fun.
Seeing as we were in Yangon for the day, we said we better go and do something. We read in the Lonely Planet about a 'circular train'; a train that leaves Yangon, goes through the surrounding countryside and villages, and back to the station three hours later. We thought it would be a great way to see true Burmese life, so we said we'd go for it! What an experience. Everything about it. First of all, we headed to the train station, and were waiting at the platform for about an hour. After a while, a man came up to us, shook our hands and walked off. We thought that was kinda weird... Next, two lads of around 18 or 19 came up and started chatting to us. One of them kept calling me brother too. After that, a man brought his nephew over to talk to us and invite us to a festival in their home town of Pyay. (and we'd have gone with them too if we didn't have other plans!) People were queueing up to see us!
While we were waiting too, we bought two flavoured blocks of ice from some guy walking around with a bucket of them. They were only like 5 cent each. They were like some sort of Burmese Mr. Freeze! (I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere... a Brrr-mese...?)
Our train arrived anyway and it was everything you'd imagine an Asian train in a developing country to be; a grubby metalic shell with two wooden benches on either side, crammed full of people, but we sucked it up and said it was all part of the adventure! As we climbed aboard though, the conductor ordered a load of people out of our carriage, tied a rope across the middle and gave myself and Ash half the carriage to ourselves, while the other half was packed with locals! We felt so guilty... but secretly delighted with out special treatment!
The locals didn't seem to mind though, and were lovely to us! One woman gave us a local newspaper to read (even though it was all in Burmese), so we just looked at the pictures. Some guy was saying to her that there was no point in giving us a newspaper cause we couldn't understand it. Everyone was joking with him though that we could understand it, and I was pretending I could too just to prove him wrong! We had such a laugh! They were pointing at pictures of Westerners as well in the paper and saying that they looked like me and Aisling! We had so much fun on that train. It's funny how we were able to understand each other and have a joke, even though neither of us spoke the other's language. (I was thinking later on though, how racist would it be if someone back home pointed to a picture of Jackie Chan and told an Asian that it looked like him!)
The train was such an incredible experience though, and not just the people on board. Seeing the surrounding countryside, villages of straw huts, farmers ploughing the earth and working in the rice fields, and kids singing and dancing in the sun. It was unreal. And everyone waved at us! Boy, did they wave... At one stage we even passed a truckload of school kids. I've never seen so many waving hands... We felt like such celebrities that day.
While we were in Myanmar, they were going through one of the biggest periods in their recent history. They were just after having their first election in 20 years (although Zaw told us that everyone knew it wasn't a fair one) and also democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi (who in fact won that last election, but was arrested and locked up since then) was just after being released. The Burmese people have been oppressed and isolated from the outside world for so long, and it's all the more heart breaking cause these are by far the nicest people we've met anywhere in the world. The way the country is run is awful. The people even have a joke that George Orwell didn't just write one book about the country; Burmese Days, he wrote three; 1984 and Animal Farm too! It would be funny if it wasn't so true... I think the people were so glad to see us because we were a link to the outside world and perhaps a signal of coming change...
Either that or we're just gorgeous!
After the train, we just went for a wander around Yangon. It was tough finding somewhere to eat that night as the town just had traditional Burmese restaurants and many didn't have menus in English. We found a place anyway, a bar that did food, and were lucky to get a table. We ordered the most familiar things we could find on the menu, (fried rice and noodles) and as we sat there waiting for our food, Ash realised she was the only female in the whole place! And worse yet, as she was eating her food, she spotted an insect in it. We didn't want to be rude and complain, but luckily one of the waiters must have seen Ash staring sorrowfully at her plate, and made her a new one.
We returned to our mini-room to watch some more Amazing Race and on the way stopped off to get some snacks. We found a massive pack of 250 sweets for two quid, bursting with flavours such as tea, butter, corn etc. (what is it with Asians and corn?!) They had normal flavours in there too so we bought it, and when we opened the pack we found a little package with 200 Kyat in it! It's only like 20 cent, but it's always nice to win things! We had an early night seeing as we had to be up at 4am to go to the airport.
We went down to the lobby the next morning to find all of the lights off and someone asleep on the couch. We presumed that he worked there and were about to wake him when the receptionist walked in (who obviously just woke up himself to check us out). He got a taxi for us too and we made our way to the airport. We never found out who that sleeping guy was...
So, that was Yangon! Not bad for a day in an unplanned city! Next stop, Bagan!