In contrast to how the country seems to have stuck in a time warp, my urge to visit Myanmar was always akin to that of a ticking clock. Please don’t change Myanmar, a land so mysterious it still goes by 2 names, please don’t change. Whilst my trip has enjoyed the modern amenities of having ATMs at prime tourist spots, or official banks which would accept my USDs (my copy of Lonely Planet, which mustn’t have been terribly outdated, has suggested changing currencies only at the black market, for it is the only way to obtain the official exchange rate, paradoxically), or even sporadic internet which is observed to work best at 6-7am (don’t bother at night); nothing quite prepared me for this endlessly fascinating country which is fast changing. My initial plan to spend 4 nights in Myanmar was extended to five, before willfully resigning myself to eight. Other places can wait.
All international travellers will arrive at Yangon, capital city in soul and spirit (the official capital city was moved to Naypyidaw a few years ago). Travelling within and out of the country is tricky, as land borders are largely closed to neighbouring countries. As I would be visiting Laos this trip, my only feasible option was to transit from Chiang Mai, Thailand, which isn’t the easiest of tasks either as there are only 2 flights each week from Yangon (one of which found to be sold out, leading to a last minute scrambling of itinerary), and oh, no internet booking. I have my flights reserved through phone with very careful annunciation of my name in English, alphabet-by-alphabet, but was told that tickets can be collected only at the airport, and with cash only. At the time of writing, I have no idea if the attendant messed up my request and if I will be making the flight.
It is restrictions like these which have made Myanmar so incredibly endearing. The local people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met on my travels (and I have done many), many seemed almost humbled by your visits. It is here that you learn to cope, tolerate, appreciate the little things in life and take absolutely nothing for granted.
Inland, there are still parts of the country not opened to tourists, the allowed regions forming the rough shape of a triangle encompassing places such as Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Lake Inle. Yangon, the main city is a bustling hub with all the flavours of a South East Asian city with an addicting laid back vibe minus the tourist hordes. It is what I imagine places such as Bangkok to be like before foreign visitors dominate the cityscape. The city has several beautiful pagodas worth visiting, with the crown jewel undoubtedly being the Shwedagon Paya. I visited it during a Sunday night with a slight drizzle few hours before it closed. Walking along the marbled floor barefoot (shoes are not allowed) with few other visitors amidst the enchanting golden glitter of the pagodas was quite a surreal experience.
Rather by chance, I hopped on to a ‘circle line’ train which services local people from Yangon to its suburbs, but has since in itself becomes a tourist attraction (it even has a tripadvisor page). It was a fascinating 3 hours ride costing next to nothing at 400 MMK ($0.40 USD) offering a glimpse into the lives of the Myanmar people, many of whom live in impoverished conditions along the railroads. I came across a local newspaper reporting that the government is currently accepting tenders to ring fence the circle line with brick works for security reasons, so such sights may soon become history. I wonder what will happen to the local people.
The rest of my time in Yangon was spent exploring its downtown absorbing its sight, scent and sound; where streets laid perpendicularly, and where everyone seemed to be selling something, from bolts and nuts to lacquerware to street food that looks dangerously delicious.
Like a lost sheep in front of a skilled herder, I am hopelessly drawn into the mystique of Myanmar. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.