Yangon 3

April 2nd, 2015

Last minute rushing in the morning, tired from too little sleep, trying to do last minute research as well as book a trip from Yangon to Miri in Sarawak prior to entering the internet wasteland of Myanmar. I have very little time to play with, and really need to be out of the room by 9 am at the latest, but the errands take a little bit more time, packing understandably far more, given the additional camera, not wanting to jettison the box altogether.

At the reception, paying the last night of the hotel should be straightforward, but then I notice $5 were added to the Visa bill by the bank. It looks like the employee may have configured the transaction as a debit withdrawal rather than a Visa payment, but she speaks too little English to understand what I tell her, and panic ensues when I try to get her to reverse the charge, expressing inevitable exasperation at the her inability to understand what I want and coming closer to missing my flight.

Heaving the packs onto my back, I rush to the Sutthisan metro station, and even in the somewhat functional air conditioning of the train am lamentably drenched in sweat, the perfect storm of having a very heavy coat of body hair, carrying very heavy backpacks and the humid heat.

Kudos to Thailand’s degree of organization when a smiling newspaper vendor at the Mo Chit exit points me to the far side of the boulevard for the stop for the A1 bus to the airport, the bus literally pulling into the stop just as I descend to the overpass. Given that the A1 is an express route to Don Mueang airport, I run little risk of missing my flight at this point.

Check-in is straightforward, the hordes in the lineup quite manageable, the post office directly in front of the Air Asia international departures island, and the VAT tax refund agency adjacent. What more could you ask for? I am drenched in sweat, and the act of copiously fanning myself is less embarrassing than walking around soaking wet.

In the waiting area, many of the crowd are novice Myanmar travelers, the young French woman from Lyon next to me on the plane the recipient of my informational largesse with respect to the country, although in the end there is only so much variation possible in seeing the country, given that the visa for the country is for 28 days. You would need three days each for Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Kalaw, and possibly four to five for Mandalay, factoring in a day’s travel time for getting to each destination, and leaving at most a week to take on some other alternatives, such as traveling up to Katha, Mrauk U, or over to Bago and Kyaityiyo.

I exhaust myself talking on the lightly bumpy ride, the woman in the end cowering at my mechanical rant. The introduction to Yangon airport predictably foretells a lot of the experience in the country, given that there are only a handful of smaller planes parked on the tarmac outside the terminal, and inside the somewhat bland and simply appointed interior, we are the only passengers, seemingly evaporating into the spacious structure.

Bewildered tourists look at the exchange booths next to the non-functional ATM. Unlike in Mandalay, there is no organized taxi share service. I am left to organize the effort of finding a taxi on my own accord with an older German woman from Hamburg. She wants to experience something unique and outside the box in the country, although this will present the perennial conflict of having limited time, with all the obligatory sights lurking in the background. I have been very good at avoiding the major sites, but not because I deliberately wanted to pursue a more alternative form of tourism as much as simply being utterly chaotic and disorganized.

The dense carpet of tall apartment buildings is already visible in this relatively characterless enclave of eastern Yangon, little or no space available between the seven, eight story buildings. Unlike the reasonable flow of the main arteries running northward towards the airport, the vehicular traffic in the city centre is almost at a standstill, and opportunity for the taxi driver to tell me a little about his life.

Married and with a single child, he began working as taxi driver three years ago, the company he works for providing the car, and to whom he pays 300,000 kyat monthly. He is also responsible for the cost of gas and repairs, which puts substantial additional pressure on the driver, not to mention the fact that the traffic in the city will only get much worse, rather than get better – and it is also asphyxiating. By the time Yangon will have the capital to build a caliber rapid transit system, the cost of land necessary to build such a system will simply be prohibitive.

The Great Treasure hotel I had found to be such a great deal on the internet is nowhere near Sule Paya Road or the Strand hotel, as had been illustrated on the map in the online booking system – as we continue driving through the mess of traffic, it becomes apparent the hotel may still be on Strand Road, but far further to the west, in the depths of the port, another miscalculated affair, considering the cost of the hotel and how removed it is from any of the city’s attractions.

The hotel itself occupies an imposing 8 level tower, almost brand new, clean, well lit, and spacious, although not particularly ostentatious, definitely well beyond my budgetary norm. The room on the second floor is not particularly large although impeccable, pastel yellow walls contrasting with burnished teak and deep brown leatherette. Chests, plush chairs, a large screen television and fridge are centered around a queen size bed, while the bathroom is simple but well-appointed, with modern Italian plumbing fixtures, the perfectly functioning air conditioning unit compensating for the burning sun beating down on the building.

I straggle north on Strand Road past the heaps of watermelons ripening in the blazing afternoon heat, the older vendors engrossed in their newspapers just as the younger ones in their cell phones. Small stands on the newly paved side street sell snacks and fresh fruit and vegetables, the locals ambling about their business caught off-guard by the sudden incursion of a foreigner.

Plates of cress, cucumber, avocado, lima beans, daikon, lime, apples, mangoes, bananas, papayas, and grapes lie neatly arranged on the plates, waiting for eager customers to part with their hard-earned money. Further on, modest snacks and betel are sold while bicycle rickshaw drivers lie in their vehicles, waiting for fortune to smile on them, if only once. Small temples with the usual golden embellishments capture the imagination if not the spirit of humble visitors.

Strand Road is consumed with traffic, the colourful diorama of the surprisingly modern port facilities to the west contrasting with the sedate and relatively affluent residential towers to the east of the road. Mountains of stacked containers lie waiting for the gargantuan yellow cranes overhead, extraterrestrial praying mantises waiting for their prey, tankers parked on the narrow Bago river ready to discharge or load the merchandise that fuels the country’s retail economy.

The most poignant characteristic of Myanmar becomes immediately apparent, the trenchant warmth of the locals, mostly ready to smile welcomingly to the lumbering foreigner with the camera clasped clumsily in his sweating palms.

Past the rudimentary sites in this sector of town, a simple Christian church stands on a hillock flanking the road. Small food and tea stands line the road, with the most basic of culinary offerings. Bicycles and pedestrians amble along small alleys radiating outward from the road.

Quizzical monks, a modest gilt pagoda, and the vast expanse of the Peoples’ Park, marking the western flank of the city centre, although this hardly feels like much of an urban environment.

Bouquets of flowers are strewn around a vendor on the steps leading up to the temple. Cabs, pedicabs, a man struggling to push a load of bamboo uphill into town, and the rising mouldering towers that mark the city’s central areas.

In the evening, a walk through the bustling night market of the old city, following the trail of vendors and the crush of small eateries attracting locals and backpackers alike sandwiched into the back alleys. Warm conversation, good food, and free-flowing alcohol marks the evening, the bustle of waiters attending to the rickety tables flooded with customers and laden with dishes. And best of all, revisiting with familiar faces, Kyaw Soe of Shwebo, and Stefanie Carotenuto and Steve Pateman of the U.S., who I had met following my visit to the Myanmar embassy several days ago in Bangkok.

April 3rd, 2015

Random traffic noises wake me up early in the morning but I sleep in again. Closer to 9:30 I need to rush out the door and get breakfast before the rooftop restaurant overlooking the Yangon port closes. The skimpy American breakfast could use a few more slices of toast, but the waiter refuses to provide any more bread, as the kitchen is closed. What – you can’t open up the bag and take out a few more slices of bread? In a hotel that costs as much as this one does? Seriously?

I ask woman at the reception if there is any other room available on an upper floor, but she tells me the hotel is full, which seems somewhat improbable, given the fact that the hallways are empty and there was virtually no one else in the breakfast room. I ask who provides internet to the hotel – she points to the router behind her, telling me ‘D-Link’. No, the company that provides the internet – is the wifi pushed directly to the hotel or do you receive it by cable and split it over the floors?

That sails entirely past her, although she confirms that the wifi tends to work on the main floor, but never on the other floors. I return to the second floor to try the internet under the router, but even though the signal is recognized, there is no connection. In the lobby there is in fact no connection either, which the American couple seated on the couches across from me confirm. They are here because they got a great deal with Hotels.com, and highly recommend getting an account with the company, as they provide advantageous rates, as well as every 10th night booked for free.

They only paid $30 a night for this place … I can’t believe I paid almost $50, and then wasted the amount of time I did even trying to find it to begin with, and yet they barely offer internet – how absurd! I could sign up for a private VPN which could make matters easier, but right now they are simply out of luck. She suspects that it could be possible to hook up to a wireline connection behind the counter, although the woman behind the counter is utterly clueless.

The woman working here yesterday was impeccable, they tell me, having helped the American couple get a dongle for their cell phone and assisting them with troubleshooting.

Candice was originally born in Cuba, and in the U.S. moved up the ranks in the corporate world, working as marketing manager for Pepsi at first and then Coca Cola. Coca Cola may be the world’s most recognized brand, but it is in decline in the U.S., while Pepsi owns the entire raft of snack manufacturers that are sold universally, and against which the Coke-owned brands couldn’t compete.

She eventually burned out from working incredibly long hours and jumped into a secret shopping job, involving traveling around the world for a company rating hotels. It sounds like an amazing gig, but she recommends looking for a company that has a substantial portfolio of clients to work with to make it worthwhile.

The idea of trying to achieve an internet connection in this hotel seems utterly pointless, although one of the young uniformed employees at the reception desk assures me that there is a French bakery on the major road running to the east of Strand that may have internet. According to his depiction on the map of town, it is the better part of the way towards the town centre, and short of taking a taxi, I could take one of the many old buses rambling south on Strand Road.

A long slog in the intense dusty heat ensues along Strand, this end of the street as far removed from any evocation its English namesake could conjure. Closer to the allegedly destination, no one seems to have heard of the Patisserie, and those that have wave me back towards the north, indicating it is at some distance.

Trudging further along in the blistering heat, my spirits sinking even more. I can’t believe the frustration of dealing with such utterly mediocre talent at the hotel, the young man who insisted the cafe with internet I should go to being far to the south when it is in fact immediately east of the hotel, wryly confirmed by the English philosophy student who is already seated at the cafe’s outside patio when I arrive.

He listens patiently to my tale of woe, tersely indicating that the cogent detail I should concern myself with at this point is the fact that the sprawling cafe with an extensive selection of breads, biscuits, pastries, coffees and juices actually also has working internet. But no electric power, and by the time the Yahoo mail screen is capable of being displayed, the battery on my laptop has died …

Walking on foot through the sweltering heat alongside the relatively modern buildings that encircle the hospital, and then on to the principal artery that leads towards the Dagon Centre shopping mall and beyond, the traffic slow-moving and palatable. Locals are both relaxed but brisker on the streets than the much more urbanized Thai seem to be, both men and women swathed in lungyis. Small rudimentary stores and tea shops lead towards the cacaphonic climes of the mall.

I am pointed northward towards the hordes waiting for the antediluvian buses to grind to a halt amidst clouds of blackened smoke, the stern and yet comical uniformed traffic policemen futile in their attempts to guide the chaotic proceedings. And yet the bus trip to the monastery located further to the east of the city becomes an utterly frustrated affair, crammed as I am into the thick of a crowd in the sweltering heat, growing ominously as the air inside the slowly moving bus rises to a boiling point.

People stare at me curiously, although the experience doesn’t leave me in the best of moods, and is not what I had in mind in terms of enjoying the remaining hour of daylight.

Escaping the sweltering heat of the bus, I decide to give up on the little that I accomplished in the day, and return on foot towards Shwe Dagon pagoda. I walk along the largely empty and somewhat upended sidewalk towards the shining golden stupa that dominates the northern part of this town. Surveying the sprawling and slightly decayed opulent bungalows set amidst the verdant foliage, a world of serene and seemingly untroubled wealth emerges, utterly detached from the squalor and poverty of the town centre.

The road brings me back to the disarray and muted frenzy of the Dagon Plaza mall, ostensibly the centre of retail life in northwestern Yangon, the upper floors dedicated to generic Asian restaurants, where a moderate amount of money offers a variety of rice and noodle dishes, nothing spectacular in any way, but at least clean, well-illuminated, presentable, and relatively air conditioned, unlike the squalid jumble of tables and chairs lining the pavement outside, where for far less money indecipherable slop is ladled from battered and dirty pots into the waiting plates of customers seated in the darkness.

And now into the night, a return along the now darkened passage westward towards Strand Road, and then further down, past the darkened port and dismantled evening eateries, a few holdouts serving the remains of the evening on both sides of the cacophonic thoroughfare.