First Impressions of Myanmar (Burma)

As soon as I exited the plane, the beads of sweat had already begun to trickle down my back. Yangon was certainly a hot place. What greeted us was airport, looking slightly out of place for what I had read about the country. A tall gilded building, juxtaposed against other tattered and unkept buildings that surrounded it.

I didn’t do too much research about Myanmar before I left. Most things that I read and heard about seemed conflicting and now out of date. Published guides and blogs written a few years ago would now prove to have become redundant. To be honest, when you’re travelling long term, a “we’ll wing it” attitude takes precedent over any military like planning when it comes to planning the following destination. After the month that I had spent in Hanoi and Sapa, I was now well and truly back out of my comfort zone and in a country I knew very little about except that certain areas were now open to tourism. If there was an South East Asian country that was yet to be overrun by tourists, then Myanmar would be it.

myanmar airport yangon

The view of Yangon Airport from the runway

The first thing that immediately strikes me about Myanmar is the lack of English directions. Places that I’ve gone to over time that has been considered “off the beaten track” still have some English signs. However, such signs are non existent here. More often than not, one can take a guess on what a sign says in a foreign western country, but the alphabet in Myanmar is closer to what you’ll encounter in Thailand and Laos.

Despite this not understanding the language, getting around hasn’t proved to be too difficult – it only requires an ounce of patience. Whether or not it’s just the universe lending a helping hand and despite very few people being able to speak a work of English, there has always seemed to be somebody around who whose vocabulary ranges from limited to well spoken that are actively willing to help. Some are self taught, others are educated. Apart from having to wave our arms around like chickens to order poultry dishes, we haven’t had many issues getting from place to place.

myanmar friendly to tourist sign

One of the few signs around in English.

Of all the places I have been to, I’ve never experienced such friendly, content and smiling people as those from here. Everywhere you go, children and adults will wave and call out hello and and goodbye. The more curious folk will want to take a photo with you, especially with caucasian foreigners. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been relegated to photographer for Jennifer who I am travelling through Myanmar with who receives constant requests to have their photo taken with her. Many of which have Thanaka paste applied on their face which make them even more photogenic.

Walking around town, at times it can feel like you’e walked into a wormhole and have emerged a couple of decades back in time. Many buildings are weathered and run down with the well kept buildings only being the government houses as well as the Buddhist monasteries and Wats. Buildings that once represented British occupation of the area are fenced off with barbed wire and left exposed and to the crumble away at the mercy of mother nature.

 Wat Sule Paya in the distance as progress within the country powers on.

Wat Sule Paya in the distance as progress within the country powers on.

I didn’t bother with getting a SIM card here because it’s expensive and 3G is non existent. It’s not common to see people talking on phones that are reminiscent of the old school Nokia handsets with he extendable antennas. I would classify Myanmar internet speeds on par with dialup back in the mid 90’s. As a result, I haven’t updated the blog as much as I would like because it would take an hour to upload one photo. The only thing that one can do is find something else to do with ones time and that’s been getting out and exploring.

Despite the stories and experiences to date of how friendly and honest people are, the apartment blocks are all fenced up from top to bottom as if to keep intruders out, or the occupants inside. Also, like most places in Asia, despite how poor the nation is, everybody seems to have a satellite dish. In the late afternoon and evenings, as you walk down the streets, you only have to look up to see the silhouette of numerous satellite dishes that line the tops of buildings.

myanmar apartments and satellite dishes

Satellite dishes pointing skywards for their Skynet signal.

Myanmar is bordered by China, Laos, Thailand and Bangladesh so there is quite a mish mash of smiles from the locals onlookers. Whoever we crossed paths with, they seemed curious and equally puzzled at these foreigners in their country. For a good couple of hours walking around, we didn’t see any foreigners at all. Naturally, they were more curious about Jennifer who towers over them at 5”10 with her fair complexion and hair colour. There seemed to be a sense of curiosity in their eyes an we were mostly greeted with welcome smiles and hellos. Up until now, this has been a common theme throughout the entire stay here so far regardless of where we have travelled to in this country.

myanmar photos

The overseas celebrity, now making herself home on many Burmese smartphones and Facebook pages.

At night, when the sun disappears and the temperatures cool, the alley ways come to life with the citizens and tourists heading out to dinner. There are numerous restaurants, open air, tea houses and street food vendors. You already know that I’m quite adventurous with my food but for some reason at first, I was a little apprehensive and resistant to the street food here. I’ll be honest, they use every part of the animal and I endorse it, but there were parts that I was not familiar with. I’ve since been open to it more but I can’t bring myself to trying to mystery meat hot pot that seem to be so popular everywhere here.

myanmar food

Meat on a stick, consisting of pretty much all parts of the animal. Many parts which even I can’t identify.

My first meal was Mohina, the dish that Myanmar is most famous for. It’s a vermicelli fish soup that is a cross between noodle soup and a curry. Mild in flavour, it’s generally served for breakfast and served with crispy tofu or deep fried bread. Its fragrant and mild flavours are easy to get through and being such a hot day, something milder was the perfect introduction to the food of Myanmar. Other food especially from the Shan regions tends to be on the oily side, yet still tolerable. A plate of pickled vegetables is generally presented and aids in cleansing the palate.

mohina

Mohina – The national dish of Myanmar. It doesn’t look like much but I’ve been happily devouring it most days for breakfast.

Transport around Asia can be a test of patience and Myanmar is no different. Despite the advertised air conditioned buses, we’ve been lucky to catch what may resemble a cool breeze. Textured curtains like they were stolen from a puppet show line the windows, a small chandelier adorn the aisle lights and throughout the evening, a wind chime fixed near the front door rattles with every slight turn of the bus.

Speaking to the the people here, they seem to think the country is moving in the right place but not at a fast enough pace. Prior to arriving, it was difficult to get a view on here everything was at from a political and infrastructure point of view. My previous understanding of the state of the country was that people lived in fear of speaking out on what they thought of the government. Everywhere we’ve been through, those who can speak english haven’t held back on their thoughts on what they thought about the country and it’s progress. Everybody has their sights set on the upcoming elections which will be a historical moment for the country.

Blogs and guidebooks advised that there were no ATM’s but with the recent flood of foreign investment, things had changed considerably in a short period of time. ATM’s are easy to find and if you’re after your favourite can of soft drink then it’s really available in most corner stores.

yangon

Despite there being no public military or dictatorship presence, there are still public signs of order and control.

There is so much to take in here, both from a cultural and development point of view. It has become test of patience where at times I’ve been pulled out of my comfort zone as I’ve become so accustomed to travelling across a path that has well worn out by other travellers. Places where numerous books and a sea of online resources are available that enables the traveller to have a sense of places before they set foot in the country. However, nothing can really equip you for what you’ll experience with Myanmar. It truly feels like a foreign country and for me, a reminder of why I travel in the first place and has invoked a sense of joy, like that felt when I first started travelling.

Have you been to Myanmar or are considering it?


Comments

First Impressions of Myanmar (Burma) — 8 Comments

  1. Pingback: The week in photos - Myanmar transport - Jimmy Eats World

  2. Myanmar’s kind of way down there on my bucket list. Maybe if I snag an incredible airfare… Bagan looks cool, although Yangon I think could rate a pass… Kind of how I feel about India. I know it’s there and ought to be visited but… We’ll see if your posts can change my mind! Travel safe!
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  3. Hi, my husband and I are foodies and I’m eager to know what the curry is like. It sounds like it’s mild. Curious whether they have their own curry blend or if it’s a mix between Thai and Indian?

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