Burma

It didn’t take us long to fall in love with Burma/Myanmar. There’s a real vibrancy to the capital, Yangon, but also a real sense of otherness. It’s certainly significantly different to everywhere else that we’ve been in Southeast Asia. It’s clear that it represents a transition zone between there and South Asia, with a lot more ethnically ‘Indian’ people around. The British influence is sporadically evident in the architecture, the fact that English is quite widely spoken and, we would argue, in the relative tidiness – litter is much less common there than we’ve seen it elsewhere. But it’s also clear that no-one’s spending a lot of money on making it look nice. It has that quality that we love – what we call ‘elegant decay’. There are weeds growing from every available crack in the buildings (and there are many), and most are being slowly overtaken by a creeping wave of black mildew. And finally, with the country having been isolated for so long, it seems largely unsullied by the corrosive effects of tourism (and, yes, we’re well aware of the contradictions and hypocrisy that lurk in that comment). The people seem both surprised and pleased to see white faces among them, and are quick to break into a lovely warm smile when they make eye contact.

Orientation

Downtown Yangon is set up as a grid, with wide two-way streets running in one direction and narrow, one-way streets running perpendicular. As is often the case in less developed countries, the streets are ‘commercially themed’, so you walk up one street and it’s filled with little shops selling stationery, and then down the adjacent street, which has nothing but sign-makers.

In the centre, there’s a large park, that was seemingly surrounded by barbed-wire barricades when we were there. However, we could see people in it, so we walked around looking for an entrance. Ahead we saw a grand old building very much in the British colonial style, with a magnificent tall clock tower. On closer inspection, we could see that, like many buildings in Yangon, it was festooned with weeds. We later learnt that it was the high court building.

What we loved about Burma…

The street food
Ebikes at Bagan
Barbecue Street
The Myanmar Railways Booking Office
The peanuts
The street vendors
The Yangon Circular Train
The overnight train to Bagan

What we didn’t love about Burma…

The touts at Bagan Station
Yangon market
Yangon traffic

What we loved about Burma…

The peanuts

During the train ride to Bagan, we passed numerous fields where peanut plants were growing. When we arrived, we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant and when we sat down we were given a small bowl of absolutely delicious locally grown peanuts. None of us are particularly fond of peanuts (indeed, the girls usually won’t eat them), but together we quickly emptied the bowl. The nuts themselves were quite small and had simply been roasted – they were drier and tastier than any we could recall eating.

It turns out that Burma is the world’s tenth largest peanut producer, harvesting around 900,000 tonnes a year from nearly 500,000 hectares of land.

Parents of children with peanut allergies should take note that peanuts and peanut oil are very popular in Burmese cooking.

The Myanma Railways Booking Office

It’s worth visiting the old ticket office at the train station even if you aren’t planning to catch a train – it’s very evocative, harking back to a time when Rangoon was a thriving capital city and the railways were the main mode of transport.

The entrance is on Bogyoke Aung San Road, on the south side of the tracks, facing Sakura Tower and diagonally opposite the Traders Hotel. On the street is an old, moss-and-mildew-covered sign on the wall – it was only when we looked at it a second time that we realised that it also said ‘Booking Office’. Inside, the booking office looks derelict, as if it went out of use decades ago, but look closer and you’ll see that there are lights on and a few of the ticket windows will be open.

If you do want to take an overnight train, this is where you buy your tickets (tickets for the Yangon Circular Train are sold in a different part of the station).

 

For more details of how to buy train tickets, go here.

The Yangon Circular Train

One of the best ways to get a proper insight into Yangon life is to take a ride on the local train. The 46-kilometre circular route, which you can ride for next to nothing, takes you through the suburbs of Yangon and out into the countryside, before looping back into the city – via 39 stops. Thankfully, some of the trains are air-conditioned.

The journey is fascinating, showing a side of Yangon that few tourists would ever see on foot (which is probably a good thing). No matter which side of the train you sit on, it seems, you’re looking out at people living on the wrong side of the tracks. While the train occasionally takes you past some nice-looking, colonial-style houses, many of the habitations are significantly more basic, and in many cases would best be described as squalid. The route passes open-air markets, people drying their washing between the tracks, ‘restaurants’ set up out in the open among the weeds, pigs wallowing in muck, the bloated corpses of dogs and huge mounds of rubbish.  

Even before you leave the city’s outskirts, there are signs of agriculture, with widespread cultivation of some sort of aquatic plant that’s harvested by people sitting on old tyre inner tubes. Farther out, you pass extensive rice paddies, emerald-green seas of waving blades where cone-hatted farmers bend and toil.

We had read that food hawkers jumped aboard the train at regular intervals, but sadly that wasn’t true when we rode the train, so it’s probably worth taking a few snacks on board with you.

The journey takes about three hours to complete. The trains run from about 6am to about 5pm daily, with trains departing every 45 minutes to an hour.

Tickets, which cost 200 kyat, are available from the little ticket office on Platform 7 in Yangon Central Railway Station. You’ll need your passport to buy a ticket.

The young guy we bought our tickets from was very friendly and helpful, and spoke excellent English. After we had been waiting for a while, he came out of his booth and started chatting to the girls, before leading us across the tracks and onto another platform, where he told us the train would soon arrive.

Yangon’s street vendors

The streets of Yangon are full of vendors of varying types – selling everything from mobile phones to antique knick knacks, clothing to lottery tickets. One day, on the way back to the hotel, we came across a book binder sitting on a stool and binding together some A4 pages. Beside him, on his little table, was a very contented sleeping cat.

The next day we came across a very peculiar sight. Sitting on the pavement were two large dark-grey fish, raised up on their front fins. At first we thought they were models, but when we got closer, we discovered that they were real fish – and they appeared to be alive. There was a guy with them who had several more in a metal bowl. They appeared to be some sort of catfish and were pretty seriously armoured. What he was doing with them we never discovered.

But it was the antique knick knacks that really took our fancy. Little brass figurines, strange glass spheres, coins, telescopes – real, old, properly made objects, not the cheap plastic souvenirs you see for sale elsewhere in Asia. Sadly, we told ourselves we couldn’t buy any of it as we still had a long way to travel at that point, but it was still fun to fossick among the treasures.

Barbecue Street

One of the best places to eat in Yangon is 19th Street, otherwise known as ‘Barbecue Street’ in the Chinatown area. Here there are numerous street vendors and restaurants specialising in, you guessed it, barbecues.

When much of Burma was ostensibly ‘dry’, Barbecue Street was one of the few places where it was possible to buy alcohol and that’s still largely the case. On our first night in Yangon we visited quite a trendy bar at the Anawratha Road end of the street where some pretty relaxed jungle was playing on the stereo and the young staff were sitting about waiting for customers.

Most of the restaurants, and barbecues, are located at the Maha Bandula Road end of the street. Choosing a restaurant can be tricky. Many of them have big display cabinets out the front with an array of kebabs set out in them. The idea is that choose a selection of skewers, place them in a plastic basket and hand them over to one of the staff. Not long after, they come back nicely charred. The difficulty lies in finding a restaurant that has everything that you want. In our case that meant a charcoal grill that we could see, an appetising selection of skewers featuring the edible parts of the animals we know and love, and a free table. In the end, we chose one with the first and last of these as a stopgap and ordered one of the most popular dishes in these restaurants – a whole fish rubbed in a marinade of red chilli paste and spices – and some skewers with what looked like some reasonably ‘normal’ bits of chicken on them. The fish was delicious, moist and tasty and just a little bit spicy; the chicken bits, we discovered, were actually parson’s noses, which were also very nice.

We eventually hit upon a favourite restaurant – Shwe Mingalar – which had a really good selection of skewers and cold Myanmar lager on tap.

The overnight train to Bagan

You can, of course, catch a bus from Yangon to Bagan, but by the time we got to Burma, we had well and truly fallen in love with train travel, so we opted to take the overnight train. At the beginning of the journey we began to regret that decision, but by the time we made it Bagan, we had wholly embraced it – that particular train trip was one of the most memorable of our trip.

When the train pulled up, we walked out to find our carriage. The inspector looked at our tickets and showed us to our compartment. And it really was our compartment. We had an entire self-contained section – complete with en suite bathroom, fan, wide seats that pulled out to form a bed, folding tables, two top bunks, a small side table and lockable cupboard, and a small luggage room – entirely to ourselves. Which all makes it sound rather more luxurious than the reality. There was a big puddle of water just inside the doorway and when we opened the door to the smelly, cave-like bathroom we discovered the source – there was a steady stream of water coming down through a hole in the ceiling just inside the door. The door to the little luggage room wouldn’t close and kept banging for the whole journey, and getting the seats to lie flat was difficult in most cases and impossible in two.

After booking our tickets but before getting on the train, we had read some horror stories about the journey that we were about to undertake. Most of them involved the motion of the train and it wasn’t long before we learnt just how true those stories were. As we got under way, the train began to sway from side to side, rocking and rolling rather markedly. And then it began to periodically jerk violently to one side or the other, throwing us against each other. There was also a violent front- and backward motion, as if the carriage were being shunted from place to place in the railyard. And added to all of this was an up and down movement as if we were going over bumps in the road. At one point, while we were still going through Yangon, the frequency of the bumps over which we were travelling somehow became aligned with an underlying harmonic in the carriage that amplified the motion and we suddenly found ourselves bouncing up and down so violently that we were being thrown several inches into the air. As we came back down again, the suspension springs were reaching full compression, causing us to slam down hard on the wheels. All of this violent motion was obviously too much for some sort of reservoir on the roof, as it suddenly began to ‘rain’ outside our front windows. It was also too much for the electrics – when things finally calmed down a little, we discovered that both the fan and the lights had stopped working.

 

The overall effect of all this chaotic motion was akin to being in a small plane going through a particularly bad patch of turbulence. But just to make things a bit more interesting, there were the sounds – the constant clickety-clack, made louder by the fact that we were travelling with the windows open and that said windows were situated right over the wheels, and an intermittent banging noise, as though a heavily muscled man was hitting the underside of the carriage with a very large metal hammer.

As night fell, the lights in the carriage (when they were actually on) began to attract flying insects from far and wide, and we were soon joined by a large dragonfly that terrorised the girls (Kindle Paperwhites are usually great for reading in low-light situations, but not so much when they’re the only light source available to large flying insects). The insects didn’t just come in through the windows; a well-aimed shoe dispatched the large cockroach that emerged from behind the little cupboard. And then there were those that remained outside – large numbers of fireflies floating about like little green embers.

When it was time to go to sleep, we folded the seats down and covered them with a sheet. We decided that we would share the bottom ‘bunks’ – a parent and child in each. The carriage was still being bounced about so violently that we were a bit nervous that we would be bounced completely out of the top ones. Despite this decidedly unrestful motion (which at one point seemed to me as though the carriage had been picked up by a giant child and shaken vigorously), we all did eventually get to sleep, although the adults were woken regularly. We had both taken the positions adjacent to the window and spent long periods just staring up at the sky. In the unpopulated areas we were passing through, the only light came from the vast blanket of stellar pinpricks decorating the dome of the sky, punctuated regularly by the fleeting streaks of shooting stars.

In the morning, we sat and watched the world go by our train window: children on their way to school; bullock carts and more bullock carts; rows and rows of peanut plants growing in fields surrounded by palm trees; young girls getting water from a deep well; more bullocks pulling ploughs; strange, low palm-leaf dwellings with a brick chimney at one end.

Tickets for the train can be bought from the Myanma Railways Booking Office in Yangon. They’re very inexpensive –the equivalent of about US$13 each. It’s apparently usually possible to just walk up and buy a sleeper ticket for the next day without any difficulty – that was certainly true in our case.

 

The ebikes at Bagan

There are three popular options for exploring the vast archaeological site at Bagan: a horse and buggy (slow and bumpy) a bicycle (hot and tiring) or an ebike (electric scooters/mopeds that you can rent for next to nothing and ride around the temple complex at your leisure) – no contest. All around the town you’ll find little stalls set up with local entrepreneurs renting out these bikes – it’s definitely worth shopping around, as the prices vary pretty significantly. You can also arrange to have them dropped off at your hotel early in the morning.

The one downside to these bikes is that they have a finite amount of charge in their batteries and no real way to top them up during the day short of returning to the stall from which you rented them. On our second day at Bagan, we watched with some distress the rapid downward movement of the battery indicators on our bikes and on our way home, as went through the little village close to the town, they began to lose power. Not long after, they gave up altogether. We eventually figured out how to use the pedals to give the bikes short bursts of power, allowing us to limp back home.

 

Yangon’s street food

As in much of Asia, the streets of Yangon are well stocked with vendors selling all manner of tasty snacks. While there are some that have a clear nod to Indian culture – people selling samosas deep-fried in a wok over an open fire, for example – there are plenty that are quite unlike anything we’ve seen elsewhere.

Our favourites were little round, oily bread-like things (I think they’re made using rice flour) with small pieces of chilli, fresh coriander and fresh tomato, cooked in a little metal skillet (the thing they most reminded us of was focaccia). They are cut up with a pair of scissors, placed in a small plastic bag and sprinkled with a mixture of sesame seeds, salt and some unidentified brown spices. They’re absolutely delicious, although the chillies were a bit too potent for us and we mostly tried to pick them out.

A fairly ubiquitous offering is the Mont Lin Ma Yar, which roughly translates to “husband and wife snacks”. They’re similar to the bread-like snacks mentioned above, but small – little bite-size morsels of rice flour batter cooked in large quantities in a cast-iron pan that resembles a muffin tin. Again, they come with a range of added ingredients – the quail egg ones are clearly among the most popular (they must go through an awful lot of quail eggs).

We barely scratched the surface, when it came to sampling the street food (partly because we kept going back to the “focaccia” stall – to the point where the woman manning it came to recognised us and started to give us a little bit extra for free), although we did also buy quite a lot of corn on the cob and fresh fruit from street stalls. And the good news is that we never got sick from anything we ate.

 

 

What we didn’t love about Burma…

 

The touts at Bagan Station

Stepping off the train at Bagan station, we were approached by a local guy with wispy facial hair. As the script requires, he asked us where we were going, and with that, we took an instant dislike to him. He followed us into the station building, quoting us 15,000 kyat to get into town, but we did our best to ignore him as we bought our train tickets back to Yangon. By the time we were done, the station was virtually empty – there was just us, our oily tout and his mate. They continued to follow us as we left the building, dropping the price to 12,000. But the guy we bought the train tickets off had told us that the standard price for a taxi into town was 4,000–5,000, so we told them 5,000 or nothing. They laughed our gambit off, so we blew them off and walked up to the main road (in the fairly extreme heat). They hopped into their van and followed us out, continuing to ask us where we were going, but we had had enough, so we just completely ignored them. They eventually got the message and drove off, leaving us standing on a street corner wondering how we were going to get to our hotel.

After a short while, a minivan came along and stopped beside us, but it wasn’t going where we were and looked too full to fit us in anyway. Not long after, a taxi came past, but it already had a passenger. And then, not long after that, another taxi arrived, empty this time, and the driver wound down his window. We told him where we wanted to go and he quoted us 7,000, which was close enough for us, so we hopped in and off we went.

 

Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon

Rather than a typically chaotic Asian market with stalls of interesting stuff at bargain prices, this is a big covered place with established stalls that are more like shops. We didn’t stay long.

 

Yangon traffic

When we first arrived in Yangon, we sailed through border control, picked up our bags, grabbed some cash from an ATM and then went to the taxi desk to arrange a cab to our hotel. We were then led outside to a car, introduced to its young driver and off we went. We hadn’t gone very far, however, before we got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And so began our slow crawl into central Yangon. At one point, we heard a siren behind us and the driver pulled over to let an ambulance past. He then cheekily pulled out behind it and for the first time in a while we got out of first gear as we sailed along past the other cars that had pulled over to let the ambulance past.

After something close to an hour, we got close to the hotel (which was located roughly 16 kilometres from the airport), but had to go down a narrow one-way street so that we could loop back around into the narrow one-way street on which our hotel was located. This was easier said than done, thanks to all of the vans unloading merchandise and the double-parked cars.

For more images from our trip, visit here.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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