Myanmar was the the country I picked for my first solo big backpacking experience.
Why? Basically I wanted to go to South East Asia, making the most of its food culture, safety, nice weather and people, without being surrounded by massive groups of young backpackers. I kinda felt like Myanmar was the country people would pick once they had already been exposed to more popular ones, such as Vietnam or Thailand (and it turned out to be very much true).
I really felt the need to explore off the beaten track places, to connect with locals that were genuinely welcoming and not seeing you like a walking dollar. I was intrigued by its mysticism, the complex political/social background and its diversity.
In those two weeks I challenged myself on a daily basis, ventured out of my comfort zone more often than I could have possibly imagined and eventually became aware of my strength and felt balanced in a way I hadn’t felt in years.
I wish I could hold onto that feeling, and, hopefully, going through my travel diary and writing this blog, will help me getting closer to that.
I landed in Yangon after three flights and two layovers where, if you skip my failed attempt to hold back the tears while watching “Bohemian Rhapsody” and getting lost several times in the humongous Hong Kong airport, not much happened. While waiting for the passport checks in Yangon I had to start talking to a girl, Ceclia, who had been sittingright next to me since the very first flight. Felt like destiny wanted us to connect. We found out we had a very similar rough plan of what we wanted to see. We exchanged contacts hoping to catch up during our stay, however, for one reason or the other, it really never happened (we both couldn’t foresee that we would have eventually seen each other and gotten close once back in Berlin).
After I got my passport stamped and I left the airport I found myself thinking “well, this is the moment when Isa, who had always been the organised one between the two us, would know exactly how to get us to the hostel”. I went for what had always been my strong point: being spontaneous and asking people. In few minutes I was the only tourist on the local bus to downtown (40 cents a ride, YAS!). It was so bittersweet, after traveling all over the world together, to be doing this on my own. While watching the sun going down on this unknown metropolis, I texted her saying that my final stop was named Sule (“Sula” was the nickname she had called me throughout our relationship). Once again, I had to think fate was playing some tricks on me.
Sule turned out to be not so far from my hostel, YAMA, a pretty impersonal place that, apart from me, looked completely deserted. I fought the tiredness and left to grab dinner and get accustomed to the energy of the city. Humid sticky air, neon lights, stray dogs, dodgy unkept corners, plenty of traffic and sirens wailing. At first sight it looked less charming than Bangkok but definitely way less chaotic than Manila. I very soon noticed that people, women especially, had their cheeks painted in a white clay-looking make-up and wondered what that was about. Later I found out it was “thanaka”, and people use it both for cosmetic reasons and as a protect themselves against the burning sun. Men seemed to prefer wearing the longyi, a traditional long skirt rather than trousers. The hipster-ish Rangoon Tea House was my choice for the evening, providing me a cozy place where to start my diary and chill but mostly serving me probably the most elaborated dinner I had in Myanmar: banana flower croquettes, tofu salad with lime leaves, peanuts, red onions and garlic oil and a chai tea cheesecake as dessert. Oh that was a way too good start and kinda pushed my gastro-hopes for the rest of the holiday a bit too high .
I didn’t stay out long thinking that my body needed some sleep, my jet lag didn’t seem to agree with that though.
With one day on my hand I was pretty realistic about the amount of things I could do in the Burmese capital.
Woke up not long after I finally managed to fall asleep and had breakfast on the rooftop of the hostel. It was a grey hazy morning, which seems to be a pretty standard way for days to start in Myanmar. I would be a liar if I say the view from the rooftop was a dream. Brutal is what I would actually opt for: 360 degrees of massive concrete buildings dotted with condenser units and satellite dishes. Nevertheless, I couldn’t feel more hyped.
My plan for the morning was to join a free walking tour around the city centre (old good tradition since South America). It had proved several times to be the easiest (maybe laziest?) way to get the essentials checked and, at the same, to take in a few relevant info about the country’s background. I made the most of being an early bird, and before joining the tour, as the sun suddenly showed, I indulged doing some people watching while aimlessly walking around. I simply love to see a city coming to life.
The tour (Yangon walks) went exactly as predicted: in a couple of hours I got exposed to the “unmissable” spots of Yangon, basically a bunch of rundown buildings that had seen better days, but also got my chance to bombard the guide with all the hundreds of questions that crossed my mind, specifically about Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s very much debated leader. It soon became clear that what caught my eye wasn’t the dusty, pigeon-poop covered historical building, but the street, and its people: the markets, the weird goods and never-seen-before street food and fruit they were selling, the smiles, the yelling… It was a warm irresistible frenzy. As the tour was over, following the guide’s advice, I ventured to the local market on the 26th street. And there I finally got the vibe I was looking for: honest, real, rough. A sensory overload in big bold capital letters. Butchers right next to flower stalls, fishmongers and merchants of every sort, groups of young monks and novices gently begging for money and always getting it, old ladies carrying way too heavy crates on their heads and me, the only Westerner to be seen. Everything was happening in the most narrow of alleys at a pace that was simply too fast for my eyes to keep up with.
Way less spectacular for me, but obviously pretty relevant towards other tourists was the Bogyoke Aung San market, a market hall for your ultimate jade shopping (or puppets, or carved statues… you name it!). A bit too much of a tourist trap for me, I didn’t indulge there too long and opted for some local favourite restaurant instead. Well, restaurant is a pretty big word for the fast-food chain looking “Nilar Biryani and Cold Drinks”, but i forgot all about its shabby looks as soon as I had a first taste of the house speciality: the most mouth drooling chicken biryani.
Made extremely dopey by the food in my stomach and the tropical weather, I pushed aside the idea of taking Yangon’s famous circle train for a few stops and headed back to the hostel for a power nap, aimed at recharging my batteries before the day’s gran finale: a late afternoon visit at the Shwedagon Paya.
And what a good decision it was!
Hopped on very inexpensive taxi, like most things in Myanmar (bless this country!) and reached the city landmark right in time to witness all of its sacred energy and traditional ceremonies. On my diary I wrote “absolutely stunning, a good reason alone to visit Yangon”. I spent a good couple of hours just slowly exploring around, enjoying the feeling of my bare feet on the cold marble stone, admiring the intricate mosaics, trying to understand what the ceremonies were about, following the monks with my gaze and taking one break after the other to smell the incense and simply contemplate the moment in a secluded corner of a pagoda or under the shades of a big tree.
With a heart full of peace and gratitude and a way too light mind for my standards (maybe I had inhaled too much incense?!) I found myself strolling around the bordering park, “People’s Park”. Clean, even more serene than my thoughts in that moment, adorned with massive ficus trees, tree houses, rose gardens and the most beautiful open-air greenhouse I’ve ever seen. The vibe in the golden hour was hyper romantic and I made the most of it while on a date with myself.
I got abruptly awaken from my daydreaming by checking the time and realizing that, no matter how sticky, sweaty and probably smelly I was, I had to hurry up and go back to the city centre. Bertie, who had been living in Yangon for a few years and found his happy place there, after being put in touch with me by our common friend Steph, had invited me to meet him for dinner. Most stupid decision I took, while I tried to be bold and fearless, was to say to him “please, order for me all the weirdest stuff you can think of”. Which he did. I regretted it as soon as I saw the infamous 100 years eggs salad, that, as I could have easily predicted, kept me awake all night throwing up.
First gastro-intetestinal signs after less than 36hours in a new country, that is still my personal record!
THANAKA, a Burmese diary.
Miranda Sensomat RE, Fujicolor C200 (35)
Canon EOS 300, Kodak Gold 200 (35)