One Night in Yangon

So I was comfortable, as usual, in Bangkok, enjoying my dailly swim at the pool and time in the sun, interspersed by work on my laptop on the excellent wifi connection at my place and good thai food and fun times… as usual, more than content just to stay here (which scares me…. I could very well wake up 10 years from now and still be here if I don’t push myself!)

But, the Thai tourist visas are still only 30 days (rumored to be changing soon to 90 days but hasn’t yet) so I had to go somewhere for a bit… so I decided to go to Yangon (also know as Rangoon) in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).

I got a visa through a travel agent and booked a flight and went with Jane.

Upon arrival, the differences between a place like Bangkok and Yangon were stark. For starters, I left via the Suvarnabhumi billion dollar airport in Bangkok (now one of the biggest airports in the world and a major hub) and arrived at what could best be described as a delapidated, mostly brick, very old building that was very small and looked like it was going to collapse soon. However, I should note that there were a bunch of people sitting out in the hot sun, pounding bricks and stuff, and the taxi driver pointed to them and said, “new airport!”… it actually looked smaller than the old one, much smaller than a Walmart, but at least it looked newer.

The taxi, and all taxis, in Yangon are some of the most busted cars you have ever seen. None of them would likely even be allowed to drive on the roads in Camerica… usually 25 year old Toyotas and other unrecognizable old beaters. Every second street has a taxi pulled over with the hood up with an exasperated taxi driver staring blankly into the innards of the rusted out beast.

As we drove in the taxi, there was another guy in the taxi who seemed well known, named Ting, who tried to sell us on all sorts of tour packages… he picked the wrong taxi to try to sell to though as I would sooner die than ever be in a tour group. On our way to the hotel, in the busted out taxi, in 35c heat with no air conditioning, Ting pointed out that there are 3 seasons in Myanmar, the hot season, rainy season and the cold season. We were lucky, it was the cold season, he said, as sweat was dripping in a near continuous stream from my brow.

I brought $800 USD with me in cash (they accept USD as readily as their own local currency, the Kyat) because Myanmar has NO ATM’s (this is the first country I have been to without ATM’s) and only a few of the hotels even accept credit cards. I stayed at the Trader’s Hotel, a nice 4 star hotel in the center of town for $96 USD/night.

Upon registering at the hotel I felt panic as I read the sign, “There is no internet access in the rooms due to the Control Policy of Myanmar”. In fact, there is hardly any internet anywhere. There was one internet cafe across the street from my hotel, and the airport had an internet cafe, but other than that, nada. I heard that they block even the most basic email sites such as Hotmail etc., but I got through to those sites, so maybe their policy has changed.

It is funny looking at the hotel listings for Yangon… most are in the $50/night range, with many cheaper than that. All the 4 and 5 star very nice hotels and resorts are around $80-120/night, but then there is one hotel, called the Strand, which is $400+ a night which sticks out like a sore thumb. However, they state they have internet access in their rooms… I presume that the Myanmar “government” (in reality just a bunch of gangsters who have held the country hostage) allowed them to put in internet under the guise that they must charge ludicrously high rates to ensure that no Myanmar people could afford to stay there, so they can control them more. As you know I am addicted to the internet and stared at that $400 price tag numerous times, coming close to clicking ‘reserve’ more than a few times, but just couldn’t do it, knowing I was essentially paying $300 for one days worth of internet access.

We then went out for the evening. We went to a nice hotel, called the Nikko Lake Resort, where we had a nice steak dinner. Yangon has two large lakes in the city and it really makes the city feel nice… water is so calming, especially lake water. The city itself is very green and has a nice tropical feel to it for the most part.

The roads in most parts of town were brutal… smooth parts were the exception to the pot-holed norm.

After dinner we went to a place called the 50th Street Bar & Grill which I had heard about… it is apparently owned by some Aussies who also have bars in Cambodia and Vietnam. It was very quiet (it was around 9pm on a Wednesday to be fair though), so we played a bit of pool then headed to the two “hot” nightlife spots in town, Asia Plaza and JJ’s.

These discos are VERY Chinese style. You get met at the front door like you are checking into a hotel…. you have to pay for your first drink in advance and then are taken to a table where you can order fruit and stuff if you want. They have something in Yangon which I haven’t quite seen anywhere though… every ‘disco’ has a ‘fashion show’. The fashion show is pretty much continuous and is essentially 20-30 of the most bored, disinterested, almost detached semi-ok looking girls, generally wearing street clothes, walking around in choreographed walks with no gestures or expressions… just sorta walking in a diagonal… then walking in a circle.

A lot of the Chinese and Japanese businessmen that seem to permeate Yangon (there is a lot of obvious Japanese and Chinese businesses there, including all the major hotels… my hotel Trader’s Hotel is part of the Chinese Shangri-La chain and Nikko Hotel is obviously Japanese) seemed to enjoy the show… but I have been to many discos in mainland China (outside of the major centers) and I guess, to them, this was pretty damn exciting. Actually, I have been to Japanese strip clubs before too, and the girls don’t strip… they mostly just stand there… and you sit in theatre seating and every 10 minutes or so they give one man in the crowd a tambourine and he claps along with the music, which seems to make him very happy… and from time to time the girls come out with a 6 pack of beer and sell it to people in the crowd, which almost incites a riot it is so exciting for them. So, I guess compared to many places in China and Japan, Myanmar is THE CRAZZZZZIEST PLACE EVERRRRR!!!!!

Jane and I mostly just traded ‘are you kidding me’ looks back and forth for an hour or so then went back to the hotel, went to sleep, and in the morning we headed straight for the airport and went home.

Yangon seemed fairly nice in general.. many of the people seemed very nice. They also have a definitely unique culture there… it is interesting that to Jane, a Thai girl, she can speak a lot of Laos, and can even speak a bit of Vietnamese and a little tiny bit of Cambodian, but she did not even know hello or thank you in Myanmar… it was like the 2 countries were on other sides of the planet… there was nothing similar at all… Myanmar has a lot more brown skinned people than Thailand and seems to have an interesting mix of Indian and Chinese… you can see WAY more Chinese influence there than in Thailand, which has relatively little (Jane can’t even use chopsticks well). It has an interesting history, being essentially a colony of Britain at one point, and was thought of as a ‘province’ of British India, which shows how much it is thought of as more of a part of India than of SE Asia.

At night, lots and lots of Burmese people sit out on the sidewalk on little plastic chairs and drink tea… tea seems to be VERY popular there, an obvious throwback to the English influence.

There is also hardly a street light in Yangon, so as you walk or drive through town, you see tons of people on the sidewalk drinking tea etc., but you can barely see them unless a headlight flashes past them… the city has a unique feel with its lakes, trees, large golden temples and pagodas EVERYWHERE and no street lights… kinda feels like you went back in time a bit.

Also as a throwback to the English, EVERYONE we met spoke decent English, which was nice for getting around… this is another difference to Thailand, where some people speak a little English, but on the whole, hardly anyone except a few people speak good enough English to have much of a conversation.

In the end I am glad I went… it is very interesting… if they can rid themselves of this horribly repressive government there may be great potential there as I could see Myanmar becoming a major tourist destination as it has so many large and interesting temples etc… but in the meantime, it’s not my kind of place. No good nightlife… no internet… no Jeff.

I’m writing this poolside back in Bangkok… which seems even more heaven-like to me now.

I intend to go through Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Brasil and up to Mexico and possibly LA/Las Vegas a bit over the next two months, but won’t be leaving for at least another 2-3 weeks as I have to get a new passport as I am already out of pages (it is only 11 months old too!!!!).

Until then, you know where to find me. Sawasdeekrub