Monday, 28 February 2011

Asian Adventure 21 :: 22-27 Feb '11 :: Yangon and Bagan

"Grand" Hotel

"Manchester, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Arsenal", said the taxi driver after he had learned my native country. An impressive knowledge of the English premier league teams and strong brand awareness of the BBC seems to sit with many Myanmar citizens.

Near City Hall

Beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda

Dusty roads, uneven pavements with man-sized gaping holes and road barriers covered in barbed wire characterise Myanmar's highways. Colonial buildings stand decaying, their fa├žades covered with black soot and mould. Night falls; limited street lighting makes the pavements even more precarious to the untrained eye. Over-loaded buses, battered and falling to pieces clatter past at speed, weaving in and out of rows of saloon cars from the 1980s. A knee-high child lingers by the side of a busy road, examining something freshly plucked from the floor. No obvious parent is in sight.

Downtown, the streets team with foodstalls and betel nut sellers. Here, you can experience the true smell of Asia - a heady mixture of exhaust fumes, street barbecues, decaying tropical vegetation and the occasional whiff of sewerage.

Street food

Snake head, anyone?

Betel nut stall

Every other block, you'll find a set of home telephones laid out on a table or a make-shift booth. It costs over US$1000 to buy a SIM card in Myanmar. People either rent mobile phones or stand in the street on a home phone hooked up to the local network, which is sketchy at the best of times.

Home phone a friend

The local currency notes are limp and blemished, as if they have been through the washing machine and left out to dry in a muddy puddle. Perversely, US dollars won't be accepted as tender unless they are clean and crisp, as if fresh off the press.

Traditional dress is prevalent and thanaka (a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground tree bark) coats the cheeks of many women and children. Whilst heavily controlled - many have had their passports confiscated - people are warm, welcoming and calm. Strange for a country ruled by a military so distant - how many people know that the capital was moved from Yangon in 2005 three hundred kilometres north to Nay Pyi Taw?

Cleaning time at Shwedagon Pagoda

Sunset prayers at Shwedagon Pagoda

Taxis rides are a beltless swerving adventure in a car that doesn't even have a tape deck, only a short wave radio. Forget about the cooling fan, the windows are permanently down. Those with an aversion to hairdryers should not apply. Our last taxi driver of the holiday was high on betel nut, at every traffic light throwing his head back and cackling as he saw the whites of our eyes in his rear view mirror. It was one of those moments when you had to laugh. Nervously.

Travelling up north on Air Bagan is a reprieve from the bustling streets of Yangon. Welcome to the land of horse and cart. A bandana face mask comes in useful for the dust kicked up by your trusty steed and a torch can save you from descending pitch black interior temple staircases. Children pester you for 'bon-bons' (clearly, the French hand out the most sweets) and no major temple is without rows of 'same same but different' souvenirs. That said, the views are simply stunning.

Bagan Skyline

View of the largest temple in Bagan

Rare Double Buddha

In all, Myanmar is a mystery. The expectation that the military would be highly visible and that you might just get locked up for whispering "Aung San Suu Kyi" did not materialise. Yangon is rough, ready and fast decaying. Bagan is peaceful, nostalgic and so far only gently kissed by the plump lips of tourism. What will happen in the next twenty years is uncertain. As political corruption allows infrastructure to crumble and sag, will the Myanmar of today eventually wither and die? Will the rulers simply keep moving to new outposts where they can build shiny new palatial homes leaving behind one urban mess after another?

Check it out:
Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, Yangon
Monsoon (85-87 Thien Byu Road, Yangon)
Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scott Market), Yangon

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