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Yangon, Myanmar: first impressions

Yangon Impressions_1

Inside the spotless interior of Yangon’s international airport terminal, I begin to feel a pang of anxiety. Bama is just ahead of me in the queue for immigration. He leans against the counter, listening intently as the officer speaks for a longer time than usual. Is there a problem with our electronic tourist visas?

Later, once I get my passport stamped with barely any questions, Bama tells me exactly what happened at the counter. “She asked me, ‘how much did you pay for the e-visa?’ I said I forgot. Then she said, ’50 dollars?’”

As an Indonesian citizen, Bama is entitled to stay 14 days visa-free, three days short of our trip in Myanmar. But the officer had a surprising suggestion for him: “Next time you come, don’t get a visa. If you overstay three days you pay only nine dollars – three dollars per day. Cheaper for you.”

In all my travels, I have never come across an immigration officer who openly encourages visitors to overstay in their country. Not in Europe, North America or Southeast Asia. I know someone who overstayed in the USA and only got away scot-free because he had a student visa and used his English accent to maximum effect.

The hour-long taxi ride from the airport is a revelation. Bama is astonished at the changes he is seeing since his last visit to Yangon three years ago. The construction sites, snarling traffic, brand new cars with license plates in numerals and Latin script, street signs in English – none of these were present in January 2012. He points out the proliferation of banks and ATMs, even a swanky Mercedes-Benz showroom for the nouveau riche.

Our downtown hotel, Beautyland II, is housed inside a nondescript walk-up on 33rd Street. We are shown to a twin room on the third floor, with a set of enormous windows enclosing the former balcony. It is the perfect place to stand and observe small facets of daily life. Looking down into the street, Bama and I spot the occasional procession of young monks or nuns going from shop to shop, asking for alms. In the apartment directly opposite, a family sits cross-legged on the wooden floor, absorbed by the action unfolding on TV. Renegade plants sprout from the blackened exterior walls; the entire ensemble sports a jumble of satellite dishes, air conditioning units and cables.

Yangon Impressions_2

33rd Street in downtown Yangon

From the enclosed balcony, we can see the Sule Shangri-La, once the well-known Traders Hotel. It towers over the tenement buildings of 33rd Street, the neat rows of uniform windows a stark contrast to these decaying structures. With Myanmar’s hotel shortage, I cannot fathom the cost of staying in a place as luxurious as the Shangri-La. The hotel rises above the intersection like an upscale fortress, set back from the pavement and protected behind a moveable metal barrier. Next door, a development by the hotel group is taking shape, promising 15 storeys of prime office space above a luxury mall.

I imagine what it would be like to stand behind the Shangri-La’s aquarium green windows, completely insulated from the heavy traffic thundering up and down the avenue. Outside, we observe the swarm of cars clogging the streets on a Saturday night, and wonder how so many vehicles here have the steering wheel on the right even though Myanmar does not drive on the left. Conductors holler from the open doorways of second-hand Korean and Japanese buses, their former routes still written on the back window.

Men dressed in longyi, the Burmese sarong, spit chewed betel nuts to the gutter, creating a procession of deep red blotches that takes on an almost decorative appeal. We are accosted several times by child beggars who mumble and stretch out an empty palm. One gestures that he needs to be fed; another touches my arm with his small fingers. The physical contact is disconcerting, and it bothers me that one of us can afford the privilege of international travel, while the other lives in abject poverty.

Bama and I search for dinner on Sule Pagoda Road, which leads to a monumental, floodlit stupa coated in gold leaf. There’s a 24-hour convenience store and two cinemas showing the latest Hollywood releases. Several paces away, street vendors roast corn cobs, fry peanut and green chilli pancakes in a sizzling skillet, or wait with heaps of noodles and pots of other ingredients. We would love to try some of these dishes, but neither of us can speak Burmese or read the mysterious script of orderly circles and squiggles. Learning to say “fried noodles with chicken” would be a good place to start.

Yangon Impressions_3

Afternoon traffic on Sule Pagoda Road

41 Comments Post a comment
  1. Was Bama disappointed or elated by the changes?

    October 24, 2015
    • He wasn’t disappointed, because in his view it was inevitable. But I wouldn’t say that Bama was elated either – the traffic can get so bad we both think the municipal authorities should start planning an MRT system for Yangon. Hopefully Myanmar can learn lessons about development (and how not to do it) from the experience of neighbouring Thailand.

      October 24, 2015
  2. Wow look at those over head electricity wires!
    Yangon looks nice place

    October 25, 2015
    • It is such a fascinating city. You could really get a sense of its multicultural past and there were so many beautiful colonial buildings in the downtown area.

      October 25, 2015
  3. Wow, it’s beyond my imagination. Yangon looks more modern, clean and a bit crowded than I thought before.

    And I surprised with the info about the visa for Indonesian citizens. So, it means that as an Indonesian, I can visit Myanmar for 14 days without apply an entry visa right? It’s very very nice info James 🙂

    October 25, 2015
    • Actually, the streets of Yangon can get very crowded – I didn’t think it was that different from walking around in Bangkok or Jakarta.

      Glad you found this helpful, Bart. 🙂 I had no idea about the visa-free access for Indonesians until Bama told me after we arrived. The problem is that there are no direct flights and you’d have to transit through Malaysia, where its citizens require an e-visa for Myanmar.

      October 25, 2015
  4. Immigration…always a traveler’s nightmare. You just never know what’s what there. I overstayed in Bali last summer, had to pay through the nose because I did. It just seemed easier than the new system of going down to Denpasar to get the extension. Enjoy Burma!

    October 25, 2015
    • Thanks, Badfish! Bama and I are really enjoying Myanmar/Burma so far – it has been an eye-opening experience and a lesson in gratitude. On average we have experienced two power outages each day, and it makes me realise just how lucky I am to come from a place where the electricity supply is always reliable.

      Shame to hear about the astronomical fine you had to pay in Bali… the day I left Indonesia I almost got in trouble because immigration thought I was coming in and out for five months (thanks to all those visas in my passport).

      October 29, 2015
      • I’m thinking of Burma next April! How’s the food?

        October 30, 2015
      • Ah, the food here is delicious but very oily! It’s an interesting cross between Chinese, Indian and Thai… you’ll also find some unique flavours like pickled tea leaf salad. There’s a huge variety of noodle dishes to sample too. I’ll have to write a post on all this in the near future!

        October 30, 2015
      • EW!! anything that starts with “pickled”…I’m not eating! But fine, I’ll read about it!

        October 31, 2015
      • Well, as they say… don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

        October 31, 2015
  5. A wonderful description of a place I’ve never been but your words took me there for a moment!

    October 26, 2015
    • I hope you get to visit soon – Yangon, and Myanmar in general, is hugely fascinating!

      October 29, 2015
  6. One of 3 Southeast Asian countries I have yet to visit, and very high on the list. Can’t wait to read more of your thoughts on this unique nation.

    October 26, 2015
    • I have mixed feelings about Myanmar… it is changing so fast, and not always for the better. My advice is to go as soon as you can.

      October 29, 2015
      • I feel like it’s like that in a lot of places and people who go somewhere in their time will always have that perspective. I have family members a generation older than me who simply wouldn’t enjoy what I’m doing now as much as they did it then (70s and 80s) because of how much things have changed since that era.

        October 29, 2015
      • You’re right. Change is inevitable and we can’t expect places to stay the same or live up to our romantic preconceptions. I don’t think anyone coming to Myanmar should expect it to be “untouched”, particularly if you visit the major sights like Bagan and Inle Lake. It is still amazing but I think the image of Myanmar sold in travel brochures and websites is already out of date.

        The thing is, I don’t feel the same way about Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Last month I met a Dutch couple in their sixties who first travelled around Indonesia in 1984. I asked them how Indonesia today compared to the country they encountered on that very first trip.

        Sure, it had become more prosperous, more developed, but the people now were just as warm and hospitable as they remembered. “The feeling is still the same,” they said. That to me was very encouraging news.

        October 30, 2015
      • I don’t know how to compare Indonesia to the past, all I know is I love it there.

        October 30, 2015
  7. This is tentatively on my calendar for January. How many days do you think are needed in Yangon before venturing out into other parts of the country? I enjoyed your initial impressions!

    October 27, 2015
    • Bama and I stayed for four nights which meant that we could do everything at a leisurely pace. It was also extremely hot and humid (we caught the tail end of rainy season) so we generally only went out early in the morning or late in the afternoon. January should be much drier and cooler though so you’d be able to walk around and do more sightseeing when you go. I would suggest three nights in Yangon – that sounds about right for dry season.

      October 29, 2015
      • Thank you, James! I look forward to more of your Myanmar posts to get me informed before I go (unfortunately, found out yesterday I can’t use miles for the plane tickets, so we shall see …)

        October 29, 2015
      • You’re welcome, Lex! I hope you do visit in January as planned. 🙂

        October 29, 2015
  8. Beautifully written James. We were in Yangon just after Bama’s first visit, Feb or March 2012 I think it was. The changes sound profound, and yet it remains the same – the traffic, and Sule Pagoda. Our hotel was right next to it, and unless you’d booked in advance you couldn’t find a hotel room for love nor money. Have a wonderful time there. Myanmar was definitely a highlight for us.
    Alison

    October 27, 2015
    • Thank you so much, Alison. We arrived in Mandalay just this morning and from your post, I knew not to expect the romantic place in Kipling’s poem! Bagan and Inle Lake were jaw-droppingly beautiful, but we had the unshakeable feeling that both were already becoming commercialised. You and Don were very lucky to come when you did.

      October 29, 2015
  9. Mm, I’m not fully understand on what happened to Bama. So, he had an e-visa and asked to overstay by the immigration officer? 😀

    October 27, 2015
    • So the officer said he would have saved money – 41 US dollars to be exact – by overstaying three days in Myanmar instead of paying for an e-visa.

      October 29, 2015
  10. Lael #

    What an intriguing place of contrast. What did you end up having to eat? I would have a hard time choosing from the bounty you described.

    October 28, 2015
    • The next day we were pointed to a small hole-in-the-wall just down the road from our hotel – there we had rice vermicelli with chicken and also a delicious dish of thick noodles called ‘nangyi salad’. More on that in a future post!

      October 29, 2015
      • Lael #

        Mmmm, can’t wait!

        October 30, 2015
  11. I found immigration to be a nice experience too! The officer handed me back my passport with a huge smile and said, “Obama”. Have a great time! Are you going to Bagan?

    October 28, 2015
    • I would never expect the same kind of treatment from immigration in the US or Canada. Thanks Kelly! We left Bagan just this morning – Bama and I were there for three full days and we both took way too many photos.

      October 29, 2015
  12. Yangon indeed is a nice place and has the country feel. Immigration officers are really nice and friendly. The story is really nice James.

    October 29, 2015
    • Thank you, Alex – I’m glad you enjoyed this post.

      October 29, 2015
  13. Lovely first impressions James. Confirms all the notions I carry in head about Yangon, so no surprises waiting for us next month. Looking forward to the food actually. We have friends of Burmese origin who have introduced us to some exceptional ethnic meals.

    PS: You almost make me want to cancel our reservations at the Sule Shangrila! 😉

    November 2, 2015
    • Thanks Madhu. We were pleasantly surprised by the food in Myanmar… you could really detect the Chinese and Indian influences in a lot of the dishes. And the unique salads are a must.

      What a coincidence! I guess you can’t beat the Sule Shangri-La for location and comfort. To walk past at night and look through the windows into the restaurant was like gazing into a completely different world. Can’t say I wasn’t a little bit envious. 😉

      November 3, 2015
  14. Your excellent descriptions make me feel like I was there too! I would’ve tried the peanut green chile pancakes…
    I also enjoyed reading the questions and your comments. “Development” is certainly a mixed bag, isn’t it? It is inevitable, and the problems it brings,(air and water pollution, destruction of the environment for example) are inevitable also.

    November 7, 2015
    • Those pancakes were so tempting, as was just about everything else along that street! It’s during those times that I find myself wishing I could speak the local language. The traffic in Yangon was a lot worse than I had expected, but at least the air pollution now is nowhere near the levels seen in China and India. I hope they find ways to develop sustainably and protect the natural beauty that Myanmar already has.

      November 12, 2015
  15. Enjoyed this post very much, as for as much as I enjoyed Myanmar during my visit – we spent only 2 nights there (on arrival and prior to departure) so we did not really get much of a feel for the city as the chunk of time we did have there it was spent at Shwedagon Pagoda in the evening (which as your next post shows so well was unreal). So this gives me a much needed introduction and first impression of the city. Cheers and happy trails to you both.

    November 8, 2015
    • Thank you, Randall. Two nights is far too short for Yangon – it is such a walkable city and the downtown area is so easy to navigate. We did all our exploring there on foot. Yangon is said to have the best preserved colonial architecture of any major Asian city and I think it is really true. Hopefully I’ll get a post up on that in the next few weeks!

      November 12, 2015

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