Yangon – Travel story
Friday 29 July 2016
The monsoon has well and truly arrived. It's pelting down. Cats and dogs has got nothing on what is happening outside. Over the din of the deluge I can just hear children yelling and talking excitedly as they head to class. Classes are at the local high school across the road from my 6th floor condo in downtown Rangoon.
At least that is what it the city used to be called. I am told the Junta changed the name to Yangon as they also changed Burma to Myanmar (in 1991) to wash away the remnants of colonialism. Rangoon and Burma are far more romantic. The names conjure memories of a past when the British ruled and George Orwell was a policeman.
As you fly into Yangon International Airport you are left wondering where the motorways and cars are, why there are no factories. Instead the views are overwhelmingly of jungle, green rice fields and connecting tracks. However, if you thought cars were not part of this world, think again. The trip into the city is not on a bullet train or dedicated rail link but through local townships and village roads in a 15-year old Toyota taxi with no AC in 35 degree temperatures. Thoughts of being killed in a high speed motorway crash on the journey of 25 or so kilometres can be put to one side. The dangers lie else where.
Cars are thick on the ground in Yangon – really thick. Most of the journey is done at speeds of no more than 10 – 30 km/h on a single lane road. The greater danger is the imminent head-on crash as your driver makes a necessary passing manoeuvre to negotiate a slower moving car or a push bike laden with up to three passengers on the attached side car.
But in this mad world where you drive on the right hand side of the road in cars with steering wheels also on the right, a recipe for disaster, there are no motorbikes to be seen. If your journey is at night it can be even more hazardous for there are no street lights, no tail lights on the many bicycles also sharing the road and approaching cars that always travel with head lights on full. The result is you or your driver are almost always driving blind.
The no motorbike story has its origins I am told when a general in the Junta government made a no bikes in Yangon ruling. The story has it that his son was killed in a motorbike accident. His way of dealing with the grief was to ban all motorbikes from the roads of Yangon.
One hundred days of rule by Mother Teresa Aung San Suu Kyi has not seen any change to this bizarre rule. Instead the new government has decided the way to cut down on crowded city roads is to make regulation banning new cars from obtaining Yangon number plates. New car sales have plummeted. If you are able to negotiate the regulation the price of buying that car you wanted the price has suddenly increased by 1 to 3 million kyat.
Apparently you need a Yangon number plate on your car if it's to be driven in the city free of tax. Any other number plate on your car and a surcharge attracts to the driver/owner of the vehicle. A relaxation of the general's edict denying citizens the right to negotiate the crowded highways on a motorbike would surely be a more sensible option to wipe the city of gridlock.
Once you overcome your fears accumulated on the journey to Yangon city you then need to worry about getting cash. US dollars will work for some purchases, such as the taxi but you really do need local currency in your wallet. Your visa card will / may also work in a few five-star hotels but car hire companies, restaurants, travel companies and bars will express little interest in your card. The local currency, called the kyat – pronounced “chat”, is a challenge you will need to master quickly if you are survive. There are no coins. Currently there are just over 1,180 kyat to one American dollar. Cash $US100 and you will get a bundle of notes nearly half an inch thick. But beware, don’t expect to change US notes that predate 2008 or notes that are creased or marked in any way. They will not be accepted nor will currencies of any other countries.
The banking system in Myanmar is something special. Coming from a western country where pay wave is de rigueur the prospect of going back in time 50 years and paying for everything in cash with no prospect of being offered payment by credit card is a treat, sometimes a frustrating one that awaits you.
I can now understand why most people in Yangon have bars on their windows. If you are a business person in Yangon and most people are, you will arrive home at the end of the day with up to a kilogram of paper cash. There is no point in depositing in the local bank as you are going to need it tomorrow to go about your business in any event.
Once you have kyat in your wallet you can start exploring the city. Downtown Yangon is a mix of colonial architecture, modern high-rises and gilded Buddhist pagodas. The most famous pagoda is Shwedagon Paya. Any taxi driver will take you there for 2000 Kyat, a bit less than $US2, from your downtown hotel.
Don't expect to be at Shwedagon alone. From early in the morning to late in the afternoon it draws thousands of Buddhist pilgrims not only from Yangon but from all over the world. The pagoda is a true spectacle. It's huge, it shimmers in the sunlight, caused by the gold leaf coating, which covers every square centimetre. At the pinnacle there are diamonds, rubies and jade.
Other notable religious sites in Yangon include the Botataung and Sule pagodas. All the pagodas house important Buddhist relics. One advertises it holds a tooth from the Buddha. Other parts of the Buddha's anatomy are located in other holy shrines within Myanmar. The Shwedagon Paya is the one you really must not miss when you visit Yangon.
If you have the time, wondering the streets of Yangon can be a treat. Don't bother looking for western style coffee shops – there are none. You can get western coffee at one or two expat bars but the price is often more than you might pay in downtown Sydney or Auckland. Best to bring your own plunger and coffee.
If it's a beer, wine or cocktail you're after then head to one of the expat bars. Union on the Strand does a great happy hour with a beer or cocktail at $US3 – great value. Gecko and the 50th Street bar can also be worth a visit. Every now and then I am surprised by what I find. I recently lunched at the Yangon Sailing Club and on the menu were some excellent wines including a superior French Cabernet Sauvignon, a NZ Marlborough Pinot Noir and an Australian 5th generation Shiraz.