Change is in the air for Myanmar, and I can feel it. From my taxi driver’s excitement over the recent elections propelling Myanmar into a new age of democracy to local men wearing long traditional Burmese skirts with their Samsung cellphones tucked into the lip of their LongYis (the name for their skirts), it feels like all the tourism research I did is already out of date for this rapidly changing country.
Ease of Travel (Yangon Airport)
Flying in on budget airline TigerAir’s redeye flight, the steamy tropical atmosphere of Yangon caked my face in a thick warm layer of sweat, but not even melting could diminish my excitement from seeing the sheen of golden tipped pagodas EVERYWHERE. Recent improvements in their tourism industry made getting through immigration with my e-visa relatively easy and most Burmese at the airport spoke “English.” Although some travel blogs (which are now apparently out of date) had warned against getting short changed at the airport moneychangers, the five or six banks at the airport all offered competitive and current exchange rates, and it seems like the process has become much more official and less sketchy than I had been led to believe (they even required my passport to give me the cash). There was a helpful “English”-speaking taxi stand that offered a standard rate of 8000kyat (about USD $8) for a 30-40 minute ride downtown, and they even wrote out my accommodation’s address in Burmese for the driver (which helped a lot because I can’t even begin to understand where Burmese characters begin and end much less try to read the language). No one tried to cheat us on the way into the country, and so far everyone we’ve met has been friendly and welcoming. It seems like my biggest concern so far is not crime but rather ettiqutte, as everyone has been gushing with polite helpfulness to the point where I’m sure being as candid as I normally am will cause offense.
Sleeping as an Adventure (or surviving one star accomodations)
I’m staying at the Chan Myae Thar Guesthouse in Central Yangon where the WiFi is as reliable as the water (don’t drink it!) and the hosts (pop and his kids) are polite as pie. This one star guesthouse is you get what you pay for ($20/night for a double!) but the location is unbeatable. It’s two blocks from the uniquely situated (both geographically and culturally) Sule Pagoda and in the middle of all the market action of bustling humid Central Yangon. But I’m still getting used to using bottled water to brush my teeth, sleeping alongside reincarnated ants and beetles, and getting contacts in my eyes without contracting pink eye.
Tradition vs. Progress (Sule Pagoda)
In the middle of bustling traffic in central Yangon sits the beautiful golden tipped Sule Pagoda. In a demonstration of how progress has come too soon on the heels of tradition, the gorgeous pagoda is surrounded by and has built into its walls a number of rundown retail businesses, none of which are the least bit religious. There’s a barber shop, a passport photo center, a water filtration store, and no indication why any of these shops should share a wall with the sacred religious building. But they’re there, and they speak to part of the country’s struggle to integrate progress into their traditional life. Cell phones are tucked into men’s traditional longyis, and sitting next to what looks like a temple is an air conditioned KFC.
Gender (Scott Market and RTH)
The Burmese seem to be quite traditional in their view of gender roles and the division of genders (although it should be noted that the recent election’s winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a woman). Burmese women only approach and feel comfortable talking with women and the same go for Burmese men – but luckily I’m traveling with my sister so between the both of us we can talk to everyone. The Burmese are very friendly, and both my sister and I were treated like family once approached. I noticed when we went into central Bogyoke Aung San Scott Market (which reminded me of Camden, London or Pikes Place, Seattle) and were looking among the many textile shops for local clothing to blend in, the women gushed and fussed over my sister, helping her try on so many different outfits like they were preparing her for a big family wedding. Similarly, when I was having embarrassingly obvious trouble tying my newly acquired longyi, a Burmese man had no problem approaching me from behind and jovially showed me how to tie up the longyi, multiple times. Later when my sister and I went to eat at the expat favorite Rangoon Tea House where the waiters were all men, we noticed that I got much better service than my sister – which we again chalked it up to Burmese men generally only approaching men out of politeness. And when my sister went to ask directions from a restaurant staffed by all women, they reserved their eyes from me and only interacted with my sister.
Even with all the challenges (language, accomodations, culture), or because of them, it’s exciting being here. The country may be poor in money, but they’re rich in spirit and whatever comes next will definitely be an adventure… which is another way of saying I can’t wait to brave the bug bites, undrinkable water, and unreliable internet. Haha.