Friday, September 16, 2011

burma brolly

There is always a slight feeling of apprehension whenever I'm flying to somewhere new, despite the number of trips I've made and places I've been to. And this feeling accompanied me as I touched down at Yangon International Airport.

A car from my hotel was there to meet me, included in the $13 hotel charge. (All dollars mentioned in these posts refer to US dollars as that is the currency favoured in Myanmar)

As we drove for almost an hour from the airport to downtown Yangon; the heat and humidity, petrol fumes and local smells, the noise and the squalor all combined to put me at ease and relax. I was back on familiar territory.

The Ocean Pearl Hotel was a typically inexpensive lodging that I was used to. Where it ranks in the hotel 'star'system I have no idea as I have no experience with normal hotels to make a comparison to. It had all the trappings I guess of a regular hotel but everything is slightly worn, run-down, or not quite finished. Tiles are often cracked, wood veneer is peeling, alterations have been made everywhere without much effort to conceal the original state. Things often don't work quite as well as they should, meals are often a poor imitation of what they are meant to be, and sometimes, as in this case, bedroom windows are purely an architectural folly as they face directly onto a solid brick wall just centimetres from the glass.

But it was comfortable and cheap.

I checked in, and as it was getting late I changed $5 at the reception into kyats (pronounced 'chiats') having an inkling the rate was not going to be great there. I planned to change a larger sum at the central market where I heard the best money changers are.

Myanmar has a strange fiscal situation whereby the black market money system is the country's standard exchange procedure. Most other places that operate a black market economy often give a few percent higher rate than the banks as the locals are desperate to collect (usually) U.S. dollars.

But in Myanmar, the official banks rate for the kyat is 6.41 to the dollar. In the market the current rate was 800 to the dollar. If you were so unwise to change your money at the bank then something as simple as an ice cream would cost you $125.

My hotel gave me 750 to the dollar, so with my 3,750 kyats I headed out to find dinner.

Two blocks up the road I stopped at a local street restaurant with a small crowd of locals eating outside (always a good sign) and using a small note written by my hotel reception in the local language proclaiming my vegetarianism, I ordered vegetables and rice and a local lemonade.

first meal

It tasted a lot better than it might look. With these meals you always got for no extra cost a small clear soup (in this case garlic, ginger and chile and extremely tasty) and a small dish of spiced veggies: sometimes raw sliced onion with sweet chili sauce, other times a little coleslaw.

It all cost 2,500 (about $3.30) which seemed reasonable. Later experience told me it was a bit pricier than normal. Usually I received the same for around 1,500 - 2,000k.

The following morning I decided to walk the few kilometres to Yangons main attraction: Schwedagon Pagoda.

yangon house

entrance to schwedagon temple

It was already getting quite hot with very high humidity. I am here at the tail end of the monsoon season which has been exacerbated by a typhoon in Bangladesh which is dumping more rain than usual in southern Myanmar.

I am quite overawed by Schwedagon.

A temple 'Disneyland' that threatens to topple into garish kitsch but never quite gets there. Possibly the absolute sincerity of the worship there will prevent that from ever happening. The gold decoration, ornate filigree details and masses of delicate spires with tinkling bells on their tips, the white marble tiles, the monks in their dark purple red robes all create a visual cacophony which can at first be a little unsettling.

Whilst spending a few hours here it started to pour. And pour. And pour. In that particularly wet and heavy way rain does in monsoon areas.

So I did a thing I have never done in all my years of backpacking around the world.

I bought an umbrella!

After a late lunch at a local eatery I headed back by taxi to the hotel. I needed to change as I was wet - mainly from sweating in the high humidity. Later as it started to get dark and the rain had eased I wandered down to the river for a walk to look at some of the local scenery. I found myself at the Botataung Pagoda and quickly snapped a poor quality photo in the dark, trying not to get my camera wet. it gives an idea of how beautiful these pagodas look lit up at night.

botataung pagoda at night

The following day, in between the showers, I wandered the streets of Yangon to try and get a feel of the place.

yangon hospital

street market


tough conditions

local tradies

The humidity was appallingly high - a few of my photos didn't come out as the lens kept fogging.

I found myself at one stage down by Schwedagons lesser brother - the Sule Pagoda.

sule pagoda

sule pagoda

tree shrine

With so much rain I decided the next morning to cut short Yangon by a day and head north to Lake Inle where I hoped the Bangladesh typhoons wet fingers could not grasp that far.

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