Myanmar: Yangon

I wanted to visit Myanmar as soon as they opened its borders to foreigners 3 years ago.
That country seemed so mysterious and unknown, how could my curiosity not be tickled?
I had no idea what to expect, no clear itinerary in mind. All I knew was that we had to be careful. Some roads are not open to foreigners, entire areas are formally no go zones on the French government website, and there is no reliable hospital. In case of an emergency, one has to go to Bangkok… Apart from that I had images of the Bagan temples at sunrise in mind, and it was definitely exciting enough! Can you imagine, that country still isn’t touched by mass tourism? I loved Laos so much because it was authentic, I hoped Myanmar would have the same vibe.
When we landed in Yangon (because of visa matters, we couldn’t arrive by road and had to fly), I was chocked by the beauty of Burmese people around me.
Their skin is toned without being dark, they have those pretty Asian eyes, long and thin, but also full lips. To top it of, most men wear a large cylinder of fabric as a sarong and women are incredibly elegant, only wearing complete outfit and with stunning thick black hair. As if this wasn’t enough to keep me in amazement, a lot of people wear yellow paint on their cheeks, sometimes also their nose and front, or on their full face.
That paint is called thanaka and is actually a wood powder mixed with water that Burmese traditionally apply as a sunblock and to embellish their skin.
They praise it for their beauty.

Yangon is a messy city. It looks like it’s decaying from a glorious past and I was quite confused by what appeared to me as contradictions. There are beautiful art deco buildings everywhere, but they look like they’re ruins. When you take a peek inside those buildings, the apartments and the shops look like they are abandoned, yet people live there.
There are cars everywhere, pretty much no bikes, few motorcycles, and the traffic is horrendous. Until very recently, Burma was considered an open air prison, but present day Myanmar is full of sweet smiley faces and people willing to help. Guesthouses and hotel are the most expensive we paid in SE Asia. I think it’s because they actually are not ruins but rather newly built. I was told that the government taxes them a lot too. Food costs nothing (to us). We keep eating full meals for the equivalent of $0.75 each, but there are hi tech shops on every corner. Kids work, from a young age, and little monks of 1 meter height are walking on every streets. After the country’s independence from the British, they stopped teaching English at schools. Most people don’t speak or understand a word of English but will talk to you in Burmese the same way that if you were to understand it.

Yangon is a colorful city. Walls are all painted in different colors, sometimes each balcony has its own color. Golden temples and stupas can be seen on every block from afar. Cable satellites hang from every window. The monks wear red and the nuns wear pink and orange. And yellow thanaka is on every face of the crowd. Street food is no joke here: corn, peanuts and greens on one stall, Indian byriani on another one, an ersatz of a restaurant on a small portion of the pavement… And fruits everywhere. The shops often don’t have a wall, everything is exposed to the wanderer.

I am glad I spent my birthday in Yangon. It was very special.

Here even more than the previously visited countries, I felt very safe. The only time something unpleasant happened, I turned it into a joke. We met a monk in a temple, he had a perfect English which is very uncommon. When we told him we were French, he quoted Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, I was really impressed.He showed us around the temple but couldn’t focus his attention on us long enough to answer my many questions. He saw another foreigner. “You’re from New Zealand? Lord of the rings!”
And another one. “You’re French too? Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus!” I was waiting for the moment this nice person was going to request something from us. It didn’t take long. He said he was working in an orphanage and they needed $600 per day, which was why OUR help was so important. Ha had a video of kids having lunch on his smartphone to prove it. He showed us a notebook filled with notes. “Look, someone gave $100, someone else 500 bath, or even 20 euro, you give what you want”. I told him I had no cash, since we just arrived and had not had time to withdraw money (which was kind of true).
“No problem! The ATM is right outside, come I’ll take you there!”
So I reached to my bag, saw Silvere’s eyes clearly saying “what the hell are you doing?!” and took all the cash I had left out of it. I told the monk “I don’t have much, but I’m gladly giving it to you”.
He looked at the 2 notes I handed him, looked at me and asked “what’s that?”.
Well that was my last 500 Vietnamese dong ($0.02) and 2000 Cambodian riels ($0.5).
Money so worthless that I couldn’t spend it in Vietnam and change it outside of Cambodia.
Silvere laughed while the monk blankly looked at me for a second. He quickly turned to Silvere and immediately asked him “What about you? Do you have anything? Can we go to the ATM?”. I walked away while Silvere simply told him that he would rather give money to the orphanage directly than to some random guy in a temple.

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The first tea shop I went to. It’s exactly like the coffee shops in my hometown!

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The very nice kid working at the tea shop. He never not smiled, but had his feet covered in black dirt and was working, not going to school. When I asked what was that yellow thing on the faces of people in the street, since we couldn’t understand each other, he went to the shop to buy me some thanaka… I felt so weird. Here he was, nice, smiley, looking happy. I felt like he should have been at school and have access to a bathroom. I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel or what was right. I still don’t. Myanmar confuses me.

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Bananas and coconut serve as offerings in temples. After a few minutes, anyone can pick them and eat them.

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At first we thought it was something to eat, and it looked quite delicious. But it’s “betel”, after the nut that is the main ingredient, mixed with tobacco and honey, you can customize the betel to your taste (coconut flake, poppy seeds etc…). It is then packed inside a folded leave, and chewed. You have to break everything in your mouth, sip the liquid and spit it when you’re done. It’s kinda crazy, everywhere, everyone spits red liquid in the street and you can tell by the red smiles that they chew A LOT. It is pretty strong and makes first timers dizzy.

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Taking the train is a very funny experience. Vendors hop on and off and are the best entertainment.

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