Intriguing And Satisfying Yangon

Feb. 1, 2012 – We are on the road again after 15 days in Bangkok. The time pressure of visa expirations tends to keep life interesting. It’s like ambling down a river in raft, the current moving you along at a steady clip as you look ahead to navigate around the bends and obstacles in your path.

While we’ve only been in Myanmar for two days, our experience so far has delighted us and intrigued us at the same time.

For one, our hotel in Yangon features one of the best breakfast spreads of all the budget accommodations in our 8 months of travel.

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At the White House Hotel, it is all you can eat, flavorful, and healthy. Every morning the staff prepares an incredibly satisfying meal made from scratch, including fresh fruits, omelettes, vegetable stir-frys, banana fritters, and homemade jams.

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Yangon is an eclectic mix of old and new, and a melting pot of Indo-Chinese mixed in with native hill tribes. You’ll find all kinds of food here, from South Indian chapatis and thosays to Chinese traditional dishes and even dim sum.

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Thosay plate and milk tea

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A bowl of Shan noodles, a staple of Northeast Myanmar

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Mohinga, a fish broth based noodle soup traditionally eaten for breakfast

 

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Street front vendors on Anawratha street in Yangon

Street merchants sell their wares, including the requisite designer knock-offs.

Something we haven’t seen elsewhere: every corner has at least one vendor who has tapped a nearby telephone pole with some alligator clips to sell phone calls at 50 Kyat/minute (about 6 cents).

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A Burmese woman sets up her pay-phone "booth"

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Pay phone calling in Yangon

Many sidewalks in the downtown area are in decay, as if the city had just been hit by an earthquake.  Pave stones and concrete slabs erupt from the earth, as if Atlas himself shrugged under his impossible burden and Yangon felt it.

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Yet the streets of Yangon bustle every day with people. It reminded of us of Kuala Lumpur. “Same-same…but different!”. The melting pot of Indian, Chinese, and native Bamars and other tribes mimics KL’s mix of Indian, Chinese, and native Malays.

 

The difference is that there has been much less Western influence here, though that is changing fast. 90% of the people still don traditional dress, particularly the sarong-like longyi.

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All but two men and a monk are wearing traditional clothing

Better make it here fast if you’d like to have a glimpse of one of the few places in SE Asia that have succeeded in preserving much of their fashion heritage.

Speaking of heritage, old habits die hard, and Yangon proves it. Despite a government ban on it, betel nut chewing abounds here, evidenced by the blood red colored spittle that litters many of Yangon’s downtown street corners. Every corner downtown has a merchant selling it, and chewing betel nut is the norm rather than the exception.

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Betel nut chew vendor

Every other car here is a vintage Toyota or Nissan, surplus relics older than I am, imported from Japan. In a country that hasn’t yet figured out what “keeping up with the Joneses” means, reliability trumps aesthetics when it comes to cars.

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A Toyota Publica, circa 1978. Alive and kicking in Yangon!

As the dawn of a new age of tourism opens in Myanmar, look for a mix of ancient, old, and the new here in Yangon. Ancient payas and temples, juxtaposed with colonial shophouses from the times of British occupation, and intertwined with newer construction as an influx of tourism attracts more foreign investment in construction of hotels and apartment buildings.

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Sule Pagoda in the distance, shot from a pedestrian walkway over Mahabandoola Road, Yangon

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British colonial shophouse building with a more modern facade applied at one end

We’re only getting started, and our first impressions of Myanmar are fantastic. We’re so fortunate to personally experience the welcoming and friendly nature of its people, and we’ve never felt safer in all our travels in Asia.

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Local friends of ours who helped us find our way when we first arrived in Yangon

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Jo and one of the White House Hotel staff, with the traditional Thanaka face cream ubiquitous in the Myanmar

While a lot about Myanmar misunderstood by us in the West, by connecting on a personal level we know we will gain valuable insight and understanding of this magnificent country.

 

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