Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Of the many places in the world to visit, Myanmar was just so far [conceptually] in my mind for many reasons. It was definitely on my ‘must go’ priority list, but what did I know about Myanmar: not much really.
Rightly or wrongly, in my mind, I understood it…
• Was country off limits to the outside world and only began to open to international tourism around 2010. • To have a military dictatorship. • To have significant humanitarian issues. • There was a popular female politician/ activist that wanted to better this country but had been in house arrest for many years, but in recent years finally released. Below I have attached a few links of recent articles of Aung San Suu Kyi. • Was somewhere in Southeast Asia.
I imagined Myanmar to be ‘jungle-like’ with little infrastructure and little connectivity to the outside world. I imagined it had lots of agriculture and no really ‘big’ cities. In my mind it was truly an ‘unknown’, a ‘foreign’ place, ‘off the beaten path’ and maybe even a bit ‘scary’, ewwww!
While in Singapore, [click here if you missed The Lion City] I went to couple of travel agencies to enquire about places to go in Myanmar, but they looked at me with shock when I said I hadn’t yet applied for my visa. Many said it would take at least five days and they wouldn’t even consider talking to me about an itinerary until I had my visa approval letter.
But, ‘it’s funny how things go’, Myanmar’s process for applying for a visa was made so easy, NOT at all what I expected. I applied online and received my approval letter in less than 12 hours !!
Holy Cow; too bad I had prepaid my Airbnb for the next few nights.
So, ‘it’s funny how things go’, I landed in Myanmar as my first major visit in Southeast Asia! I never imagined it would be my first stop. With my visa approval letter in hand, I decided to fly into Yangon and would plan my steps from there. But first, a little about Myanmar.
A little about Myanmar
You may know Myanmar as ‘Burma’, and I may use these names interchangeably here, but the official name is Union of Myanmar [I’ve also seen The Republic of the Union of Myanmar].
Burma has a long history but more recently was under British rule from the 1800’s until 1948 when it became independent with a Prime Minister, and in the early 1960’s it became under military control.
Under British rule, the country was called Burma and the [former] capital city Yangon, was called Rangoon. In the late 1980’s the military leaders changed the names back to their more ‘indigenous’ names, with the intent of removing the stigma of ‘colonial’ rule but I suspect there are probably other reasons as well.
In Burmese or Myanmar language, Burma is known as either Myanma or Bama. Myanma is the written, literary name of the country, while Bama is the spoken name of the country. In terms of meaning, there is no difference. Both names still refer to the majority group of people in the country, who are also referred to as Burmans. Source
The use of Myanmar or Burma today seems to be controversial in political circles. Some countries still use Burma as they do not recognize the current government rule. When I was there, I tried to use ‘Myanmar’, even though ‘Burma’ flows easier off the tongue, but I found the locals used it interchangeably.
Are you wondering yet how to pronounce Myanmar? Well, locally I heard it pronounced in two ways:
• Me-Uhn-Mar [Me like ‘be’ or ‘street – Uhn like ‘the’ – Mar like ‘far’] • My-Uhn-Mar [My like ‘by’ – Uhn like ‘the’ – Mar like ‘far’]
Did you know …
• Myanmar has an estimated population of more than 55 million • Nay Pyi Taw [Naypyidaw], was named the capital in 2006 and is the third most populous city in Myanmar • Yangon was the former capital and still considered the commercial center. It’s the most populous city with an estimated 7.5 million people • Mandalay is the second most populous city with an estimated 1.5 million people. • Myanmar is bordered by China, Thailand, Laos, India, Bangladesh and still has a coast line of approximately 1200 miles with the Bay of Bengal • Myanmar is the largest country in mainland SouthEast Asia • Approximately half of the country is forest or woodlands • Myanmar is the 26th most populous country [Source] • Approximately 90% of the population are Theravada Buddhists • The minimum wage is 3600 MMK [currency is Kyat] which equates to $2.65 per DAY [based on ROX 1,357] • For families unable to meet education costs, it is common for boys to be selected of girls • School is only compulsory from the ages of 5 to 9 [five years] • Myanmar is the world second largest producer of opium
It’s not so ‘scary’ after all.
Landing in Yangon, I was surprised not only by how large and dense the city was, but the traffic! Of course I hadn’t done my research prior to know the population, Yangon just happened to be one of the major air entry points into the country. My initial reaction was ‘this wasn’t what I expected’, ha.
It was early afternoon by the time I arrived at my accommodations, so I thought I’d meander around and make my way to the train station. It’ll allow me to soak in my new surroundings.
Here are a few things that struck me.
Nearly all men and women wear longyis [like a sarong]. The men ALL seemed to be a plaid-like pattern, where the women’s were stunningly colorful
There are outdoor markets and street vendors EVERYWHERE that sell anything and everything [electronics, vegetables, raw meats sitting in the open, juices, clothes; you name it, it can be found! You don’t need drive-thru’s or big shopping malls here, these markets are it. In some sidewalks and streets, you have to push your way through given all the business being done.
Both men and women can sit in a squatting positions for a very long time!
You can see the British influence in the colonial style buildings
Not surprising there are lots of monks and nuns
You have to pray for your life when crossing a street, if you dare!
I eventually made it to the train station and along the way sat and watched the world go by while enjoying a freshly squeezed [if you can call it that] sugar cane juice and snacked on a couple of unidentifiable treats from vendors as I walked.
The little reading I did do prior to arriving said that many Burmese people speak good English. I’m not quite sure what country that person was writing about as I wasn’t having any joy with the English language. The people however are incredibly friendly and many times you are the object of attention.
Thank goodness again for hand signals as it was easy to explain I wanted to purchase a ticket for the ‘circular’ train. This train was recommended in order to travel ‘like’ and ‘with’ locals and to get a good view of the area surrounding Yangon.
The trains in Myanmar are from the time of the British days and are definitely not known for their speed The circular route itself takes 3 to 4 hours. As we rode the train, there were many scenes of people crossing the train tracks as trains were coming and going, playing on the tracks, and jumping onto the train as it was leaving the stations.
So now the fun part starts in trying to understand when and where to catch the next train for the circular route. Based on various answers there were several possibilities, I’ll just have to figure this out.
I soon learned that I was not the only confused one. In a short time, the few obvious foreigners surrounded together like a magnet. We all seemed to be given different schedules, but hey, for better or worse, now we’re in this together as group, not a party of one, hooray!
The train was an absolute joyful experience. It was just as exciting for me to see how much fun both kids and adults were when you waved to them from the train. Some of course were ready and jumping up and down to get our attention for a return wave, some children would follow the train on the platform as far as they could. Some scenes here and at the bottom of post.
When the train made its way back to the main station, I was very happy when it was suggested we have dinner on ’19th Street’ as it was a block away from my accommodations. 19th Street is buzzing with food vendor after food vendor where you mostly select the meat, fish or vegies, mainly on a skewer, and they will cook them for you. As there were a few of us, we got to savor a few options, tapa style. Topped off with a cold beer, it was a pleasant way to end the night.
Topped off with a cold beer, it was a pleasant way to end the night.
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