Traveling up through Southern Thailand and into Bangkok was a great experience. Thailand is a great country, and truly is the land of smiles. People are nice, life is easy, and as a traveler, almost everything I needed was at my fingertips and easily available. Thailand has had mainstream tourism for a long time, and knows how to do it well. After a few weeks on the well traveled route in Thailand, I was ready for a change – ready to remove myself from the easy life in the land of smiles, and go exploring the newly opened frontier of Myanmar.
Lucky for me, I was invited by my friend Carla for a drink at the Strand Hotel in Yangon – so, after my 5th day in Bangkok, and with a fresh Burmese visa in hand, I packed up and headed for Yangon – to grab a drink with a friend, and explore the country. Myanmar has only really been open to proper tourism for about a year now, and because of that, nothing was as easy as you’d expect. The only good way to get across the border from Thailand is by air, and even then, entry is not a guaranteed thing. I flew on Air Asia, and actually had a fairly unremarkable flight.
Since I was making travel plans on a day-to-day basis, when I arrived in Yangon, I didn’t yet have anyplace to stay for the night. I did a bit of research in the Lonely Planet PDF for Myanmar that I have on my iPhone, and after talking to a few other bewildered travelers in the airport, I decided to cab it over to the YMCA in downtown Yangon. Certainly not the nicest spot in town, but it was relatively clean, and had a great community vibe to it. I was one of only 2 or 3 foreigners staying there, and the rest of the people were locals.
After a good night’s sleek at the YMCA, I spent my first full day in Yangon really just walking around, getting a sense of the general vibe of the town. Yangon is a hectic, energetic and emerging city. Basic services exist, people crowd the streets selling everything imaginable, and there’s a definite sense of building and progress as you walk around. I did a complete lap around town, sampled the local food, and talked with a bunch of the locals.
Of note, telecommunications in Myanmar are very flaky right now, and a reliable landline for POTS voice calls is hard to come by. In spots where there is a viable telephone line, locals will set up card tables, and splice their own phone connections into the main telephone line. These phone booths I found on the street were all hand-hacked into the local phone network.
Mobile phone service is available, but it’s very spotty and unstable. I was unable to purchase a SIM card for my phone, and heard from friends that since there are currently multiple carriers competing for overall control of the cell network, SIM cards are scarce, to avoid exceeding the relatively unregulated network’s small capacity.
Basic utilities like electricty can be hard to come by in Yangon. On my second night in Yangon, Taeko and I went out to dinner in town. Right in the middle of our meal, power to the entire part of town we were in was lost, and the entire area was plunged into darkness. It wasn’t dark for long, however. The locals are used to frequent power outages, and immediately turned on their battery powered LED light, and business continued as usual.
Day 3 was hot, and the value of a glass of cold water was certainly realized. On the streets, people put blocks of ice in strainers, and sell glasses of cold water, made by pouring water over the block of ice and letting it filter out to bottom of the strainer. Additionally, cigarettes are hand-rolled in little booths on the street. They use Lime as a binder for the cigarettes, which ends up turning people’s teeth blood red.
I also had the opportunity to visit the legendary Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the largest pagodas in Myanmar. The place is beautiful, and ornately decorated. Taeko and I even met a few new friends.
And finally, we spend a great evening strolling along the Lake Kandawgyi Boardwalk, and then had a great dinnner at my favorite bar in Yangon, 50th Street.