18 April 2011

Myanmar – Part 1

By Christian

I almost never enter competitions. I’m one of the “what’s the point? I’m never gonna win” people. However, just as fate likes to show us how wrong we can be sometimes, I randomly entered one and actually managed to win it.

It was cloudy day back in September 2010, the brief English summer was drawing to an end and I was scratching for an escape route. AirAsia were running a ‘blog your way to Yangon’ competition, fortunately work was very quiet that day so I got to writing my “I really wanna go to Yangon” blog. A month or so passes, and suddenly, into my inbox flew an email from AirAsia telling yours truly that I had won their blog competition and was duly on my way to Yangon! I love competitions, I enter them all the time now.

Fast forward to October 31st 2010>>

My girlfriend and I disappeared into the rainy sky over London and settled in for the long haul to Malaysia. As happy as I was that holiday was just around the corner, those 14 hours are never easy. As ever, the journey was a blur of drifting in-and-out of sleep, the general background noise consisted of the roaring engines and the high pitch scream of various babies crying, occasionally accompanied by people having the odd coughing fit. By 4 hours in my muscles and bones began to ache. None of this was AirAsia’s fault of course, I simply don’t travel well. The cabin staff were their usual attractive selves. Clad in red with smiles from top to bottom.

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur where we were would stay 1 night and catch an early flight to Yangon the following morning. Taxis to and from the airport are always eventful in this town, the drivers make such an effort to be friendly that you can’t help but feel that they’re slightly mad!

We arrived in China town and battled our way through the bustling market where we checked into a familiar hostel. I collapsed firmly onto my bed and stretched the length of the wooden frame. I could hear every bone in my body snapping to life again. We immediately fell asleep. When we awoke it was just after midnight and our stomachs were empty so we ventured out to explore one of the nearby food halls and consequently tucked into some flavourful Chinese delights.

An early start but all was taken in our stride and after a short while we arrived in Myanmar. Passport control at Yangon Airport is S…L…O…W but fortunately your attention is conveniently distracted by the hordes of local families watching you through the glass panes that separate your from the arrival lounge. Collecting relatives from the airport must be considered quite an occasion in Burma. There were so many waving hands and smiling faces, I was beginning to feel a bit left out. Where was our elderly woman to throw her loving arms around us and give us the same reception as all the other arrivals? Indeed, our reception was quite different. As we walked through the sliding doors we saw a confused man with a sign that read ‘CHRISTINA BANRES’. I secretly hoped he was waiting for someone else but approached him anyway. “Close enough” I smiled. He quickly passed the sign to a guy on his right who turned out to be our actual taxi driver. I guess the other guy was just employed to hold the sign! Our taxi driver asked us to wait a moment because he needed to walk around a bit and talk to his friends. At least I assume that’s what he said since that’s what he appeared to do. I took the opportunity to buy a couple of Pepsis. Error – immediately I was descended upon by the local taxi drivers, asking where I needed to go. I thanked them but declined, pointing to my taxi driver behind me. “Ah, you’re Christina” one of them replied. “Yep, that’s me” I said with equal seriousness.

Darting through the Sunday night traffic it became obvious that Yangon is another Asian city that never sleeps. People were everywhere. The buses were the stereotypical scene with people overflowing out of the doors and windows. Families crammed into the back of pick-up trucks, chugging through the busy roads. The pavements were filled with mini plastic tables and chairs, occupied by friends, families, lovers…and seemingly their dogs too. Hundreds of faces were eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping, but most of them simply watching the world go by.

The hostel that I had booked was a ‘budget choice’ by one of the guide books I had with me. Not that we couldn’t afford more, I simply wanted to know what a £5-a-night room looked like. It was everything you’d expect!

My girlfriend was the first to enter the room and immediately screeched when a gecko ran across the wall. I giggled and thanked the guy for bringing up our bags. As I closed the door behind him another gecko bungie-jumped off the ceiling and landed next to my foot. I turned to my girlfriend to see how bad the damage was. It was about then that I noticed the strong smell of dampness in the air. We both looked at each other with crumpled-up noses.

“At least we have a T.V.” I said. “And it looks like it may even be in colour!”

Sure enough it was in colour but could only pick-up one channel that was broadcasting a lower division football match, something that I would avoid at the best of times. Instead of sound it gave out an eerie fizzing noise.

We turned our attention to the bed. It was difficult to tell if the sheets had been washed in the past month. A few dead mozzies, some scattered fluff and a big red ant doing goosesteps across the mattress. I decided to take a shower.

We had one of those ingenious toilet-shower combos as an en suite. I hear all the celebrities have them. I skipped inside like a little girl, almost as if I expected to step on an ant hill or something, but instead I was greeted with something slightly different. A centipede was scuttering around the floor in circular patterns, presumably in an attempt to hypnotise me so that it can crawl into my ear and take control of my body. I quickly foiled it’s evil plan by beating it to death with a nearby flip flop.

After showering in my recent victory we strolled the neighbourhood and had some food in one of the many pavement-based cafés. The food was very nice but once again we were confronted with hoards of insects that took up most of our attention. My girlfriend even threw her camera to the floor in an attempt to fight off a flying green alien. The alien escaped but the camera was ruined, the zoom now refused to open and close. Slightly miffed, but with no one else to blame, we strolled back to sleep with the ants.

The priority for the next day was to confirm our flight to Thandwe, due to depart the following morning. Internal flights in Myanmar are booked at very short notice, there is no internet booking service, everything is done over a desk and at the same fixed price (regardless of where you’re flying to), oh and naturally it’s cash only.

We planned to spend more time in Yangon upon return, but first things first, some hardcore relaxation on a sunny beach was very much required. So we jumped in a cab and made our way to AirMandalay’s head office – which turned out to be more of a residential looking building than an office. The girls on the front desk only needed a few moments to explain that there were no longer any flights scheduled for tomorrow. Luckily, they added that they would happily phone around some other airlines to see if any of them could help us (you would never get that in England). YangonAir turned out to have an early flight the next morning, we just needed to scoot across town to their office and book the tickets. And so another taxi. The taxis in Yangon are extremely diverse. Not only in regards to the car model and colour but also only a small percentage out there are even remotely road-safe. On this occasion our taxi was simply an engine surrounded by the bare minimum of what you would call the “shell”. Instead of a back-seat we had placed ourselves on top of a blanket which covered a couple of spare tires underneath. The doors were nothing more than a metal frame, all the inside mechanisms were on display, you even had to pull a metal cord in order to open them. Hilarious!

We arrived somewhere vaguely central. The streets were buzzing with activity. We disappeared into the travel office and booked the tickets with complete ease. Done!

Next, we planned to change some money. For those that don’t know, Myanmar is a cash-only country, credit cards are useless here. Luckily we knew this beforehand so we had brought with us the only currency that is widely excepted throughout the land – US dollars – however, you need to change this into the local currency in order to avoid overpaying for absolutely everything. And so we wandered the nearby streets for anything that resembled a bureau de change. There was nothing. Lots of shops, stalls, restaurants, local business…ect, but nowhere that suggested money exchange might be possible. It was whilst wandering these streets that we were approached by Mr Palè and Mr Toe, a couple of locals that, in the most typical of Asian ways, were ever-happy to help tourists with questions. Nothing about them seemed dodgy or threatening in any way – and indeed we had read that Yangon is an incredibly safe city – this accompanied with the fact that Yangon immediately strikes you with the sense that everybody simply speaks to everybody, we accepted their offer to show us where we could change some dollars.

The place they lead us to was a simple market stand on one of the busy corners. The stand fed neatly into the building behind it. It was such a discreet set-up for money exchange that I immediately knew that it was black market. However, having done my homework, I also knew that this is possibly the best way to change your money when in Myanmar. The guide books plainly state that you should avoid the airports and that the “local dealers” will give you better rates. Nonetheless, the entire process felt very cloak-and-dagger. We were ushered behind the market stall where we sat on mini plastic chairs, staring opposite sat a local man with boxes of cash and calculators. Any obvious display of money counting was met with some hand gestures that suggested we keep a lower profile. Mr Palè and Mr Toe even positioned themselves so that our presence would be even more hidden from the street. We fully understood that the locals had good reason to hide such activities from the big-bad-Burmese-government but I still couldn’t shake off the reality that we were only changing money, so I found the whole situation quite humorous. As expected, the rate we received was quite fair, so, appreciative of their help, I offered to buy Mr P. and Mr T. a beer. They led us to a local restaurant where we had some drinks and a variation of local dishes. The food we ate was vaguely Indian and very delicious.

Mr T. and Mr P. then offered to show us around a little, I naturally understood that a “present” would be expected in return for this small service – such is the Asian way! Nonetheless we were happy to go-with-the-flow so we quickly accepted. It was about this time that we recounted the story of my girlfriend’s broken camera, adding how upset she was that she couldn’t take any more photos.

“No problem, no problem!” they remarked – they knew a guy that could fix it and his shop was just around the corner.

I imagined that they probably knew a guy for every possible need and desire that a tourist could ever conjure up. I considered testing them. I’m running a bit low on Plutonium…..nah, forget it!

The ‘camera guy’ was a middle aged local who owned a shop selling second-hand cameras of all shapes and sizes. Aside from the main desk, the majority of his shop was filled with work stations dedicated to fixing broken cameras and camcorders. Some much younger local guys were busy soldering delicate little fixtures that they viewed through large magnifying glasses that were mounted to their desks. To me it just looked like chaos. The desks were strewn with wires, circuit boards, lenses, tools, labels…and the heat was unbearable.

My girlfriend presented the owner with her camera and he quickly noted the problem. He promised to take a look and would do his best to fix it for the same day. We accepted and left.

- To be continued -