Shwedagon Pagoda Spires in Yagon
This morning we took a flight to Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Burma but renamed by the current ruling party to remove all remaining vestiges of British Colonialism) from the new Thai airport. Since Myanmar does not have ATM's or accept credit cards or travelers checks, it is imperative to have US dollars which of course we were low on. We ended up getting lots of Baht from multiple ATM's and then exchanging Baht for dollars at the airport, not too efficient but it worked.
Buddah's at Shwedagon Pagoda
I have very distinct memories of flying into Rangoon in 1984 and arriving seven or eight hours late (tough to do on a one hour flight). It was pouring rain and the first three letters on the sign on the terminal building were out and thus it read "GOON AIRPORT" which seemed apropos when we watched the bozos unload all of the luggage onto uncovered carts and then leave them to get soaked in the torrential downpour. That time, by the time we got to the YMCA hostel, pounded on the door for ten minutes to wake someone up and beg for a room and then strung up all of our soaking clothes, it was 3:00 a.m. Luckily this time went smoothly and we were soon zipping through immigration and customs without a hitch.
How can you pass up taking a cab into town with the "Golden Swallow Travel Company"? We couldn't so we climbed in with a driver and Myo Ngwe, who of course ended up being a tour guide.
He was actually very nice and helpful with fluent English and he gave us several suggestions for an itinerary.
Splashing water on Buddha statue for good luck
It’s a fairly long drive from the airport to the center of town and I looked around wondering if Burma would have changed much in the last twenty-some years. When I was here before, leaving Thailand and coming here was like going through a time warp - everything was old fashioned, especially the cars and buses. Myanmar is, for some bizarre reason, in its own time zone thirty minutes behind Thailand. Some one said coming to Myanmar "sets your clock back 30 minutes that feels like 50 years".
It appears that, at least with the cars, things have progressed here, at least in Yangon.
Shwedagon Pagoda Spires
After checking in to the Central Hotel, a bit drab and dreary, we sat down with Myo Ngwe to discuss renting a car and driver rather than relying on public transport (which is really slow and bad) or flying (which is pricey). He suggested a twelve day itinerary culminating with being dropped off at the beach to be on our own for the last five or six days. Everything sounded good except for the price so we went upstairs to count our cash and figure out what we could afford that would leave us a sufficient daily allowance for necessities such as beer, food and hotel.
Cindy was worried about our inability to get more cash (no one accepts credit cards or traveler's checks and there are no ATM's in the entire country) so we went downstairs with a plan to bargain and perhaps shorten the itinerary.
Surprisingly Myo understood our cash dilemma and with very little haggling we agreed to an itinerary starting tomorrow so that we can make it to Lake Inle in time for an important festival. Makes us think we should have bargained harder but we liked him (so hopefully he will show up tomorrow!). In addition he said he could drop us off at Shwedagong Pagoda, one of the main sights in Yangon today.
Shwedagon Pagoda ornate roof carvings
We climbed back into the cab to pay a deposit and exchange money on the quasi-legal black market (the Black Market rate is about triple the "official bank rate"). Similar to Laos you feel rich with thick wads of 1000 Kyat notes (about 75 cents). I had wondered if they still had a black market for whiskey and cigarettes but this is no longer the case. When I was here in 1984 it was common knowledge and practice of all seasoned budget travelers to stop at duty-free in Bangkok and buy a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and a carton of Benson and Hedges 555 Cigarettes (it had to be those specific brands) and sell them on the black market.
Believe it or not, that ended up being enough Kyat for the entire week you were allowed to be here then (of course I was on a drastically smaller budget back then).
Shwedagon Pagoda shimmering with gold leaf
After our "banking" activities, we were dropped off at Shwedagong Pagoda, a fairly amazing sight with a huge one hundred meter tall Stupa gilded in brilliantly sparkling gold leaf, reportedly over fifty three tons of it. This site is supposed to house eight hairs of the Buddha and be over 2,500 years old and is the most revered temple in Myanmar. Also the top of the spire is encrusted with thousands of jewels and precious stones including a seventy six carat diamond. Visions of a movie with Matt Damon clad in camouflage garb and black face paint dangling precariously from a stealth helicopter as he repels down to steal the jewels in order to ransom them for the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi.
..OK so I have a fertile imagination.
Shwedagon Pagoda Roofs and Spire
We ended up befriending a monk (or rather he glommed on to us) who showed us around the many buildings and Buddha statues in return for practicing English and a "present" a.k.a. tip. Everyone is always asking for "presents" or "tea money", often for doing nothing at all.
He showed us a huge thirty five ton bell that the English tried to steal in colonial times but dropped in the river and couldn't raise so they "returned" it to the locals who promptly pulled it out of the river using only bamboo. We also saw lots of people pouring or throwing water over different Buddha's which is apparently for good luck, once per year of age plus one time extra for the future.
We went to a small local place for dinner where we were the only foreigners and quite an oddity for the other diners.
No one really spoke English although they had one menu in both English and Burmese (which is even odder looking than Thai, Lao or Cambodian). Our waiter showed us the menu, first looking at each Burmese line, then carefully pronouncing "Pork KAhRee - have, Feesh Soup - have..." which was actually quite helpful. First things first, we ordered one large Myanmar Beer, the pork curry and a "Pennywort" salad because we liked the name (it was very good too). The next thing you know half a dozen or more bowls and plates arrive - rice, Curry, pickles, salad, fish paste, limes, chills and a strangely flavored soup that I ate but Cindy didn't like perhaps due to its sour taste or abundance of unknown and questionable looking ingredients. These people like to eat! And for the record, Myanmar beer is good, but not as good as Beer Lao (although it took a few to figure this out).
Kids at Shwedagon Pagoda
We wandered back through a Muslim area in the rain to the Central Hotel, a kind of tacky, rundown but clean place, ready to head out on the road tomorrow.