After a sufficient 2.5 days in Singapore, we hopped on a short 2-hour flight to visit my mama’s hometown, Yangon, Myanmar. This would be a very special leg of the trip for me because 1) It will be my first time in Myanmar, 2) my mom lived here for the first 20 years of her life, 3) my cousin/childhood pen-pal, Sandy, will be getting married, and 4) it will be the first time I meet a bunch of my relatives or have seen them in about 15 years.
We were in Myanmar for 7 days but stayed only in Yangon because Sandy’s wedding was smack dab in the middle. I will need to come back to take trips to Mandalay and Bagan, especially since my aunt gave me a wad of kyat which can literally ONLY be exchanged in Myanmar (you should have seen the looks I got at the exchange counters at the Singapore Airport). Yangon is such a raw place. There are still no chains; no McDonald’s to satisfy any non-Burmese food cravings, no Starbucks to conveniently access wi-fi (and wi-fi is a serious luxury there), and basically no easy peasy way to get around like you still lived in your first world home country. I’m sure things will change in the next couple years so I urge you to visit Myanmar as it is now and experience the beauty of a mostly untouched country along with the nuances of traveling with only PAPER maps and a language barrier. Truth be told, there is some fun in getting lost especially if you are with friends and/or your S.O.
Most of the hotels in downtown Yangon are surprisingly a bit high end (costing $200+ USD per night) because of people traveling for business so we opted for AirBnB. We booked a master bedroom in an apartment that was in a central part of downtown, overlooking the Bogyoke Aung San Stadium. We actually saw a couple soccer games from our balcony!
Close to the railway, but God forbid you ever take that beautiful mess.
Just take the taxi, they said. It’s actually not a bad idea because it costs roughly 1,500 kyat (~$1.50 USD) to get almost anywhere you’ll need to go in Yangon. The drivers… mmm…. they are another story. They do whatever they want. They play chicken with oncoming traffic just to pass cars in front of them. They will stop within inches of pedestrians (pedestrians’ fault too). They will drive at death-defying speeds, although the breeze does feel nice when it’s a hot day. And don’t let me forget, they LOVE to honk. Honking is like breathing to the Burmese.
Our first Burmese meal (below), and I have to specify Burmese, because our first meal was actually Japanese. The reason being that our first half-day-evening in Yangon was just nuts. We couldn’t connect to the wi-fi in our apartment so we went out looking for a cafe. After walking aimlessly in the frenzy of the crowds and being totally irritated at one another, we finally found a cafe that had wi-fi that also didn’t work! It was getting really dark and there were non-working street lights so we just walked back to our vicinity and went to the Japanese restaurant that our host recommended. I’m sure he had good intentions for recommending this place because I look Japanese (and it is actually my favorite cuisine but he didn’t know that) but that doesn’t mean I want to eat that all the time. To my surprise, it was ALL Japanese people in there (businessmen again). Now that I look back at it, we really did pay way too much for our meal. It was around $20-25 USD for both of us when later on we would discover that meals should cost less than $5 USD for two.
Sticky shan noodles
Terry slurping away at his soupy shan noodles
There are HOW MANY pagodas in Yangon? Too many to count. Everyone will tell you to at least go to Shwedagon Pagoda which is the biggest in Yangon. Go at night because it’s cooler and they light up the pagoda. It’s so pretty! You’ll get charged a foreigner fee of about $8 USD. Be sure to cover up your arms/legs or they’ll give you a shawl/sarong to do so.
Let’s be honest now that you are reading our blog and I want to further our digital friendship. I am a 100% type-A traveler. I one time took Terry through all the significant rides in Disneyland and CA Adventure in one day (he still cries about this trip). Before heading off to Asia, I spent hours upon hours coming with an itinerary for our trip. I made a list of eats and sights I wanted to go to, and since there was no 3G available in the countries we visited, I took screenshots of maps (this was before I learned I could cache maps), saved pictures of restaurant fronts that I found online, wrote down the specialties of each place, and determined the distance from our lodging and in what direction. I could probably sell these itineraries for some chump change or if you’re nice, I may give it to you. If you are new to Burmese food, one of the places you must eat at is: Feel Myanmar Food.
The ordering style here is unique because you’ll sit down and they’ll give you a plate of the greens (pictured above). When you’re ready, a waiter will go up to the counter with you and explain to you what each item is (there are what? 100?). At any time, there could be 20 people in that crowd up there with you and it will be MADNESS. Madness is the theme of Myanmar so get used to it. They’ll usually recommend the safe stuff to you so doing some research before will help you be able to distinguish new things to try.
How can I describe Burmese food? A mix of Thai, Chinese, and Indian. I almost feel that it is stronger than Indian food with more sour, more fermented, and more pungent dishes. I don’t know if you can see it on that plate of greens but there were pieces of raw bitter melon (*high five* Chinese peeps!) to dip into that sour sauce. Sometimes they will include straight up wildflowers (looks-wise and taste-wise) in the greens for you to dip too.
After roaming around downtown Yangon for a whole day, I asked myself “where are the non-businessmen tourists?” They are at Inya Lake, far from downtown, away from the madness. Boy, they are totally missing out.
Come on? This?
That was full Day 1.
Next up: Shannon’s Burmese family.