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Wednesday 23 Jan 2013
Yangon, Myanmar

"Warmly welcome and be kind to tourists"

What a great welcome to Myanmar.  We saw this sign all over the place.  It first we thought it was an amusing mistranslation, then realised it was more of an order to be obeyed. Either way, the people of Myanmar have been overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming to us, going out of their way to help us.

On arrival, we changed a bit of money at a bank kiosk in the airport before going out into the bustle of the city itself.  Our taxi also carried a tour guide, who turned out to be a lovely guy, eager to talk about his country and very open about the political changes going on.  He even pointed out Aung San Suu Kyi's house across the lake as we drove into downtown Yangon.  As we were checking in we met Anita, a Swiss girl from our Intrepid party (a day before the group as due to meet up) so we headed out together into the heat of the city. 

Yangon turned out to be less intimidating than we had feared, with a lot of modernisations creeping in - new cars on the road, Samsung adverts everywhere - and felt very comfortable to walk around.  Even the Lonely Planet cites the biggest danger as "falling down a sewage-filled pothole in the pavement", which was quite apt.  There was pavement of a sort, but it was generally uneven, broken or full of gaps, to say nothing of the street vendors that you need to weave your way between. I was surprised by the number of dogs around.  They were everywhere, but not threatening in any way.  Most looked fairy undernourished, but some looked quite happy and healthy.

We treated ourselves to High Tea in the Strand Hotel - pure British Colonial luxury - as the perfect way to avoid the strongest heat of the day.  Images of George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling wouldn't be out of place here.  Ailsa and I had the Myanmar High Tea, which came served in a beautiful laquerware tiffin box.  Bagan is the real laquerware centre, so I am looking forward to seeing the workshop there.

The next day we headed across to the main train station to take a ride on the Circular Train: a 3-hour circular route that heads out of Yangon into the countryside and market villages and back. This is something I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Yangon - there is as much action inside the train as outside and we found ourselves as the tourist attraction rather than the other way around. At the ticket office, we were invited around to sit inside by a very charming young man who asked us about where we were from,  while his colleague wrote out a group ticket and showed us the route on a hand drawn map (which we bought a copy of for 20p), then personally led us across the tracks and showed us onto the right train.

The carriages have no glass in the windows or doors on the ends and only two long bench seats down the sides. At each stop people jumped on and off along with big baskets and packs heading for or from the markets. At one point, half the market piled on and filled the carriage. A group of kids spent the next half hour bunching up handfuls of vegetables ready for the next market.

We had several smiling conversations with people and got stared at by small children. When I refilled my Camelbak from a bottle of water, I found myself the centre of attention in the whole carriage, followed by laughs and smiles when I put it back together and demonstrated it. This became something of a theme in the whole trip.

That evening we met the rest of our group. Quite surprisingly, Ailsa, Anita and I were the youngest by around 20 years. Our companions came from Canada, USA, Australia and Ireland and proved to be a very well-travelled and entertaining group of people. Sadly, the guide didn't make such a great first impression. He was very nervous - this was only his third trip for Intrepid - and his English was not very strong, so we weren't able to understand everything he said. We came away from the meeting hoping he would relax and feeling nervous about the rest of the trip if he didn't.

During our walking tour the next day, we discovered the names of many of the buildings we had admired the day before. Yangon is full of beautiful Victorian architecture, but much of it is abandonned, rundown or generally looking quite sorry. When the Military Junta pulled out to their new capital in Nyapidaw a few years ago, many of these buildings were just left to decay. There is a movement to try and save lots of them now, including through private investment, but this sometimes means conversion to hotels. While it saves some of the buildings, others will be lost to public access.

One place that really caught out eye yesterday was a huge red brick complex that took up a whole block. It had a beautiful clock on the central facade - very reminiscent of Back to the Future - and wings extending out in each direction. This turned out to be the former government buildings where General Aung San was assassinated in the late 1950s, leaving behind his two-year-old daughter Aung San Suu Kyi...

We finished our time in Yangon with a sunset visit to the Shwe Dagon Paya, the biggest and tallest temple in Myanmar, said to contain 4 hairs of the Buddha. The central stupa is enormous, and surrounded by statues and decoration. Around the ouside are numerous smaller pagodas made of assorted woods, metals and decorated or carved on every single surface. The Stupa is covered in gold leaf lower down and several inches of solid gold higher up. Inside the solid stupa are at least 6 others stupas made of tin, iron, teak, brick, etc. The very tip is topped with a gold orb covered in jewellery and set with a 76 carat diamond! Buddhists like gold. Lots of it. But they also like flashing rope lights and LEDs. The juxtaposition of intricate carvings, mosaics, gold leaf and flashing lights is a sight to behold!

Having seen this, I am intrigued to see what Bagan has in store. It is a former capital said to hold over 2000 stupas in various states of repair and decay, along the lines of Ayutthaya in Thailand.

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