Backpacking around Burma, Yangon

2:30 PM

My very first sight of Burma was its modern steel and glass airport, an ominous sign that I might have arrived too late. Burma, or should I say the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, was clearly ready to welcome the fascinated world it shut out these last fifty odd years. But as I scanned the width of the tarmac, I realized that there was just one other airline and it was a local one. Perhaps I am late but not too late after all.

I filled up the disembarkation card in the pristine white arrival hall, having slept through most of the flight, and found a young Burmese teenage girl sidled up next to me. I handed her my pen thinking it was what she needed.  As it turned out, she hardly knew a word of English, so I took it upon myself to fill up the card for her.  

I exited the building through its sliding glass doors and was greeted by a crowd of welcome parties that can only be rivaled by those in Manila.  Hovering above their heads, far off in the horizon, I spot a giant Lionel Messi selling me some Pepsi.  I didn’t know whether to groan or to smile knowing that even in this remote part of the world, there’s still a reminder of my beloved Barcelona.

I shared the hostel pick up with a tall Australian neuroscience student named Zoe whom I invited to see Yangon with.  My friends Cathy, Raffy, and Simrit were arriving on a late afternoon flight, so I thought I might as well get a head start. Get the lay of the land, so to speak.  After checking in, Zoe and I decided to do the walking tour featured in her guidebook and so footed it to the heart of the city.

Zoe and I at the lobby of our hostel, Motherland Inn 2.
Talk about a wad of money. US$100 = Kyat 82, 500.
The former capital is laid out as a grid where decrepit colonial buildings, six-story apartments, and detached houses share space. There was barely asphalt on some of the streets which basically turned them to dirt roads. Slabs of cement on some stretches of sidewalk were broken or missing altogether so both pedestrian and sidewalk vendors had to contend with them.

Burmese men clad in the traditional Longyi. 
Yangon's streets are lined with trees, vendors, and rickshaws. 
Zoe and I finally reached the city center - the shockingly lilac City Hall. The locals point out that it’s actually blue, but I know lilac when I see it. Standing next to it is the gleaming Sule Pagoda that also serves as roundabout. A mix of shops – internet shops, gadget stores, and palm readers occupy the bottom half of the structure, which only proves that in just about any place, commerce seeks out places of worship. 

In the guidebook, the Yangon City Hall was described as being yellow. 
Zoe and I had our palms read and then carried on with our walking tour quite amused and skeptical of our seeming good future.  We took a break from the mid-afternoon sun and enjoyed the blessed AC at the lobby of posh colonial hotel, The Strand.  The staff was nice enough not to question the presence of two sweaty girls loitering around the hotel.

Here's our palm reader. Zoe and I haggled from Kyat 5,000 to Kyat 3,000 for each reading. 
Seems like Zoe is having a hard time believing our palm reader. 
I smeared on some thanaka, the traditional sunblock, which was being sold by this lady at the market. 
Billboards stand next to colonial buildings, advertising western clothes.
Work on the street of Yangon. 
An afternoon shower left us stranded in a camera shop back in the city center, just when we’ve decided to head back to the hostel. We hailed a cab when the rain slightly let up but when we were finally on the move, the rain suddenly stopped.

My friends arrived at the hostel later that evening while Zoe and I were people watching over bottles of soft drinks.  Two elderly hostel guests and a local were entertaining two monks at the foyer. We wondered what they were talking about.

We, sans Zoe, went around town the next day and started with the most important stop - Aung San Suu Kyi’s house by the lake. Locals used to get into trouble by merely pointing to the direction of the house. But it seems the military junta has really loosened their hold since a tourist bus was braking by the curb just as we were leaving. 

Here we are girls in front of Aung San Suu Kyi's house. 
We had lunch at Kandawgyi Lake which was a welcome respite from the heat, cabs in Yangon don’t have air-conditioning. From there, we walked to the Shwedagon Pagoda. It wasn’t one of our most brilliant ideas but it made for an interesting walk. We spotted fresh laundry hung to dry at the edge of a football field and a construction site run by upmarket developers Shangri-La. Bemused motorists kept looking at us, probably wondering what we four were up to. Apparently, no one walks in that part of town. 

This is the view from our lunch table. 
A view of shimmering Shwedagon Pagoda from Kandawgyi Lake.  
You know that Burma has opened up to the world when you see Shangri-La setting shop. 
Shwedagon Pagoda was exactly what I expected – gleaming, majestic, and very much loved. The gold in that place could’ve paid for half the debt of a third world nation and the throng of people in there could’ve made up a small army. Seems like faith is indeed more alive where most of the faithful is living under the poverty line.

Here's the view of the Shwedagon Pagoda from ground level. 
Here's my photo at the Shwedagon Pagoda, an image that took eight years to be shot!
Green plastic mats wind around the pagoda to keep the visitors from burning their soles. 
Burmese ladies, on their knees, praying.  
I left the Pagoda pretty much content with what I’ve seen and thus ready to move on to the town of Bagan that very night. 

"How much land does Aman need" ~Tolstoy; We spotted these two kids on the way to the bus station. 

The Burmese convert trucks to passenger vehicles, very much like the Philippine Jeepney. 

*read my adventures in Bagan on my next post. 

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