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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.