I’m back in Shanghai and trying to work through an epic to-do list while the back of my mind is still mulling all the things I saw and did in Myanmar. In no particular order, here are ten thoughts that struck me during my six days in the country:
1. I was so much more connected than I expected. Myanmar has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world: 99.5 percent of its population isn’t online. So before I left China, I did all the things I used to do when traveling: told people I would likely be offline, set up an away message on my email, made sure I had plenty of material on hand to read. But the small number of internet connections that are available must be clustered in Yangon, because I could get online with my phone almost anywhere—at my hotel, in cafes and restaurants, even at the Shwedagon Pagoda (I posted an Instagram picture and emailed my mother from there, just because I could). I spent a lot of time offline, too, but it really helped not to be completely disconnected for a week.
2. That internet was fast and unblocked. Much of what I read about Myanmar before my trip mentioned the heavy-handed censorship system that used to be in place; while I knew things have relaxed in the past couple of years, I wasn’t expecting the almost completely unblocked internet I encountered in the country. Coming from China, where doing almost anything online has become a major frustration, this was amazing. I only used my VPN twice during the trip—because my bank wouldn’t allow me to sign in to my account from a Myanmar IP address. Returning to China and finding the internet even slower and balkier than it had been before I left was a crash back to reality.
3. The variety and presence of religion. I knew that Myanmar had a large Buddhist population and a smaller Muslim one, and that the two groups have clashed. But I didn’t expect to see so many Christian churches (I spotted Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Roman Catholic ones), or a Chinese temple across the street from my hotel, or a Hindu temple a few blocks down, or a synagogue around the corner. All of the houses of worship I passed or ventured into had significant numbers of people praying in them. And on Sunday, I woke up at 3:45am to the sound of temple bells ringing outside. I have no idea which congregation was gathering that early, but they’re dedicated (and loud).
4. Fried chicken? Donuts? “In-N-Out” burgers? Myanmar doesn’t yet have international fast-food chains or Starbucks, but there are a number of local versions available in Yangon these days. I spotted Clucky’s Fried Chicken and Harley’s American Favorites; I stopped in at I Am Donut and tried one with chopped hazelnuts sprinkled on top (it was good). I’m sure McDonald’s, KFC, et al. will swoop in one of these days and start building their business in Yangon, but Western fast food is already more than present in the city. It joins a diverse restaurant lineup: like its multitude of religious institutions, Yangon has a variety of cuisines on offer. I didn’t eat any fried chicken or hamburgers, but I had Chinese, Burmese, Indian (several types), and gourmet locavore (at Sharky’s) meals during my time there.
5. So many cars. So much traffic. By the end of my first taxi ride, from the airport to my hotel in Chinatown, I had learned that traffic in Yangon is awful and that nearly everyone drives Japanese cars. I spotted a stray Mercedes and one BMW, but otherwise the roads were clogged with Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans, Mazdas, Suzukis, and Isuzus (but no Subarus, my own car of choice). And though traffic moves on the right side of the road, almost all the cars were right-hand drive. I was puzzled enough about this to investigate and learned that they’re used cars brought over from Japan, preferred because it’s easy to get spare parts for them. Most remarkable is that those cars have all been imported since restrictions were eased in September 2011—more than 100,000 cars entered Myanmar in the first 18 months after that change. In contrast to China, however, I thought the traffic was pretty well behaved … probably because no one could go too fast.
6. Luckily, Yangon is a very walkable city. Why sit in traffic when you can walk? (I didn’t even attempt to figure out the buses, which don’t have posted routes.) Yangon is pretty flat, and the British created a grid system that’s reasonably simple to navigate. So I walked everywhere. Sure, I got some surprised looks—I gather that most foreigners take a taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is a solid 45-minute walk from the city center—but it gave me a chance to see the city up close. The biggest hazard was trying to look at my surroundings while also being mindful of the often broken sidewalks. I also had to remind myself to drink bottle after bottle of water, because …
7. Holy moly, was it hot there. When it wasn’t raining, that is. My travel dates were dictated by the Chinese National Day holiday, since I wanted to spend a full week in Myanmar rather than just a long weekend. But that meant going at the tail end of the summer and rainy season, and that’s a pretty brutal combination. If I’d had a choice, I would have waited until November, I think. Like everyone else in Yangon, I carried an umbrella all the time, to ward off both the intense sun and the relentless rain, and I did my best to stay hydrated. But I still had a tough time dealing with the heat and was glad that my hotel had both air conditioning and a good generator, since the power went out more than once.
8. No hard sell. Being an obvious tourist can make you a magnet for touts, guides, and other people whose incomes depend on selling goods or services to visitors. Understandably, they’re generally pretty persistent. But I didn’t find this to be the case in Myanmar: a simple “no thank you” was enough to end the interaction, with no apparent hard feelings. Even the massive Bogyoke Aung San Market, which sells loads of tourist tchotchkes, was a pretty low-key and no-pressure experience.
9. I’m glad I went now. One of the things that prompted me to consider traveling to Myanmar was reading this LA Times story from January that discussed the uphill battle historic preservationists in Yangon are fighting to restore the city’s colonial-era buildings. Based on my knowledge of China, I expected that some might be restored and turned into upscale hotels or restaurants, but that most others would be torn down. I wanted to see the city before that happened. I’m so glad I did: while many of the old buildings are not in good condition, they’re still standing—and often quite beautiful, even with mildew and vegetation covering them. And I had a drink at the Strand Hotel bar, too, which is a gorgeous example of high-quality historic restoration (though, of course, a single cocktail there cost more than any dinner I ate).
10. I’d like to go back in a few years. Even if some of those beautiful old buildings have been torn down to make way for glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Yangon is changing: there was construction happening nearly everywhere I went, and I expect that the city will be transformed quickly. With my geeky historian’s heart, I hope that transformation will be done carefully and with an eye toward balancing the past and the future. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. In any event, I’d like to go back and check it out.