Driving through the city, sitting on a wooden bench hastily nailed into the bed of a 30 year old pickup truck, rain pounding the roof over my head, apologizing again for bumping into the women and her baby sitting next to me as we bounce over yet another giant pothole on the way to the bus station, I thought “this is what I’m looking for… right?”
It’s getting dark outside as I wait on the bus – about to leave Yangon, the unofficial capital of Myanmar – aka Burma . I will arrive in Bagan (Google image it, seriously cool) around six in the morning tomorrow, find a guesthouse, and hopefully post this blog. *I’m actually posting this from Mandalay – the first place I’ve had time/a decent internet connection since arriving.
I was planning to spend more than 8 hours in Yangon, but after a day
of running around Bangkok getting my Myanmar visa and trying to
exchange money into clean crisp brand new US dollars (more on that later), 2 nights on Kao San Road – the tribal tattoo/happy massage/Asian beer logo cut-off tee-shirt/backpacker travelling around the world to get drunk with other backpacker capital of the world, and a sad goodbye with Courtney (only 6 weeks!), I was ready to get out of
Burma (my taxi driver told me both names work just fine) was a late addition to the initerary, replacing my planned time in Thailand. I decided to visit here after a few places (see: the Paharganj, Kuta Bali, Gili Trawangan, Kao San Road) reinforced my notion that backpacker meccas = Joe annoyed, while others (Nusa Penida, South-West Lombok, Battambong) have me steering clear of the Lonely Planet recommendations.
Some first impressions (after 8 hours walking the streets of Yangon):
– Genuine. The people here have been nothing but smiles and helpful answers to my (hopefully not so) dumb tourist questions, and I no longer feel like I’m a giant wallet to the locals.
– Convienence, or lack there of. I haven’t spotted a single store/restaurant/brand I recognise. Also not nearly as much English as the other countries I’ve been to.
– I’m on my own for real – No more Courtney at my side everyday and apart from a few on the plane, I haven’t seen a single Westerner so far.
– Safety – Maybe it’s all the monks (half a million in the country), but there is almost zero crime here. (Apart from a few recent incidents between Muslims and Buddhists.)
– Confusion – at the government. Here are just a few of many
- Money exchangers will only accept un-marked, un-creased, brand-spanking new US dollars; different denominations are exchanged at different rates (I get more Myanmar Kyat if I exchange a $100 bill than if I exchange 2 $50 bills); oh, and they have this funny habit of devaluing certain denomintions of currency and introducing new ones (imagine if Obama suddenly said that all $20, $50, and $100 bills were worthless, and then put $25, $35, and $75 bills into circulation). Crazy, but it really happened.
- On November 6th, 2005, the government decided to move the capital from Yangon to a place they named Naypyidaw, which had previously been a field full of shrubs. No official reason has been issued, but many believe that the military chief was warned by his astrologer of a foreign attack. Umm….ok
- I hopped in a taxi at the airport and we took off driving down the right side of the road. But the driver was on the right side. Then a car passed us, the driver on the left side of the car. Huh? Turns out before 1975 the steering wheels went on the left side, same as in the states. Then for what I’m sure were logical reasons, the government ordered all cars to have the steering wheel on the right. Then about a year ago they switched it back to the left. “Very hard for driving” the cabbie says. I couldn’t help thinking that living in this country is hard for more than that.
This should be fun, right?
More from Bagan and the rest of Myanmar to come…