Myanmar was like nowhere we’ve ever been, and it’s tough to imagine finding somewhere like it in the future. Rarely in our past travels have we seen such beautiful places, and we’ve flat-out never before met people so genuinely friendly and welcoming as they were there.
Stepping off the plane in Yangon, we breathed in deep and found ourselves reunited with an old friend: warm, humid air scented liberally with cheap chemical cleaning fluids. It was like coming home. The only smell more evocative of travel for us is Trash Fire, which in developing countries is a universal smell spiked with burning plastic. I admit I’ve also intentionally breathed it in and smiled- then coughed.
We’d pre-booked a hotel for our first couple nights with a free airport pickup, and the kid holding the sign with our names took us outside, gave us the sign to hold and left. We uncertainly waited for the actual driver, who soon arrived sporting a smelly bottle labeled “Fashion Perfume” on his dashboard. At the hotel we sat on the terrace and from there Yangon looked like a Wes Anderson movie; the people and colors and action just too picturesque not to be artificial.
Walking around the city felt crowded but friendly and very, very safe. The $2500 in cash we were carrying weight heavily in our pockets, but every tourist who comes to Myanmar has to carry all his money for the whole trip in crisp, unblemished and unfolded US dollars. Travelers checks are not accepted and ATM’s don’t work for international cards (this actually changed while we were there, in fact Myanmar just changed a lot while you were reading this paragraph). So every average tourist walking around is carrying at least a thousand dollars or so in cash, and everyone knows it, and yet no one is ever robbed.
Even if we weren’t going to be robbed we had to be careful walking around town with all the erratic traffic, but even more dangerous were the unbelievably poor sidewalks. Assuming they weren’t occupied by parked cars, they always looked like they’d been hit by a terrible earthquake, and frequently had femur-breaking pits waiting to injure the unwary. Our guidebook warned that it wasn’t unheard of for people to fall into and disappear completely into these pits, sometimes filled with sewage! Carry a flashlight if you’re walking home at night…
Everywhere we looked we were reminded that we were in a very different place. Many people had sandalwood paste smeared onto their faces as a form of sunscreen. Both women and men mostly wore longyis which are basically simple skirts, but lots of the younger guys would jazz up their look with punk haircuts and loud fashionable looking deep v tee shirts. We passed a computer lab where a woman was photo-shopping a man’s head onto a body wearing a fancy three piece suit. Lines of monks walked by collecting food. At restaurants sometimes groups of waiters would surround us and watch us intently while we ate. We’d make motions implying how good the food was and they would look absurdly pleased. This was amazing.
Seemingly every street corner was home to an outdoor teashop, consisting of tiny kindergarten sized plastic stools and tables gathered around a wood-fired stove. Teashops are ubiquitous throughout the country and were always a little mysterious to us in that the universal product on offer- Chinese style unsweetened green tea- is free. If we wanted some we’d sit down and be given a bottomless self-serve thermos of very good tea, and then have to figure out what to order that actually cost money. Typically this would be 30 cent packets of disgusting “three-in-one” (complete with sugar and creamer) instant coffee, which we eventually somehow came to enjoy. Usually snack style foods would also be available, but other times the workers would look at us like we were crazy when we asked them for food, saying “No, this is a tea shop!” Since the tea is free we’re not really sure how those places actually make money. Cups are not washed between customer uses but are instead kept in a bowl of water on the table, to better incubate hepatitis. One time a man sat down next to Denae and picked up her teacup- assuming it wasn’t being used currently- dumped out the contents on the ground and refilled it, drinking away.
Myanmar is a devoutly Buddhist country and Yangon is home to its most important religious site: Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s an incredible place, with hundreds of shrines and buildings centered around a giant golden stupa. On the walk there some street urchin kids sold us some plastic bags to keep our shoes in, then started stroking Denae’s admirably porcelain-colored arms and furtively smelling her hair. Inside we watched a monk take photos of the stupa with his Ipad, while a horde of tourists took photos of a meditating monk. It felt circular. We strolled around, periodically sitting for a while and people watching, taking pictures and enjoying the changing light as the sun set… one of our best visits to a religious site ever.
On a taxi ride we asked our driver what the giant empty looking building we’d just passed was, and he told us it was some kind of national volleyball stadium, and no volleyball was not a popular sport. By way of explanation he just shrugged, and grunted one word: “government.” I’m not going to write much anything about the craziness that is the Government of Myanmar, but it’s a military junta that over the past decades has been isolationist, abusive and totalitarian towards its citizens, oftentimes downright evil, and in general just kind of nuts. Like their decision some years ago to abruptly switch from driving on the left side of the road to the right, in order to distance themselves from the British colonial legacy. No matter that all the cars had steering wheels on the right side of the car, making passing- and kind of driving in general- an incredibly risky endeavor. On our first bus ride the driver sat, king-like, smoking a cigarette and keeping one eye on the road and one on the terrible locally produced movie playing on the TV above him. The spotter hanging out the left side of the bus would tell the driver when it was safe to pass and we’d barrel blindly around whatever oxcart or 1930’s looking vehicle we were currently stuck behind.
From Yangon we headed south to the Golden Rock, a giant boulder that by some geological quirk ended up perched in a gravity-defying spot on the top of a high ridge. It’s an important Buddhist holy site in Myanmar, and the faithful have covered the entire boulder with hammered gold leaf over the years. We reached the site on the back of a big truck crowded with other people, and were dropped off a 45 minute climb from the top of the ridge where we watched groups of four sweaty locals carrying up fat foreigners lounging in litters. We passed stands selling dried bear paws, goat heads and giant snake skins, sold for mysterious religious purposes.
Traveling across the country on buses we’d constantly see golden pagoda tops poking out of the foliage in the distance- one guy scoffed when we mentioned this and said that they were just their churches, which I guess is true, but it still felt magical to us. In Mawlamyine we stayed at a 100 year old home made almost entirely of teak, taking our dinners at a restaurant called Help Grandmother Help Grandfather. Denae bought a longyi at the market from a group of tiny women who looked upset when they held the swatch of fabric up to her, obviously convinced it would never fit this pale behemoth despite the fact it was the size of a generous picnic blanket. They then took her downstairs to have an (entirely unnecessary) extra strip of fabric sewn on to lengthen it. When the desk clerk at our hotel saw her wearing it he shouted “congratulations!” from across the room, saying it was a Kayen (his ethnic group) design. Since then people from at least four other ethnic groups in Myanmar have claimed the design as their own, as have several Laotions. In Bangkok- where there must be lots of Burmese migrants- men kept grinning approvingly at Denae when she wore it and saying Mingalaba, the Burmese word for Hello. Amazing and fun reactions for a tube of patterned fabric.
Throughout our time in Myanmar groups of girls would look at Denae and turn to themselves, giggling and motioning at their noses. Then they’d turn to her and say “very beautiful.” Denae, who is gifted in the nasal department, thought they were making fun of her, but eventually someone told us that they really were complementing her. Whitening creams and the desire for Western features run strong here; she has an especially fine Western nose.
Every day we’d visit tea houses that always had a permanent patina of smoke on the walls, which came to seem like standard décor. We’d drink endless cups of tea and eat tea leaf salads made with fermented tea leaves, peanuts, chickpeas, garlic and god knows what else, apparently a popular snack for students looking for a caffeine pick-me-up. I wanted to try the local rum so I asked how much a shot cost, and was rather startled to learn it was about fifteen cents. Even more startling was that it was really good! A liter cost less than $2 and I suddenly liked Myanmar even more than before.
As tourists we sometimes got the celebrity treatment. On a tour of Ogre Island near Mawlamyne we ended up at a Kayen New Year dance recital and were pushed through a huge crowd to the very front seats where we watched kids doing traditional dances and tried to look sufficiently dignified and appreciative for the dozens of people photographing and videotaping us, rather than the show. After lunch three men helped Denae wash her hands: no joke, one poured water from a bucket, one held the soap, and one held the towel. Which reminds me, in our experience Myanmar seemed entirely free of sexual harassment issues. Women were treated equally without any creepiness; if that hand-washing story were set in India I would have been looming over everyone threateningly to make sure no one got handsy.
Thinking back on Myanmar what I remember most is this constant series of funny or bizarre occurrences. We bought a coconut and watched the most inept team of machete swingers ever try to cut it open sending coconut everywhere, then pick up the pieces from the dusty ground, rinse them off in greenish bucket water and hand them smilingly over to us, as happily expectant as Santa Claus delivering a pony. We were watching the sunset one evening and I looked over to see a dog with hideously swollen and bloody testicles had backed up and was nearly pressing them against Denae’s back. She was very unhappy.
Groups of ladies would see us and start laughing hysterically for no discernible reason other than our general appearance. This really happened all the time, almost every day, and thankfully always at least seemed good-natured. Everywhere were old ladies placidly smoking cigars like they were military generals. Betel nut vendors were on every corner, and both men and women would smile at us with their mouths oozing red juices through rotten teeth; a habit that makes chewing tobacco seem like high culture. Bus conductors handed out plastic bags before a journey, not as puke bags as we initially thought, but to spit betel juice into.
Once a little girl ran up to us in a small village and gave us each a piece of candy, shook our hands and ran off. If you’ve never traveled in poor countries with their hordes of kids begging for pens and candy, you won’t be able to understand what a shockingly unusual experience that was.
To be continued…