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Published: September 22nd 2017
Sunset Over Yangon
Viewed from Hotel Grand United's awesome rooftop.
As you may recall, Yangon was my first stop on my Myanmar journey, but I left after only one full day because Bagan beckoned. I'm now back in Yangon. What a journey this has been.
Arriving Back At Yangon
I flew from Mandalay to Yangon on Wednesday, September 20th. As this was my last stop in Myanmar, I decided to splurge a little on a three star hotel. I chose the Hotel Grand United on 21st Street. Since this was the low season, the room price wasn't too bad at US$40 per night.
It started pouring the minute I landed at Yangon airport. The taxi ride into town was in heavy rain, and it persisted until the late afternoon. Thankfully, this hotel's wifi was quite decent, so I watched Netflix while waiting for the rain to stop. As soon as the rain stopped at around 5pm, I went for a walk around my hotel. What a fascinating area this turned out to be. The hotel is in Chinatown, and I wandered transfixed at crumbling building facades, temples, market stalls, and all manner of street food. I was particularly excited about the street eats along 19th Street. In the evening,
Cover Band at Park Royal
Their cover of Another Brick In The Wall, while technically good, just felt wrong in its delivery.
the street seemed to transform into a walking street with tables everywhere. The specialty appeared to be barbecue. There were lots of display cases with skewers of meat and vegetables. I resolved to dine there the next day; I had dinner plans for today.
When I first arrived in Myanmar, I reached out to M., a fellow UCLA MBA living in Yangon. We agreed to meet for dinner at a Japanese restaurant. We had a pleasant time getting to know each other, and after dinner we went for drinks at a club at the Park Royal. It was surreal watching a Filipino cover band play Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall
. While the cover was technically good, the diction wasn't, and it was jarring to watch the singers' gyrating hips while they performed it. I don't think they got the context of that song. I goaded M. to get up on stage and voice the "you can't have pudding if you haven't had your meat" part. I bid farewell to my new friend after a few drinks and headed back to my hotel.
My Last Full Day in Myanmar
I had two sightseeing goals
Yangon Circular Train
The train pulling into Yangon Central Railway Station.
for my last day in Myanmar - to take the circular train line and to see Shwedagon Pagoda. The weather forecast said that there was a 90 percent chance of thunderstorms at 2pm, and that the thunderstorms would last through the evening. So, I was anxious to get my sightseeing done by then.
The Circular Line is a 30 mile train line that circumnavigates Yangon. It is a lifeline for many, especially those in poorer communities. It takes around three hours to do the full loop. I wanted to experience this train ride to see a different side of Yangon and to observe the people who use this train. With the threat of afternoon thunderstorms looming, I decided to save time by calling for an Uber to take me to Yangon Central Railway Station. Once I got to the station, I managed to locate the platform for the Circular Line with some difficulty, and I bought a ticket for the grand sum of 200 kyat (about 16 cents). I boarded the 8.35am train.
The train on the Circular Line was old and it did not ride smoothly. But, I got to observe the people who use these trains.
Yangon Circular Train
Young girl hamming it for me.
There were merchants lugging their wares to other places to sell them - I saw people with cabinets, brooms, mats, and random baskets and styrofoam boxes. There was also a constant parade of vendors coming onto the train selling fruit, snacks, and, interestingly, hard boiled quail eggs (there were three such vendors walking through the train at the same time near the end of the ride). Many of the vendors were women and they carried their wares on their heads. I witnessed an argument between a ticket inspector and a ticket cheat. All these added up to a wonderful slice of life experience.
Before I boarded the train, I assumed there would be toilets on board, so I kept myself hydrated. During the ride, I walked the length of the train and I realized to my horror there were no toilets on board. Ugh. About halfway through the ride, the train pulled into Daryingon, and I saw a welcome sign: "toilet", painted in big bold letters. I disembarked the train and went to relieve myself. Daryingon has a large market selling mostly vegetables, so I wandered around the not-too-sanitary market (think black mud and burlap sacks on the ground
Yangon Circular Train
The 30 mile route as captured by my app.
to keep people from slipping) while waiting for the next train. I observed that there were some vendors selling their wares on the track. I resolved to video them moving their goods as the train rolled in, but, alas, I was caught unaware when the train did roll in about 20 minutes later.
The next car I boarded was an old JR (Japan Railways) car. The other cars in that train were different from this one. I parked myself under one of the few working fans and watched Yangon go by. I noted that this car had a toilet, so I stayed hydrated. Halfway through to remaining journey, I got up to use it and found it was padlocked. Drats.
The train rolled into Yangon Central around noon. I ate a quick lunch at a nearby restaurant, and then hailed another Uber to take me to Shwedagon Pagoda as I wanted to see it before the rain came down. Shwedagon was huge and impressive, but I was honestly templed-out after 17 days in Myanmar. I left a little past 2pm. There were dark clouds in the sky and it was humid, but no rain yet. Exiting Shwedagon, I
Yangon Circular Train
A young boy with thanaka on his face. His phone screen was badly cracked. I could not figure out what he was carrying - he had about a dozen little plastic bags of black stuff. I wasn't even able to ascertain whether it was food. He did not speak English.
figured that since the rain hadn't started yet, I might as well find a taxi to take me to the house where Aung San Sun Kyi was held under arrest. Hopefully, I can photograph the house and then be snug and dry in the taxi when the rain struck. I didn't go to Aung San Suu Kyi's house with high expectations - I expected to see a wall and a gate and that is exactly what I saw. As I headed back to my hotel, the rain started to fall.
That evening, I headed out to 19th street for barbecue. It was decent, but nothing to write home about. After that, I wandered the lively streets of Chinatown, bought a small bag of longans for 40 cents(!), and then called it a night.
Enigmatic Myanmar. Where do I even begin? This amazing country exceeded all my expectations. I am so glad I ventured away from the "big four" tourist sights (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake). Staying within these four sites, one primarily sees opportunity and optimism. The big cities, especially, are a bubble; you see burgeoning prosperity and various ethnicities and religions seemingly getting
Aung San Suu Kyi's House
The Lady, as she is commonly referred to, was held under house arrest here. She has finally spoken - underwhelmingly - about what is going on in Rakhine. It's easy for us to criticize; I cannot even begin to imagine what a juggling act this is for her when much of the country is still run by the military.
along. Going to Hsipaw and seeing firsthand, albeit superficially, the ethnic tensions simmering beneath the surface, reminded me of how fragile peace can be in any context. My heart aches thinking about what is happening a couple of hundred miles west.
The people here are ever so sweet and hospitable. Similar to what I experienced in Colombia, the people here have been isolated for so long that they genuinely like seeing visitors. Some say Myanmar is already spoiled by tourism. My opinion is: not yet. Myanmar still has a ways to go before it becomes the next Thailand. I hope it doesn't, but I'm not optimistic. I am kicking myself for not coming here sooner.
Finally, I am so glad I stayed at hostels. I had been resisting it because I wasn't sure I would fit in with a crowd mostly 20+ years my junior (some of them were even younger than my foster son!) and I was concerned about getting enough sleep. I am grateful to Ahmar for putting the idea in my head. The hostel backpacker/flashpacker crowd is a special one. They're genuinely curious about the world. Curiosity about people and places is one of the
As seen at sunset from the rooftop of the Hotel Grand United. The only way one can appreciate the sheer scale of this monument is to view it from a distance.
things that drive me, and I loved spending time with this crowd, swapping stories, learning about places, and drinking way too much. I loved that this crowd was willing to hang out with and listen to stories from a middle aged man. Yes, they occupy a weird bubble, and I got sucked into that bubble. Somehow, everything I was anxious about - my future job prospects, paying my mortgage, saving for retirement, how I should modify my house to accommodate two additional cats, Trump and his idiotic antics, the Singapore Presidential (S)Election, etc. - seemed insignificant for a few wonderful weeks. I've made some lifelong friends and I hope our paths cross again. They all have an open invitation to stay with me if they come to Honolulu.
Post-Publication Note (January 2018): Many people, myself included, read George Orwell's Burmese Days
while traveling through Myanmar. I recently finished reading Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma
, written by an American journalist who traveled through Myanmar in the late 1990s and early 2000s seeking out places that influenced George Orwell and led him to write Burmese Days
, and Animal Farm
. Beyond just writing a simple travelogue, Larkin linked contemporary events of that
19th Street Barbeque Stalls
Lively street scene. My last meal in Myanmar. I didn't care too much for the food (it was often too oily and the flavors were too muted) but I will forever treasure the experience of traveling there.
time to ideas and concepts Orwell espoused in his writings. I recommend this book highly.
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