The trip to Myanmar was very random to me. I always wanted to visit this country for various reasons, so I booked the tickets right away when I saw a flight promotion. However, I almost cancelled my trip just because I did not feel confident enough to do the trip on my own this time. So silly! It wasn’t me. Until I got sick just two days before the trip, I realised that how badly I wanted to go. With all of my uncertainty, spontaneity and of course, excitement, I got on the plane and began my trip.
Yangon was the first place I visited in Myanmar. It was hard to find a couchsurfing host in the country. Due to a policy that foreigners are not allowed to stay at locals’ houses, I was only able to stay at foreigners’, but the hosts that I sent request were either busy or away at the time I came. However, I was luckily hosted by Louis who is a Belgian working in Yangon during my 2 – day stay there. Louis shared his flat with May, his Burmese girlfriend, and his French flat mate, Theodore, so I ended up staying with three of them. Like previous hosts and Couchsurfers I have met before, the three were friendly, inviting and hospitable. In the first night I stayed, we went to a Japanese restaurant where I had a little chat in Japanese with a chef. We also chatted about travelling and they gave me lots of tips to travel in Myanmar. May took me to a local restaurant which serves Burmese traditional breakfast in the morning before I left. I tried the rolled nan bread with Burmese yellow beans (or Pe Pyot in the local language) which was tasty and cheap. We coincidentally met up again in my last day in the country while I was walking around with some friends in Yangon. How blessed and fortunate I was to have been hosted by these people!
In Yangon, I also met Mervyn, who is a Singaporean painter living and working in Manchester. I had created a public trip on Couchsurfing and got Mervyn’s message as he happened to go to Myanmar at the same time as me, so we planned to meet up. We strolled around the Burmese formal capital together for two days without a proper plan.
After having breakfast at a local restaurant near Mervyn’s hostel, we squeezed through vibrant streets full of cars, rather than motorbikes which are banned in Yangon to make out way to Shwedagon Paya, the country’s most sacred pagoda. I have visited many temples and pagodas but it’s hard to ignore this charm. Being built by Mon people between the 6th and the 10th centuries, it is considered the oldest pagoda in the world. It is a relatively huge religious place with entrances at four directions. The entrance fee costs 8,000 kyats for foreigners. We walked around the pagoda, looking at things and watching people chanting, praying and pouring water over Buddha statues.
On the way to the pagoda, we wandered to Kandawgyi Lake, cautiously walked on an old precarious wooden bridge and had a little chat with Ukrainian girl whom we accidentally met there.
We also went to Bogyoke Market or Scott Market, the major bazaar located in the heart of Yangon for magnet hunt. Being built in 1926, late in the British rule of Myanmar, the market is known for its colonial architecture and inner cobblestone streets. Housing antique, Burmese handicraft and jewellery shops, art galleries and clothes, the market reminded me of Dong Xuan market in Hanoi and Ben Thanh Market in Saigon.
As one of the British’s great capitals, Yangon boasts a plenty of old colonial buildings which are its main attractions. It is said that the city is like a gold mine for people who are interested in colonial era architecture and my friend, Mervyn, is one of them. As a result, we took a long stroll around the city to search for a few of those buildings in the sun hot. We went to small streets where ancient local houses are, instead of visiting famous buildings mentioned in guidebooks. The crumbling buildings looked like phantoms from another time with old paint and small trees squeezing through those little cracks, but they gave the city a uniquely interesting look that is hard to find in other cities. Walking down those streets gave me a deeper insight into local lifestyle since that is where life occurs with people busy working and doing different stuff.
Since Yangon was also a major port during British colonial period, many foreigners had flown into the city since early 20th century. Therefore, besides colonial structures, it also has a fantastic mixture of mosques, churches, temples and even a synagogue that stand shoulder – to – shoulder with Buddhist pagodas. We visited the one and only synagogue in Myanmar which is located in downtown Yangon. It was the first time I had visited a synagogue (Thanks Mervyn!)
We also took a boat to Dallah, the other side of Yangon to kill our time. It was a bit disappointing since nothing special there. The trip was about 10 minutes (haha), but it was good to know and Mervyn seemed to enjoy the boat experience.
Yangon is different from the cities that I have been. It is a place where east meets west, old meets new and charm meets repulsion. Cars race around the city while trishaws still peddle on. Local people love wearing traditional longyi and putting thanaka (Burmese makeup powder) on their faces but people dressing like rock stars are not rare. Along streets are local tea houses, food vendors, electronic stuff and other things that you can purchase while fancy Western restaurants and cafés and modern high-rises also make an appearance. Yangon has got the look of a city that has not been overwhelmed by Western culture. In addition, it was interesting to see people with different looks and different ways of dress-up although they come from the same country. Mervyn, who has been to 54 countries, said Yangon is a little version of Kolkata and Mumbai in India. The city is crowded, chaotic, dirty, yet colourful and intriguing. He particularly liked the people whom he found friendly and not pushy.
My first impression of Myanmar was better than I had expected. Although some people I know skipped Yangon, it’s totally worth a visit due to its history and rustic charm. Leaving Yangon in the evening, I got in a bus heading to Bagan, but not by myself. Mervyn finally decided to go to Bagan with me. He, a Vietnam hater and I, a Singapore disliker, met in Yangon by chance and ended up travelling together the whole trip. How random! Yeah, I have told you!