Melting in the Shadows – Yangon, Myanmar

When we got into our taxi at the Yangon airport, we noticed something right away that was out of the ordinary. Do you see it?

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Does anything strange jump out to you in this picture?

Ten points to your house if you figured it out. In Myanmar, due to what I assume is a combination of British colonialism (it was called Rangoon, not Yangon back then) and followed by years of bizarre military rule, the cars drive on the right side of the road (like Canada) but the driver in on the right side of the car (like England). It’s very unusual, and certainly something that neither of us have never encountered before. It causes strange situations like exiting a bus into traffic, rather than onto the sidewalk. And believe me, in this country you do not want to go into traffic as a pedestrian unless you absolutely have to. I’m not exaggerating even a little when I say that the cars DO NOT stop for pedestrians. It is insanity. They continue at full speed, and the pedestrian has to run across the road to avoid death. But of course there are no crosswalk signs or anything like that, so we have taken to following closely behind locals when they decide to make a run for it.

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Traffic is no joke here. It takes so long to get around town. 45 mins for 3 km? You’d almost just walk, if the AC wasn’t so necessary.

The next thing we noticed is that this city is insanely hot. So much hotter than anywhere we were in Thailand. It’s exhausting. During the day, from about noon to 4 in particular, it’s like walking through soup the air is so humid. It doesn’t cool much at night but at least the sun is gone. So that’s the reason for the name of this blog. We’ve been spending daytime darting from shadow to shadow, trying to stay even a little cool but not really doing that great a job at it.

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Umbrellas are a common sight here. As a famous 21st century poet put it, “It hot herre. So hot it hurts.” I think that line was written about Yangon.

Yangon is one of those cities where you can walk, and walk, and walk, and just keep discovering things. Its a unique mixture of past and present. You can clearly see the city’s colonial roots, with fantastic old buildings that made the city one of the most popular in all of southeast Asia back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Relics from the past, in sad disrepair. But development is happening. This one has new shops in the bottom level.
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Incredible colonial architecture. We think this is a courthouse, but we aren’t entirely sure.

The Strand Hotel is from that era and is still operating. It boasts a famous historical guest list including the likes of like George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, Aldous Huxley, and HG Wells among others.  But most of the amazing old buildings are now in serious disrepair and abandoned, a stark reminder of the country’s troubles in the latter half of the 20th century.

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Enjoying a very pricey beer at the Strand Hotel.
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The lobby is a reminder of the past. At $550 a night, its extraordinarily expensive given the prices of everything else in this city.

But the 21st century is bursting through all over. Cell phones, neon signs, computer stores are mixed in with the never ending street food stalls and markets. Monks taking pictures of things with new Samsung cell phones. But this isn’t to say the city is modern in the same sense and Bangkok, or anything in North America. It’s definitely a step (or many steps) behind when it comes to basic elements such as infrastructure, sanitation, organization, basic signage, etc.

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Incredible street views.
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Every street downtown seems to be like this.

It’s not clean by any means, and we have both decided to stick to shoes rather than flip flops. You need to be careful with street food too, sticking to stalls selling fried food and doing lots of business so you know the food is turning over frequently. Much of the street food here is cooked in what are basically bonfires on the side of the road. People have built little fire pits using rocks or sometimes bricks, and they sit there fanning the flames and grilling meats or frying some unknown samosa looking thing. There is lots of street bread as well.

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Something tasting similar to samosas. Really tasty.
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The street food is endless, and not all of it looks good.
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Many street vendors carry their wares like this, then just find a place to set up on a street and start selling.
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This guy yelled at me to take his picture, so here we are.

But you quickly learn that Yangon has a real charm. You feel it right away when you walk down the street. The people are very friendly. There aren’t that many foreigners here, so we have noticed we get a few odd looks. But if you give them a quick smile it’s always returned in kind. Staff in stores and restaurants are extremely polite and helpful. The city feels old – maybe like being in the 30s or 40s. Life for most here probably isn’t that different from then. Walking around the city we noticed Buddhist temples, hindu temples, Muslim mosques, Christian churches, and Jewish synagogues. There are pretty defined sections of town where each religious group seems to largely be centered in. But apparently everyone gets along just fine, with no animosity due to differences in beliefs. Its very cool to see.

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New, massive homes contrast with extremely run-down apartment blocks. This is in a residential area north of downtown.
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Very descriptive.
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I think every book vendor we saw had a copy of George Orwell’s Burmese Days.
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The view over Kandawgyi Lake, just north of downtown.

The lack of tourists is refreshing after Thailand. In Thailand it was overloaded with tourists nearly everywhere. Here when we walk down the street its just us fighting our way through the mass of locals. Yes, there are other tourists around we we see them mostly at the major tourist sights (temples and markets) but for the most part you don’t see that many. It makes walking the streets feel much more like an exploration and much more exotic. This is going to change as the county continues to open up and more an and more tourists make their way here.

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19th Street, also known as the Bar street. There are maybe 6 or 8 bars, so its refreshingly calm.
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The beer here is good. I am not sure this is something we’ll see at the LCBO anytime soon. These bottles are 660ml, and cost about $2 Canadian each.
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Just my kinda place.

The number one tourist attraction here is Shawedagon Pogada. It’s a 100m high temple, surrounded by what must be hundreds of smaller temple structures. We went at sunset, to catch the pagoda change color as the sun dips below the horizon. Enshrined within the massive stupa (vertical part of the temple) are apparently 8 strands of the hair from a Buddha from India nearly 2600 years ago. It makes the temple the most important holy site in Myanmar, and you can see it from all over the city. Warning – a bunch of pictures of this temple follow. Its really something.

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The main stupa (vertical piece) is 100m tall. You’ll notice I’m wearing a traditional man’s outfit called a longi.  I had to cover my knees, since my short shorts were too risque for this temple.  The longi is pretty comfy.
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There are hundreds of smaller stupas surrounding the main one.
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We were here at about 4pm, before the crowds arrived. You need to go barefoot, so going earlier than 4 is insanity. The tiled floor is way too hot from the sun.
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As the sun sets, the temple begins to come alive.
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And then the lights come on.
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And everything just glows. Its incredible.

I nearly forgot to mention our sleeping arrangements for this leg of the trip! When we found this place online we were very curious, so we booked a few nights.  Basically its like sleeping in prison – but your door is solid, and the bed is pretty comfy.

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Prison block? Nope, its 21 Hostel in Yangon’s Chinatown.
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Comfy for 2, as long as you’re not claustrophobic. We really liked it here.

Its not all that private, with a shared washroom and showers. But the water is hot and the bedroom itself – or the Pod as we have taken to calling it – is cozy.  We have met a ton of other travelers here too, which is always great.  We love to hear where others are going in Myanmar, since we really don’t have much of a planned route.

Our guidebooks and various websites had all suggested spending a day or less in Yangon, or even skipping it all together.  I’m not sure why they say that, because there is plenty to do here.  We are both really glad to have stopped over here.

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Old Russian-made airplane in Peace Park.
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The independence monument and surrounding park. New high rises in the background. Similar buildings are going up all over the city.
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The writing here is so unusual. Its like their keyboards consist only of “c”, “o”, “g” and “8” or some variations of the like.
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The docks at the Yangon river. There are large ocean freighters unloading goods all along this area. These small longboats were for travel to the other side of the river.

Tonight, we are heading to the northern city of Mandalay on an overnight bus.  Apparently we get seats that nearly fully recline, so we will see how that goes.  Our bus leaves Yangon at 9pm and we get into Mandalay around 5am.  Something tells me we are going to be pretty tired tomorrow.

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9 thoughts on “Melting in the Shadows – Yangon, Myanmar

  1. BRB – just starting a new photographic series of artwork entitled “Things that Doug wears on his lower half whilst travelling 2017” (title is a work in progress.)

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  2. Hey Doug and Emily, read a few of your write-ups and I’m glad you guys are having fun. That temple looked pretty amazing given the 100m height. Stay safe and don’t hook up with as many lady boys!

    Love,

    Mike and Erin

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    1. Hi Mike and Erin! So good to hear from you! You’ll be disappointed to here there are no lady boys in Burma, just Thailand. But Burma has many other crazy things. Save up your vacation and come meet us! We hope all is well at home, give Hugo a hug for us.

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  3. Hi Mike and Erin! So good to hear from you! You’ll be disappointed to here there are no lady boys in Burma, just Thailand. But Burma has many other crazy things. Save up your vacation and come meet us! We hope all is well at home, give Hugo a hug for us.

    Like

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