We travelled into Myanmar (aka Burma) from Thailand using one of the land border crossings that recently re-opened. We walked over “Friendship Bridge” and into the town of Myawaddy. The town, like I suspect many other border towns, has a wild and dangerous feel to it. There’s a tense buzz in the air and an unfriendliness that exudes from the men milling about and making onward arrangements.
The next morning we took a minibus from Myawaddy to Yangon. The entire 13 hour journey wound through the hills and countryside and we got to experience for the first time the views of vast plains with small hills plonked here and there. We also saw the serene old-fashioned way of life lived by most people: teak huts; bulls pulling ploughs; and chickens and children running amok.
After our scenic journey from the border our first impression of Yangon was that it’s a traffic choked city with a dilapidated feel and all the usual grime. We decided to try and lift our spirits by visiting the city’s most revered sight: a giant gold Buddhist pagoda called Shwedagon. However, on arrival we discovered that the top part of the building was covered for renovation. It didn’t help that we had also stepped back into a world where we were the main focal point and source of amusement to many locals (my delicate ego struggles with too much pointing and laughing).
We spent the rest of our time wandering the city on foot. We saw markets with dodgy-acting gem traders, oodles of street food stalls, people mingling in the park, a pavement lined with makeshift homes and protest banners, young men playing football in the wide backstreets between grand decaying colonial buildings and night-time beer guzzling outside restaurants.
One evening we rewarded ourselves with a few cocktails in the imposing Strand Hotel and its sophisticated bar. Our initial concerns about being kicked out for our dusty shoes and the “we’ve-been-travelling-in-these-clothes-for-8-months” look seemed to melt away by the time we had finished our second drink.
Despite the slow start, we fell in love with Yangon; it has a personality unlike any other city we have visited – with its occupants’ simple lifestyle at odds with the majestic colonial buildings and a feeling of safety and friendliness despite its chaotic roads and footpaths – all of which means I have been hankering to go back ever since we left.