We arrived safe and sound
30.12.2011 - 01.01.2012 34 °C
I am sitting in a posh hotel, beside our place, listening to 'Jingle Bells' and writing this blog. It seems out of place somehow.
After what seemed an eternity we arrived in Bangkok at midnight and made our way to the airport hotel. We were so grateful that we slept through the night and woke feeling relatively normal. We had quite a bit of time to kill before our 4:30PM flight to Rangoon so arranged a car and driver with our hotel to take us for a whirlwind tour of Bangkok. We forgot about what a bottleneck the traffic can be in the city but none the less it beat sitting at the airport for 4 hours. We hired a long tail boat and did a one hour tour of the river which was fun. There was great evidence of the flooding that happened a few months ago, many homes destroyed. We also saw the electrical power poles that were erected in the water, with loose wires hanging down. May people died by electrocution from the flooding because of this. There were two men in a small boat with a pair of pliers fixing some of the downed power lines.
Our flight was delayed a few hours but we finally arrived in Yangon at 7PM and checked into our hotel for the next three nights. Our travel agent, Zaw, that I have been emailing back and forth for the past few months arrived and we paid him the balance of our amount owing and he presented us with all of our vouchers. I read in Lonely Planet that they could not get ‘Time’ magazine in Myanmar so I put a number of back issues in my suitcase. I gave a few to Zaw and he informed me that they now sell them here as well but they are very expensive. He appreciated them none the less. We then walked to a restaurant for a bite to eat and bought Zaw and his friend a couple of beers and then we had a early night.
Our first day in Myanmar was very eventful. We had breakfast in our hotel and then walked to change our money to kyat. In the past month things have changed in Myanmar so much it is amazing. You can now change money at one of the Government Banks which you could never do before. We had our many crisp perfect $100 bills in our money belt and make our way to the bank that Zaw had told us about last night. After walking a few blocks we decided to go to the police station to get directions. They were very polite and helpful, drawing us a little map and we set on our way. A young boy of around 8 came up and wanted us to buy some postcards. We told him we didn’t have any cash as were going to the bank and could he direct us. Mistake number one. He said….money exchange over here. We said ‘no, we want the bank’. Yes, it is this way.
We ended up with all this young men around 20 trying to exchange our money. Now up until a couple of months ago the black market was the only way to exchange your cash. You can not get the Kyat outside of the country and bank cards don’t work for foreigners and only high end hotels will take credit cards for a huge premium. The boys tell us that it is Saturday and the bank is closed, but they will give us 820 Kyat per US dollar. We are intrigued as the bank rate is only 790. Mistake number two. We agree to each exchange $100 USD for 82000 Kyat. We went behind a metal sign and they took each of us and we felt swarmed. They talked and moved so fast we really didn’t have time to think. They showed a stack of money that was bundled into 8- 1,000 bills. He counted it and it was like a card trick because he would turn the stack over and then count again. I took it and counted but he was in my face and saying it was 82000 Kyat, all is fine. The same thing was happening to Lana and Jane. So we each hand over one crisp new $100 bill. We caught a cab to the train station and counted our money again when we were there. We couldn’t believe it. They ripped us off for around $36 each. Only one bundle had 10 bills, the rest were 5. They were such great con artists. Lesson learned. It was becoming a very expensive day!
We bought a $1 ticket on the ‘circle train’ which does a three hour loop around Yangon. The train was very basic. Very basic. No glass on the windows, wooden seats and very old. There was only one other tourist family on the train and we were quite the entertainment for everyone. It was a slow trip out of the city and interesting to see the landscape go from large city to more rural and farming areas. Half way through the trip we stopped at a small town where there was a large local market where people from the city go to do their daily shopping. All of a sudden our quiet little train was overrun with locals getting on with huge bags and baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables. There was no room to move. People were passing Jane huge bags of vegetables to pull into the train through her window. The train was completely full with every square inch of floor taken up by either people or produce. If someone needed to get off or get to another part of the car they needed to climb over the huge bags of lettuce, eggplant, bananas, and lots of greenery that I did not recognize. At each stop vendors would get on with large plates on their heads with food for sale. It was an amazing thing to be able to be a part of. We interacted with so many of them even though almost no one spoke English.
A lot of the older people chew ‘beetle nut’ which is a nut that gives you a bit of a high and turns your mouth red. They are constantly spitting out the red juice and it eventually rots out their teeth. Not a very attractive habit. Most people wear ‘longhis’ which are like sarongs but tied a lot more elaborately. The men also wear them with either a shirt or long sleeve dress shirt on the top. I think it must be a lot cooler than pants. A lot of both men and women also put a white paste on their cheeks to keep from getting sunburned. Some will have a design painted on with this magic paste. There were young men getting on and off the train with trays of the paste and paintbrushes to sell to anyone who was interested.
Everyone here is so helpful and friendly (except our con artists from this morning). After the train ride we were extremely hot and thirsty so made our way to this modern 20 story building that had a restaurant on the top floor with an amazing view of the city. The Shwedagon Paya or Pagoda was in the distance. This is the most revered place in the world for the Buddhists. It is breathtaking. We make our way over to the pagoda and hire a guide for an hour who tells us a lot about the spectacular place we are at. It is all made of gold and glowing in the sun. We spent the next few hours there in amazement. It is one of the most beautiful places we have been.
We were sitting looking at the pagoda in the evening light and a man came and stated to talk to us. We discussed how the country is changing and learned a fair amount about Myanmar from him. His English was excellent. He very kindly drove us to a supermarket so we could pick up some items for dinner in our room.
New Years Eve. We were planning to go out to celebrate tonight but too tired to do so. Home by 7:30PM for a quiet evening but were woken at midnight to hear and watch the many firework displays going on around Yangon.
Today we took a cab down to the river area and went into the ‘Strand Hotel’. In its day it must have been a very grand hotel indeed. Built by the British in 1901 when they occupied Burma it is reminiscent of the Empress or such type of hotel. We wandered through some amazing gift shops to get an idea of what there is to buy in Myanmar. We found our way down to the river front but couldn’t find a place to walk along the river so headed back towards town. There are very few tourists here so we turn a lot of heads. They are all so friendly and we said ‘Happy new year’ to everyone which was returned with a smile. Yangon must have been a very beautiful city at one point but it is very run down now. The buildings and roads have not been kept up. Our hotel which would be considered 3 star here, is large and clean but in need of updating for sure. I pulled the tap to turn on the shower and it came off in my hand. The springs on each of our beds are sticking out and not that comfy. We are on the sixth floor and Jane has us walking up and down instead of taking the elevator. The sidewalks are what is the most amazing and you take your life in your hands when you walk on them. Huge parts are missing and you can very easily turn an ankle or break a leg. We do see evidence of the sidewalks being repaired and buildings being updated. This year Myanmar expects to see one million tourists which is far greater than any other year. The new government in power is giving the people a little bit of hope and tourists are feeling like they can come visit now. We also notice items from home which is surprising as we thought that the trade here was sanctioned.
In the afternoon we went to ‘Scott Market’ (also known as Bogyoke Aung San Market,) to escape the heat. It is around 32 degrees but I don’t find it as oppressive as other countries. There is a bit of a breeze sometimes which helps but it is a busy noisy and dirty city with lots of smog so the heat is felt more. The market takes up a few city blocks and you can buy almost anything you want there, except clothes are too small, even for Jane. Jane bought a few gifts and we met a man who exchanged some more US money for us. We told him of our money changing adventure yesterday and he said “I am old man, you are old ladies, I will not cheat you”. And he didn’t.
The taxis and most of the vehicles here are Toyota Corollas or similar, vintage 1982 or there abouts. They have to pay $10,000 USD for these rust buckets. The doors barley work, our driver last night was sitting in a lawn chair instead of his drivers seat and there are no seat belts. The busses , which are packed to the rafters, are around 1930 vintage.
Tomorrow we are on a 6AM flight to Mandalay.