We had no idea what to expect from Myanmar before we arrived, and this of course was part of the appeal. Reading a local magazine article whilst in Bagan was revealing, with the title that read “Ready of Not, The Tourists are Coming,” and discussing the massive influx of tourists to the country since it opened its doors in 2011. The country seems to be letting everyone in (as we were reassured at the embassy in Bangkok when applying for our visas) and yet the tourist infrastructure is so small that in 2012 tourists were left to sleep in a travel agent’s office as there was no accommodation for them, and similarly in Bagan, the monasteries were becoming guesthouses in themselves.
The lack of tourist facilities means that its a harder country to travel in. Though we found no problems arranging transportation to the places we wanted to visit, the options for accommodation are fewer, which has meant the prices for these sought after rooms are incredibly expensive in comparison to the country’s Asian cousins. A room for $35 a night, instead of $15, makes a difference to the budget!
Yangon definitely doesn’t cater to tourists, and we felt like we were starting from scratch as we had to engage in some stealth spying to learn how the locals eat. There are so many small side dishes on offer, and one never knows how to use utensils properly either!
Photos by Ben and Mikayla Journee
After two and a half months in India, we knew our stuff. And Nepal was so similar (and so touristy) that the transition out of India couldn’t have been easier. We were also familiar with Thailand’s way as we’d been on holiday there two years ago, so we already knew not to put the fork in our mouths and to use the spoon instead. But here, we had no one’s advise to follow, no prior knowledge through movies and such like, and suddenly everything was new, and everything about the country feels uncertain (though perhaps we were carrying this with us, as a result of the immense international attention and discussion over the country in recent years).
Yangon, initially, felt remarkably Indian in terms of street appearance. And we found strong Indian influences in the food (samosa and daal in soup for example and Indian chai...almost...oh how we miss it). But then we realised the influence of its other big brother neighbour, China, with noodles, soups, chopsticks and what feels to us like crazy cuts of meat. And then, as we ventured further into Yangon’s food culture, we found the decidedly Burmese (Myanmarese?) cuisine, with oily and strong flavoured fish ‘curry’, served with rice, lots of raw vegetables, brothy soup and dipping sauces. And the introduction of a real bitter flavour marked itself apart from the balance of spicy, salty, sweet, and sour flavours in next-door Thailand.
We’ve also learnt of several other things that we feel have characterised what little of Myanmar we have seen.
Firstly, everyone (save for a few westernised youngins) wears longyis (sarongs), tied differently for men and women and flip flops. Covered shoes are incredibly rare, even amongst those dressed in western clothes. As Myanmar becomes increasingly wordly, it will come as no surprise if western fashion takes a more pronounced foot hold. The very start of this can already be seen.
Almost every woman (and some men, but not the majority) wear thanaka which is a pale coloured paste made from the bark of the thanaka tree. The somewhat gritty, cream paste is smeared across the face in different quantities and shapes.
Also, there is an unbelievable amount of people who chew on kun-ya, literally all day. This mild stimulant comprises of betel leaf, pasted with calcium hydroxide and wrapped around an areca nut (and sometimes chewing tobacco as well), is sold in immense quantities on every street corner, and the red liquid is spat constantly and overwhelmingly everywhere. With a mouth full of red liquid, it looks as if the chewers have a mouth full of blood, and after years of chewing, one’s teeth and gums are in no good state. We will not miss this, at all.
A rather charming trend has been the use of child-size plastic tables and chairs used at street vendor’s stalls. As it is also the case that tea is offered at each of these stalls, the streets of Yangon seems to be perpetually in a state of tea party, with adults accosting the pint-sized furniture for their lunch and tea.
We find the pale pink (with brilliant orange petticoat) robes worn by Burmese nuns so beautiful. We’ve enjoyed the trend for buses to have televisions, playing what seem like variety theatre shows with songs, dance and satire. We’re not so keen on the ‘extra’ seats in the buses though, as the aisle is sacrificed in place of more seats, so each row becomes a bench seat for 5. Heaven forbid the need to exit the bus in a hurry, or any need for comfort for that matter.
We’ve found that almost every time you make eye contact with a person, a smile is shared. And this warmth and friendliness has been such a pleasure. And though its been a challenge, and the country has a lot of progress to be made (the upsetting amount of school-age children working in restaurants to say the least) it’s also been very interesting, and we’ve been absorbing and thinking about everything we’ve been experiencing while we’ve been here.
We had a (very small) party to celebrate our 100th day away while in Yangon. This made us a bit homesick, and by extension tired. We’re looking forward to having a bit more time in each place to temper the long bus rides as we continue our journey through SE Asia starting with Chiang Mai in Thailand. We can’t quite believe we’ve been on the road for over three months, and now only have less than 50 days before we begin to head home! We’ve still got lots of see and lots to do, and we’re looking forward to it all.