Rangoon, Burma. The name conjures the tropical blues of a steamy colonial outpost. We wondered: would the current reality still match?
Streets of Rangoon
Aesthetically, Rangoon (aka Yangon) appears a sultry and poetic melancholy mash of faded glory. Aged sidewalks stand upended by the twisted roots of banyan trees. Crows with supremacy over sky and street peck amongst strewn garbage, fallen leaves and the ashes of long extinguished night fires. Grand colonial buildings, unsuccessfully defying the force of tropical deterioration and a lifetime of monsoon-to-dry season cycles, evince a certain beauty in their decrepitude.
A Delightful Intersection
Burma (aka Myanmar) sits at the intersection of Southeast Asia and South Asia; nowhere is this more apparent than in the capital, Rangoon. Streets unfold into a spirited cultural mosaic of ethnic Burmese, Indians, and Bangladeshis.
A Culinary Surprise
The food, too, delights. Like kids in a candy store, we reveled in colorful and tasty street food, stopping on almost every street corner to try something new for only a few cents. Bowls of crushed samosa soup, rice noodles with Burmese curry, and spiced cold noodles all convey cultural influences from across Asia.
And the people. There’s a message and lesson in all those beautiful faces: they have little, their lives are difficult, and their government is oppressive – but so many of them find the excuse to frequently crack genuine smiles.
We found the people of Burma to be resilient, resourceful, humbling, and inspiring. Some of the kindest people we’ve come across in all our travels.
Over the coming days, you’ll notice these themes as we share our month-long journey through Burma in photos, food passages, stories and cultural observations.
For now, enjoy our photos from Rangoon.
What to Do:
- Take the Circular Train from the main train station ($1) for a very slow but wonderful journey around Rangoon. Enjoy market women balancing trays on their heads and dancing as the train trundles through the countryside.
- Visit Shwedagon Paya, Burma’s most holy Buddhist temple, in the late afternoon. Join in with the locals and light incense or pour water over holy statues to reinforce your good fortune. Make sure you catch the broom brigade circling around the marble floors; remain until sunset to enjoy the waning light bouncing off the gilded stupa (over 53 tons of gold leaf!).
- Stroll through the fruit and vegetable piles of Theingyi Zei market (perpendicular to Anawrahta Road, across from Sri Kali Temple) in the early morning or late afternoon. We stumbled upon this market street on our first day in Rangoon and were overwhelmed by the the people, their smiles and the beauty of their vegetables. This market became a regular late afternoon stop for us.
How to Get There: We flew Air Asia from Bangkok, Thailand to Rangoon, Burma. Uncertain about the length of our stay, we booked a one-way ticket and later purchased a one-way return ticket. Each leg cost around $50 (January 2008).
Where to Stay: Ocean Pearl Inn or Mother Land Inn (2) are similar in price ($15 for a room with A/C, private bath, breakfast and free airport pickup). Mother Pearl is a bit smaller, more family run and closer to the center.
Where to Eat: We ate on the street (mainly vegetarian) – samosas, soups, pancakes – with reckless abandon and never got sick. Head to Nila Biryani Shop (or one of its neighbors) on Anawrahta Road for cheap and filling biryani and dosai. In the evening, stop by the barbecue street (between Mahabandoola and Anawrahta Streets) for an endless array of grilled meat and vegetable skewers. Wash it all down with freshly pulled Myanmar beer. For a mid-afternoon snack, follow the smell of freshly ground coffee at 128 Sule Paya (Pagoda) Road to Let Ywe Sin hole-in-the-wall cafe (a few doors down from Aroma cafe and Castle Internet Cafe). Two strong milk coffees and a beautifully light flan will run you a grand total of $0.80.
Exchanging Money in Myanmar: Make sure you stock up on crisp US dollars or Euros (dollars seem to fetch better rates) before arriving. There are no ATM or credit card machines. Hotels offer decent exchange rates, but the market near Sule Paya gave us the best exchange rate in the country. The more you exchange, the better your rate.
Internet: Between systemic government censorship and frequent power outages, checking your internet in Burma requires a stunning amount of patience. Castle Internet Cafe (142-146 Sule Pagoda Road, 2nd floor) offers the speediest internet for the price. You can sometimes check email at the guest houses as well, but for a higher fee.
Visa: The Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok does a brisk business in tourist visas. Apply from 8 AM to noon and bring two passport photos, a photocopy of your passport and 880 BHT (around $25). Return three working days later in the afternoon to pick up your 4-week tourist visa. Be sure not to list any journalistic or humanitarian organizations in your application. The government of Myanmar maintains a hard copy and Microsoft Word “black list” of organizations they consider unwelcome or suspect.