Monday, April 7, 2014

Myanmar: Yangon

Our trip to Myanmar began bright and early on a Saturday morning. Jenny and I met in Bangkok the night before as a precautionary measure since our Air Asia flight was at 7am. Air Asia is a budget conscious traveler's dream! The airline really does make the inaccessible accessible and I am so grateful I got to see Myanmar because of their low cost flights. Everything went off without a hitch and we arrived into Yangon bright and early at 8:30 am.

As soon as we landed we noticed a huge difference from Cambodia. Taxi drivers stated the fair price from the beginning and we didn’t have to fight! We arrived at Cherry Guest House, our lovely hotel near Sule Pagoda, around 9 am but were not guaranteed a room until 2pm. The manager was pretty nice and said he would make sure to have a room ready for us by noon.

We decided to drop off our bags and explore for a few hours. Our first stop was 999 Shan Noodle Shop for breakfast. This little hole in the wall spot was a block away and really easy to find. I ordered the Shan Noodle with Chicken and Jenny got the Shan Noodle with sticky rice. To our surprise, the meal started with a free bowl of delicious soup with crispy wontons. We literally finished our serving in matter of minutes but didn’t think the servers would take this as a sign to refill our bowls for free! Our meals arrived with our second serving of soup and we were slightly overwhelmed. Both of our noodles were so flavorful! We were so excited by our happy taste buds that we finished everything and left completely stuffed.  The noodle shop was recommended by the New York Times and we were so glad we followed the recommendation. We ended up coming back the next day!

Sule Pagoda was only a short walk away so we headed there next. This quiet pagoda serves as a major intersection in downtown. There is a $3 admission fee and in hindsight we probably would not have visited it had we seen Shwedagon first. The temple is small and can easily be be viewed in 30-45 mins. We decided to sit and take in the experience since we were in no rush.

Afterwards, we decided to explore the old colonial buildings around us. Maha Bandula Park sits in the center and is surrounded by the old city hall and the high court. It was too hot to appreciate the buildings so we decided to take shelter in the park. It was the weekend and there were a lot of people out and about. I don’t know about you but I was expecting the Burmese to be reserved and somber after years of military rule. But they were the opposite. They like to sing cheerful songs. They like to smile and have beautiful smiles. They are affectionate. They hold hands, they hug, and they kiss openly and without a sense of shame. It was lovely to see. Their happiness was contagious and we felt so lucky to be able to experience it with them.

We met our first set of monks and really enjoyed our time with them. One of them was the cool monk from the last post. They were up to date on  world news and were asking us about Germany, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the United States. It was refreshing and it made us feel like we had been in Myanmar for days.

By this time our room was ready and we were very excited to shower and escape the afternoon heat with a nap. When the sun’s rays were calmer, we headed back out and at the end of our street a man selling sweets stopped us. He asked were Jenny was from and was so excited to hear that she was born in Sri Lanka and could speak Tamil. We promised him we would stop by on our way back to have a proper chat.  We continued on to  Bogyoke Aung San Market, the largest market in town, to do some shopping. The souvenirs and crafts were colorful and unique, we couldn’t help but admire everything. Afterwards, we explored the streets of Chinatown and the simplicity of life around us. The houses had so much character, each was rustic and colorful and I felt taking a picture of every single one.

Photo by Jenny 
Our walk ended in the Chinatown night market where you could get fresh skewers of meat and vegetables with a cold drink of your choice. We decided to grab a snack and enjoy the sunset with a cool beverage. After interacting with a few locals, we headed back to our hotel and were pleasantly surprised to see loads of new street vendors preparing dinner. Naturally, we wanted to try everything. Our first stop was for some paratha with lentils. OMG. I cant still taste it. At 200 kyats, it cost close to nothing but was the most delicious snack. We were tempted to buy more but decided to be reasonable because we wanted to save room for all the other stalls.

Our next stop was for kebabs. We were attracted by the smell but were not sure what everything was and the man next to me sensed my confusion. He not only explained what each dish was but he also bought our meal. Pakistan came up during our conversation and him and his wife were so happy to meet a fellow Pakistani! They began to refer to Jenny and I as their daughters. I told them I really missed Faluda, a delicious dessert from Pakistan, and they immediately said you have to come with us to another restaurant. We went and they ordered me a Faluda and insisted on paying for it. Their love and generosity were humbling. They also invited us to their home for lunch the next day but unfortunately, we were unable to attend. 

By this point, we were beyond full and so happy. We had one last stop to make and that was dessert with the lovely Tamil man on our street. He fed us more servings of sweets than we could handle and we were happy to oblige because of the joy on his face. Knowing we had an early morning ahead of us we politely excused ourselves once we finally finished all the pieces of sweets on our plate. 

After a quick rest, we headed back out to meet a fellow University of Birmingham alum. Pyone had kindly agreed to meet me for a drink and to welcome me to her city. We did not study together but our love of international development and Myanmar made the conversation really engaging. It was fascinating to learn about Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups and rich political history from a local’s perspective. We met at Sky Bistro, a lovely restaurant on the 20th floor with views of the city. We could see Shwedagon Pagoda from miles away and were captivated by its golden beauty.

We woke up bright and early at 4:30am the next day to catch the sunrise at Shwedagon Pagoda. This beautiful golden temple defines the city’s skyline. It has been part of the Burmese identity for over 2500 years and contains eights hairs of the Buddha. It’s huge! You could easily spend hours exploring each and every corner, which is exactly what we did. First, we sat and just observed the ceremonies. We were surprised to see how many people were there to pray so early in the morning. It was a very calming experience. Next, we walked around full circle and were lucky enough to catch the sunrise reflecting on the gold plates.

We did notice two funny things that reminded us we were in 2014. On one end of the temple there was an ATM and another had a free wifi spot. We couldn’t believe it! Lol.

Finally, the most memorable part of our visit was a group of monks coming to pray together. Yes, there were monks everywhere but this was different. These monks came together to worship and varied in age from the young to the old. We sat behind them and just observed the peaceful setting. 

We left feeling so lucky to have experienced everything we had seen and felt in the last two days. We decided to head back to 999 Shan Noodle for another delicious breakfast before taking a quick nap. Our remaining few hours in Yangon were spent walking through strand street, the riverside and admiration of more of the old British buildings. Along the way, we discovered some local art galleries and and of course some more street food for a late afternoon snack. We had an evening bus scheduled for Bagan and loaded up on some snacks for our eight hour journey. We absolutely loved our time in Yangon and were sad to say goodbye so quickly but we were very excited to visit the city that inspired our trip. 

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