First impressions of Yangon
Myanmar is again being taken over by foreigners. This time it’s not the domineering British imperialists or the Imperial Japanese army.
Nowadays it’s the camera and dollar-carrying tourists who are flocking into the unclaimed lands.
Unclaimed, this is, by the jetsetters looking for luxury resorts, the young backpackers who want to explore the world but fear straying from the trail without the safety of hordes of clones, and the families who feel an advance visa means danger and difficulties.
Myanmar is now officially open for tourism and the 30 per cent jump in visitor arrivals in 2012 proves that.
Sitting in the taxi from Yangon International Airport to my guesthouse, my eyes dart between every window, trying to capture the essence immediately.
I will come to find that it takes a while to understand Myanmar and my place as a foreigner within it. But the initial impressions confuse me slightly.
From the buildings alone, I see a city in transition. Old decrepit apartment blocks, stained from the dirt of recent history, sit incongruously adjacent to flashy modern supercentres with advertising on television billboards.
One block will look like a state-run dormitory and the next like a state-owned palace. Such are the distinctions after decades of military and socialist rule.
But now the money is flowing in, capitalism is becoming the ruler of this domain.
The first ATMs for foreigners have arrived in the country in just the last month or so. It shows not just the easing in international banking sanctions but also the need to provide for the increasing tourist hordes.
It’s an opening up to the world of a country notorious for its recent isolationism. (Not that the ATM in Yangon seems to accept my credit card, mind you!)
The streets of Yangon
The first evening I wander the streets of Myanmar’s largest city in search of food. I’m surprised by the activity everywhere – crowds fill the pavements, traffic clogs the roads and everyone seems to be buying or selling something.
The street food everywhere makes my walk seem like a gauntlet run where the smells and tastes are trying to assault me from every direction.
I have to tread carefully to avoid the people rushing towards me and those sitting on the ground.
The haze from the dust kicked up in the air adds an extra visibility challenge. The march towards modernity has not yet trampled on the basics of local dinner time in Yangon.
Under the military junta, Myanmar became one of the poorest countries in the world. Although things have improved, you can see the poverty immediately.
While it is rich in natural resources, those profits have never filtered down to the ordinary people. There’s a simplicity to the way people look, with their bland but beautiful longyis around their legs.
Don’t expect to see the youngsters of Yangon walking along talking on mobile phones – they are much more likely to be pulling a trolley to collect bottles or pushing a cart with produce for a store.
In the first 24 hours, as I explore the city a bit further, I notice an obvious lack of one thing – fear.
You still quite often get a sense of curiosity and novelty from the locals at having so many white people in their city but there’s no fear.
And from the tourist’s perspective, it is an extremely warm and welcoming place. There’s no fear of theft or violence.
There doesn’t even seem to be the fear of getting ripped off that you normally get in this continent (although you still need to have some sharp haggling skills).
In every face you see a generosity and a kindness. It’s the overriding first impression I get here in Myanmar.
The buildings may be dirty, the streets may be clogged with cars and dust, the food may be cooked from a stove on the footpath – but it is all lost in the brightness of the people.
Myanmar may be again being invaded by foreigners. But the locals are welcoming them this time.
Let’s hope this tourist invasion leads to better things than all the previous ones.
32 thoughts on “Myanmar invaded”
Very interesting! That picture of all the cars stacked up just draws me in.
I’ve followed a couple other bloggers that went to Myanmar recently and didn’t really like it at all. It will be interesting to see your perspective.
I don’t know what those other bloggers are talking about! It’s a beautiful country with so many interesting things to see and such warm people to meet. Stick around for my posts over the next few weeks and you’ll see what I mean!
Great article! I’m going there in 3 weeks and will be spending a total of 25 days there – I hope it affords me more time to relax into daily life and take everything at the slower pace than I normally would.
I think 25 days is a really good length of time. It gives you a chance to see all the standard sights but also get off the tourist trail a little and explore some other parts of the country that are a bit more authentic. There’ll be no need to rush at all.
Were you in Thailand before this? I think we’re on the same path! Finally making it to Burma in March and this post gives so much more dream fodder 🙂
It seems like we’re heading along the same path. You’re going to love it here in March – and I’ve got plenty more stories coming to give you some inspiration for the trip!
Myanmar, another country breaks the bamboo curtain and unveils itself. I guess it is attracting visitors from outside for a variety of reasons, tourists, businessmen, diplomats etc. But nice to read about the simplicity of the people, who would rather work hard than steal.
Yeah, the commercialisation of some of the other SE Asian countries isn’t noticeable at all here. I hope it stays that way for a long time – it’s the way the people here are anyway.
Myanmar seems an interesting place, totally worth discovering. Love your photos.
It’s definitely a place worth discovering and I would recommend visiting sooner rather than later, because the whole country is changing a lot with respect to tourism.
I’m heading there in 3 weeks. Hoping its not full of tourists whilst I’m certain all the charm & character will outweigh this. I adore your images of Yangon, they capture a genuine essence.
It’s not too touristy at all – only in a few of the famous sights when the tour buses of middle-aged Americans arrive. You’ll definitely see the charm and the character everywhere you go!
I can imagine it’s a special to be there right now. I’ve visited a few times, the first being back in the 80s when the first one-week tourist visas were approved and it was a wildly different country then – nothing modern at all. In fact I couldn’t even call out of the country (except for one time, with military assistance). I loved Myanmar, both Yangon and the interior. I hear many places have opened up now but when I first went most of the country was closed off and travel to some places meant you’d be the only foreigner for miles. Thanks for this glimpse into a moment in time – at the risk of sounding a bit cliche it is history in the making… and you’ve captured it beautifully.
Wow, I should’ve known you were coming to Myanmar before it was cool – and when it was still quite a struggle! 🙂
It is interesting to see it now but I wish I had seen it back in the 80s. That’s when the real history was going on (even if it was a time most people would like to forget).
There are still parts of the country that are closed but I guess things will gradually open up as the conflicts die down in those areas. Things are really in a state of flux at the moment so there’ll be more opportunities to come back and see Myanmar develops.
Great stuff…and awesome photos Michael. I had to scroll back to the one of the cars two or three times…
The cars were amazing – and the junkyard stretched on for hundreds and hundreds of metres. It’s a pity I couldn’t capture the scale of it. Incredible!
Great article! I really want to go to Myanmar before it gets too overrun with tourists. The whole not seeing tourists as walking wallets thing, that you often get in other more touristical countries is such a breath of fresh air in Asia. Thats why I liked Cambodia and Laos more than Vietnam and Thailand, and I think I would have a similar experience in Myanmar.
Although the tourism is clearly increasing, it doesn’t have the same feeling as countries like Thailand and Vietnam. I’m sure it will change over time but hopefully not to that extent. Now is certainly a great time to visit!
Beautiful photos. Makes me want to go to Yangon even more!
There’s never been a better time! 🙂
I’d like to go back to Myanmar, we were there in 2003 and I cannot imagine how much it must have changed now that it’s opened up. I remember having to be very careful with our money because there were no ATMs or anywhere to take out a cash advance. We heard that we could possibly get a cash advance at a high end hotel out of our credit cards, but it was a whopping 20% service charge. Instead, we kept to a strict budget and loved every minute of it. Myanmar was a very special place to visit, and I am sure that the people are just as wonderful as they always have been. Hopefully they have a positive and happy future.
I would love to have seen it in 2003. My favourite places have been the quiet ones without the busloads of tourists so I can only imagine what it would have been like when the whole country was basically like that!
The good thing about going right now is that the country is in a period of transition, so you do now have the ‘luxury’ of being able to get cash or call ahead to a guesthouse and make a reservation (most of the time, at least) but you don’t have all the huge tourism infrastructure that neighbouring countries have.
That is a great post for first impressions of Yangon. My aunt is finishing up her trip there right now. I hope I can make it there soon too.
I hope your aunt had a great time. I would love to hear some other impressions from people. I just think it’s such a wonderful place!
So, they are budhist mostly?
Yes, about 90 per cent of people are Buddhist. And they are very active in their faith so it’s a big part of everything they do.
Great post and pictures! I’ve made four trips to Burma so far, both to visit with family (my wife is Burmese) and also to see the sights. To date, I have covered Rangoon, Bagan, the Mandalay/Sagaing/Amarapura/Mingun region, Maymyo, Inle, Bago, Twante, Kyauktan and Kyaikhtiyo (Golden Rock Pagoda), but there is still so much left to see and experience. I love spending time in the country, and the Burmese are perhaps the friendliest people I’ve encountered in my travels around Southeast Asia. Rangoon (Yangon) is an interesting city with a lot of local color; if you’re ever back in Rangoon, I’d suggest a 5 AM visit to Rangoon’s central Fish Wholesale Market (San Pya Zei) for a very memorable local experience. My first trip there was in March 2000 and my last trip was in March 2009, and I had even seen a lot of changes in Rangoon during that period; I’m sure it will have changed much more when I return there in a few years. During my first visit, we encountered a few of the generals’ passing convoys, where traffic would be stopped to let a couple of trucks of armed soldiers, a couple of Mercedes, and a chase truck or jeep with more armed soldiers pass by. There were also soldiers guarding some of the government buildings or houses of some of the members of the military government, with a fair number of HK G3’s, old M16’s and older surplus M1 carbines seen in the hands of soldiers or security personnel on the streets. By 2006, most of that was gone and I suspect one would see even less of that today. I am hopeful that the Burmese people will benefit from the influx of tourist dollars, yet the country will still retain its simple charms. Thanks for a wonderful post; I look forward to reading about your other experiences in Burma. Cheers!
I’m very jealous of how much you’ve seen of Myanmar. I tried to cover a lot of ground but there were lots of places I never made it to. It’s definitely the kind of place you can visit more than once. And one of the great things about going back regularly is that you can see some of these changes. The whole country is in such a period of transition that it’s fascinating to watch as an outsider. Enjoy your next trip and thanks for the tips!!
Thanks for sharing. Must have been an adventure in the “golden triangle”! Cannot wait to visit this amazing country again. With everything going on in Thailand I think more people will travel to Myanmar in 2014. Found an article with more information on Myanmar’s rich history and culture: http://www.travelindochina.com/blog-articles/welcome-to-burma/ – may be useful to fellow South East Asia travellers.
Thanks Coby. I think the issues in Thailand have settled down and hopefully the tourism trade will be back to normal shortly (for their sake). But, yes, Myanmar is a fantastic alternative (or add-on). It has it’s own problems with civil unrest but when I was there for a month I found it to be one of the safest countries in the region for a tourist.
I love this blog post! I lived in Yangon for a year in 1989 when I was 8/9 years old. My father worked in oil. I’m returning this year for the first time in over 25years! I’m so excited, and just a little bit emotional. I remember the people just as you described them! I can’t wait to go ‘home’.
That’s awesome! Gosh, I can’t imagine what it would have been like back then – especially for an 8 year old. It would have been a whole other world. I’m so glad you have happy memories. Have a great trip and I hope it lives up to what you remember!!