Ah, Yangon. Rangoon. You crazy city, you. My first introduction was just before dawn on Thursday, as our JJ Express hostess with the mostest welcomed us to the city as the skies lit up red from the rising sun. For those of you who don’t know, JJ Express is a long-distance bus company in Myanmar, which offers possibly the best sleeper buses in Asia. It’s certainly the poshest I’ve ever been on! Think free water, dinner, fluffy blanket, single reclining seats, personal TV screens – pretty much what I imagine business class to be like in the air. Anyway, we arrived in Yangon and us sleepy heads were greeted by a horde of very much awake taxi drivers. After some haggling but also knowing I was being ripped off, I agreed on a fare with a driver, already half the asking price, to take me to my appointment at the international hospital to get my scratch checked out.
This is one part I won’t go into detail about, as I am tired of repeating myself and risk boring you half to death, but my first morning in Yangon was spent hospital-hopping, getting ripped off by every taxi driver I met, receiving totally contradictory information on whether or not I needed a jab, and culminated in me standing outside Asia Royal private clinic, with all my worldly goods on my back, sobbing, as taxi drivers stared at me, only slightly bemused by the sight of my hagard, snotty self. One eventually took pity on me and reduced his price by a fraction, angrily getting in the driver seat and leaving me to deal with the bags. Once in the car, I couldn’t seem to stop the tears, from lack of sleep and a build-up over the last week, and my driver eventually must have felt a little uncomfortable, urging me to “no cry, no cry, ok”.
I checked into the wonderful Little Yangon Hostel and didn’t do much that day apart from walk to nearby Sule Pagoda, taking in the city’s stench, noise, rain, colours, traffic and overall madness, an expensive (relatively) but tasty lunch at Rangoon Tea House with my Belgian friends from Hsipaw, and a cheap Nepali dinner with my new American friend Audrey.
The following day has to have been one of the best so far. In the morning, I walked to covered Bogyuke Aung San market, with its myriad stalls, purchased a cute little handbag and enjoyed a delicious Myanmar tea in one of the nearby shacks. Then, weirdly enjoying the city’s filthy craziness, I made my way to the synagogue on 26th street to see if I could find “soup lady”, a street food stall recommended by a friend I met in Mandalay. Not convinced I would succeed, bearing in mind the countless stalls and busy streets, it is with some surprise that there it was, on the corner of 26th street, just as Alice had said. And boy, was it good! I can safely say it was the tastiest meal I have had so far, and the cheapest, too. Chopped up samosas and something resembling onion bhajis, chickpeas, potatoes, tomatoes and fresh mint, all doused in a spicy, hot lentil soup – I’m salivating even now!
Next up, I made my way to Shwedagon Pagoda, at a local price thanks to the kind man who hailed my taxi. Now, as much as I have loved Myanmar, I hadn’t yet had that feeling of utter awe at its sights. Even though sunrise at Bagan and cruising Inle Lake were pretty special, it still wasn’t quite that explosive amazement. I had heard great things about Shwedagon from some people, including Mum, but also some rather boring “oh, it’s just another pagoda” from others, and I did my best not to let expectations get in the way.
The first thing you notice as you approach is how bloody big it is. And gold. So much gold. But more than its physical attributes, it is the spirituality that emanates from the place and the hundreds of locals of all ages coming to pray that blew me over. I spent almost 3 hours walking around it, sitting, reading, contemplating, people-watching, walking again and at times the beauty of the place brought me close to tears (yes, OK, I am easily moved but still!). One of those moments was when I spotted a rainbow landing bang in the middle of the shimmering golden stupa, which turned into a double rainbow as the late afternoon sun intensified its colours and the gold was set ablaze as monks in their crimson robes started to light the thousands of candles surrounding the pagoda. Another was when a local gave me my own candle to light, amongst the heaps of offerings and burning incense and soft chanting. Another was a family from out of town wanting to have “just one” (read 17) photos with me because “you so beautiful”. I could go on but suffice to say it is an afternoon I won’t forget easily. And it ended in the best possible way, sharing dinner and a cold Myanmar beer with Scottish Emma and Stu at Junior Duck by the river.
On my last day, I have to admit that the dirt and crazy traffic, dozens of dogs and rats, and near impossibility of crossing roads without dying got to me a little more. I made my way on foot to Yangon Central station, survived, and met the Scots to board the Yangon Circle Train that takes 3 hours to complete a full circle around the city. The super efficient and helpful station employee at Platform 7 herded us on and we spent the rest of the morning exchanging smiles, laughs and photographs with locals onboard, being deafened by various vendors, and watching the scenery roll by, the markets unfold and life go on. Starting to feel starving (some things don’t change), I hopped off one stop early and made my way back to Soup Lady – I couldn’t not!
My afternoon was rather calm in comparison, catching up with a few people on the phone and making my way to Botataung Pagoda. I didn’t actually feel like entering that one, but admired it from outside and took in the hordes of Burmese carrying their offerings and enjoying an early evening stroll along the river. I attempted to walk back but I suddenly felt rather exhausted and simply could not deal with the insane traffic, constant honking and lack of pavements so hopped into a trishaw back to the hostel – perhaps one of the most uncomfortable means of transport ever for my big bum, resulting in a nasty bruise on the side of my leg!
An early dinner at 999 Shan Noodles and I was back, packing my bag, and sorting out the last bits of admin before Singapore. This morning, as my taxi zoomed down the for-once-traffic-free roads, I caught a final glimpse of Shwedagon against the dark, stormy sky, and it is with a full heart that I bid a fond farewell to this warm and welcoming country. I am starting to feel pretty damn proud of what I have achieved in the past 6 weeks and I also feel incredibly grateful, both for the opportunity to travel like this and for my life back home. It’s amazing what we take for granted.