We got up early, had our obligatory buffet breakfast, and rode our van to airport. After saying goodbye to Mr. Min Min and checking into our flight, we sat outside terminal in the first of two wait areas. Fastantic people-watching. The terminal was packed with tourists, much more so than in Heho or Mandalay. It seems Bagan is quite the popular tourist destination.
We pushed our way through security and sat in the second full holding tank until it was time to board the bus that would take us the 40 yards to our plane. The 1:20 Yangon Airways ATR–72 flight to Yangon was smooth and unremarkable. We were fed a small breakfast of local food, including a chicken sausage sandwich and two mochi, which are sugary, doughy rice gluten balls filled with a red bean paste. Interesting confections, but not really my thing.
When we arrived, we watched the tractors bring our bags into the terminal; though the bags were hand carried into the arrivals area, this was much more like a real airport. After security, we walked outside to meet Mr. U Myint, our Shan tour guide, and pack up the van. While stuck in traffic on the way to Shwedagon Pagoda, our tour guide gave us the history of Yangon. The Garden City, named Rangoon by the British, was the capital of The Golden Land until 2005, but it has since been inexplicably moved to Naypyidaw. Most of the foreign embassies remain in Yangon. It’s considered the best city to live in because it is the biggest in the country and is only 21 miles from the sea. The city was heavily occupied by the British during World War II, but it was also easy to see colonial influence in the buildings.
We removed our shoes and rode the elevator (another barefoot first) up to the main level of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The 60-ton, solid gold dome rises 98 meters above the base and is spectacular, even if it is covered in scaffolding for its 5-year repairs. It is the largest and arguably the most famous pagoda in the country. We toured the grounds, taking pictures and listening to Mr. U Myint tell us about the complex’s history.
After an hour of wandering, the van driver took us to lunch at Padonmar Restaurant, a seemingly popular destination for American diplomats. Beer, soup, rice, curries, vegetable dishes, fruit. We mixed up our lunch routine by having some local wine.
In our food coma, Mr. U Myint gave us a driving tour of the colonial buildings along the waterfront. Though the owners had given up on fresh coats of paint long ago, the residential and commercial buildings were quite impressive. Some of the larger commercial buildings had recently changed ownership and were in the process of being converted into hotels, which is sure to help draw more tourists to the city.
Eventually we came across another city landmark, the Sule Pagoda, dating back over 2,000 years. The group played a game of Frogger trying to cross the insane traffic to get inside. More pictures, more history. Many of the temples and pagodas are seen as community centers; places to pray, eat, sleep, play, and commune.
The van driver took us to The Loft, our accommodations for the night. Our twin bed rooms were unavailable, so they upgraded us to the suites. Modern architecture, two-level lofts with a living room, rooftop terrace, and giant display window into the bathroom. Oh, Asia… Chris and I took off to see the nearby street market before it closed for the day, wandering through the food market before stumbling upon an open-air mall of hundreds of stalls. The items for sale were mostly clothes (longyi), jewelry, and souvenirs but some were art and fabrics. I spotted a watercolor painting that I liked and stopped Chris to investigate. We successfully haggled down our geometric paintings of scenes of the country from the same artist, a fine reminder of this exotic adventure. We returned to the hotel and rested for awhile in the air conditioning before meeting up for dinner with James, our food tour guide.
While the taxi battled the crazy, noticeably motorcycle-less traffic, we learned that James, who is maybe 20 years old and has great English, is of Indian descent and hopes to study the Bible and music in Colorado in the next few years. I did notice that Yangon is much more of a melting pot of cultures than any of the other Burmese cities we have visited.
Our first destination was in China Town, and James brought us to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, being careful to wash our hands with sanitizer and wipe our utensils and plates down. Apparently because the Shan state extends so far north, many of the dishes from the area overlap with China, with which it borders. We had Shan noodles with chicken and curry – easily our favorite dish of the trip thus far – as well as chicken meatballs with a spicy tamarind sauce and some kind of spicy vegetable dish with quail eggs, jelly noodles, and chicken.
Afterwards, we walked down the street to a night market, where James ordered us a selection of meat on sticks, as well as a fried tilapia, from which I abstained. Between the pork belly fat, corn-like vegetable, broccoli, okra, and pork, I found the pork on a stick to be the most interesting. The bugs were swarming all around us, but I was fairly distracted by how vibrant the nightlife is. Constant car traffic, people meandering the hundreds of market stalls. There was even a DJ playing music from his laptop. The streets were very dirty, wet and cluttered with trash and construction debris; moreso than most cities I’ve visited. I was convinced that we were all going to get sick that night.
The second course consumed, we walked 15 minutes to another neighborhood through what would be some seriously shady streets in any other city. According to James, the city was “99% safe,” so we marched on. Walking past more night markets, we eventually arrived at the curry destination, where we had the local version of the country’s national dish: curry and rice. I enjoyed the spicy chicken and black bean pork, which was very similar to the pork we had at lunch on our first day in Myanmar. I noticed some German tourists at a nearby table and started to relax some. Having been surrounded by tourists in all the other cities, I was beginning to feel insecure by our local immersion in Yangon.
We were getting pretty full after the curry dishes, but James insisted we try dessert before we went back to the hotel. Walking around the block, we entered a large bakery/ice cream parlor, where our guide ordered us a popular dessert called faluda. It’s basically a combination of ice cream, milk, jelly noodles, and custard that eventually melts into a milkshake. It was… interesting. The taste was fine and I particularly enjoyed the custard, but the combination of the jelly noodles and everything else was a bit odd. Dan spotted durian mousse, so of course we had to try that too. It was more like a cake and made of mostly frosting, and was therefore approachable.
Sweaty, exhausted, and full, James arranged a taxi back to the hotel and we said goodnight.