Burma: Arriving in Rangoon

the friendly guesthouse in Rangoon

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.

view outside the guesthouse

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.

behind me is where my Grandad also lived

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.

architecture in Rangoon
boys playing football down a side street in Rangoon

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.

food stalls in Rangoon
I believe this is the spot where my Grandad’s old house used to be in the 1930’s
colonial era building

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.

this gorgeous family were chilling out by the road and kindly let me take their photo

We left the next morning to fly to Heho. Our next destination would be Inle Lake in the Shan State.

  1. Oh you have just brought it all back to me. We travelled in Burma in 2004 and found the whole experience a bit of a culture shock too. We did a reverse itinerary, flying inot mandalay from north Thailand, then via river to Baggan they by flight to Rangoon. We visited at the time fo the water festival (ie their new year) and this made it even more of a strange experience as we might be walking down the road at night (in the pitch black due to power cuts) to have a bucket of water thrown on us from a 4th storey buliding, all in the name of ‘fun’. I can tell you it was not so much fun after the first few time. Still you are in for some real treats, and I envy you :0) Have a wonderful time and enjoy the people. They are so friendly and curious.

    1. Thanks Jacqui.
      I forgot to mention in the post, but this is a recap of my experiences from 2009.

      It really is amazing country. I have yet to be in Southeast Asia for Songkran etc. but I can’t imagine it was fun being drenched in the pitch black!


  2. I was interested to read your post as I don’t think Burma is a popular place. Many people think it is still not safe to travel their. I would love to go as there are some special sights and temples I would love to visit. So I am following your post to read more on your visit. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Burma is not very popular with Western tourists, no. But there were a lot of regional tourists there plus groups of Chinese, Japanese and Russian tourists.

  3. Those buildings are amazing… especially the greeny one in Rangoon. The idea of getting my money by black market scares me a little… and gosh yes no supermarkets or cafes is a bit of a culture shock! Never realise how set in our ways we are sometimes!

  4. You had a challenging travel experience. I have never been to Burma and I have seen few pictures of the place. The roads look so peaceful compared to the busy streets in the city. The buildings are fascinating as well, I like their designs. It is great that you decided to visit there.

  5. Visiting your grandfather’s past home is a great way to learn more about him. Though your travel wasn’t trial free, it sounds like you enjoyed your stay there which is good. It is great that you had visited a place where you have felt welcomed. Thank you for sharing the photo and teaching me something about Burma.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *