28/1/2009 – A Warm Welcome to Burma
Burma is a special place for me to visit because I have a family connection to the country. My Grandad was born in Rangoon (now Yangon) and raised here until the age of around 10(?). After that he was evacuated when the Japanese invaded and stayed at several hill stations in the middle to North of Burma before fleeing to India. I am keen to see the country that provided the backdrop to my Grandad`s childhood and I am also keen to see a country that has had a fascinating and rich history going back thousands of years. I am also keen to see a country that is rumoured to be practically untainted by tourism and home to some of the friendliest people in Southeast Asia.
I would like to provide some context for the country that is now called the Union of Myanmar, but really I would like to start this blog with a recount of my first day here and my first impressions of Rangoon and Burma. I would however encourage anyone reading this blog to quickly Google Burma and read, even briefly, about the recent history and culture of the country.
I met Neil in the lobby of the guest-house in Bangkok to check out and make our way down the dark, peaceful Soi onto the main road. It was blissfully peaceful on the roads, and we were able to hail a taxi pretty quickly. The journey to the airport at 5 in the morning is pleasant and without the hassles of the daytime Bangkok traffic.
At the airport we checked our baggage in easily and made our way to the exchange counter to buy US Dollars. For Burma you need US dollars to buy major things such as transport or accommodation. Once there you need to change some into Kyat (pronounced chat) for smaller items. It is a real shame that the pound has been doing so badly, it might mean I cut this trip short, as I am losing so much more than I had previously anticipated. At the first counter the rude staff informed us that they only changed cash. At the second counter Neil had issues with his card being declined. Panicking he called his bank who informed him that he was limited to the amount he could withdraw per day. He tried to explain that he was going to Burma which does not have any ATM`s in the country and that he needed all the necessary cash for the 12 days he would be there. The rude staff refused to help so he was forced to take what he could and hope he could withdraw some more from one of the major hotels in Rangoon. We found the staff to be so rude at the exchange counters and after a week in Bangkok I was pleased to be leaving.
Rushing through Passport Control we made our way to our departure gate only to find that our plane was delayed by half an hour. I was secretly thankful as I was starving and in desperate need of food quite quickly. Unfortunately the flight turned out to be delayed for over 3 hours, most of which we spent in the departure lounge, (I dislike that term as it implies that it was comfortable) which was freezing cold due to over-active air-con. Eventually we got fed up and decide to hunt down a hot drink. Luckily when we went to ask if this was possible we were handed our food voucher for 100 baht. Pleased we went upstairs to find refreshments only to find that the airport prices at Bangkok are unreasonably escalated, so we could only afford a coffee and hot chocolate.
The flight itself was fine and I managed to get about half an hour`s sleep.
Stepping off the plane I was greeted with the site of the unexpectedly attractive airport complete with gold facade. We were ferried onto a rather old, cranky bus which took us the 150m to the airport door. Once inside the brand new, air conditioned airport we queued for passport control which was relatively simple to pass through. I don`t imagine that this airport handles a large amount of flights because our luggage was out as soon as we passed through.
There we were greeted by a representative to the Mother Land Inn (2) guest-house. He was a lovely, smiley, friendly guy who showed us an impressive leaflet. I recalled seeing them mentioned in the Lonely Planet and offering us free transport into town as well was real seller. So we waited outside the terminal for 10 minutes or so whilst they gathered more backpackers before being lead across the airport car park and the main road to a small tea house. I had assumed we were being taken straight away, but instead we were treated to Burmese tea, which is like a super sweet chai served with a small cup of green tea next to it. The tea house was similar to the street cafes found in Thailand – open-air, corrugated roof and wooden sides with plastic chairs adorning the inside. It was lovely to chat to the 8 or so other travellers and the two guest-house reps offered advice on places to visit in Burma. The tea was paid for and we were led to our taxi`s. I was so surprised and thought it was a lovely way to be introduced to the country.
The taxi ride to the guest-house took about 20 minutes or so and we got to see a lot of the city of Rangoon. My first impression was quite charming. There were obvious signs of decay of old colonial buildings situated next to more recent mid-late 20th century buildings. The cars are right-hand drive but they drive on the right and the cars are at least 20 years old and rather rickety. We spoke to our rep about costs in the country. Cars cost nearly US$17,000, mobile phones $1000-2000 etc. I asked how much the average earning of a Burmese citizen might be, he replied US$30.
The guest-house was charming, well equipped including Internet, money changing, trip bookings and a restaurant. Once shown to our rooms we were then offered a complimentary breakfast which at first struck me as odd considering it was around 2pm but we accepted the scrambled egg and toast. The bread was unusually sweet and after experiencing the sweet tea from earlier, I guess the Burmese like their sugar.
We headed out to walk around the city around 3pm, the air was warm but not too sticky. Taking my trusty Lonely Planet and using its map, we walked towards the river to seek out the timber mills that my Grandad use to live in.
As we walked down the street children and men would say hello or ask our names in clear English. A group of boys playing with a plastic football struck up a conversation with us and Neil played footy with them for a bit whilst I took photographs. We were aware that we were the only Westerners in sight and this was rather poor, by Western standards, area – the paths were damaged, the buildings dilapidated and people were sitting out on the street in somewhat dirtier clothes. But there were so friendly and seemed genuinely pleased to see us and be able to say a few words to us in English.
We eventually reached a large avenue-sized road that I guess was Strand Road as there seemed to be few road signs about. After inquiring down a side street about Botatung Jetty we were pointed in the right direction with a smile and we continued walking West.
At one point we crossed over some old tram/rail lines in the road that continued along the South side of the Road. But in both directions of the track and all around it it was covered in refuse and overgrown weeds. It was obviously a left-over from the British rule and was no longer in use.
Eventually we arrived at a road leading towards the river and pointing to my map we ascertained that it lead to Botatung Jetty. There were several large trucks passing us by loaded with containers and as we drew up to the river there was a large container yard to our right. Along the front of the river were a couple of dilipated jetty`s which looked in need of serious attention.
We walked back up to Strand Road and headed West towards the main downtown area taking a turn North to find the other place where my Grandad lived. At the junction there were several old buildings and I wondered if they were present when my Grandad was there as a boy. He told me that there was a Church and a hospital there but they were bombed when the Japanese invaded. There was in fact a new looking Baptist Church at the end of the dead end street and next to it was a seriously dilapidated apartment block that I imagine was beautiful in its heyday when first built. I took lots of photographs to show my Grandad in the hope that I have in fact found the place that he grew up.
We continued our walk to the downtown area and the road became busier with traffic, people, market stalls and shops. The vehicles on the roads are generally quite ancient, the overloaded buses look like something out of the fifties, and interestingly there weren`t that many, if any, motorbikes.
We did come across an enormous building made of red brick and dated from 1862 which was decrepit and bounded by high barbed wire fences. It did not appear to be in use which seems unusual given the central city location, the large amount of land it covers and the fantastic design and build of the structure. I tried to imagine what it would`ve been like and what it was used for, maybe a school or offices?
Further into town, we came across a Pagoda situated in the middle of a roundabout and the surrounding wall consisting of shops. It was most peculiar but the gold stupa looked lovely in the low sun as the evening drew in. By this point we were quite thirsty from 2 hours of solid walking and unable to find a place to rest and get a drink, we hailed a taxi to take us back to the guesthouse.
Back at the guesthouse we discussed our plans for the next week and a half and for tomorrow. Neil needs to go to the Sedona hotel to get some more dollars and then we need to book our flights around Burma. It is unfortunately rather expensive and more than a travellers budget, but as we only have 12 days here we don`t have much choice. The transport infrastructure is quite poor and it would take up whole days to get from place to place. The other alternative was to miss some places out but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and I want to make the most of it. The credit card will come in handy after all!
Due to a lack of sleep the previous evening we decided to stay in the guesthouse, make use of the internet and the cafe here and discovered that they have a DVD player. I finished my evening with some Chicken Noodle Soup whilst watching Vicky Christina Barcelona.
My first impressions? Wonderful, warm and endearing. I cannot wait to see more of Burma.
(be sure to click through below to the next pages for more amazing Burma stories)