I slept through my alarm in Singapore so I was diving into a taxi with no shoes on to get to the airport at 5:30am. When I got to the ticketing counter for Tiger Air, I told the woman at the counter that I was traveling to Yangon. She looked skeptical. “You’re traveling to Yangon? Really?” she said, squinting.
“Uhh… yes?” I replied groggily.
I was required to go through security twice before I got on my flight (the second time at the gate) and when I finally did, the plane was only about 1/3rd full. It was not a smooth flight, so while I’m white-knuckling my seat, let me fill you in on Burma really quick.
Burma For Dummies
Burma… such an interesting place. But, as a clerical note, since it’s name change in 1989, the country has formally been known as (The Union Of The Republic Of) Myanmar. Included in this change was the decision to change the name of Rangoon (Burma’s largest city) to Yangon. However, much of the international community, as well as many of the minority groups within Burma, were not on board with this name change. For this reason you will still hear the names said both ways… which leads me to my next point.
Similar to Turkey’s status as a gateway between Asia and Europe, Burma is the country where the Indian Subcontinent meets Southeast Asia. With Thailand and Laos to the east, and India and Bangladesh to the west, worlds literally do collide in Burma. The result is a myriad of different ethnic groups and the world’s longest running civil war. It is actually still going on in certain parts of the country. In dealing with these rebel armies, the Burmese government has long been accused of ongoing, systematic human rights violations against minority groups, most notably the Rohingya. Occupying Burma’s northwestern regions, particularly the Rakhine State, the Rohingya are one of the country’s Islamic minority groups, and many (including me) speculate that Burma’s actions against them are approaching genocidal levels.
Anyway, your take away from this should be that Burma has a lot of different ethnic groups, and that creates a lot of tension within the country. The government has almost definitely not handled these tensions as well as they could have though. Burma has actually been a closed country since a military coup in 1962 turned this budding democracy into one of the most notoriously oppressive military dictatorships in the world. It was only in 2011 that the country began to open up again. This means that I am relatively close to being one of the first travelers to enter the country since it closed.
Why did the country open up? The answer to that is unclear. Burma’s government has a propensity to make odd decisions. For example, based on the advice of fortune tellers, the government moved the capital city north to a nowhere town, that they renamed Naypyidaw. To be clear, this town was (and still is) in the middle of nowhere. The government spent billions relocating all their government buildings and employees to this little town. It was such an odd move that no embassies followed them there; they all stayed in Rangoon. Weird, right? Another good example of this is the government’s recent mandate that the directions of traffic flow on the streets be reversed. This idea was also fed to them by, you guessed it, fortune tellers, and it would have worked out okay if it hadn’t been for one little detail: the steering wheels of every vehicle are now on the wrong side. Traffic has apparently been chaos ever since.
Arriving In Rangoon
Landing in Burma one of the first things that I did was change out my money. They took all of it except for the bills that were crinkled in any way.
“We only take fresh ones,” the girl at the cash exchange windows informed me.
“…… Whatever, okay, thank you.”
The airport is so far away from downtown Rangoon that it takes more than 1 hour to make the commute in. The cab cost me 8,000 Kyat (pronounced ‘chat’, abbreviated MMK) (about 6.20 USD). Out the window of my cab was another world.
One of the first things I noticed on the streets was the total absence of motorbikes. The story apparently goes that recently a general’s car was passing through the center of Rangoon when, all of a sudden, a young man on a motorbike sped out in front of the car, stopped, turned around, pointed his fingers at the general in the shape of a gun, and went “Pew! Pew! Pew!” Apparently it spooked the general, because his reaction was to say “OK! NO MORE MOTORBIKES!” And sure enough, there aren’t any, except after you get out of the city a ways.
I got dropped off at my hostel, which was on the 9th floor of a large building downtown. I took a cramped elevator up and slide back the opaque glass door to an odd sight. This particular hostel took the ‘pod’ format, where guests don’t receive a room to sleep in, rather, a ‘pod’ on the wall. Pods are essentially large shelves. It wasn’t that bad once I crawled into my pod though. It had a curtain you could pull down, so that in the end it actually had more privacy than most hostels I’ve stayed at. It’s called ‘Myanmar Backpackers’ and it cost me 14.00 USD for 1 night, expensive compared to the rest of the region.
I wasn’t trying to dilly-dally, so I got out onto the streets to explore as soon as I could. And all I can say is wow. Rangoon is undoubtedly the strangest place that I have ever been. It is like no place I have ever seen. It’s on its own planet.
One of the first things I noticed was the diversity. I knew that Burma was a diverse place, but given the current ethnic tension, I didn’t expect to see many minority groups out in the open. This is a country that is, like, militantly Buddhist after all. But au contraire! There were an overwhelmingly large number of different races, languages, and religions swirling around me as I walked through Rangoon’s crowded streets. In a single block of Rangoon, you might find a Buddhist temple, a Hindu Temple, a mosque, and a church. But even more than that, the people just all looked so different. I knew only 2 things: nobody was black, and nobody was white (except for me). But that still leaves a big ethnic spectrum in between, and Rangoon was all over the place, in a way that I have never experienced. I don’t think I’ve ever been at more of a loss for what to make of a place than I was that first day in Rangoon.
While we're on the subject of ethnic and religious diversity, here's short story that I thought was funny. I was buying a SIM card in downtown Rangoon (something I often do when I enter a new country) and the woman that I was buying it from was speaking Arabic to the other men in her little hole-in-the-wall shop. She was wearing an American flag shirt and she told me that her sister now lives in Florida... of all places. The guy I was with had been studying anthropology, and, as such, loved to ask prying questions to people belonging to foreign cultures.
"What religion are you?" he asked, which I thought was a bit forward in our context, but that's just me.
"I am Muslim," the woman said with a smile. There was a moment of silence, and then she put her hands up and said, "Don't worry - I'm not terrorist."
Make Up, Architecture & Food
One of the most interesting things in Rangoon to me was the face paint, which was worn by at least half the people you will see on any street in Burma. It's called Thanaka, and it's the national makeup of Burma, but it's not just for beauty. It also a form of sunblock, and is supposedly great for your skin. It took me a while of traveling through Burma to realize that this make up is mostly made of saw dust. You will see it sold in markets sometimes from tents that are stacked full of logs. It has to be logs from a certain tree though—Thanaka. Weird, right? Here are some pictures:
There was a lot going on with the architecture of Rangoon as well. Did you ever go into an old, abandoned house as a kid? I know that I did. They were always decrepit old places, characterized by large amounts of mold, and a decreasing amount of paint that hadn’t peeled off the walls yet. We used dare each other to go into places like this as kids. That is every building in Rangoon. I’m not kidding. These places looked like they had not received a single bit of upkeep since the British left in 1948 (the year that Burma became independent). That might sound like a hyperbole, but it seems pretty plausible to me, after seeing the city. It's a strange mashup of British colonial architecture and tin roofs.
It wasn’t just the buildings that were run down. There was trash everywhere. This is clearly a very impoverished place, much more so than any other country in Southeast Asia. Construction projects are being done everywhere so that there are unmarked holes in the pavement seemingly every block. Rivers of sewage run through over-sized, open gutters that run between the sidewalk and the buildings. It does not smell good.
What does smell good is the street food, served almost everywhere. We (some people that I met at the hostel and I) had heard that the best food is on 19th street, which is also apparently ‘China Town’. We made the long walk over, and saw no evidence of anything Chinese there, but there was plenty of food. We got fried fish, rice, corn, and some Myanmar Beer. It was actually really good!
Rangoon By Train
I was still pretty worn out from my night out in Singapore the night before, so I turned in early that night, but the next day I booked a train ticket that would take me on a full loop of the city. It was supposedly going to take 3 hours.
We walked over to the train station in mid-morning. Beneath the overpass we were walking on we could see an overgrown train yard. The train cars are supposedly mostly 2nd hand from Japan, although I’m pretty sure one of them had the Bangladeshi flag on it.
We found our way down to the train platform and managed to find the 1 guy in the whole station that spoke English. He gave us a ticket for 1,000 MMK (about 0.77 USD). He told us that he would find us next time there was train leaving that was going the route we wanted. We sat down at the platform to wait. About 10 minutes later the man came sprinting out of his booth, motioning for us to follow him. Stumbling through the crowds behind him, we ran up the stairs, across a sort of bridge, and down another flight of stairs to the other side of the station. We ran through the gates, without anybody asking to see the tickets we had just purchased, and jumped onto the train.
Once the train started going, it felt like being on a flight simulator. For the entire duration of the ride the train cars shook from side to side like a boat in a storm. Eventually we got used to it and I watched the outer limits of Rangoon pass my by out the window.
Rangoon is seriously poor. Trash was everywhere. People’s homes were shacks. Train stations were markets. It’s nothing I hadn’t seen before, but I guess I hadn’t expected to find this kind of poverty here in Burma. It’s a 3rd world country.
One family came in with a particularly cute little boy so I asked the father if I could take his picture. He cordially agreed, but of course, as soon as I whipped the camera out, the boy stopped smiling. He was probably wondering what the big machine in my hand was. I still liked the pictures though, so whatever.
One thing I will say for Burma is that the level of English is outstanding compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. Case and point: at the end of our loop when we were approaching downtown Rangoon again, a man walked up to me, and in perfect English asked “Is anyone sitting here?”
Okay, it wasn’t perfect English, but it was quite good! I was actually able to have a long conversation with him before my stop came. At one point he asked me if I had a wife or a girlfriend. I responded that I had a girlfriend.
“Oh, do you have any kids?” he asked excitedly.
“Haha noooo,” I responded. I’m still a young ‘un after all. Er, well, sort of.
There was an exasperated silence on his end. “TRYY!” He finally yelled. As a new father, he was apparently enjoying parenthood.
He also taught me how to hack the game ‘Candy Crush’ on my phone. In spite of that gift on knowledge, I left Rangoon that night for the north of Burma with more questions than answers. I’ll be back soon though. Don’t you worry.
Overall though, Rangoon is a crazy, poor place, but it is so much less stressful to be there than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. When I walk through the streets, nobody harasses me to buy things. If people stop to talk to me, it is unlikely that they have any ulterior motive. When I try to buy things, I don't need to haggle. If I ever do get ripped off, it will probably not be by a significant margin. It definitely still feels chaotic compared to the West, but I don't feel the same need to have my guard up in Rangoon that I do in places like Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, or even Hanoi (where I lived for 1 year). The extreme poverty makes it a difficult place to be in some ways, but in other ways Rangoon is a breath of fresh air.