Yangon, MyanmarNovember 17, 2018 in Myanmar ⋅ ☀️ 31 °C
“Chances are, you haven’t been here” Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown, Myanmar
Travel is something that, under most circumstances, is an expansion of the soul. A wakeup call to the reality of the of the world beyond oneself and a chance to immerse inside a foreign culture, to be the stranger in a strange land...the minority, “The Other”. These times we realize what small fish we are, swimming in a massive, infinite swirling pool, that somehow flows along, day after day, week after week... century after century.
There’s an extensive, and ever-evolving list that exists. Within its contents, is what seems to be a never-ending quest to step foot on as many parts of the globe as possible and Myanmar would be the next passport stamp to check off that list. With so much that has taken place in this almost forgotten corner of the world, many questions were bouncing around as to what to even expect during a visit to this land that has been through so many hardships.
After all, up until about ten years ago, tourism wasn’t that easy in Myanmar as sanctions were being imposed because of a ruthless government that persecuted its citizens and certain areas were off limits due to civil unrest. In years past, routine arrests were made and the media was controlled by the government and anything that was even slightly indifferent to the government’s agenda was censored.
Currently, some regions are still off limits, places that, if travelers aren’t exceedingly careful, can quickly turn bad. As recent as 2007, a Japanese reporter was executed, point blank, for taking photos of a demonstration. Certainly, makes one cautious to even consider raising a camera to “point and shoot.”
Now, after 50 years of nightmare, something unexpected is happening here, and it’s pretty amazing. The country is experiencing an economic boom, in large, due to a boost in tourism. So why not try and get there before it’s too blow out and commercialized.
But would this also mean a challenging time finding the balance between “it’s cool, I can sleep on the floor” and “bartender, bring be another cocktail…this time with two umbrellas?” Let’s go and find out…
So now comes the liberating feeling of packing up the bare essentials in one medium sized backpack, throwing on some hiking boots and shooting to the other side of the globe, to experience what this country has to offer.
Arriving in Yangon, the city began to redefine my expectations. It was everything one would expect from a capital of a thriving southeast Asian country. With a bustling population of 5 million, it was blaringly loud, overly crowded, disgustingly dirty, congested with traffic … and YES so utterly fantastic, at least for a few days, until the chaos takes hold and my mind, followed quickly by my body, must escape.
But before departing to other areas of Myanmar, there was still plenty to experience. With the help of hefty does of jet lag, a 3:30AM wake up time was not a bad thing as it allowed for ample time to rise and head to the main attraction, before the masses arrived ... the stunning Shewdagon Pagoda. At 326 feet tall and covered in shimmering gold, it dominates the Yangon skyline, especially at night, with all its grandeur, as it looms over the city.
Arriving in the darkness of the wee morning hours, the giant gilded stupa was glowing like a hot coal in the throat of a furnace. Only a few locals were present, allowing time to experience this 2500-year-old relic as if no one else was around. As sunrise approached, monks rhythmically chanted, incense profusely burned and children and adults eagerly brought in their gifts of food, flowers and candles. The overwhelming feeling of being somewhere so sacred, along with being a bit sleep deprived, was a quite an emotional experience. Visitors to this most holy Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar quickly become familiar with how important a place like this is to its people.
With my visit to Yangon quickly coming to a close, it was time to dive in a little deeper. Bouncing around the crowded back alleys, devouring scrumptious street food and checking out the jam-packed markets were all in order. Oh and then there was a local puppet show that was literally in someone’s living room. Yes, that’s right…20 tourists packed inside the host’s apartment …and I gotta say, it was pretty remarkable. This family is one of only four left in the country that still practice this particular ancient form of puppeteering, and their story was quite engaging to say the least.
For the the last day in Yangon, “Joe” was my driver and local guide. Joe was an all too familiar face, happy and as friendly as they come, as if nothing else in the world mattered, except showing off his homeland to some random westerner. As we drove from site to site, he told stories of how his uncle won the visa lottery and had been in the US for the past two decades and his brother had also been fortunate to get a visa to the US on a scholarship and was working as an engineer in San Francisco.
Joe wanted the same for his family and a better life that what he was facing. He made many attempts to make it to the US, and never quite hit the mark. However he seemed very content about this fact, rather than dwell on it, he is making the most out of life with what he has been blessed with, his beautiful wife and children that he was eagerly proud to show off.
With an itching desire to know what life was like here, during times when speaking one’s mind could mean years in prison, or worse, the conversation gently segwayed into:
Me: “as a driver and guide, you must be doing much better with tourism booming?
Joe: “Oh yes, tourism has helped a lot.
Me: “And you know, with the government not doing the things they used to do to its people, right?”
And then… silence.
I quickly discovered that what I had read was true… if a local is willing to talk about what they have been through, they will open up… and this part of the conversation with Joe had ended, leaving a desire to want to learn more about this countries haunting past.
So, for now, Joe will make a requested stop at Min Lan Seafood, where the legend Anthony Bourdain made a visit during the pilot for Parts Unknown. As expected, this place was absolutely marvelous… Crab and Prawns in a red curry that was so hot it would burn an igloo down, thank God…or, eh Buddha, for an ice-cold Myanmar Lager to help extinguish the flames. Perhaps this was not the best idea before a 12-hour overnight bus ride to the next destination… oh boy, this could be a long night…stay tunedRead more