I’d budgeted about an hour and a half to get to the the airport in Bangkok. With almost no wait for the BTS Sytrain and connecting bus, combined with the quiet Sunday morning traffic, the journey took less than half of that.
The next stop was a country that I’m not entirely sure what to call. Even the guide books usually refer to it as Myanmar (Burma). The country was know as Burma in the days of the British Empire. Following independence it was changed to Myanmar. However as this name was chose by the controversial military dictatorship, Myanmar also has negative connotations some people. The famous politician and activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, refused to refer to her country as Myanmar due to this but I think her current stance is that people can use whichever name they prefer. I’ll call it Myanmar as that is what almost all local people that I came across seem to call their country.
Myanmar was never really on my travel destinations radar until I spoke to people who’ve been there. All three people I know who have visited the country have spoken really highly of Myanmar and convinced me to pay it a visit. As it has only recently opened up to tourism, the travel infrastructure here is relatively underdeveloped. While not being overrun with visitors usually enhances the charm of a place it can also make getting around not particularly straightforward. When I spotted that Intrepid offer reasonably-priced tours of Myanmar, that made up my mind.
Thankfully Bangkok to Yangon is on the Nok Air budget airline route and the flight itself is a short one, less than an hour. Unsurprisingly, Yangon was just as hot and humid as Bangkok, with today’s temperature at well over 30C. If I’d done a bit of advance research I’d have discovered that now is currently bang in the middle of the hot season so I can’t really complain too much. Yangon used to be called Rangoon and was changed for the same sort of reason as in the second paragraph.
I was quoted 10,000 kyat for a taxi into the city. 10,000 of anything sounds expensive but it’s actually only about £6 for 45 minutes of driving. The bugger ripped me off too, as I later discover that the going rate is 8,000 kyat! The kyat is an interesting currency. For a start it’s pronounced “chat.” There’s also no coins. With 50 kyat notes in circulation (equivalent to about 3p) you don’t really need coins. Apparently 10 kyat (0.3p) notes exist but I never saw any. At the airport I withdrew some kyat from the ATM. I ended up with an enormous wedge of 5,000 kyat (£3) notes that wouldn’t fit in my wallet. I felt a bit like Jimmy the Gent from Goodfellas!
Yangon seems like a nice city, albeit slightly dilapidated which is understandable from it’s somewhat turbulent recent history. Just around the corner from the hotel is a huge golden pagoda, Sule Pagoda, in the middle of a roundabout. Nearby are some nice gardens in Bandula Park, which also contains the Myanmar Independence Monument. The park is also surrounded by some nice colonial architecture. While walking around Yangon felt perfectly safe you sometimes get an inquisitive look and plenty of smiles from people who presumably don’t see many visitors of a European origin.
The tour group seemed nice. Two of them appeared to have been enjoying the Yangon hostelries. I got the impression that this group wouldn’t be as reserved as the people I travelled around India with. As well as the usual places of origin like Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Canada, literally half of the group were from London. Coco, the tour guide also seemed like a decent bloke.