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Yangon Part One – I Got Yer Culture Shock Right Here – Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon Part One - I Got Yer Culture Shock Right Here
Yangon, Myanmar

After enduring a metaphoric hernia of Ugly Tourists in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, I naively presumed that my time in an off-the-beaten-path, still emerging tourist destination like Myanmar would be a welcome reprieve from weeks of dipshit overload, but this delusion was squashed before I even left Bangkok. Twelve seconds before the shuttle bus to my Bangkok Airways plane to Yangon was going to pull away from the gate, two loud, swearing, rambunctious Aussies blasted into the area like sticks of unwashed, hungover, foul mouthed TNT. After holding all of us up on the boiling bus, while they searched for tickets and flirted with the check-in girls, they slogged onto the bus and insincerely apologized to anyone who would listen, explaining that they pride themselves on being late for, or better yet missing, all of their flights, proudly adding that they had managed to only suffer through an average of three hours of sobriety per day since they arrived in Asia. Then, in eerie unison, the pair looked at each other as similar dim light bulbs flickered on in their heads at the realization that they were about to board an international flight and, fuck oth!, they would probably get free booze!!! (Note: for the non-Aussies, that wasn’t a typo, for some reason “fuck oth” is akin to “fuck yeah!” in the cannon of Aussie slang)

Sule Paya in Central Yangon
Sule Paya in Central Yangon
Bangkok Airways, “Asia’s Boutique Airline,” turned out to be shockingly nice, considering the paltry price I had paid for my seat and the fact that we were on a mere one hour flight into a decidedly non-boutique-like place. The food they served was generously portioned and tasty, they did indeed doll out free wine and beer and the service, like everything Thai, was exceptional.

April is well into the “hot season” in Southeast Asia and walking through Yangon after 8:00 a.m. was like taking a stroll through a smoldering bonfire pit, including the dirt and ash part. Myanmar is on the arid side (at least it was during my visit, I can’t speak for the rest of the year) and the dried up soil from the plains gets lifted up by passing wind, wheels and feet and carried into the city and in turn gets into everything, including on one occasion, I swear, a sealed bottle of water that I had cracked open mere seconds earlier. Like in Bangkok, I drank untold bottles of water all day long and yet hardly ever had to pee. All of that liquid was going straight from my stomach back out into the world through my sweat glands with alarming speed.

Both Lonely Planet and a few fellow travelers who had preceded me into Myanmar insisted that I stay at Motherland Inn II (mli2 at Myanmar dot com dot mm) in Yangon and it was everything they promised and more. The staff were angels, the rooms were air conditioned, large and spotless, a hearty breakfast was included in the price (I later realized that this is a Myanmar guest house standard) and they provided free airport pickup which is pricelessly comforting when you are arriving in a new country culturally blind and without a glimmer of local savvy or currency. Despite the daunting challenge of acquiring an email address in Myanmar and the spotty reliability of the service, my reservation request email to Motherland was answered in mere hours and everything else in regards to them went off without a hitch, except when I checked out in a mad rush two days later to catch my bus and inadvertently took my room key with me to Inle Lake, but we’ll get to that exasperating embarrassment in due time.

I spent my first afternoon in Yangon simply walking around, taking measure of my latest destination. The number of westerners on the street was as thin as I have ever seen and, better yet, I never saw those bungling Aussies again. As in the past, these circumstances made me into an instant celebrity. A large part of my popularity was due to the army of bored and restless trishaw - a bicycle with a side car bolted onto it - drivers hailing me for a ride, but equally there was also a general barrage of people just wanting to say hello and ask where I was from. In many cases after this short exchange was over, so was the conversation as the speaker had reached the limit of their English language abilities. For the entirety of my time in Myanmar, I had this verbatim conversation about 137 times a day:

Local: “Hello!”
Me: “Hello!”
Local: “Where you come from?”
Me: “America.”
Local: “Ah! Very good country! Goodbye!”

The people who had a larger command of English nearly always inquired and then showed great concern in hearing that I wasn’t married at my age. Usually the language barrier prevented me from explaining that I had already been to that particular ring of Hell and back and could only recently talk about it without my eye involuntarily twitching, my jaw clenching and my wallet bursting into flames.

My initial foray into the city to the “black market” - I was assured that this was just a name and that nothing truly unlawful was going down - was enriched by the company of a chattering, middle-aged, socially awkward Chinese Singaporean. He latched onto me at the airport while quizzing me about my accommodations arrangements (he hadn’t thought that far ahead) and when I let it slip that I had a car waiting for me, I couldn’t get rid of him. He was lurking in the Motherland lobby when I emerged from a much needed two hour nap that afternoon and invited himself along for the 45 minute, “30 minute walk” into the city center. Our journey together was unnecessarily drawn out an extra 15 minutes due to him wanting to check his map every 50 yards and ask directions from uncomprehending locals every other block to make sure we were still on course - aside from a single turn, it was a straight shot all the way to the market, but this fact didn’t pacify him.

At the market, we found many takers for a US dollar cash exchange in the jewelry section, most giving a rate just a hair under what the people at Motherland told us to expect (about 920 kyat to the US dollar). We finally settled on one lady just so we could get on with our lives and, as a final stroke to cement his dubious grasp on the obvious, the Singaporean naively asked the woman changing our money if this exchange rate was the “best price.” What was she supposed to say? “Actually, the next stall will give you a much better rate. I give this shitty exchange rate to make a few more kyat on the deal, but you’d be much better off if you went to my direct competition over there. Send them my love.” No, instead she nodded vigorously while shorting him by 60 kyat per dollar. Idiot. Meanwhile, I had problems of my own. I ambitiously changed a hundred dollar bill and was presented with a rubber banded stack of 92 crisp, new, 1,000 kyat notes as thick as my thumb. It turns out that the 1,000 kyat note (about US$1.10) is the largest denomination. Have you ever tried to shove 92 bills into your wallet? Give it a try. Yes, right now. How’d it go? It was like trying to fold a Reader’s Digest in there, wasn’t it? Even without the wallet, there was no way I could fold this wad of cash into my pocket. I stood there for a moment staring at this wad of money, trying to figure out what to do. Finally I just peeled 10 notes off the top, put them in my wallet and shoved the rest into my day bag, which I held onto with a death-grip for the rest of the afternoon.

On that note, after weeks of sweating the complexities of money in Myanmar, it turned out to be pretty straightforward. Until recently, travelers had to juggle three currencies to get by here and invariably one left the country with a bunch of money that was impossible to use or exchange anywhere else in the world. To start, one needed kyat (pronounced “chat”). This is Myanmar’s everyday currency, which is used for buying food, paying for some, but not all, transportation, purchasing souvenirs and incidentals. Unfortunately, with Myanmar’s position as a naughty sanctioned nation, the rest of the world does not recognize this currency - even my beloved XE.com universal currency exchange converter web site doesn’t list kyat - so if you don’t spend it, it becomes a worthless souvenir as soon as you leave the country. Additionally one needs a stack of US dollars which serves as a general fall-back currency that you use to pay for hotel rooms, domestic plane tickets and industrious tourist touts. Finally, there are/were FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificates), a kind of pretend currency invented by the government for the sole purpose of padding their pockets with tourist cash without actually having to do much of anything. You see, until 2003, independent tourists were required to purchase US$200 worth of FECs upon arrival in Myanmar, which they in turn could only spend at a precious few government-approved hotels, tour companies and transportation conglomerates. If you didn’t give these government-backed businesses your patronage you couldn’t spend your FEC and you would end up going home with US$200 of a useless currency that is not officially recognized by any other country in the world, even at the best of political times. And of course no sane person in Myanmar would exchange FECs back to dollars for you. Meanwhile the gummet has your $200 without having had to do anything except station a stooge in the airport arrivals area to enforce the rule. Although it goes directly against the spirit of the Myanmar government to make life less complicated for anyone, after generously dropping the $200 mandatory purchase rule, FECs appear to have quietly dropped off the radar. I was never asked to pay for anything in FEC - to my knowledge I only reluctantly gave my voluntary business to one government entity during my stay - and indeed I didn’t see a single FEC note the entire time I was there. Whew!

After ditching the Singaporean at the market by stating a desire to wander down by the river jetty which intentionally conflicted with his goal to see more of the market, I crisscrossed central Yangon, taking in the few notable sights in the city, namely the golden, 1,000 year old Sule Paya and the Independence Monument, both smack in the middle of the city center and wonderful landmarks for recently arrived tourists.

Before I go too much further I should quickly cover a couple terms for places of worship. Thankfully a similar, more comprehensive list is conveniently available in my Lonely Planet SE Asia book or I would have been hosed. Briefly:

  • “Pahtos” (A.K.A. “temple” for westerners) are places you can walk into, with one or four entrances and a gaggle of Buddha statues and maybe some wall and ceiling murals inside.
  • “Stupas” (A.K.A. “pagoda”) are places that you walk around, solid domes, often gold, sometimes white washed, that usually taper into a weathervane-like spire at the top. Many stupas have Buddha artifacts (a few hairs or a bone), though these are usually only representations, entombed inside them along with a collection of riches. The spires at high-end stupas will have donated gold and jewels dangling from them. These opulent donations are all but invisible to the naked eye as they are so high up that they become indistinguishable specks making it impossible to marvel them, but then Buddhists intend these donations to be humble gifts and expect no recognition or appreciation.
  • “Zayats” are smaller rest houses scattered around a stupa featuring more discrete Buddha images and statues.

Moving on…After a bit of wandering on my own I was one-twoed by child beggars. One looked pretty bad. He was about eight, filthy, holding a mostly naked infant and adamant that he was starving. Usually in these cases, a parent has sent the kids out to beg and is stationed just a short distance away monitoring the situation. I wanted the kid to actually eat what I was going to give him, so I offered to take him to a food stall and buy him lunch. He agreed to this and we did just that. It was touching to see that he fed the infant before eating himself. I lingered just long enough to pay and see if a caregiver was going to materialize and take a share of the booty. When one didn’t, I took my leave. Not even 20 seconds later a little girl corralled me and followed me for two blocks trying to sell me postcards. After much refusal, she started in on the “I’m soooo hungry” routine. I didn’t want to spend another 10 minutes at a food stall, so I just gave her 200 kyat (about 30 cents) which is exactly what I paid for the other kid’s meal.

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Walking around it was evident that the Myanmar people were the last bastion of some SE Asia fashion statements, notably the longyi, an oversized, ankle-length skirt that is wrapped around the waist and fastened with a simple fold-over. Without a clasp or solid fastener of any kind, people end up having to adjust or tighten up their longyis seemingly every few minutes, particularly after having been in a sitting position. This exercise appears to be performed half in the effort to keep it from falling off - an event that seems as if it might occur frequently, particularly as this happens to old men wearing genuine pants in America all too often, but I never witnessed a longyi drop myself - and half simply out of habit, an absentminded exercise for the hands. Most of the women are in longyis and about 85% of the men as well. Otherwise, dress is very modest for the most part, especially for women. Though in a nod to the punishing heat, their outfits are often topped off in thin, see through shirts, the potential for a risqué display is squashed by the half-torso, corset-like undergarments they wear, with four or more hooks in the back and enough cover and padding so as to leave pretty much everything to the imagination. Even when the inevitable need to bathe in public arises, the women do so with full-length, strapless gowns that cover from the armpits right down to the ankles. The few women who were bold enough to appear in public in pants and t-shirts were still carefully conservative. No low cut shirts, absolutely no shorts and only loose fitting jeans.

Despite this unwavering dedication to their modesty, there was still plenty of semi-nudity available. After going to such great lengths to stay covered at all other times in their lives, when it comes time to breastfeed, the women suddenly take on the equivalent modesty of a German on a Spanish beach during high season. From what I observed, and there was plenty to observe, women don’t even make a passing attempt to duck into a corner or even turn away from people while breastfeeding. They whip their tits out in crowded squares, in intimate restaurants and even while minding their souvenir stalls at the pagodas, with their shirts hiked up, breasts swinging, baby in one hand and using their free hand to gesture urgently to their wares. Men of course have a little more all-around latitude with modesty. While most will stick to long sleeves and ankle-length longyis, even on the hottest days, men performing certain grunt-work type jobs can get away with going shirtless and folding their longyis up into a mirthful diaper configuration for more freedom of movement and, presumably, more air flow where it counts. The diaper look is all but required when engaging in a round of Siamese football - called Tà-krâw in Thailand, though I have to assume there’s a different name in Myanmar - a kind of no-hands volleyball, with a Badminton height net, where you are only allowed to use your head, legs and feet to hit the ball, a wiffleball-like orb, made of bamboo, half the size of a soccer ball. With the aerobic activity and physical requirements of this game, guys can even get away with striping down to their skivvies in the middle of the street, though generally only young kids take it that far.

A less dignified, out of control habit in Myanmar is the revolting art of chewing betel nut. A slug of betel turns the chewer’s mouth, teeth and lips a nasty red/brown color and requires frequent spitting. I was in Yangon a full day before someone introduced me to betel. Before that schooling, I simply thought that Myanmar had an out of control advanced gum disease epidemic. Betel is a mild stimulant, with the general effect of a cup of coffee and all the appeal of chewing tobacco, but much less attractive in practice if you can believe it. I can’t find information on the exact origins of this appetite killer, but I found one vague mention in a local book indicating that its been in vogue from royalty on down for over 150 years. There’s a betel stand on virtually every corner, usually consisting of just a tiny table with all the ingredients laid out and a very wired up, and presumably eternally single, guy with red drool down his chin preparing the chews. A few tiny pieces of betel are set in a leaf, along with lime paste, and tobacco. There’s a betel-for-girls as well, where the tobacco is replaced with a sweet flavoring. The whole mess is wrapped up in the leaf like a tiny burrito and popped into the mouth as is. In addition to being faced with a disagreeable betel smile hundreds of time a day, us non-chewers also have to take care as to where we step as the streets and sidewalks are minefields of fresh, red/brown goo that your guest house would kindly appreciate that you don’t track into the lobby.

Even without all of the outdoors being one big betel spittoon, you have to constantly watch your step in Myanmar, Yangon in particular, as the sidewalks are in dire need of repair. It’s an obstacle course of loose rock, dips, cracked pavement, trash, bottomless pits and open, two foot deep drainage ditches. Sometimes what looks like a solid slab of cement will end up being precariously balanced over a chasm of some kind and if you step in the wrong spot a trapdoor effect takes place and if you’re lucky you only end up with a sprained ankle.

As I made my random rounds around the city center, a man speaking the best English I had heard all day sidled up to me and kept me company for several minutes before informing me that he was a tour guide. I really hate being approached by independent tour guides like this. If I want a tour guide, I’ll go to a goddamn tour office thank you. Having a guy accost me on the street and harass me, trying to convince me that I need a guide is like being grabbed by a guy from Pizza Hut when I’m standing in line in McDonalds, telling me that I really want a pepperoni pizza instead of a bacon cheese burger and fries. The problem was that he was infallibly nice and providing the best conversation I’d had all day, so I didn’t tell him to get bent right away. In the end, I’m very glad I didn’t. Toe turned out to be a great guy. After tagging along for my walk along the river, giving me his spiel and casually inserting some very interesting nuggets about Myanmar life as we spied different oddities, I suddenly realized that I needed him. The following day was going to be my only full day in Yangon and I had a lot of ground to cover. I could have done this myself, as usual, but this would have opened me up to the usual aggravations, getting lost, cluelessly submitting myself to “tourist prices” and ultimately being on the go for a good 16 hours non-stop. I determined that this would be the wrong way to launch 10 days of high-speed touring and a little assistance was in order. We arranged to meet early the next morning at Motherland and agreed upon a general itinerary before going our separate ways.

It was getting dark now and I was starving. With Toe’s guidance I ate dinner at a very decent Chinese restaurant adjacent to the Independence Monument. There was a giant TV airing the World Cup and England was playing. I focused on the game intently to get a good look at David Beckham. People in three Asian countries had been telling me for weeks that I looked like Beckham and I though I was sure this was only due to our similar thin layer of fuzzy, blond hair and overall Nordic looks, I wanted to finally judge for myself. I saw immediately that Beckham had grown his hair out into an unsightly faux-hawk again. Damn, there went my brush with being almost-a-celebrity.

My walk back to the Motherland was executed half-blind as Yangon was suffering one of its frequent blackouts. Street lights and traffic lights were out and all buildings were dark. The only light available was from passing cars, candles at the food stalls that had taken over the sidewalks and the occasional generator powered light in front of a shop or home. As I moved further away from the city center, it became much darker, forcing me to slow down my pace so I could cautiously judge whether or not I was about to step in a ditch or on the tail of a stray animal. Visibility briefly improved outside an unmarked, walled and barb-wired compound. Mysteriously, the street lights here were working. There was a huge barrier built on the corner of the block, preventing me from stepping onto the sidewalk, but the barrier ended just after the corner and I took the opportunity to step out of traffic onto a notably smooth and well kept sidewalk. I marched along with the whole sidewalk to myself for almost half a block before a local pleaded for me to step back down into the street. It turns out I was walking past the ministry’s compound and they do not allow people to walk on the sidewalk outside the compound. Yangon’s best maintained sidewalk is off-limits to pedestrians, that’s just so classic military junta, isn’t it?

Shwedagon Paya - Sweeping up at the end of the day
Shwedagon Paya – Sweeping up at the end of the day
A few blocks later I was accosted by a young man with excellent English skills. At the time I was standing on a street corner in near darkness squinting at the writing on both my map and the soot covered street sign written in 10 point font to make sure I hadn’t missed my turn. Soe-Win-Naing was at my side in seconds asking me if I was looking for Motherland and assured me I was on the right track, after which we fell into a pleasant conversation. It turns out that he had tried to speak to me earlier in the day while Wrong Way Singaporean Guy and I were hustling to the black market before close of business. Considering I was burdened with babysitting Wrong Way and another delay would have meant spending a night with no local currency, I curtly blew off Soe-Win-Naing at the time. He led me over to his tea and soup stall and fed me some Chinese tea as we chatted. At one point he went a little overboard extolling how handsome I was. I would learn later that Myanmar men regularly and honestly lavish other men with compliments about their looks, even if they aren’t trying to get money out of them. Moreover they are also much more affectionate with each other than (sober) western men. In Muslim countries it’s common to see guys walking down the street holding hands, but in Myanmar they also put arms around each other and idly hug one another, meanwhile the same public display of affection between a man and woman would be hugely uncool. Strange, but true.

Soe-Win-Naing invited me to attend his English class the following day. As much as I would have relished in this bonding with the locals I already had a full schedule with Toe and our race through Yangon’s widespread, most gnarly tourist sights. In his excitement to talk about his English class, Soe-Win-Naing showed me two of the books his class was reading at the moment; “Duty” by some Scottish author, which was mainly about self-reliance - probably required reading, dictated by the Myanmar government so people don’t go crazy and expect any form of assistance - and “Beautiful Myanmar” by native Khin Myo Chit, which dealt with general Burmese cultural, social and religious facts and stories. I eventually excused myself saying I needed to hoard sleep for the action of the coming day, but I promised to stop and visit him the following evening on my way back from the city. I was heartened to see that Motherland had one mother of a diesel generator pumping away when I arrived. It was the only illuminated building on the entire street and even better, the air conditioning was blowing away like nothing was wrong. The desk clerk assured me that blackouts were very uncommon and the juice supplied by the city would probably be back on by morning.

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