First Impressions of Myanmar (Burma)

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First Impressions of Myanmar (Burma)

Impressions of Myanmar

Sunset over the busy boat traffic of the Yangon River.

 

As I breezed through immigration and customs with my visa already in hand, it was hard not to notice: Myanmar is ready for tourism. They’ve made their visa easier to get, eased restrictions on barring journalists and writers,and normalized currency exchange. The international airport is modern and getting a taxi is organized and straightforward. Upon leaving the airport I immediately noticed one thing:

 

The Traffic

 

The airport is only about 12 km outside the city center. It must have taken me nearly two hours to get to my guesthouse in downtown Yangon. Granted, it was rush hour, but the volume of cars was high above its capacity. As we sat in the jam, the other American sharing the taxi pointed out a Honda hybrid next to us. It seemed unremarkable at the time, but serves as an example of an increase in foreign trade as of late. That isn’t the only change taking place.

Downtown Yangoon

Downtown Yangon

 

Changes

 

It’s my first time in Myanmar, so I have nothing with which to compare. But I’ve met a friend here, Dustin Main of A Skinny Escape, and it’s much like being around an old man who’s seen a lifetime of changes after waking from a deep sleep. Dustin’s been here about seven times, but only over the course of the past 2 ½ years. “That wasn’t here last time.” is a common phase I’m hearing. Last time was only six months ago.

 

Commercialism

 

Now there is a new fleet of buses complete with advertising of Red Bull and Japanese Enjoy Shampoo. Dustin is not impressed. But I asked a local Yangoner his opinion, and he seemed quite pleased. There are more ads now all around the city, but I can’t tell a difference. And if I were compare it to nearly any other city on earth, I’d say Yangon was hardly commercialized.

 

Which is the old Yangon bus, which is the new? So many changes in Myanmar, @dustinmain keeps pointing them out to me.

An old and new bus side by side.

 

Friendly People

 

I’ve only been in Yangon three days but I can’t get over how friendly everyone is. People we pass on the street are just sincerely happy to greet foreigners, glad that we’ve stopped for a street-side bowl of mohinga, the national dish, pleased to serve us a cup of tea at a teahouse. Those with enough English are eager to start up a conversation. Lots of smiles. Very easygoing people.

 

Impressions of Myanmar

Dustin makes a new friend in Yangon:the chapati man.

 

Burmese

 

It’s a novelty today to travel to a country whose people don’t automatically switch to English when they see a foreigner. On many occasions we’ve had to use the Burmese phrasebook to work a situation out. It’s refreshing. And fun. Most individuals involved in tourism speak English well, but many others do not.

 

Impressions of Myanmar

A Burmese-only menu–typical in Yangon.

 

Easier for travelers

 

I get the impression that Myanmar is becoming an easier place for foreigners to travel. Distances are still great and infrastructure rudimentary in many places, but more tourists are arriving and travel is getting easier on the whole.

 

Delicious Food

 

I’ve been loving the food in Myanmar so far. Local cuisine is easy to find and very inexpensive. The ubiquitous tea shops usually sell fried rice and noodles which provide sustenance in a pinch. Rather look for the street hawkers, cafes, or restaurants which serve a variety of vegetable, meat, and fish dishes alongside steamed rice. For breakfast I’ve been enjoying the de-facto national dish, mohinga, every morning from the sidewalk food carts…Which brings me to one final point.

 

eating in Yangon

A woman dishes out delicious Burmese food from her hawker stall.

 

Life on the streets

 

Pull up a mini plastic chair and order a bowl of noodles. Sit at a tea shop where more little plastic chairs and tables spill out from shaded alley ways on to street sides. Market vendors line the major streets of downtown Yangon selling items from socks and underwear to kitchen utensils. More vendors sell fruit, deep fried desserts, and Indian snacks like samosas. When the temperatures cool, the night market comes alive when you can try durian, a variety of fried snacks, or even something more exotic like cicadas. My point is, there is a lot of activity on the streets of Yangon, and if you want to experience the best of the city, that’s where you want to be.

 

 

Selling bananas in Yangon.

 

I’m looking forward to the rest of my travels through Myanmar. Have you been?

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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine GoMadNomad.com. He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

7 Comments

  1. Rebecca says:

    I have heard a lot about this place recently. I guess one of Asias best ways of income is tourism so its a great thing that they are much more excepting of it.

  2. Stephen Bugno says:

    Yep, SnarkyNomad, you’re right. The overflow of tourists in Thailand will continue to spill into Myanmar.

  3. Noel says:

    Myanmar is one of my favourite countries in Southeast Asia because of the friendly people. I was there about a year ago and I’m glad to read that the people are still as friendly as I remember them to be. I really hope that tourism won’t change the charm of the people. I remember how nice it was to just sit at the street side tea stall, sipping tea and chatting with the friendly locals.

  4. SnarkyNomad says:

    Nice to see them develop for the inevitable influx of tourism. It’s right next to tourist-filled Thailand, and they’ll be flooded in Burma soon as well.

  5. Mike B. says:

    Great pictures! Looks like a neat city!

  6. Stephen Bugno says:

    Absolutely, Adam. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  7. Adam P. says:

    I´ve already seen it advertised as “Asia´s next big tourist destination”… It hasn´t been as corrupted by globalisation as, say, Thailand and other similar hot spots in Asia, but clearly it´s only a matter of time. Inevitable, but still somewhat sad. I´ve always liked about Myanmar that it can give you this sort of time travel experience – a glimpse of what Asia was like fifty sixty years ago..

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