This is our third day in Myanmar, and as we’ve got a couple of hours rocking and rolling through the plains on a train, I thought I should jot down some first impressions of the place.
We’re heading down the country to Myawlamine, 300km south east of Yangon. The train ride is utterly brilliant, in a romantically crap sort of way. We’re travelling in upper class having spanked £1.20 each on a seat for a four hour journey. All of the seats are broken, and are stuck in the reclined position. But they’re proper comfy and, with the windows wound down, give you a brilliant view of the countryside. As it’s a very old and very narrow gauge track, the ride is best described as being like riding a horse whilst in a chugging across Plymouth Sound on a fishing trawler. There’s a monk chanting somewhere towards the back of the carriage. Our boys giggle overtime someone is nearly bounced out of a seat and the locals eye us with amusement.
We’ve had our tickets checked twice by an army of five inspectors, which fits in with what we saw in Yangon. Never get one bloke to do a job unless he has at least four people supervising him. And to complete the experience, Myanmar has train nutters just like we have at home; our current nutter has just “sung” something that was incompressible even to the locals, and is now asking for money. I assume that if he doesn’t get enough, he’ll “sing” it again!
The Lonely Planet says that the trains here are terrible, but we think that this is just perfect.
We arrived at Yangon International Airport quite late in the evening. As everything we’d read suggested that Myanmar had pretty much stood still for the last fifty years, we fully expected to be thrust into the dark ages. It wasn’t like that at all. The place was properly efficient. Everyone was really helpful, and the process of getting through immigration and collecting the bags took minutes – take note (again) Indira Gandhi International Airport! Minor hassles followed arranging a taxi, but once we split up to confuse the touts, we were sorted.
The journey into Yangon happened at breakneck speed, and was probably the scariest taxi ride we’ve had. I did consider getting the kids to put their seat belts on, but that seemed a bit rude, so I just fretted instead. One bizarre thing here is that they drive on the right in Myanmar, but import most of their cars second hand from Japan, who sensibly drive on the left. Everyone’s steering wheel is therefore on the wrong side. Couple this with the absence of street lights, mix in some random cyclists, add a scattering cars without lights on, ensure that everyone drives like a rally cross expert, and Sri Lanka suddenly looks positively pedestrian. We survived though, which is nice.
We’ve spent a couple of days looking around Yangon and have completely fallen in love with the place. The architecture is a ramshackle mixture of faded colonial splendour and brutalist concrete ugly. Everything has been equally ravaged by age and neglect, which gives ensures that the two styles sit comfortably side by side.
The street markets are utterly off the scale, selling everything from pig guts to buckets full of live eels via unknown varieties of vegetable and second hand mobile phones. It’s such a spectacle, that we had to visit them twice. If we go again, we’re hoping to be brave enough to actually buy something.
The only semi-touristy thing we’ve visited so far in Myanmar has been the Shwedagon Pagoda. Just like the markets, this is completely off the scale. It’s absolutely massive and dominates the skyline. Started 600 years before anyone thought about inventing Jesus and Christianity, the main temple is covered in three tonnes of actual gold, with a top bit adorned is the over 2000 carats of diamonds. It is surrounded by literally hundreds of smaller stupas, and the whole site is so big that they’ve had to install lifts and escalators to minimise the risk of pilgrims croaking on their way up to pay homage.
We were impressed by the scale of the place when we arrived. As the sun set, hundreds of candles and incense sticks were lit, the chanting got going and we were transported to a different world. I’ve never understood religion, but it was impossible not to be inspired and uplifted by the magical atmosphere of the place.
We’ve no idea about what else we’re going to be seeing while we’re in Myanmar, but from what we’ve experienced so far, I think it’s safe to say that it’s going to be amazing. This place has got us as excited as we were when we arrived in Vietnam in 2003.
It’s dry season at the moment, but so much of the landscape has clearly been shaped to manage and control water – even houses in the middle of a bone dry plain are built high up on sticks – that we’re seriously thinking of coming back during the monsoon. So much to see, so little time.
Love travelling even more than usual!