When I was a little girl I used to have a recurring dream about floating through a once magnificent but now derelict mansion in the middle of a hot, humid jungle. Vines creeped through the tall arched windows of the ballroom; broken Louis XVI chairs lined the walls and the rotting grand piano was home to a giant rock python. Later, I’d watch Great Expectations (the Gwyneth and Ethan version) and be all ‘yep, yep, yep’. My ‘dream’ pad looked a lot like that.
I hadn’t thought about ‘jungle mansion’ in years but the moment I arrived in Yangon (it used to be called Rangoon) it all came flooding back. I’m not saying the dream is a flashback to a past life in Myanmar (pronounced ‘mee-in-mar’, the new name for Burma) and Yangon is where it all went down. That would be wank-tastical deluxe. But it’s the closest I think I’ll ever get to a place where crumbling colonial meets the mystery of the East in a way that feels completely surreal.
Anyway, I ended up in Yangon on a whim. I’d just finished up in Cambodia and was looking for a new place to go before heading back to Chiang Mai (in Thailand) which is now my ‘base’. I hit up all the peeps I’d met along the way to find out where they were and they were all in places I’d already been so when Totti, a German dude I’d met in Chiang Mai, said he’d be in Myanmar, a place I knew NOTHING about, that kind of sealed the deal. It would be a new place to explore and I’d at least know one person who could call my family if I got hit by a bus.
I arrived via a flight from Sean Penn (that’s what I call Phnom Penh in my head) to Yangon via a pit stop in Bangkok and, if I remember correctly, this cost just over a grand.
Upon landing, I drew a bunch of kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) from the ATM and picked up a SIM card at Ooreedo kiosk, paying just R65 for 4,5GB of data that lasts an entire month. WTF?! I LOVE how cheap data is over here. We’re being ripped off in a big way back in South Africa. I was then approached by a super sweet dude who offered me a taxi ride to my hotel for R150 and, being too moeg to haggle, I hopped in and headed to Hotel Zia. (If I’d bargained I could have got a ride for R100.) I found Hotel Zia via Booking.com* and can happily recommend it. I paid R200 per night for a double room with a private bathroom that included breakfast. The room wasn’t as luxe as what you could get for the same price in Chiang Mai (nice and clean with aircon, but no balcony, fridge, microwave or window) but compared to accommodation in Cape Town it was a steal.
The location was good too. It’s in the heart of down town Yangon where old meets new in a way that’s kind of crazy (more on that later), a few minute’s walk from very modern mall and a short (very cheap) taxi ride away from the King Kong of all Yangon tourist attractions – the Shwedagon Pagoda.
When I first stepped out the hotel, I was surprised to realise that 90% (no joke!) of the shops in the street were either optometrists or selling sunglasses. Turns out ‘theme streets’ are a thing, and this made finding immediate variety frustrating but once you walk a few hundred metres things start to shake up a little.
The first thing that struck me about Yangon was how ‘contrasty’ it was, if that’s a word. One minute I was walking in an area so manicured it made me think of Disney World’s Epcot Centre and then the next I’d be in an incense-scented side street watching a barefoot woman crouch on the pavement to lop off the heads of fish while her kid played a game on his cell phone.
While some areas where exclusively fancy, it felt like I was never more than a streets away from a bit of slum or, even more fascinating, something I started mentally referring to as ‘mixy-matchy’. An area where you’d spot a super-glossy chrome and glass Pizza Hut sitting right next door to a building so dilapidated and burned out-looking that, at first glance you think it’s condemned. But then you notice a string of washing is fluttering in a window.
If you’re South African like me, you might have the same reaction I did when you first hit a bit of slum. Your heart rate goes up. You’ll grip your bag tighter. You’ll start to wonder if you should turn back or hop in a taxi. Are you about to get mugged? Worse?! These are the things you think about when you’ve grown up in a country with one of the highest crime rates in the world, a place where poor = crime. Fortunately, after an initial panic, I soon realised I was safe and later felt like a bit of an asshole because Yangon peeps are next level lovely.
Every time someone approached me (and many did), it was because they were crazy curious. They wanted to know where I was from. To tell me how excited they were to have me in their country. To offer me a piece of whatever they were eating. To ask if they could snap a selfie of me holding their baby. To find out if I’d been to the bigger temples and give me lists of things not to miss. I soon came to realise it was perfectly safe to roam around by myself during the day. (Well, as safe as you can be. Freak stuff happens everywhere.) At night, however, I did feel better having a boy at my side but can’t tell you whether this is a necessary precaution or not. Like I said, my South African ‘poor = danger’ mentality is very entrenched and affects my perception.
For the record, I wonder around Chiang Mai’s Old Town at night, all on my ace, as happy as a clam but that’s because it’s a touristy hub where every street is a string of well-lit buzzing restaurants and bars and there’s possibly even more foot traffic after dark than there is in the day. It’s not a crazy mish-mash like Yangon. For this reason, if you’re a ‘green’ female solo traveller don’t make Myanmar your first stop. Do Thailand first to get some training wheels. I also wouldn’t recommend it as ‘holiday’. Much like Cambodia, it’s more of an adventure. If you come here looking for an extremely well beaten path that’s made easy peasy for tourists you’re going to leave disappointed. It’s the kind of city I’d encourage someone who’s already in the East to consider as a super interesting ‘border hop’ to refresh a visa instead of doing the stock standard run into Laos.
More observations? I was told that, in Myanmar, the men wear longyis, which are kind of like sarongs. I expected to spot a couple on the street but didn’t realise that literally 90% of the men are wearing skirts. It’s a great way to beat the heat, which is murderous, and I think it looks really, really cool. I enjoyed watching briefcase-toting men in beautifully tailored shirts and matching ties wearing matching longyis cross the street en masse. I’m sure we’ll get to a point where men in skirts becomes more of a vibe in the west and I look forward to that.
Not all but many of the women and children wear a beige paste on their face called thanaka. It’s made from bark an serves up a high sun protection. In Myanmar, a tan is deemed tacky. Pale is perfection. for this reason, I got a LOT of compliments. If you’re ever looking for a serious ego-boost, Yangon is where you’ll find it. While there were loads of Westerners at my hotel, I didn’t really spot many when walking around (outside of the big tourist attraction areas) and I kind of liked that. I got to roam around feeling a bit like a unicorn and was treated with curiosity, excitement and kindness. Totti, being so tall was a huge hit. Lots of people wanted to snap a piccie with him and he’d happily oblige.
Food-wise, I found Yangon very hit or miss and there’s no rhyme or reason. You can slip into a mom and pop shop (that looks like crap), get treated like gold and discover they serve the most delicious food but at a price so cheap wonder how they make profit. You can also step into the restaurant next door (that also looks like crap), marvel at how prices can be more than triple the price of its neighbor. You’ll order anyway, expecting something fab, but get given the dullest, most boring dish using very poor-quality meat. For this reason, Yangon is the kind of place where you really do need to pay attention to what peeps are saying on TripAdvisor as well as heed the advice from locals and other travels.
If you go to a supermarket, however, you’ll be amazed by how cheap things are. I popped into the Myanmar version of Spar in the fancy mall (the one with the Armani store) and couldn’t believe the prices. I felt like I was back in the 90s. Examples?
Coke Zero (large tin) R5
Nescafe ice coffee (small tin) R5
Tortilla chips R3
Sour cream R30 (because it’s imported)
Nail polish remover R5,50
Nail buffer R6
Garnier face wash R17
Anyway, this post is getting crazy long so let me stop here. In my next one I’ll chat about visiting the pagodas. I have so many beautiful piccies to show you, plus a crazy experience involving a blessing by a monk so keep an eye out for that in the next two days or so.
*If you plan on booking a hotel, be it in South Africa or anywhere in the world, and use Booking.com you can get 10% off by using my referral link. You get a discount, I get $15 off my next spot. Kiffness all round.