First impressions of Rangoon? It was much bigger than I had imagined it to be. The buildings were generally very run-down, many looked like they were falling apart. This was interspersed with some remaining colonial-era buildings in the downtown centre near where I stayed. It was hot. It was unfamiliar. And I was very nervous.
The first port of call was to find some money. The local currency is called Kyat (pronounced chat) but exchange rates are incredibly variable. As in, the ‘official’ exchange rate is nonsense and so you need to find a black market exchange for your money. However, as a Western traveller in Burma, you generally stick out like a sore thumb and so the more dodgy folk will try to find you. Luckily the guesthouse I picked was on the ball. They provided us with a reasonable exchange rate and accepted our US Dollars. With Kyat and Dollars in hand, I was ready to explore.
Before leaving the guesthouse to discover the place where my Grandad was born, I enquired about flights to Bagan. My itinerary was Rangoon – Bagan – Mandalay – Inle Lake – Rangoon. The guesthouse staff had contacts with the airlines so they made some calls. I had not been able to book any local flights before arrival, and it is near impossible to travel overland because of the travel restrictions on tourists. There is very little infrastructure to deal with long-distance travel, there are no bus routes to speak of and there is only one train service running once a week. As loathe I was to spend any money on anything that would benefit the Government (local taxes etc.) flying was the only feasible option.
Unfortunately, there was nothing available except a flight to Heho, the local airport for Inle Lake. I had wanted that to be last stop so I could relax before leaving the country. But it was not to be. I rejigged the itinerary and booked all of the required flights for the following two weeks. This cost a lot more than I had anticipated, and I was not willing to (nor able to) spend the enormous surcharge on buying more dollars at the only hotel in Rangoon with a credit card machine.
Cue two weeks on two meals a day.
With the admin sorted, I set out into Rangoon to explore. I was immediately struck by the number of people greeting me. There were lots of “Hello, how are you?” “How do you do?” and smiles. Blimey, they’re friendly here.
I first wanted to get to the river to look across to another area where my Grandad had lived at the outbreak of war. He told me of a timber mill that once stood there, but I couldn’t see it. I was amazed with how wide the river was.
I walked along the Strand and noticed the old Colonial buildings, they were strangely familiar and reminiscent of other buildings I had seen in Singapore and London. I accidentally bumped into some major military men, which scared the living daylights out of me. I tried to look as gormless and innocent as possible. Not that I was guilty of anything, except an awareness of their crimes against their own people.
Rangoon was not quite the idyllic city that my Grandad had described. It was crowded, and hectic, and hot, and rather overwhelming to be in. There were no restaurants or cafes that were recognisable. No shopping centre to find supplies. If there was, I couldn’t find it. Food was served by the roadside where locals would perch on low plastic stools and eat at the stall. There were old sugar cane presses on the corners of the road. There was a bustle of people. It was another culture shock after Bangkok where at least I would hide in a 7Eleven to cool down sometimes.
I needed to get my head around this.
There is little electricity at night time, and there are often power cuts at night, so we stayed in the guesthouse that evening. Luckily they had a kitchen and they whipped us up some noodles. The guys there were excited to talk about English football with my travel companion. They were lovely.
We left the next morning to fly to Heho. Our next destination would be Inle Lake in the Shan State.