A Stint in Yangon

Myanmar was going to be different, and I knew it from the airport.

The queue at the Yangon airport border was long and slow, made worse only by an American girl who did not once stop talking. I had had enough, and went to the bathroom.

A lady with a face painted with beige clay welcomed me to the bathroom, pointed me to the cubicle, greeted me on exit and showed me where the soap and hand dryers are.

“Er, thanks.” I said.

This was just the start. We checked in and walked to the nearest money exchange to convert some of our dollars to kyats. No less than five young people stood around to greet us and welcome us to the bank. Every few minutes they checked if we were okay as they checked our dollars. We were led up some stairs, in silence and bare foot. There, they showed us a wad of Burmese notes.

“Where are you from, Sir?”

“Italy and London”

“Wow, sir. Our machine doesn’t work today, so I will count these notes for you.”

He began to count over 250,000 kyats in increments of five.

“It’s really fine!”

“Thank you, sir. Thirty five, forty, forty five, fifty”

We sat there with shy smiles.

“Two hundred forty, two hundred forty five, two hundred fifty.” He showed us the calculation on his calculator. “Welcome to our bank, sir.”

We stuffed the notes into our old beaten wallets, thanked them and then replaced our shoes.

“I’m not sure who they think we are.” I said

“Yeah! We quit our jobs to go travelling, they work in banks…”

“I just hope they don’t see how dirty our feet are”

“Sir.” The young guy said, leaving his office. “Is everything okay?”

It wasn’t just the service that was vastly different in Myanmar. It seemed everyone was eager to greet us. Unlike the smaller, but more tourist geared cities like Inle and Bagan, the people of the bigger cities hadn’t yet been hardened to mass tourism. For now, they were still excited to see us. And as for me, a Western Black girl with braids… I had a time of it.

By the first four hours I began to play a game. Someone would spot me, stare in bewilderment, I’d count three seconds when they turned to tell their friends and on three the whole group would turn, gasp and/or giggle. This would be an ongoing theme, I soon came to realise.

The first evening in Yangon, we walked through Chinatown which was still celebrating the New Year. Chinatown was as busy, loud and chaotic as the one in Bangkok. The sweet stink of durian wafted from the sellers who chopped it up on the roadside.

By chance we ended up at the Sule Pagoda. It’s a couple metres down from Chinatown, and the second most well-known of the Yangon golden stupas.

Within minutes, a monk attached himself to us and began teaching us about the rituals, symbolisms and practices in Buddhist temples. Shrines were labeled with days of the week. One could shower the shrine corresponding to your day of birth, making prayers and wishes. I was skeptical but enjoyed learning about these rites. 

Lo and behold, at the end, his “friend” spoke to us about an orphanage he owns and pushed us for money. Whether it’s a scam, we don’t know – but if you do give, give cautiously and be firm as he will push for more and more money. A reason not to keep a lot of money on you!

Since we arrived late, it was all we had time for on the first day. On day two, we walked northwards to the drug elimination museum. It is MASSIVE.

Myanmar is part of the “Golden Triangle”, which also includes Thailand and Laos. This triangle is a hotbed of drug production and trafficking, and the museum aims to inform and crack down on drug production and use in Myanmar. Mainly by reminding locals that drugs are a “foreigner thing” and terrifying the shit out of them with scary music and scenes. There are drug specimen, with reminders of their impacts.

As much as the museum may seem extreme and we may take it lightly as Westerners – drug use can really ravage poor countries like Myanmar. The museum is a bit far, and certainly not a must do, but if you have the time, it’s worth a visit. They charge entrance, plus a fee to take pictures inside which we didn’t pay.

On our walk back, we headed to the Shwedagon Pagoda. This is one of Yangon’s most popular sites. 

It’s main focal point is the golden stupa, with many other Buddhas around it to visit. 

The second biggest focal point, apparently, was me. Before I even entered, a man pushed his camera in my face and snapped a photo. I was pissed off, so when more girls tried it, I glared at them and said “No.” Everyone seemed to be staring and pointing to the extreme where I couldn’t enjoy the museum – it was exhausting to not be able to explore (or sleep) like the other Western tourists were.

Luckily, by the end people began asking for photos and selfies and I was more than happy to oblige for some real fans – in one case asking for a picture in return. I didn’t mind being asked, it was flattering. I didn’t even mind two sweet female monks who waved at us all the way from the pagoda to the cultural centre where we ate. None of them spoke much English but just a gesture was fine. To me, it’s rude to put your camera in someones face.

We walked home via the People’s Park, which has a fair, waterpark and lots of greenery. It left us tired and sweaty, so we took an early night ready for the ten hour bus to Inle Lake the next day. 

For us, Yangon seemed to be a little introduction. It didn’t charm me like Mandalay, but it also doesn’t have the mass appeal of Inle or Bagan. What Yangon does well is introduce you to Myanmar. The service, the people, the pace of life. The smoke and pollution means people are constantly coughing and hacking, and tobacco chewing lends itself to a lot of spitting. A lot. 

What fascinated me most was the tradition of thanaka. Many of the women paint their faces with beige clays extracted from bark. It is a Burmese beauty ritual, protecting the skin from the harsh sun, keeping it fresh and young. Thanaka is also ubiquitous, yet I had never heard of it. I found it amazing to see a beauty tradition which had been preserved and untainted by Western beauty standards.

My brief time in Yangon felt like an introduction to a vast country, in which tourism is still in its infancy. Although many warn that the longer you leave it, the more Myanmar will become over-commercialised and lose its charm, I think the charm of the cities and the people is intrinsic. But don’t leave it too long, as the country is lovely.

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