Myanmar – a country that was shrouded in mystery and conjured images of lush undiscovered natural beauty until recently – is still relatively untouched by tourism. There is no luxury resorts to lure the big spenders; no banana pancake trail to tempt the average backpackers looking for fun. But it is THE destination most avid backpackers dream of. Trails to explore, destinations not many foreigners have been to and adventures that even Lonelyplanet is still scrambling to get their hands on. Most tourist infrastructure is still in its infancy making travelling more challenging and therefore more rewarding. And it offers a window into the simple people whose smiles, generosity and friendliness will be forever imprinted in your memory.
I have been dreaming about visiting Myanmar for a while. So when the plane landed in Yangon I am excited. There is no bus service from the airport to the city centre but I find 2 other backpackers to share a taxi. I am lucky to find a couchsurfer in a country that is just opening up to foreign visitors. My host is kind enough to wait for me to arrive, drop my backpack and have a shower, before he leaves for work, and I go out to explore the city.
Yangon, like most Southeast Asian cities, is crowded, chaotic and noisy. But unlike Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, you don’t see a lot of modern high rises. The centre of Yangon is a mixed of colonial and characterless buildings in different states of disrepair, stained from years of neglect. But these decrepit buildings don’t conjure the sense of depression, but rather, they add characters and charms to the city. In a way they render a sense of identity to Yangon, that it is not a carbon-copy of just another south-east Asian city.
The streets of Yangon are packed with people, sellers, peddlers, etc. There are hives of activities; this doesn’t look like the poorest country in Southeast Asia it was reported to be. In fact, Myanmar was once the riches country in the region, and today still possesses lots of natural resources.
After an early morning flight and having not eaten anything I find a street-side stall with impossible low chairs and order some meat-filled buns, and free-flowing tea that is free of charge. Most eateries and restaurants in Myanmar serve free tea. While munching on the buns I hear chanting over loudspeakers in a distance, and within a minute I see a line of novice nuns, going on their alms round. They are probably around 10-11 years old, all with shaved head. As much as they try to act serious and proper but when they see me with my camera, the child in them sneaks out: most smiles at me shyly, some giggles, some pretend to look away, but one poses for me.
It finally hits me that I’m in Myanmar when smiles are given generously and sincerely. People are friendly, at first they will think that I’m a local but once they see my camera, they will smile; not the skimpy smile we sometimes give to stranger, but a wholehearted smile that makes me smile back from the heart.
One of the first things that catches my eyes is that both the men and the women wear skirts!? What the men wear is called longyis; similar to the sarong in Malaysia/Indonesia. And they are expert in folding it so that it won’t fall down even when they are running. I buy one and wear it for a day. It’s not the easiest garment to master, and it requires constant adjustment, as movements loosen the knots.
Most women wear beautiful tight pencil-skirt that makes them look really elegant. Some wear frangipani in their hair, ala Aung San Suu Kyi. All the women, young and old, apply thanaka on their faces. Some even create delicate pattern on them. This thanaka serves as sun block lotion, moisturising cream, and perfume. Babies and young children also wear it on their cheeks.
One of the most common stalls but not easily spotted is the one selling betel nut. It is usually just a small table with a man sitting behind it, busy slapping white lime paste onto a betel leave, then bits of betel nut, cardamom, aniseed, cloves and tobaccos are added before he folds the leave into a cube. I observe the man works; he is quick and his movement suggested that he has been doing it for a long time. But no matter how fast he works, he is always short as there is a constant flow of customers.
An old man, whose teeth and lips are stained red, comes to the vendor and buys a pack of 5. He sees me staring curiously and offers me one. I decline politely, and he immediately pops one into his mouth and commences masticating it. Within seconds I see the first jet of red spittle firing from his mouth and hitting the pavement. If you look carefully, the streets in Yangon, or anywhere in Myanmar, are decorated with the spittle of red from the betel nuts.
Another common sight is women carrying trays or baskets of food on their head, displaying an incredible amount of grace and balance. They mostly sell prepared food, fruits and sometimes groceries.
I see a lady pushing a cart selling water. But she has a block of ice sitting in a cloth strainer hanging above the cups. I decide to stop and watch. I don’t have to wait long when a man walks up to her, scoop a cup of water from the container and pour it over the ice, then he waits as the water course through the ice and slowly drips into the cup waiting below, which he takes and drink the cooled water. What a genius idea!
Taking refuge in another tea stall from the afternoon heat, I meet a local young man. I ask him how come he isn’t wearing the longyis like most men. He tells me that he’s a doctor-in-training so he has to wear more formal clothes. We then spend the next hour talking and he proceeds to tell me about his country, his people and the culture, which I grow to love in the next 3 weeks travelling there.
I have a very good first impression of Yangon. After a while, you’ll get a sense that this is indeed different from other modern cities: the cars are older, the traffic less busy; there is no mad rushing about that you see in most cities; there is no fear that taxi drivers and vendors would rip you off – but some healthy bargaining skills will come in handy; people don’t talk on their phones as they walk; children are outside playing in the streets and not glued to a screen; neighbours know each other and shout across the balcony to greet each other in the morning. This is a city where human touch still reigns.
I see innocence, gentleness, kindness and generosity in the faces of the people. Their easy smiles put me right at ease. Language may be a barrier but their willingness to help another human being breaks down any hurdle. They are the most beautiful people I have seen in so many years of my travel. The city may have old crumbling buildings but the light from the beauty of the people shines bright. I do hope that the invasion of tourism will not rob the people of this light, so rare in today’s world. Welcome to Myanmar!