Jan 6, 2019

My Burmese Experience

It was months ago but it still feels surreal. Maybe that's the case when you unlock things that you thought you can't do but then did. Burma will always have a special place in my heart.

There are plenty of places to see in South East Asia, in fact, a lot cheaper to go to than Burma - yet I chose Burma. It wasn't intentional, but something I am very thankful for. Honestly, there were not a lot of choices for me when I booked that zero fare flight ticket. The country is quite unheard of actually, so I wasn't really sure of what I am getting myself into. But the good thing about it is, when you are pressed with time and have not much option, decision is a lot quicker. And the least you know about a place makes it even more interesting to explore. 

Burma is not hailed of towering skyscrapers. One has to scratch off the luxurious city-vibe because you can't really have it here. But judging by my first impression of it - it sure has an intact culture and belief and an unexplored haven of authentic heritage tucked in its old villages and pagodas. Its people are interesting to get to know too! The country is not yet saturated with tourists, I presume, and I wonder why. 

The month I came wasn't the best time. It was raining. I was charged of 12, 000 kyat for my taxi fare which could've been less if I was only insistent in haggling. I had three types of map downloaded, so if one of them will not work, I have spares. And if in case I got lost, alternate routes to choose from will be aplenty. But, honestly, they were there to feed my overthinking mind or my obsession to worst-case scenarios.

The challenge immediately started when I hopped on the cab going to my hotel in downtown Yangon. The driver did't speak good English, so per word emphasis was necessary for better understanding of what I'm saying. That was fun but a bit frustrating so I ended up just giving him the Waze map to my hotel. And it was silence for a while after that. As soon as I got off, he offered me to rent his cab and be my driver. And to save me from dealing with yet another driver which I'm not sure of will be cheaper, I decided to hire him for half a day. 

Necessary reminders for me:
- local sim card with data service good for 3 days
- have peso changed to dollars for easy exchanged to kyat
- taxi fare to and from the airport to downtown should only be 10, 000 to 12, 000 kyat

The facade of the hotel I stayed at
I probably got one of the best hotels in an affordable price.  Why? Because it is a big deluxe room, which can fit in 5 people if need be, for P1,500 per night. I saved hard to book my accommodation, by the way. I enjoyed the big room and the big bath tub all to myself. I also had a great view of the city of Yangon from the window.

Sooo spacious! I slept on a different bed each night hahaha
I headed to the rooftop to get the best of view of the whole city. Dark clouds covered the sky but it didn't hinder me from exploring the British colonial buildings in downtown Yangon that afternoon just after arriving from the airport.

For a long time Burma was a colony of the British army. The heart of Yangon is greatly influenced by European architecture, which is evident  the from buildings to the urban planning of the southern part of the city. These old colonial buildings are still standing there giving the southern part of Yangon a very different vibe from the rest of the city. 

For a long time Yangon has been Burma's capital city, but in 2005, the capital was moved to Naypyidaw, also called the "Ghost City" by many. I heard from my guide that hectares of agricultural lands were converted to establish the new city. That doesn't sound good to me for a country that has been struggling in feeding its own people. It wasn't only the capital that they changed, prior to that, Burma introduced a new flag in 2010.

Regardless of being nabbed by its former status, Yangon seems spacious to me, still. It is almost like a provincial city. Everything looked quaint and cultural. Most men and women are not in fashionable clothes but in longyis, their cultural costume. Locals smear their faces with thanaka and walk around the streets with that powdery-white cosmetic. Pretty amusing to me coming from a country which has already been westernized. But it wasn't so difficult to blend in. Many thought I'am Burmese, and so I went along, but judging by the way I speak - it wasn't that convincing. hahaha

I did a city tour. And for the first time I booked a packaged tour for half a day just so I could get a profound understanding of the city's culture and tradition. I imagined that knowing those crucial things about a place from a local is way better than reading them online. And so I met with my tour guide Myomyint Aung, who is two years older than me and have been working as a tour guide for three years. He spoke English with so much gusto but in a Burmese accent. I was the only tourist he toured on that day.

Striking a pose with my tour guide at Yangon's iconic Shwedagon Pagoda.
Out first stop was the Kandaw Gyi Lake, an artificial lake made during the British regime to supply water to the whole city. However, the lake's greenish water doesn't seem to be potable anymore. The lake now serves as an attraction to visiting tourists especially during sunsets.

At the viewing deck of Kandawgyi Lake with Karweik, a replica of a British barge turned to an event's place and resto, in the background. 
Karaweik up close.
I wasn't able to get into the lavish Karaweik because peeking is not allowed. One has to order their expensive food. So we moved to the next - the trinket shop. It is where I bought my maroon pendant necklace for my everyday wear. :)

I probably came at the wrong time for visiting Pagodas. The two pagodas I visited, Ngar Htat Gyi and Chauk Htat Kyi, were undergoing renovations. But it didn't matter, my adventure went on. It is in these solemn shelters that I have intently listened to the story of Buddha. My tour guide was a good storyteller and reading the scriptures helped alot too. The shining, shimmering golds all around were a distraction though hehehe

Ngar Htat Gyi Pagoda. And yes they squat there for hours! :)
Burma is widely Buddhist. The reason why monasteries for monks are everywhere. For males, it is mandatory at the age of nine to spend weeks in the monastery. At the age of 18, they return. This is also the deciding point of whether they want to pursue being a monk or not. Most parents though encourage their children to stay at the monastery because everything is provided - food, accommodation, and clothing. Children from the poorest families last resort is to be a monk. That way they won't be a burden. I find this a bit heart-wrenching as my guide shared this fact with me. I can't imagine bottling all my dreams away because I simply can't afford to. Somehow, it is not the case for everyone. My guide told me that he was about to be a monk too but was brave enough to quit to pursue want he wants. And so he is now on his job of touring people around and speaking good English at that. :)

Forced these monks to take a picture with me. You can tell how "forced' they are by the way they stare at the camera hahaha
Just across Ngar Htat Gyi is the Chauk Htat Kyi Pagoda, which houses the reclining Buddha.

Chauk Htat Kyi's reclining Buddha.

After sipping our free unlimited teas at Lucky 7 Tea House, we headed to the Shwedagon Pagoda. We passed by a street market, which is a show of how varied and unique some of the vegetables locals buy for cooking. And as I'm not picky when it comes to food, I indulged myself into what Yangon streets can offer. I basically just ate anything that my guide says yummy. hahaha 

That kid right there get up as early as four o' clock in the morning to buy vegetables to resell.

Food sold at the street market.
Streetfood! And "no" they don't have anything like fishball or kikiam in case you are wondering hehehe

Filling my tummy with food is just appropriate for the walk that we had to do to get into the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda. What's common in visiting these Pagodas is you have to remove your shoes before getting inside. It amazes me as to how it never gets lost, people are just honest. I spent the whole afternoon at Shwedagon to witness the sunset. And what I read about it were right - capping off the day with the visit to Shwedagon is a must. The towering Pagoda which shimmers in gold against the dark blue sky is too splendid to capture. It is a very solemn place and I treasure my every moment in it.

The shining, shimmering, splendid Shwedagon Pagoda!