I love this city. There, I said it. Maybe because I wasn’t expecting much, and maybe my tepid feelings for Bangkok had me thinking that all ‘major’ Asian cities are the same. How wrong (and admittedly naive) I was!
There is so much to say, but I’ll try to let the pictures tell most of the story. I hung out all day with Lili from France, and Aki from Finland, two people who I met on my flight from Bangkok to Yangon last night. Our hotel/hostels are about 50 meters from each other, so we shared a cab ride from the airport and met up for a late dinner after checking in. It was delicious: curry and rice dishes with Myanmar beer. Good food and good company made for a great first impression in Yangon.
A few things to note about Myanmar/Yangon:
1. Everyone wears skirts. Yep, the men too. They are called Longyi here (pronounced long-jee) and are one really wide skirt, folded in front and twisted and tucked to stay in place. You can’t miss them in the pictures, and after even only one day, I’m kind of getting used to seeing them.
2. Women wear smears of white on their faces and cheeks. Apparently it’s to help cool them and prevent sun burns. I’m still trying to track some down to try it myself.
3. Most people speak at least a bit of English, so it’s pretty easy to get around.
4. There are hardly any foreigners and and even fewer tourists in this city of four plus million. I can count on two hands the number of foreigners I saw all day after 10+ hours of walking around. So when the blond haired girl walks by I naturally get attention, mostly out of curiosity, interest and because it’s so unusual to see a white girl with blond curly hair. I respond with a big smile, a nod, and ‘Minglarbar’ or ‘hello’. This almost always elicits a ‘Minglarbar’ in response, a broad smile and nod of appreciation that I’ve learned at least one word in their language. It’s amazing how far a smile can take you:)
We had agreed to meet at 10am this morning, but I woke up early and walked around a little on my own to get a sense of the city. My first impressions: dirty with poor infrastructure (example: there are irregular rolling blackouts, which I experienced this morning during my shower when the electricity shut off for 5min; the sidewalks are not well maintained – or always safe! – with exposed sewage in places where the cement blocks have broken; very few street signs); crazy traffic (I’m becoming a pro at dodging oncoming traffic now, but my first time crossing a street – even when I had a green light – was terrifying. I ended up waiting for a mother and her child to cross so I could follow closely for safety); and about the friendliest (and smile-iest) people I’ve ever seen. Granted, my blond curly hair and pasty white complexion allows me to stand out, but everywhere I walked people would make eye contact, smile and often nod a silent welcome to me. I felt welcomed.
There were a few times I was disoriented with regards to directions (again, the streets are well marked and my map was also a bit hard to read) so I stopped to ask a couple of friendly-looking people where we were on the map. As I tend to do reflexively in foreign cities, I pointed to the map, made charade-like gestures and used broken English to ask ‘where on map here?’ expecting charades back. Instead, in better English I could have expected I received helpful replies and explanations.
A few pictures of the streets in downtown Yangon:
I headed down to the river’s edge where there was a little street market outside of a pagoda and children playing with the only toys and games they had available, whether it was chalk and bottle caps or a log to play ‘bus or car’ complete with steering wheel actions.
A few more pictures during a long walk with Aki and Lili. During the morning it was hard not to notice the many strings hanging down over the sidewalk with large paper portfolio clips tied to them. I just assumed it was for signs of the street vendors or stores that hadn’t opened yet for the morning. That was until we witnessed what they are really for: they are mailboxes! Each apartment in the multi-level unit has a string hanging from its window with a clip or plastic bag on the end at street level. Mid morning we saw the paper boy deliver a rolled up newspaper to each string, often quickly followed by the string being pulled up by its owner. So fascinating and functional!!
In the morning we visited a pagoda, and then went to the main market in town, which has an overwhelming amount of vendors of clothing, fabric, jewelry you could imagine. Of course on our way there we also walked past countless food and street vendors on every street. I should mention that Aki is a professional chef back in Finland – I was in luck to have someone to try all the street food with!:)
And the market itself:
By now we were starving and it was time for lunch. For 1500 kyat ($1.50) each we shared this small feast:
To be continued….
A street vendor rolling chewing tobacco the first night we arrived in Yangon. Watching his hands move so quickly and deftly was mesmerizing.