Myanmar. Where do I even start? I’ve been struggling with writing this post, as I’m not sure whether just to recount my days like I usually do, or try to condense it all up into one (longer than usual) post for you guys.
I was honestly so nervous when I headed over to Yangon, it had been a while since I last went to a new country, and although I was comfortable trooping around Asia, Myanmar felt new and unexplored, and I wasn’t sure what I could compare it to to prepare myself. I mean, this was the place where only just a couple of months ago, sim cards cost US$150 to buy; a few years ago, US$5000 and only just recently have $2 sim cards been made readily available at the airports. It’s a country that’s somewhat stuck in a time warp, but also progressing at insanely fast speeds.
Although I only visited Yangon, I came to really like what I saw, I can’t say I fell in love, but my curiosity is piqued and I certainly want to see more of the country. It’s been such a long time since my camera came out so readily, and the boldness and comfort I used to have in taking photos when I travelled returned to me.
So instead of my usual day to day posts, here’s a bit of a photo diary, along with my thoughts and tips for travelling to Myanmar.
It’s so simple these days. The e-visa for Myanmar is now readily available for many countries, and is a simple matter of logging on to the website, filling in all the details (exactly as it appears in the passport) and paying US$50. If you live in Canberra, you can go to the embassy and pay $35 instead, but for those of us who don’t, the e-visa is quick and very easy. After paying, I got my letter of permission within 5 days.
US dollars are king. Make sure if you bring them that they’re clean and unsoiled, although generally the Burmese aren’t as squeamish about the quality of the bank notes as I’ve previously read, we did have one situation where they refused a note because it did have a very obvious fold in it.
In terms of bringing money, it certainly helps to have it on you, but I saw lots of ATMs when walking around, so if you run out of cash it certainly isn’t the end of the world!
I was lucky enough to be in Yangon at the same time as a friend who has a Burmese wife, who picked me up from the airport and took me out for my first meal, before dropping me off at the hotel and leaving me to my own devices until dinner time.
They were surprised later when I talked about the places I walked to and what I saw, saying that I had probably seen more of Yangon than they had!
The streets are full of life in Yangon, people are everywhere, produce is everywhere, and you can find all sorts of interesting things walking around. Walking is definitely the best way to see the city, and especially as the city is suspect to horrific traffic jams, sometimes the fastest way to get around as well!
I stayed in two places, the first was the Grand United Hotel 21st Downtown (there are a couple Grand United Hotels, so make sure you get the right one). This was on the cheaper end in Yangon, at US$88 a night, and I honestly would have been quite happy staying there my whole trip. Conveniently located next to 19th Street for cheap beers and the centre of town, the rooms were clean and quite modern, wifi was okay and the breakfast buffet on the rooftop was surprisingly delicious…and you get a view of the Schwedagon Pagoda. Can’t complain!
I also stayed at the Traders Hotel with my friends, which is much more expensive affair at around US$225 a night, but you’re definitely paying for the 5 star, with it’s spacious rooms, the best wifi in town, full service, incredibly nice gym and pool and decadent breakfast buffet spreads.
I also really liked the little cake shop in the lobby, where I often snuck down at 4pm for a cheesecake fix for just US$3…and the cakes are goooood.
Don’t be a novice traveller
When I did Asia with my cousin and her friend from Canada last year, I contemplated visiting Myanmar with them, but decided against it, as I wanted to comfortably take them around places I was already familiar with. Boy am I glad I decided on that! Although Myanmar is very safe, it’s still pretty raw and a bit full on.
Although I do say walking everywhere is a great way to get a slice of life out of Yangon, it’s also pretty tiring, mentally that is. The streets spill over with vendors selling produce, and people are constantly squeezing by everywhere. Traffic is absolutely horrific and I had a couple of close encounters with brazen buses turning onto the street I was crossing. Staying switched on through the whole time while I was out and about really drained me by the end of the day!
Yangon in particular, is not the kind of place you can just stroll down and find a 7/11 or convenience store to stock up on your needs; you need to know where they are and plan to go to them. It’s not quite as tourist friendly as say Bangkok, or any other of the major Asian cities are and I know for sure my cousin and her friend would have had a bit of a freak out if I had taken them here!
However, if you’re comfortable in new environments, ready for a bit of a culture shock and relatively street smart, you should be alright here!
Eating: General Observations
The food of Myanmar is pretty interesting, my first meal was with my friend and his Burmese wife, who took me to a local restaurant that has all the food out in bain marie’s like in a canteen for you to pick and choose what you want (hell yeah to frog leg curry!) We had a feast, and I found the flavours quite reminiscent to that of Indian flavours, but with some other familiar inputs from Thailand, Malaysia and China.
I remember having a soup at this first meal and after a moment of contemplating, realised it tasted exactly like assam laksa, to which my friend’s wife told me that apparently it was introduced to Malaysia from the Burmese princess, who went to Penang to learn English! Fancy that.
Although we had a lot of curries as well, I generally found that the curries were very mild in terms of heat, and tended to be more spice driven, rather than being rich with coconut milk like Malaysia or Thailand.
Noodles are also a massive part of the cuisine here (my friends got to a point where they couldn’t look at more noodles after a couple of days…), from soup noodles, to dry vermicelli dishes (similar to Vietnamese Bun in execution but not in flavours), to wheat noodles dishes as well. I was even taken out one night for what my friend described as the ‘Burmese Char Kuay Teow’, which is fried in a very similar way, with similar style of noodles, but there’s an addition of beans or lentils, giving it a different texture and an earthier flavour.
One of the signature dishes of the area, I would say would be Mohinga, which is usually had for breakfast, which I came to become quite fond of. Rice noodles, a thick fish stew, crunchy fried chickpea fritters, chilli flakes and plenty of lemon. It was zesty, spicy, and surprisingly light despite it’s appearance. I became quite infatuated with the chilli flakes I had in Yangon as well, everywhere I tried them they were intensely spicy, far spicier than I’ve ever had them anywhere else…I only wish I had brought some home!
Get used to being stared at
…especially if you’re an Asian with blonde hair. My Indian friend laughed as he commented that whilst he’s usually the one who gets the funny looks when we travel together, I was definitely the weirdo on this trip!
Whilst the country is very safe, people are pretty open about staring and looking, and it can get a little bit uncomfortable. Especially as the culture is still quite conservative; although I had brought dresses that were modest and either hit the knee or went past it, I ended up almost always wearing jeans out to try and blend in a little more and not stick out so much as a sore thumb! Fortunately in February/March, the weather is still relatively comfortable, so jeans aren’t too hot to be in!
But really guys, save your short shorts and bikinis for the hotel pool and be respectful when you’re out and about.
Things I loved: Produce
Wow. I could not stop staring at the baskets overflowing with beautiful red round apples that were bigger than my fists; avocados that were triple the size of the ones at home, cut in half revealing beautiful, velvety green flesh.
I was in awe at just how beautiful the produce was, right on the streets. Who would ever expect to find gorgeous spears of green asparagus anywhere in Asia?
Strawberries were clearly in season, and there were mountains of them on rattan trays, piled up and generously sized. Sweet to boot.
And please guys, do yourself a favour and pick up a tray of pomelo to snack on; when I leaned over to have a look at one vendors goods, she peeled back the cling wrap and sliced off a bit for me to try, confident that her pomelos were sweet and that I would buy them. She wasn’t wrong.
The wet markets tucked down the side streets also feature fish resting on ice, that are so much fresher than I would ever expect them to be. Ginormous lobsters, and my favourite find, crabs cracked open with their vibrant orange roe on display. Fantastic.
Eating: Shan Yoe Yar
Don’t be put off by the fact that this place is super new looking, and super touristy looking and the fact that there are a lot of expats and tourists in here. The food is delicious. Again, from the Shan region, make sure you get the fried tofu, the sticky black savoury rice cakes, and all things potato. So much flavour and so much variety.
I was also amazed that there wasn’t really a tourist mark up on this place either, with a meal for 7 only coming to around US$100, and there was a lot of food!
This is really what you’re here for when you’re in Yangon. I recommend planning a whole day around this. Head in first thing in the morning (I got there around 7am) and pay for your entry pass (around $9) and explore it in the morning. Keep your pass and return later in the night (as your pass is valid for the whole day) to get a completely different flavour of this mystical place.
I personally, loved Schwedagon in the morning. It was simply mystical. There was something about everyone being barefoot, on the cool white marble, with the pagodas and temples glistening in gold or tiled in glittering mirrors that was simply ethereal. I almost felt like I was in a land of gods, the gold a brilliant contrast to the beautiful blue sky I had that morning.
Personally, I really enjoyed visiting the pagoda by myself, as I ended up lazily meandering and taking photos for 2 to 3 hours and breathing everything in. In front of my ‘day’ (rather than an animal for each year in the zodiac for Chinese, there’s one for each day in the Burmese zodiac), I came upon a nun who was praying (or so I assume) from a book which I found simply hauntingly beautiful as it almost sounded like she was singing. I was entranced for a while, sitting behind her with my eyes closed and taking in this moment I probably won’t have again.
At night, the pagoda is much busier, but that liveliness in itself is fascinating, as visitors light candles, pray and go about their business. The pagoda is stunning lit up at night as well.
In regards to a tour guide, we had one in the evening, but found we didn’t get that much out of him, as he seemed to be interested in telling us how much gold there was on the pagoda and how many gems there were at the top, rather than the history of the place. But to each their own.
I’ve been told that visiting in the middle of the day is not really advised…as that marble gets darned hot in the sun under your feet!
Also, be sure to stop by all the vendors on the stairs leading up to the pagoda, the jade bangles I bought here were much, much cheaper than at Scotts market in the city!
Eating: 999 Shan Noodle House
It’s number 2 on TripAdvisor for a reason. It’s dirt cheap, it’s clean, it’s delicious. Sure, I’m no local so I can’t comment on it’s authenticity, or if it’s actually much more geared to tourists, but I honestly can’t complain. A bowl of Shan noodles (Shan is a region in Myanmar, and the food is quite different), an avocado smoothie (yes to condensed milk) and a plate of fried tofu (also crunchy and so delicious) came to less than US$5. I also love how much importance they place on cleanliness, they actually bring your teacup to you with tongs, so they’re not touching it themselves.
Happy Ash. It’s also near the centre of town, so generally pretty easy to get to no matter where you’re staying.
Things I loved: Free Yangon Walks
I can’t recommend this enough. Although it’s recommended to do this at the beginning of your stay, I only had time to do it at the very end, but I still got so much out of it.
You meet your two tour guides, one expat (or non-local basically) and one local, who give you interesting angles to the city. You learn a lot about the history not just of the country, but also of the gorgeous old colonial buildings, what they were in their heyday and what happened to the people who used to work in them. Did you know that Yangon once had the biggest flotilla army in the world? 600 ships or something like that. Fascinating!
Your local guide gives you the insider on some of the local food, like Mohinga (which is delicious), and the back story to the betel nuts that a lot of the men chew on (and spit out everywhere). Apparently it’s also used as a medicine, our local guide saying he’s used it for toothaches before!
It’s a long walk, around 2 hours or so, but a really great way to either get your bearings, or wrap up a trip.
I would never have usually decided to go to a place like Sharky’s in Yangon, but my friends wanted to try it. Sharky’s is an Italian spot in Yangon, which has a focus on slow food and make a lot of their produce in house, from their cured meats, to their gelato, which is great to see.
It’s definitely expat central, and the prices reflect that, but as a tourist, it’s still pretty reasonable. The pasta is great, pizzas solid and could definitely give the chorizo a miss (props to them for trying to make it in house, but it’s nowhere anywhere close to what chorizo should be).
However, the creme de la creme here, is their wagyu topped with foie gras. Lush. I know. I know. But insatiably divine, just melting on your tongue in a puddle of decadence.
Things I loved: Books
Along with vendors selling their fresh produce, there are also a lot of people who've set up shop on the street, selling books, many of them old, some of them photocopies of books and generally all very cheap.
Apparently (as I learnt from the walking tour) there's a great love of reading and books, and appreciation of them and Myanmar apparently has one of the highest literacy rates in South East Asia (somewhere around 93%), despite hardly spending anything on education. Some say it's due to the slow uptake in the internet, and the fact that the country was so censored previously.
Local, busy, great noodles topped with oodles and oodles of pork. It left me totally stuffed, and again for an incredibly reasonable price.
Things I loved: Buses
Not for riding, but just watching! My friend pointed out to me that although the roads follow the American system, where you drive on the right hand side of the road, a lot of the vehicles were Asian so therefore had the driver on the wrong side of the road!
This includes buses as well, so you’d sometimes see buses pull over to drop people off, only to have everyone get off into the oncoming traffic!
It’s a bit of a circus, but the locals seem to have it down pat. Most of the buses didn’t really have working doors, and have men standing in the doors, who would jump off at the stops, loudly advertise their destination, and jump back onto the moving buses, collecting from whoever jumped on.
I thought the Philippines had a hectic public transport situation going on but….
Eating: Acacia Tea Salon
We popped here after dinner at Shan Yoe Yar for dessert and tea. Apparently the owners of Acacia Tea Salon spent a million dollars in renovating the building, and it certainly shows. Colonial style, the tea salon is very elegant and chic. You’re greeted when you step in by a display of sumptuous looking cakes, my friends nearly ordering two of everything just so we could help them clear out the fridge (or so we told ourselves…).
Although there are proper dining areas in the Tea Salon, there’s also a gorgeous lounging area, which is perfect for after hours, and we sipped on lovely teas (huge menu of them) and ate all the cakes, which were of a much better quality than I had expected. The chocolate cakes in particular were pretty decadent and rich. Definitely recommended!
I can’t wait to see more of Myanmar, I’ve been told Bagan is gorgeous with all it’s temples and architecture and I’m fascinated to watch the development of the country in the next few years. If anyone else goes soon, I’d love to hear of your experiences and what you thought!