Crazy Myanmar

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June 14th 2006
Published: June 26th 2006
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View of the cityView of the cityView of the city

from our hotel roof top

Where are you going?

The country is currently called Myanmar by the ruling military junta. The name was changed from Burma in 1989 by the rulers, but was not approved by any sort of legislature. As a result, many people and other governments still call it Burma. In addition to the country name changing, most city names changed as well including the capital, formerly Rangoon, now Yangon. I will probably stick with calling it Myanmar since that is what is goes by and what we were accustomed to.

Arrival in Myanmar

We arrived in Yangon after an uneventful flight from Kuala Lumpur. Yangon International Airport really gave us a good impression of what to expect in the country. We exited the plane and the bus took us to a rather run down building that is the international arrival hall. What did this hall look like? Picture a run down Greyhound Bus Station and you have a pretty good idea.

It was during these initial minutes that we probably felt the most apprehensive. After all, don't let the government's name of State Peace and Development Council fool you. This is an oppressive military dictatorship, so peace probably is not priority
Lots of kyat!Lots of kyat!Lots of kyat!

Not sure we've ever had some many 1000s in our hands!
number one! Anyway, with that in mind, Mike in particular was envisioning something out of a movie taking place in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany - menacing police walking around at every corner constantly saying things like "Your papers please." "Hmmm, your papers are not in order. You must come with me...." And so the unfortunate foreigners disappear. Fortunately, that was not the case here. We got through customs without much of a problem and went to get our bags. Just as we got our bags, the power went out in the airport and stayed out at least until we had exited the building.

We found a cab driver (or he found us rather) who took us into the city for $5. During the cab ride multiple aspects of Myanmar became apparent.

* Cars: Probably 95%!o(MISSING)f the cars are 12 years old or older. The steering wheel is on the right side of the car, but they also drive on the right side of the road.
* Dress: Men where skirts. Well, they are actually called longyis. But it is basically a long skirt that they tie about their waists. And this is not some quaint thing that a few people do for tourists. The majority of males we saw throughout the country wear them.
* Poor and dilapidated: The poverty, even driving into the capital, was very apparent. (This was not a surprise). Also, the buildings, cars, and roads were all very run-down.
* Dirty: Unfortunately, there is no shortage of garbage on the streets in many areas. The fact that we can't recall seeing a single public trash can probably helps to explain it.

We finally arrived at our guesthouse, the White House Hotel. Unfortunately for us, we had to walk up six flights of stairs to get to our room. It was very humid. The rooms were rather dark and grim. And one had a dead cockroach at its door. Laura felt like she was staying at a prison. But at least it had AC in the bedroom.

Exploring Yangon

After getting a little settled in the room, the power went out. One thing we quickly discovered is that Myanmar has electricity shortages several times on a daily basis. Sometimes it is just for a few minutes, other times it is hours.

One thing we had to do is convert money in the local currency (kyat). Usually, this is a simple exercise for us. Depart plane. Leave terminal. Find ATM. Get money. Ahhhhh, but that does not work quite so well when there are no ATMs in Myanmar. Also, you have to exchange money on the black market! As we discovered, there are several other issues. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on where you are from) a lot of things are done in US dollars only. This is the case for all hotels, entrance fees at tourist sights and long distance transportation within the country. We are not sure why this is the case. I wouldn't point to the kyat as the most stable currency in the world, so that may contribute.

Anyway, we headed toward the Sule Pagoda, which is where we read a lot of money changer touts hang out. In walking there we saw a lot of people outside on the sidewalks (which are also in terrible condition). We saw people preparing street food that looked a little scary and then there were plenty of people with tables selling things. Interestingly enough, a lot of places were selling cassette tapes! No CDs here as far as we could tell.

We reached the pagoda and had several people come up to us wanting to exchange money. We asked what rates people would give and walked around to ask a number of people. Mike, tried negotiating a better rate with one guy who then took us to a phone where he contacted his boss who declined the rate. At this point, we were at least comfortable with the market rate at the time. Having decided that we would exchange the money at 1240 kyat to the dollar, we went to look for someone to do it. Then, we were interrupted...

Meeting Ethel

While Mike was scanning the area for another currency "trader", Laura had a friend come up to her. She was about a 70 year old lady named Ethel. Laura at first thought she was a fortune teller and Mike was ready to dismiss her as a crackpot, but we soon learned there was more to her than met the eye. Ethel is an old lady who has evidently befriended a number of tourists. She has helped them with things (money changing) and a number have even used her as a guide. After showing us letters
Shwedagon PagodaShwedagon PagodaShwedagon Pagoda

The very tip is bejeweled and includes a 76-carat diamond
from a number of these people, we became convinced that she was not just trying to take us for a ride.

We told Ethel we were trying to change money. So she grabbed Laura's arm (firm grip for a 70-year-old) and we headed to a cafe where she could meet her boss to organize the money change for us and talk to us more about the country. We were happy to go to the cafe since we wanted to exchange a sizeable amount of money and it seemed safer than doing in on the street. With a ~1240 to $1USD exchange rate and the largest bill being 1000 kyat, you get a lot of money. Also, we heard that exchange rates can be worse outside Yangon. So, Ethel talked to her boss and we were able to exchange money and count all of it without worrying about doing so in public.

Ethel was quite a character. She lives with a number of grandchildren and a couple of her kids. She also wasn't too pushy about wanting us to pay her to be her guide, although she did frequently comment about the gifts other tourists had given her! But
Shwedagon Pagoda 2Shwedagon Pagoda 2Shwedagon Pagoda 2

Note the sweatspots...
she was funny and knowledgeable (ok, we only understood about 60%!o(MISSING)f what she said) and could talk and talk and talk. (Seems her nickname is "Ethel blah, blah, blah"), so we ended up deciding we would go around with her the next day for a few hours.

Yangon nightlife

After going back to our hotel and resting a bit, we headed out to a restaurant. We went to a place called Singapore Kitchen which was not too far from our hotel. There are few street lights lit at night. With the lack of streetlights and other factors (poor country, stray dogs, etc.) one might think it would feel dangerous to walk around at night; however, we felt quite comfortable. There are quite a few families out on the sidewalk. This makes a lot of sense as the power is often out and very few of them would have generators.

The Singapore Kitchen had very good food. They have an air-conditioned room upstairs they led us to. It was a bit pricey for Myanmar standards, but quite good and worth it.

After dinner we returned to the hotel. Fortunately, they had the World Cup on in the
Shwedagon Pagoda 3Shwedagon Pagoda 3Shwedagon Pagoda 3

The amount of gold here was crazy.
TV in the dining area. Evidently, the is an extra effort to have the power on throughout the country during the World Cup!

World Cup Side Note

We have discovered that traveling during the World Cup is great. Nearly everyone follows it. So, there is always something to talk about. Mike is cheering for England. Although it has been rather nerve-racking watching their play at times. The luxury about being American is that you can cheer for England, but also be a German supporter and have Zidane of France be your favorite player.

Yangon Day 2

It was pouring in the morning when we got up. We went up to have the breakfast which the hotel had all these signs saying how it was the "Amazing Breakfast Buffet" "Most Amazing Breakfast in the World". Ummmmm, no. At least not while we were there. By far the worst breakfast we had in Myanmar.

With the rain we figured that Ethel likely would not be there to meet us and we didn't really want to go touring in the downpour anyway. But we ventured across from our hotel and there she was. And Laura didn't quite have the backbone to decline go around with Ethel so off we went. We took a cab to her neighborhood where we saw a market that locals go to. Needless to say, we did not see a single other tourist and it gave us the chance to see "real Yangon." It felt a bit weird watching people go about their daily lives and got more so when one gentleman tried to sell us his baby. We laughed it off but when he came back a second time it seemed maybe that he was more serious than joking.

We then went to the house where Bogyoke Aung San, father of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) lived. The military junta made a classic dictatorship mistake in 1990 when it allowed democratic elections in the country. Well, ASSK's party the National League for Democracy (NLD) won something like 85%!o(MISSING)f the vote. That's the good news. The bad news was that dictatorships don't like losing elections. So, they refused to hand over power and have the country be a democracy and instead put ASSK under house arrest. She has spent the majority of the last 16 years under house arrest.

Anyway, it was interesting to see the house, more to learn some of the history rather than it being a great site. Aung San (the father) was the guy who negotiated independence from Britain in 1948. Unfortunately, he was killed the night before it became independent.

After the house, we went to the huge reclining Budha. We then went to see the Shwedagon Pagoda. This was an impressive site. It is a massive golden pagoda in the city. At this time, it was sunny and amazingly hot and humid. This made the experience much less enjoyable to Mike who was wallowing in pools of sweat with each step. After that we called it a day.

Bye Bye Yangon

We went back to Singapore Kitchen for dinner. At this point we were both quite excited to be leaving Yangon. It is a large, crowded and dirty city. A view from the roof of our hotel gave a good impression of the poor state of things. Myanmar is a very 3rd world country. It is not a developing country or emerging country. There really is no development. Seeing Yangon made that clear and the rest of the country would only reinforce that. Hopefully it will not stay that way forever. Given the growth of other countries in the region (China, Thailand and Vietnam), hopefully they will see this as well. But it is virtually impossible under the current circumstances with the repressive military junta.

Although it was cool seeing the pagoda, and a couple other sights, 2 days was plenty in Yangon. And while we did not like Yangon, that is not to take away from the people there who are very friendly. This friendliness also became more apparent during our stay.


24th January 2007

Ethel Lives!
I am glad I stumbled upon your blog: I met Ethel in the winter of 2005 and had a wonderful experience with her. We traveled for several days, some highlights of which were meeting her blind sister outside of Mandalay, and her daughters and grandchildren in Yangon. I had sent some friends to track her down and bring her some photos and gifts in spring 2006 and they were unable to find her. They were told she was ill. I've also asked some other travelers heading through there to track her down and they couldn't either. It looks like you met her after that, so I am relieved to know that she's still alive and crazy. If she mentioned the "nice American boy, always smiling" then that was me! If you want to read about my travels with her, check out theschoolofthought dot com

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