Yangon, First Impressions
Having been in Yangon for a few days now, the following are a few thoughts of the limited time I have spent here. These are in no particular order, just a smattering of impressions of what is meant to be one of the new and upcoming tourism hot spots in
South East Asia.
I really didn't know what to expect here having heard reports of various other airports around the region. Well, actually it is very nice. Very clean and modern, spacious and very quick through Immigration. Even managed to get a smile and a thank you from the friendly lady at the desk. Something that I haven't managed to get at Bangkok airport for the last 12 years, but this might change with the new influx of tourists and lengthy queues that will entail. Time will tell…
Baggage pick up. No problem and good modern trolleys that don't seem to have a mind of their own. Great, got my bag and a short walk to the taxi desk about 80 meters past the Customs checkpoint, all up about 300 meters from plane exit to waiting taxi.
There is a nice, little, well-organized taxi booth manned by two young helpful and friendly ladies who give you a ticket / voucher and you are on your way. It is a set rate of about $US8 which I think includes the airport pick up fee similar to what you pay at Bangkok, but not sure, just happy to get to my hotel after spending more time at Thai Immigration than my one hour and fifteen minute flight to Yangon.
I don't like to spend any amount of time at any airport around the world, no matter how good it is, but I must say how bad Bangkok Airport has become with the huge queues and very unfriendly staff at all points of contact from check in to exchange and getting shortchanged for the third time in as many visits by the rip-off food joints but I digress.
Think of the worst shitbox, beat up, crappy cab you have taken in Bangkok and you will look back in fondness of what a clean, modern piece of modern machinery it is compared to the dilapidated beat up rust buckets that ply the road around here. I'm not sure how they pay for these bombs but most seem to be anywhere from 1980 to 1990 model Toyota Corollas or the upmarket Toyota Crowns. All in various states of disrepair and would only probably fetch 100 dollars in any western country as scrap metal. I've heard they pay up to $10,000 for some of these pieces of junk. I would like to show you some photos of these clunkers but the Internet is too slow here and I didn't want to spend hours uploading so I hope you get the picture in words. In fairness, there does seem to be a few newer looking Chinese made cabs running around but I would say that 98% percent of them are bombs.
He seemed to be of Indian descent and spoke good English. Not sure of the system and who pays who for the lucrative airport pick up jobs, but it seems that most of the drivers that there spoke good English and were keen on the tourist pick ups or the influx of business travelers. Just an observation.
Jump in the front seat of his beat up rust bucket and off we go. Seat belts? No seat belts, no problem, he said…unless you crash of course. Needless to he seemed quite friendly and we went through the usual questions of my plans. Was this my first time here etc.
About halfway through the trip he pointed out the Yangon Gems Museum which had a large retail centre attached to it which he said he would happily pick me up the following day and give me a royal tour. Thanks, but no thanks. Anyone who has been in South East Asia would have a few street smarts about them by now and anything you buy would include the commission for taking you there. Still, not pushy and instead asked if I needed a regular driver for the duration of my stay. Usually I like to have a good, reliable, safe driver and have one in Bangkok that picks me up and takes me around to the golf courses I like to play, which always seem to a fair distance out of the city so I don't like to have a maniac tearing down the expressways at 160 km/h.
This driver flunked the driving test after about 1 km out of the airport. With his erratic driving, overtaking on the inside, tailgating, constant accelerating then breaking, all that annoying stuff, not too dissimilar of what you get from a newly arrived cab driver in Sydney, Australia and about 50% percent of Bangkok drivers. So hired and fired on his first trip with me, back to airport for another crack.
With the lack of tourism infrastructure and sudden influx of tourists and business travelers over the last couple of years, Yangon has a shortage of good value, decent hotels. Just 3 years ago you could get a room at one of the three 5-star hotels for about $50. Not so anymore. Demand has outstripped supply and the some of them are charging up to $280 per night. The government has just ordered all hotels not to charge more than $150 per night but have a look at Agoda or any other booking site and you can see the crazy prices still being charged.
Before I came I did a fair bit of research on TripAdvisor to find a decent place to stay. I don't need to or can afford to stay 5 star but just want a nice clean comfy hotel with all the usual requirements, hot water, wi-fi, air con, quiet, etc. Having come from Bangkok and staying at the highly-rated and Stick-recommended Town Lodge in Sukhumvit (completely deserved), I was looking for something with a similar sort of standard. After finding some good reports and ringing through trying to book the top rated digs on TA, they were all booked solid. Finally found a place in the downtown area for $US35 (all hotels here are priced in $). I like to know or have a look at the place I'm staying before I decide to move in but never having been here before I just took pot luck based on a couple of half decent reviews I saw on TA. If I don't like the place I can put up with it for one night and the following day do a walk around town and try and find something decent in the vicinity. Often you will find newly built digs that no-one has heard of or stayed at that are doing good opening specials and are keen for new business. Well, I am still at the same hotel I came to probably won't bother moving until I leave to my next destination.
Quite frankly I wouldn't pay more than $20 for this type of place in Bangkok. Yes, everything works including the TV which is as old as the taxi I caught from the airport. Yes it does have hot water shower. I don't know where the hot water comes from but it takes about ten minutes to arrive in my room. I couldn't figure out the air-con but the room boys know which buttons to press and I am at least cold and the it only clunks once an hour or so.
I wouldn't recommend this place to anyone, so if you are thinking of coming here I will let you do your own research.
For the limited time I have been here it is hard to give an impression of the folks I have met so far. In general people are quite friendly and not all fussed over foreigners in their city. Burmese are a mixed bunch of descendants of traders all over Asia and therefore there is no one distinct ethnic Burmese type, unlike say the Chinese or Japanese.
Again, being in the city and comparing people from other parts of the country, especially the more rural and remote areas, I haven't had that chance yet. For myself there are not many big Asian cities that I really like and I find city folk a lot less personable than their upcountry counterparts.
This place doesn't seem a happy place at all, for obvious reasons. Years of oppression and grinding poverty and no real opportunity for most of the population. I don't know what is going to happen here in the coming years with the opening up of the country and the economy but is clear to see here that they are years behind the rest of the world. I'm not pessimistic but I hope it doesn't end up like Thailand with all the greed and corruption that has born a divided society of haves and have nots. I think Thai society is going backwards and will continue to travel down a rocky road for the years to come but I digress.
I had my first game of golf in Yangon today and I must say I got rock star attention from all the caddies and staff at the golf course were fantastic. The course was out of the city a bit in the more rural areas. As I said, as soon as you go in the country a bit the people were so much friendlier. The course was surrounded by farmland and it seemed most of the staff that worked had come from the surrounding villages. Lots of staff working all over the golf course doing maintenance jobs usually done by modern machinery in the west.
Being the monsoon I got stuck in a massive downpour for about half an hour and had to take shelter with a whole lot of the course workers in one of the halfway houses. My caddie was having a good laugh at my expense and all the workers were having a good laugh too. Nobody speaks English and my Burmese is non existent. Anyway I was the centre of attention of a bunch of desperately poor villagers. All smiles and laughs. Something you wouldn't find in a big city much me thinks.
Well, if you are coming here for a gastronomical tour, get back on the bus and go straight back to where you came from. I've been traipsing around the city looking for a decent place to eat for the last few days, and sorry but nothing to report. I'm well travelled and can usually find some good places. Yes you can go into the big swanky hotels to eat and pay a fortune and not get anything really fantastic or value for money. Most of the restaurants you see look very dirty and old and absolutely no English menu or half decent looking pictures of the grub they dish up. There really is a lack of decent looking hygienic well managed looking restaurants anywhere catering for travelers. Not saying they are not there, there is a few like the famous Monsoon but you pay through the nose to eat there. Anyone who has a good knowledge of western food could do very well by setting up something here. Huge opportunities await for the throngs of tourists that will start to come. Just like the hotels there is not enough decent restaurants for travelers to eat at. There is plenty of street food, but when you see the size of the rats running around late at night and the most unhygienic conditions of which the food is being served in, anyone trying not to spend half their trip on the can or throwing up would steer well of the gizzards and all sorts of sickly animal parts being stewed brewed or BBQed on the side of the road.. Double yak!!
Plenty of Indians here but if you are looking for a decent curry you are in the wrong place. The one that my cab driver recommended for me today on the way back from golf said it was the best Indian in the city. Well, I happened to stumble in to this place the day before and it would be safe to say that this wouldn't pass muster in any other country. A selection of nondescript oily looking curries sitting in tired looking warming trays. Horrible looking and slop. The best thing about the place was the hot Indian tea. Anyway, it seemed to be popular and I guess nobody knows or can afford any better. About a buck fifty for all you can eat slop and a run to the dunny in the morning. Well, not so far.
One word. Shithole!
Except for the nice parks and other areas that were built and preserved by the British, the rest of the city is about as shitty as you get. There are some nice temples and pagodas but outside of this there is no real nice part of the city. There is no really pleasant downtown or well maintained area anywhere. Lots of crumbling, decaying old and decrepit looking buildings everywhere. Much like the cabs. No upmarket areas as all the well to do politicians / military live in large segregated compounds on the outskirts. No ritzy apartment or condos, just horrible-looking, run-down blocks of units mixed with shitty looking shophouses.
The roads are poorly maintained except the main road leading to and from the airport. The footpaths are the worst I've seen anywhere. You have to be careful at night as not to fall down some huge holes and break an ankle or fall into an open sewer. Very little money has been spent on public space and has been all sucked up by the powers that be.
The traffic at times is terrible. Thank god there are no motorbikes. About 15 years ago a motorcycle ran into one of the general's cars and did a bit of damage. Well what to do if you are a general and a motorbike runs into your car? Ban all motorbikes on the road. Yep and that's how it's been since. I reckon motorbikes are the scourge of most Asian cities and I reckon that is great decision in hindsight. As bad as the traffic is now, imagine it with literally thousands of motorcycles on the road. As the country opens up, unless they start building and spending money on new roads around the city, this place will soon ground to a halt. I hope they don't reintroduce motorbikes to the city.
If you are wondering why I am writing this long trip report, it's nighttime and I am at my hotel and nothing to do. There is Some news on the old TV and 108 Iraqis were blown up and killed and it is pouring down outside..
Now I like a beer or two but I haven't ventured out to check out the nightlife or investigated the possibility. There are probably some swanky clubs for the well to do locals but there doesn't seem to be any distinct travelers area with a few bars as such as you find in any other main town or tourist centre. Not going to hang around long enough to find out..
I hope I haven't sounded too negative or elitist. Just a general observation from a western perspective. I know this place was never created with me or any other westerner or traveler in mind. It has become what it has as a consequence of its past and present history.
I don't think it is well equipped to handle mass tourism in the short term and with rapid economic development I reckon it will get worse in the shorter and longer term for the average traveler. A lot of the reasons many people didn't like going to Bangkok many years ago before all the freeways and sky train were built.
I wish this place and people luck. They will need it.
A friend of mine who lives in Phnom Phen visited Myanmar for the first time recently. When he was passing back through Bangkok we met up and he showed me thousands of photos he had taken there. He is a decent photographer but his images didn't inspire me to go at all. They actually did the complete opposite! Looking at his photos everything seemed to be so "joyless" in Myanmar. No, thanks, I am in no hurry to go.