Right! I’m assuming you’ve read my first post on Yangon and have got a bit of an idea regarding the lay of the land. It’s a surreal place and still feels kind of ‘untouched’ as it was only recently opened up to tourists. Even so, they’re not exactly reeling them in right now thanks to civil unrest in the north that’s giving the whole of Myanmar an undeservedly bad rap. You have no idea how many people messaged me when they heard I was headed there. It was all ‘OMG! Are you going to be safe?’ and the short answer is ‘yes’. I was miles away from any drama and, by way of comparison, it’s kind of like warning someone not to go to Cape Town because of trouble in Soweto.
Anyway, having gotten a feel for things on my ace, Totti finally arrived from somewhere else in the country and we spent a day temple hopping. He’d gotten his hands on a Lonely Planet walking map and me, being shit with direction and sky high on Corenza C, was happy to just follow him around and take in the sites. (It took me a full ten days to fully shake my flu because I refused to slow down.) Now, this is the part where I turn into a hideous virtual tour guide because, after a while, all those blerrie temples just blurred into one. I have a couple of pamphlets on each crumpled in my backpack that I could use to piece together what was what but honestly, I couldn’t be assed.
Fortunately, if you want to temple hop yourself, you don’t need too many pointers. They’re everywhere, the big ones are well documented online and the most important things to know are the following:
* Wear comfy shoes. Duh. I walk a lot but did over 12km that day and my Fitbit was like ‘lady, who are you?‘
* Wear sunscreen and take some with you because you’ll sweat it off in seconds.
* Don’t be an idiot like me and wear a dress that doesn’t cover your knees and shoulders. (The dress code is the same for men, by the way.) Fortunately, every temple can ‘rent’ you a longyi and shawl before you step into it.
* Carry cash and expect (very small) hidden expenses. You’ll be charged a fee to enter each site (between R30 and R60 if I remember correctly) and it’s an extra R2 to use the loo and you’ll occasionally pay the same to have someone ‘watch’ your shoes because you have to leave them outside. (I think a ‘shoe sitter’ is a bit unnecessary because Myanmar is the most Buddhist country in the world (90% of its population!) and I got the impression you could plug your phone into a wall on the street and it’ll still be there when you return. But hey! I consider this all ‘tipping’ which is something I do generously.)
* Respect the Buddha. In the past, there have been instances of tourists being kicked out the country and even threatened for having Buddha tattoos. If you’ve got one, cover it up!
Despite the scary repercussions of dissing Buddha, the atmosphere at the temples was warm and welcoming. Locals don’t pay to get in, each site is buzzing and there’s no ‘this is our holy place, what are you doing here?’ type of vibe. As I mentioned before, Myanmar peeps are lovely and sweet, so much so that I felt hard and jaded by comparison, and they all seem genuinely psyched to have you visit.
Loads of people spoke surprisingly good English and would approach us to A) happily explain what was going on and B) compliment my ‘very beautiful honest face’. (Can you see why I like Yangon? Clearly these are switched on peeps who totally know what they’re talking about. Especially when it comes to faces. And for the record, this was the women. You’ll struggle to find creepy men in Buddhist countries which is probably why they’re my favourite in which to travel solo.)
At one point two teen boys showed us how to perform a ritual at our birthday shrine. This involved finding the one that was linked to the day on which you were born, pouring water over the Buddha statue plus the animal that relates to your day (I’m a Thursday baby and that links to the rat) and hitting a gong.
The two temples that made the biggest impression on me were the Shwedagon Pagoda and Chaukhtatgyi Paya. The latter is where you’ll find a huuuge 66-metre-long reclining Buddha. He looks very feminine, but I was told he’s most definitely a man. His eyes aren’t painted on, they’re made of glass and it kind of feels like they follow you when you walk.
Be sure to do a full 360 to check out the Buddha’s feet. They’re inscribed with over a hundred symbols that represent each of his past lives. You’ll notice some are animals so best you be nice to your kitteh or he’ll come back as your future child and be a drug-addicted loser kid that hauls your flatscreen to Cash Converters.
As we were leaving the temple, a man came up to us and invited us into what looked like a garage/barn that was filled with all sorts of weird bric-a-brac. He was insistent that we meet his uncle, a monk. This is how we ended up in a back room that looked like something out of a Lara Croft movie with a 92-year old monk surrounded by stacks of books and papers. The poor dude was fast asleep but his nephew propped him up and made him perform like a show pony.
The monk couldn’t speak any English but his nephew introduced us, translated a bit of chit chat and then asked his uncle to bless us. That’s how Totti and I found ourselves kneeling on the floor with our heads bowed while the monk intoned a prayer we didn’t understand, but were grateful for regardless. Good wishes are good wishes, right? It was only afterwards, when the nephew tied little orange bracelets onto our wrists (I’m actually still wearing mine) that we realised we’d been mistaken for a couple and been blessed with a long marriage, healthy children and a safe journey. Awkward considering Totti’s a travel buddy – not my boyfriend (sorry twitter!) let alone a husband.
Still, monk magic is powerful stuff and perhaps that’s why Totti and I spent the rest of the day at least bickering like an old married couple. I asked him the same question twice so, apparently, I never listen when he talks. Later I’d accuse him of being a shit ‘Instagram husband’, but he deserved it. Who in their right mind, in 2018, thinks it’s okay to shoot people from the ground up? Like, do you want to make your subject look like a short, frumpy whale-person?!
Speaking of the ground up, get a load of this temple undergoing restoration. I can’t remember where it was but I was super impressed by the scaffolding, more so than the pagoda itself.
As far as Shwedagon Pagoda goes, don’t miss it. I know I featured my piccie in my last post but its worth another look. It’s so freaking big and tall I had to lie down on my stomach and angle my camera carefully to take the shot. Once I did that, a bunch of Asian tourists around me started to do the same and that’s how I found myself wiggling on the ground like a demented sardine with a whack of others doing the same. None of us could speak each others language but we were all thinking the same ‘God, we’re sooo lame. Thank you for not judging me, but this is literal Instgram gold!‘
After the longest day on foot ever, Totti left to do yet more walking on a hike around Inhle Lake that I’d decided to skip. (I could walk ‘flat’ for miles, but every time I hit temple steps my lungs felt like they were going to explode. Flu = fun!) Thus, the new plan was to reconnect in Mandalay before travelling sideways to Bagan and then I’d fly back to Chiang Mai but after doing a bunch of math I changed my mind. Like I said, I travelled to Myanmar on a whim, only asking questions later, and soon discovered that unlike Thailand, local flights aren’t cheap and, unlike Totti, I’m not comfortable with taking the bus. (For me it’s not the time factor, it’s the accident rate. Also, the last bus trip I took from Kampot to Phnom Penh straight up terrified me. The driver sped, pot holes where prevalent and there wasn’t enough Valium in the world to prevent me from turning into a giant muscle spasm. Like, I literally just sat there like a crazy-eyed Chihuahua, didn’t take in a word of my audio book and just mentally braced for impact.)
So, did I want to blow a load of cash to fly to Mandalay, a city that, despite its romantic name has a rep for being pretty blah and unable to offer anything you could already get in Yangon to take a quick field trip to Bagan for yet more temples? Nah. I decided to head back to Chiang Mai and use the money to live like a queen. That and get Botox!
This is how, once again, I found myself solo in Yangon. But not for long. I immediately hit up tinder with my stock standard ‘I’M HERE TO EAT! COME GET FAT WITH ME’ and that’s how I found Craig, a fellow South African. For the record, Yangon tinder is fabulous. Did you ever see Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? That movie where Tina Fey plays a war corespondent in Afghanistan? She soon learns being one of very few females in the desert has its advantages. ‘In New York, you’re like a six or seven. Here you’re a nine!’
It’s the same in Yangon.
I got the impression the only people using it were expats and the second you log in you’ll find every boy in the world has sent you a super like. In saying that though, the general vibe is less ‘hey baby, let’s hook up’ and more ‘OMG, another westerner! What are you doing here?! Do you want to go somewhere and, like, talk about western shizz and be western together?!’
But ja. I know, I know. Girl goes all the way to Myanmar to hang out with another blerrie Saffa, but he was a brilliant find. Dude likes to eat too and, as he’d been living there for a while, working as a teacher at a fancy school for rich peeps, was able to take me to a bunch of spots that gave me a taste of a more modern, slowly globalising side of Yangon.
They all had a very ‘Cape Town’-feeling (with Cape Town prices too!), so much so that you could easily forget you were in Yangon until you left, swapping aircon and T’erre D’Hermes for stifling humidity thick with incense.
I also really liked Sofaer & Co. The restaurant’s in a beautiful colonial building and serves up Western-style bistro food with a bit of Asian fusion and I enjoyed my pulled pork burger. Later we’d head to a bar called Blind Tiger where you’re looking at R90 a cocktail (told ya! Cape Town prices) but boy did we klap it.
Of everything I tried (and it felt like we tried everything) I most enjoyed the salacca whiskey sours made with Bourbon, snakefruit (!), lemon, sugar syrup and egg white.
You can save so much on other things in Asia that it’s easy to justify the odd bender. Just this week alone I saved over two grand (in Thailand) by buying a year’s supply of the same birth control I use in South Africa. And, before you flood my inbox, nooo, I didn’t pick it up in a back alley, I got it from Boots and it expires in 2020, okay?
While my Myanmar visit was a short one, for me it was totally worth it. Much like Cambodia, I don’t know if I’d recommend it as a sole destination (i.e. you get ten days of leave a year and blow it all on Myanmar) but, as I said in my previous post, if you’re based in Asia and have the luxury of moving around or are planning to do several countries in one shebang than it’s stop I think you’ll find Yangon completely fascinating.