There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Arriving in Yangon (or is that Rangoon?), the former capital of Burma (or should that be Myanmar?): Part 1 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

If I am going to write about it, I need to decide what to call it.

In 1989 the military government changed the name of the country hitherto known as Burma to Myanmar. The United Nations recognised the change, but ‘Burma’ is still used by the British, American and Canadian governments, among others. When Aung San Suu Kyi (whose name will turn up time and again in these posts) visited England recently she also used ‘Burma’ explaining the name had been changed without consulting the people. There is, then, a strong case for ‘Burma’, but I am going to use ‘Myanmar’. Firstly because the Bamar (hence 'Burma') may be the largest ethnic group, but they make up only 70% of the population so ‘Union of Myanmar’ seems more inclusive, and secondly because everybody we spoke to in the country called it ‘Myanmar’. They spoke freely enough on other issues, so I can only presume it was their preference. I will, however, use 'Burma' when talking about the country in a historical context and similarly ‘Burmese’, which can also refer  to people, food etc of specifically Bamar ethnicity.

The new flag of Myanmar
adopted 2010
The Rangoon/Yangon decision is easier. The city was founded as ‘Dagon’ in the 11th century. It became ‘Yangon’ in 1755, Dagon remaining the name of a central district. Rangoon was a British mishearing of Yangon, and has about as much validity as ‘Wipers’, the name British troops gave to the Belgian town of Ypres in the First World War. For aesthetic reasons I would love to call it Rangoon - it is a wonderful name and it carries a rich whiff of colonial history – but although the airport code is still RGN, the truth is that ‘Rangoon’ is just plain wrong.

The pre-2010 flag of Myanmar

Our first sight of Yangon, like that of several other cities, was through a car window with jet-lagged eyes.

Our immediate impression was that Yangon is the least urban of cities, there are few high-rise buildings while parkland, even countryside, seems to break out in the most unlikely places. The driving is calm by East Asian standards. The horn is used sparingly, drivers do not crowd forward into every available space and cars in side roads wait for a gap in the traffic rather than pushing out; indeed drivers on the main road will often leave a space and wave them out. Myanmar changed to driving on the right in 1970 on the advice of an astrologer. Most vehicles, though, are imported second hand from Japan, Thailand or Malaysia, all of which drive on the left so 90% of vehicles are right hand drive. This seems to cause fewer problems than you might imagine.

On the northern edge of central Yangon we passed Inya Lake. Our guide Swe pointed across the water to a red roofed house on the far side. ‘That’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s house,’ he told us. We had been warned not to discuss politics but we soon discovered that everyone we met whether guides, drivers, trishaw peddlers, horse cart charioteers or waiters all wanted to talk politics, or at least talk about one person. The huge weight of expectation placed on President Obama when he was elected in 2008 inevitably led to some disappointment. It was nothing compared to the expectation that will be heaped on Aung San Suu Kyi should she ever become president of Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi
(Picture shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia)
We passed the immense gold bulk of the Shwedagon Pagoda – of which much more later – and drove on to our hotel in the Dagon township area. Here our bleary eyed condition persuaded the receptionist that we should be allowed an early check-in.

After a quick freshen-up we set off with Swe for the nearby Scott’s market to change some money, but the market was closed, or at least the footbridge over the railway was closed which amounted to the same thing from our point of view. Swe lent us 30 000 Kyats (about £25) and left us alone to deal with our jetlag.

There are a few (very few) ATMs in Myanmar, but they are not linked into the international system and do not recognise Visa or Mastercard. Before leaving home we had guessed how much we would spend and taken what we hoped would be enough cash in US dollars, going to some trouble to acquire new, unmarked bills. In such a poor country people can be surprisingly picky about which dollar bills they choose to accept. There are not many money changers either, so our failure had been half expected. Swe was well used to subbing his clients for their first day or two.

Our recently reset watches told us that lunchtime was approaching and although our bodies remained unconvinced we wanted to show willing, so with our newly acquired wealth we bought a dragon fruit from a street trader.

Dragon Fruit

We have often eaten dragon fruit in the Far East, though it is, I learn, a native of south and central America. Later, driving to Mandalay we saw dragon fruit plantations, the cactus trained on a trellis like a vine. Dragon fruit look exciting, even sitting on our cheap plastic plate, and look even better cut open. The sad truth is the flesh of the dragon fruit is slightly sweet, pleasant enough but really rather dull.

Dragon Fruit cut open and ready to eat

Dull, however, was appropriate to our state and we retired to our air-conditioned room with its view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, ate our dragon fruit and had a much needed nap.

A couple of hours later we woke up and decided to take a walk. We were soon in Shwedagon Pagoda Road heading directly for the huge golden stupa. The air was hot and damp with a slight smell of decay. Occasionally the breeze would waft the scent of an aromatic shrub over us. Traffic fumes were relatively rare for such a large city.

It was a long, largely straight road, the size of the pagoda had made it look nearer than it was. The road was quiet and the buildings were mainly colonial, some of them somewhat dilapidated. We passed a language school, a church, a Buddhist temple, a monastery and a building flying the national flag with a bored looking armed soldier on guard in the entrance.

Small Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda Road
Around the pagoda the road was busier. There was a small park opposite with a café on the corner of the main road. It was a hot afternoon and we both heard the call of beer.

Myanmar Beer, overwhelmingly the best-selling brand, is bland, fizzy and unlikely to win many prizes, but it was cold and wet which was all we required. At around £2.50 for a 0.75 litre bottle, it was cheap by British standards, but expensive enough to be out of the reach of the average Yangon citizen, though draft beer is much cheaper where it is available. We were drinking beer, we realised, at 9 o’clock in the morning British time, clearly we were becoming attuned to local time.

Responding to the call of the beer
Myanmar Beer opposite the Shwedagon Pagoda
The long walk home was followed by another nap. We ate dinner in a Shan noodle shop a 100m from our hotel recommended by Swe, himself a Shan. The Shan homeland is in the mountains of Eastern Myanmar but Shan restaurants are widespread, their noodle dishes being similar to those found over the border in China’s Yunnan province. Shan food is generally eaten with chopsticks, while a spoon and fork are the usual implements for Burmese food.

Despite its size – it has some 4 million inhabitants - Yangon is hardly a centre of metropolitan sophistication and sizzling nightlife. Everything closes up around 9 pm, but by then we were already back in our hotel room, taking one last look at the now floodlit pagoda before turning in for an early night.

The floodlit Shwedagon Pagoda

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