There's Asia, and then there's 'not in Kansas Toto' Yangon

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January 23rd 2007
Published: February 3rd 2007
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Buddhist Nuns Collecting the morning offeringBuddhist Nuns Collecting the morning offeringBuddhist Nuns Collecting the morning offering

They go door to door first thing in the morning collecting money from shops
First off, I guess I should address the whole question of why I came here. This comes up a lot at hostels since, according to Lonely Planet, 'should I go' is a question that each backpacker needs to ask themselves when dealing with suppressive dictatorships like Burma. Short answer: I came because I wanted to see this part of Asia, and the $20 Visa fee plus $10 departure tax is not going to make or break any grip that the rulers have on the country. The Billions of $$$ China is pouring into the country offset any minor boycott backpackers could possibly have. Enough said. However, as a side note, I would like to point out that the departure tax for Bangkok airport was around $15, so if a military dictatorship can undercut the busiest airport in the region by 33% for the departure tax, I do have to question just how guilty one could feel about the whole thing.

After spending the night in the less than well thought out new airport in Bangkok, I boarded the Air Asia flight off to Yangon and braced myself for a whole new side of Asia. I had booked a room in advance, more because it came with free airport pickup than anything else. A taxi to the airport costs $4, and the room was $7 with breakfast. Turned out that I got 2 breakfasts out of the deal, because they fed everybody who arrived from the 8am flight before we checked in. Nice group. I was greeted at the brand new terminal by two guys in long kilts (well, that is actually being semantically generous: they were wearing man skirts), one of which was holding a sign with my name on it. I was like: "sweet, I always wanted to be one of those guys that had a sign waiting for them." Never thought my moment would come for only $7. On the way into town (half hour drive), I chatted with a French guy who sat next to me, and we decided to share a room. I didn't save any money, but did get a much nicer room for the same price (double with Air-con and private bathroom vs dorm, fan and shower down the hall). So, after a short rest that both of us needed subsequent to our overnight wait in the spartan Bangkok airport, we ventured out to explore the city centre. I think I felt culture shock for the first time this trip. The deep cultural expressions where really amazing. The country is very multi-ethnic, and there are strong Chinese, Indian and Burmese influences everywhere. Mosques where just like in Egypt, Hindu temples where out in all the colorful glory, and the ever present Buddhist pagodas were buzzing with their Burmese 'disco' Budda displays. Plus, there was a whole contingent of Christian Churches, all mixed in with run down British colonial architecture that has not been attended to since the Brits left. Its like everyone stopped maintaining buildings, and the world fast fwd'd for 50 years. One could look down 4 different streets at an intersection, and feel like one was in 4 different parts of the world.

My only real 'out of character' experience in the country was at the main pagoda downtown, where this little Buddhist money demon was intent on separating as much cash as possible from every tourist that walked by and depositing it into the 'donation bin'. I explained that I was a Christian, and that Christians wouldn't charge Buddhists to see our non-museum religious sights, and that with that philosophy in mind I did not feel compelled to donate to a religion that I did not believe in. Simple enough, but when Jaan, my French NGO worker roommate from Madagascar, showed that he only had change from other countries at this time (we hadn't changed money yet), she told him to put it into the deposit bin. Well, more accurately, she pulled his hand and dumped the money in. She also tried to collect a shoe watching fee, but we had had enough of her act at that point, and Jaan told her that the donation would cover that. This was the last time I had a 'problem' in Burma (Myanmar), more on the name later.

Once we had a taste of the centre (both literally and figuratively), we headed over to embassy row to check out the American and French Cultural centers. From the food we tried, we decided that Burma didn't really have the makings of a new trend in international culinary achievements, and decided to stick with the Chinese and Indian foods. These were fantastic. But, on to the culture from the west. I was interested to check out the American Cultural centre for the sole reason that the Burmese government does not really allow or disallow its citizens from going there. There is a military hut right outside the entrance (as with most places there on Embassy Row), and this allows the government to question those 'persons of interest' that leave the US center. On the other side, even though the center is a few miles from the embassy, there are 5 embassy guards to keep things safe, and the usual no bags no camera routine applies. It was nice to read up on The Economist, Car and Driver, Consumer Reports and the like, and then we went off to the Alliance Francias. Don from Laos e-mailed me the contact info of one of the staffers there. Carin works as a cultural officer with the centre, and was a great contact person for the country. She was really welcoming, and invited me to join several people from the French Embassy for dinner when I got back into Yangon from Bagan.

Since we had both had a long day, we headed back towards the centre at about 5:30, but took the bus instead of walking, now that we knew what #
View of the Pagoda View of the Pagoda View of the Pagoda

View from the 'White House'
to take. The people here in the country are great, giving you the nice hello and where are you from bit without necessarily trying to sell you anything. We had gotten on the bus on the way to the Alliance, but by that time we were so close that they money taker didn't charge us anything. There's a first! On the way back, we paid about 3 cents each. The bus was falling apart, missing windows and didn't have anything but wood benches. But these were a hot commodity, and Yaan had a nun almost in his lap after she spotted about 2" of wood showing between him and the nun siting next to him. They were nothing but smiles the whole time, and the 5 minute ride was a good laugh.

The other good laugh before we headed out was Yaan asking me in the room if I wanted to 'see his nice Longyi?' After Chiang Mai, I really didn't, but before I could tell him that he showed me his 'man skirt-kilt thing.' Longyi is the official name for those. So, after some CNN updates and French news updates, we were out for the night. I slept in, ate my 'second' breakfast, and was off to the bus station in order to catch my overnighter to Bagan.

SEE Bagan

I decided to switch to the 'White House Hotel' that was closer to the city centre than the Motherland, and enjoyed their highly recommended breakfast. The rooms, however, were hardly as nice as the Motherland II, and there was some serious mold growing in the shower ceiling. Also, power seems to be in and out in the downtown area, so generators power up about 20 times a day, and during the night. The breakfast was nice, and I enjoyed it to the max. I made it last, so by eating a hearty breakfast, all I needed was a light snack @ about 8pm and I was set for the day. My stomach let me know that It was not used to this amount food, but it was really nice to have a filling breakfast, one of the first of the trip. Good times. The following day and a half consisted of getting around downtown, and the dinner at a high end restaurant ($4 pp incl beer) with the Alliance and French Embassy staff, and checking out the other must see sights that I had missed the during my day in town before Bagan. I shared a taxi out to the airport with a retired German and a backpacking Canadian. It cracked me up that at Breakfast the day before, the German and his brother had schooled two backpackers on the wonders of discount air travel. Both of the backpackers were in their late teens and had booked regular tickets from Bangkok for around $250, while the German and his brother (both in their 70's) had booked with Air Asia for around $70. Classic moment. Look to the older guys to learn about booking online.

Additional photos below
Photos: 14, Displayed: 14


Sign Facing US EmbassySign Facing US Embassy
Sign Facing US Embassy

It is hard to see, but basically, it is a note from the Myanmar government saying the Myanmar people don't care what the US Government says, but never mentions America or anything, but the placement tells all
Shower at the White HouseShower at the White House
Shower at the White House

most complicated number of levers ever.

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