Myanmar had always intrigued me. It was the last Southeast Asian country to open its doors to the world, so thankfully, it still didn’t have a McDonald’s or 7-11 when I visited in 2013. I wanted to experience the historical and cultural authenticity of the place before it was too late.
After years of self-isolation, Myanmar is slowly taking baby steps to democracy and it wouldn’t take long before it completely opens up to the world (and throngs of tourists!). Coming from an ASEAN country myself (Philippines), I love the fact that Myanmar still required me to get a visa.
Just looking at the old school visa stamp on my passport told me I was about to see a Southeast Asia I had never seen before.
Both sides of the road
Wait, am I really in Yangon?! Why is there bumper to bumper traffic? I thought it was going to be all temples and sunshine and smiling monks…
As if the heat and dust weren’t enough to shake up this idealistic traveler, it wasn’t comforting that my cab driver also drove like a maniac.
“Mingalabar! Do you speak English?” I asked my driver.
“Yes, yes!” he said with a toothy smile.
“Why do people here drive from BOTH the left and right hand sides of the car?” I asked with incredulity. Up until then, I had only known urban worlds that operated with either left- or right-hand drive cars. Not from both sides because this could either mean road rage of spoiled city dwellers or freak accidents, again, of spoiled city dwellers.
The driver then explained that a lot of classic or used Japanese cars are imported into Myanmar. “More like dumped in Myanmar,” I thought to myself. That would explain the tiny cars and grandpa vans from yesteryears that continue to clank, belch and rule the streets of Yangon.
“So…how long have you been driving?” I asked curiously.
“Just a year ago,” the crazy driver said proudly.
“Oh boy…” was all I could mutter under my breath, as he stepped on the gas and our old, rickety car surged onto oncoming traffic.
The mighty Shwedagon
To be honest, there came a point in my travels that all the temples, stupas and pagodas began to look the same. I would’ve been sick of it if I saw another temple but someone told me, “If there’s only one pagoda you should see in Southeast Asia, it’s the Shwedagon.”
I’m glad I did. I’ve never been around so much gold plates and gems before! More than being the most sacred site for Buddhists in Myanmar, the Shwedagon had also become the centerpiece of people’s lives. I remember spending hours just watching the Burmese – adults praying, children running, monks laughing, teenagers chatting, and people doing whatever normal folks would do. It’s like their version of Central Park, only with shiny, shimmering gold everywhere.
The fortune teller
“Jenny, you must go to this reaaally good fortune teller in Yangon!” said Audra and Maria, these lovely American girls I met on the road. You see, I don’t really believe in fortune tellers but curiosity kills me. When I went back to Yangon towards the end of my trip, I looked for this fortune teller. There are a bunch of them downtown.
If not for the big signs on the door of hands, stars and what have you, you wouldn’t think that the small office rooms are actually where the palm readers are. So off I went to have my palms read and written on. Apparently, every mole, line or crease on my hands had something to do with my career, wealth and future husband. It was funny!
Something old, something new
Myanmar is changing fast! Yangon is an example of the perfect fusion of old and new. As the streets become busier and more buildings are constructed, you would still see locals wearing the traditional longyi and chewing betel not. It’s as if to say to the rest of the world, “Go change our landscape all you want; we’ll stay the same.” It will be so exciting to watch Myanmar unfold in the coming years.
Travel period: February 2013