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20-24 February 2013.
I’d wanted to go to Burma for forty years ever since I’d seen pictures of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon, now reverted to it’s non-English name of Yangon. And of course the country is now known as Myanmar. When I heard the people say Yangon they could just have easily been saying Rangoon – it really is something unpronounceable half way between the two. Don didn’t really want to go to Myanmar at all. I wasn’t taking no for an answer.

Back in the 80’s the longest you could stay was seven days, but you can’t see much in seven days. Then, under a military dictatorship that still runs the country, it was closed to the world entirely for about the last thirty years or so. It only reopened its borders to tourists about three years ago. It’s probably the one place that it was worth waiting all this time to finally get to go there.

At the time, for whatever unconscious reasons, Don wanted to be going anywhere but Myanmar. I knew he was feeling some fear about it, and we talked about it, acknowledging that it didn’t seem to be rational, and we’d gone ahead and made all our bookings for planes and boats and hotels and here finally was the day we were to fly to Yangon. He’d tried to check in online before we went to the airport and was stopped when the Air Asia site wouldn’t accept his insurance refusal, and then wouldn’t accept his credit card when he tried to pay for it anyway, so he couldn’t proceed with the online check-in.

Standing in line for forty-five minutes to check in. Finally get to the counter and are told by the person there she can’t check us in because we owe some money and have to go to the customer service counter. I get fierce with her a bit – it’s her responsibility, her airline, her airline’s faulty website. Didn’t help. I’m pretty fired up by now. I am not missing that flight! With Don keeping up behind me as best he can I push through the crowds to the customer service counter only to find another long line parallel to the four or five service windows. Our place at the end of the line is right next to the last window. As soon as the person at that window leaves I step right up there. I have no compunction about doing this. No guilt. I want what I want and I see an opportunity to get it, and pity any poor soul who gets in my way. We find out yes of course it’s the stupid insurance issue that’s the problem. The person serving us goes to talk to some techie guy. At this point I hiss at Don – get your energy off this! Right now! You agreed to go! We’ve made all our bookings, spent all this money on hotels, so just back off with blocking the flow of forward movement. He later said that I was right, even though he didn’t like the way I said it. And he was right. I was fierce when maybe a more gentle approach may have been just as effective.

Our person comes back to tell us we have to wait while they sort it out. No! We are not waiting! It emerges that the quickest solution is to pay for the insurance. For $20 YES we say! Now it won’t accept my credit card! So we pay cash and head back to the equally long check in line. Well I’ve already stood in that line for forty-five minutes, damned if I’m going to do it again, so I head up to the front, and finally, finally we get checked in, with many apologies all round, and head off to passport control, security, and our gate, with a little time to spare. If I hadn’t done what I’d done we’d never have made the flight, and I doubt that anyone at Air Asia would have cared.

The flight was smooth and uneventful. On arrival we got through customs and immigration without a hitch and changed US$200 for 170,800 Kyat (pronounced chat), and immediately got a fixed-rate taxi to our hotel – not luxurious, but in a good location downtown and right next to this, the Sule Pagoda. It is believed that one of the Buddha’s hairs is enshrined there.

Credit cards are not accepted in Myanmar (with the exception of a very few high-end hotels and restaurants) and there are no ATM’s except a few in Yangon that only work for Yangon banks. You must have crisp new US dollars (and I think they might also accept Euros) to change into the local currency. We spent the better part of an hour at the bank in Vancouver going through US dollars note by note to make sure none were damaged or creased in any way. Good thing. Every time we changed money each note was carefully inspected. Since credit cards are not used, so online payment is not possible, we spent most of the next day going to two different airline offices, and the ferry office to pay for the flights and boat trip we’d booked online.

A sim card for your cell phone in Thailand costs $3 and can be topped up at any time and used all over the country. A sim card in Yangon costs $25, can’t be topped up, and can only be used in Yangon. We didn’t buy one.

Apart from the truly extraordinary Shwe Dagon Pagoda, which I’ll cover in the next post, Yangon is about the people. We found them to be universally friendly and helpful, except perhaps for this lot – didn’t want to get too close to this lot, they look a bit fierce.

The gamblers

Many of the women and children, and a few of the men wear a white face paint called thanaka. It is a cosmetic cream made from ground bark and it’s possible that it has been in use for over 2000 years. It’s a traditional skin conditioner that provides protection from sunburn and is believed to help remove acne. It is applied in all kinds of patterns of swirls and lines and leaves.

Buddhist nun. I love their pink and orange robes.

Heading home from school

Sidewalk breakfast for a monk.

Sidewalk get together. I saw them all sitting chatting, and we all laughed when I gestured to indicate how they were so nicely arranged in a semi circle, and then took a photograph of them.

Down below, and up above

Phone booth. Seriously. It’s wired into the phone system and if you don’t have a cell phone this is where you make your phone calls, presumably both local and long-distance. We saw several such “booths” on the streets of Yangon. One was just a table and chair, and some plastic stools for customers to sit on, with the wiring disappearing up overhead.

Unlike all other Asian countries we’ve been to, including India, and other cities in Myanmar, there are no motorbikes in Yangon. Apparently at some time in the past a wayward motorbike killed a government official and they’ve been banned ever since.

Because it is there, we took the local ferry across the Yangon River to the small town of Dala. (Plenty of motorbikes in Dala.)

Local taxi across the river

On arrival in Dala, amidst the crowds of people, cars, hawkers, motorbikes, and bicycles pouring off the ferry, and those waiting to get on, we were accosted by a trishaw driver who wanted to take us somewhere. Anywhere. But of course we wanted to walk. So he walked with us, chatting away. We took in the crowded sights and sounds of all the activity around the ferry terminal then walked further into the town.

Arriving from the ferry – egg delivery

Chicken delivery – there were at least three or four bicycles loaded up with chickens like this one

People delivery

Walking further into the town we came across baby Buddha boy playing with his buddy. As far as we could make out all male children become monks – for a week, or a month, or longer, or for life. All of them, and at least some of the girls, go into the monastery for some period of time.

As we walked further along the road we could hear music. Our trishaw driver told us it was a wedding so we followed the sound. Once again, except for the unique style of dress of the bride and groom, we found it was like small country weddings just about anywhere, the local hall decorated and everyone wearing their shiny best. Of course we were invited to enter, invited to eat, invited to join in.

The bride with her mother, and with her groom

On the journey back across the river people were feeding the seagulls

And on the journey back across the river two monks sitting nearby overheard us talking about Aung San Suu Kyi. It was interesting. I’m sure they could not understand our conversation, but at the mention of her name one of them softly repeated it. They got what we were talking about.

Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s Nelson Mandela. Even before the general election of 1990 in which her party had won 59% of the vote, and 81% of the seats in parliament, she had been put under house arrest. She was under house arrest for 15 of the 20 years from 1990 to 2010, the time of her most recent release. Even though she has since been elected to parliament, a military junta that had previously assassinated her father still essentially rules the country. She is a hero both in Myanmar and internationally. One man told me hopefully, and proudly, that in 2014 or 2015 his country will have proper democratic elections.

Things are changing. She has met with Obama at the White House, Rodham Clinton has been to Myanmar. The Norwegian Government, I believe, is helping set up the changes required for the country to become a democracy. Many businesses openly have photographs of her and her father on display. And after three years of being open to the world, the tourist industry is starting to thrive.

A delicious buffet dinner combined with an exquisite traditional dance performance, and the incomparable Shwe Dagon Pagoda in the next post.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.