Yangon

(A quick terminology note before we begin:  Myanmar is one of those places where you end up playing “Istanbul or Constantinople”, trying to figure out whether to call it Burma or Myanmar, whether the main city is Rangoon or Yangon.  (I was going to write ‘capital’ there, but for reasons that no one really understands, the junta decided a few years ago that it wanted to make itself a new artificial capital elsewhere.  So it’s not the capital any more.)  I’ve gone with what the country calls itself.  I know that the Beeb, for example, prefers to stick with the old names, as a show of rejection for the military junta’s takeover of the prior regime.  I can get that, but at the same time, I can’t help but wonder at the self-righteousness of a policy that expresses said disapproval by insisting on the name that Britain assigned the colony, upon its military takeover of the prior regime.  So, especially given that the government is gaining more and more acceptance internationally these days anyway, I’m going with what the locals say.  Myanmar and Yangon it is…)

The taxi trip from the airport to our hotel gave the lie to many of my expectations of Yangon.  Driving through some of its northern suburbs reminded me more of growing up in Melbourne than anywhere else.  Least of all the chaos of recent stays elsewhere in South-East Asia, or the dilapidation of Kathmandu.

Our four-day excursion to the Myanma capital was a last-minute addition to our travels around South-East Asia, but it was obvious it was going to be intriguing.

Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset

One of the iconic highlights of Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda, at sunset. Definitely worth a visit – and give yourself an hour or so as the sun goes down and all the gold turns reddy-orange. Also as all the neon buddha haloes turn on. (Bit strange, that, but there you have it.)

In the main part of the city, confusion and bustle is more evident, yes.  The prevalence of left-hand drive cars in a country that drives on the left can’t be helping that, I’m sure.  But a ban on bikes – pedal-powered or motor – marks this city truly a world away from those of Myanmar’s neighbours.  As you’ll soon discover if you try to cross the road as you would in Hanoi, only to find that the traffic does not in fact part for pedestrians as expected.

And like the rest of South-East Asia, there is street food aplenty here, and the footpaths overflow with sellers of fake Ray Bans and a cornucopia of shiny things.  It’s hard to walk far without being offered the services of a moneychanger, eager to do you a “good deal”, changing US dollars at well above the market rate (net of the sleight of hand that will have you actually walking away much poorer in Myanma kyats than you intended, if you were sufficiently unwise as to take the offer).

But there is definitely something more orderly about Yangon.  Dare I say, something more British.  (The smattering of old colonial architecture obviously contributes to this.)

The Ministers' Building (formerly the Secretariat Building) in Yangon – a beautiful old colonial building in its now almost jungle-like grounds in the middle of the city

Colonial architecture in Yangon: the Ministers’ Building (formerly the Secretariat Building) – a beautiful old colonial building in its now almost jungle-like grounds in the middle of the city

There’s something more secure, too.  At no point in our South-East Asia travels did we feel in any danger, and definitely Yangon was no exception.  But it went further than that:  though you do need to be careful of being ripped off by the moneychangers, Myanmar, a very thoroughly Buddhist country, has incredibly little crime.  Ferry ticketsellers and restaurateurs alike will happily turn their backs on seriously large piles of cash in crowded areas as they go about their business, with no thought to the possibility of it being stolen.  Crime against tourists is almost unheard of.  Obviously this doesn’t mean you go around behaving like an unthinking idiot leaving your valuables everywhere, but there’s a trusting vibe to the country that is obvious and reassuring and pleasant.

It’s not a lack of poverty that’s responsible, either:  there’s poverty aplenty, with most of the country effectively one step up from subsistence farming.  One of the typical tourist recommendations is to head to the central train station, pay your $US2, and catch the Yangon Circle Line:  a three-hour trip out into the pretty but far-from-wealthy nearby countryside and back around to where you started, past farmers markets, scrap yards, slums and everything else that outer-suburban Yangon has to offer.  The ride was fascinating, but probably interesting more for the people-watching on the train, than for the view out the glassless windows.  As the train passes through the main markets, and large sacks and wicker baskets overflowing with vegetables find their way into the carriages as their owners then set themselves cheerfully about their daily tasks, cutting, peeling and bundling, all mid-carriage, preparing to sell on down (or is it up?) the food chain.  The train is how most produce gets into the city, and it seems to be the industrial quasi-kitchen-prep venue as well.

Locals transporting produce to and from the market on the Yangon Circle Line

Locals transporting produce to and from the market on the Yangon Circle Line

Much of that food, once it makes it into the city, proceeds to the street-side food stalls that dot many of the main streets.  Chinatown, especially, comes alive with culinary variety at night.

Street vendors in Yangon.  Those piles of brown things are crickets.  Tasty!

Street vendors in Yangon. Those piles of brown things are crickets. Tasty!

And by culinary variety, I mean fresh produce, indefinable variations on meat-on-stick, and big piles of fried crickets.  Which are actually quite tasty, as it turns out.  Tastes kind of like chicken.  (Although I’ve been told that you really want to rip the legs off before chowing down:  the enthusiastic seller I dealt with evidently took care of that for me when he handed the tasty morsel over, but apparently otherwise, they have a somewhat irritating tendency to stick in one’s teeth.)

About to sample a tasty, tasty cricket, bought from a street seller in central Yangon

About to sample a tasty, tasty cricket, bought from a street seller in central Yangon

And then there’s perhaps the most common type of stall in all Yangon:  the beetel nut vendors.  Beetel nut is a cultural phenomenon in Myanmar:  you can see evidence of it not just in those stalls, but in the red stains on nearly all the locals’ teeth, as well as the dried-blood-coloured splotches practically painting the footpath and roads, constantly prompting you to second-guess that “Myanmar is perfectly safe” advice I gave just before.

There’s evidently quite an art to beetel nut production and consumption:  the nut is chopped up and wrapped in leaves, along with some form of white paste to keep it all together.  Watching the practised manoeuvers of the stall-owners throwing together a fresh batch (it’s typically bought in bags of half-a-dozen or so, which, judging by the consumption habits of some locals I observed, must last all of about an hour) is really quite mesmerising.

Streetside sellers of beetel nut

Streetside sellers of beetel nut

Also sold on the street, by the way, was a surprising amount of Angry Birds merchandise.  I say surprising not because I’m not used to seeing lots of Angry Birds merchandise – it’s hard to think of many places (especially in South-East Asia) that I haven’t seen it.  But because one of the things that still sets junta-run Myanmar apart is the lack of availability (and ridiculous expensiveness) of mobile phones.  There’s a certain double-take you do when you realise that the fashion is for wearing clothes which promote a game the locals are unlikely to have seen played, since it’s playable only on phones which only the country’s few tourists are able to acquire.  (Similarly unusual:  the Samsung Galaxy SIII is heavily advertised on large and prominent billboards throughout Yangon.  But I’m not even sure that it’s possible to buy one there.)

With all of that, Yangon is just a bit different to anywhere else I’ve been.  Generators dot the footpath (the electricity infrastructure is not exactly reliable), and (no doubt in part because of a lack of available power, as well as a lack of available patrons) the nightlife is almost non-existent, unlike most other Asian capitals.  (That said, the Strand Bar – local haunt of the workers at the nearby British and Australian embassies – does half price drinks from 5pm til 11 on Fridays, and some of its regulars enthusiastically informed us that while yes, most places are done for the night well before midnight, there are most certainly a few haunts that can keep an expat going all night, if you wish to seek them out.)  Everywhere you looked, there were these small accumulations of little differences that make the Myanma capital unique and intriguing.

And that was our brief experience of perhaps South-East Asia’s most reclusive destination.  We were sad not to have had the time available to get out and see anything more than just Yangon:  from everything I’ve heard from other travellers, the rest of Myanmar is an incredible country and well worth an in-depth exploration.  But we were very glad to have gone and seen a taste of a different kind of Asia, even as it rapidly changes and opens up to the outside world.

Getting a Myanma visa in Bangkok

This is an advice post, for anyone wanting to visit Myanmar and trying to figure out how to get a visa.  If that doesn’t apply to you, don’t blame me if you get to the bottom of the following wall of text wondering why you’re incredibly bored and can you have the last ten minutes or so of your life back, please.

The south entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Superfluous photo of Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Apparently, most Myanma embassies around the world will take forever to process your visa application.  The one in Bangkok will not – they have fixed, reliable schedules (same-day, next-day and day-after, depending on your need and willingness to pay for expedited processing), and as a result, they’re a pretty popular embassy.

Sufficiently popular, in fact, that you will be waiting in a long line to get your visa.  The visa section is only open in the mornings for visa applications.  It opens at 9, and by then there’ll be a line along the street.  We got there around 9.15, and had to wait about 40 minutes in line.  Personally I wouldn’t bother getting there earlier – my uneducated guess is that you’ll be waiting in line equally as long, just trading off more time waiting in a shorter line that’s not moving (because the office isn’t open yet) for less time waiting for the people in front of you to pass through once it does open – but obviously plenty of people are more excited about the whole waiting-in-line process than I am, and so want to get started with it as early as possible.

But in any case, before you go jump in that line, you’ll want to go to the little photocopy shop round the corner first.  It’s down a little side street off Pan Rd, north of the embassy building.  Basically follow the line from the embassy door (which is on Pan Rd) up the road, and turn right where you see all the people with visa applications coming out of the side street.  Someone will be able to show you where – everyone goes there.

The reason everyone goes there is that for a run-of-the-mill general photocopy shop, they’re particularly specialised:  they basically major in helping people get together whatever they need for the visa application.  They can provide you with copies of the application forms for the visa even before you get to the embassy (in fact, well before the embassy even opens), so that you’re not hurriedly filling them out once you get to the front of the line.  Plus they can print off your other supporting documentation for you (you’ll want a printed flight confirmation if you’re going for a same-day visa), photocopy your passport’s photo page (yes, you need to hand this copy in with your application, even though you’re also handing them your passport itself – presumably this is to save the embassy staff walking around the corner to the same shop to use their photocopier themselves, or something), take your passport photos (you need two, one glued on the form, one paper-clipped to it), and even look over your filled-out form to make sure you’ve got it all right before you even get in line.  They’re exceptionally helpful, and they’re cheap.

Once you’ve done that and lined up, you’ll need to fork over some money to the government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar itself:  you can pay the minimum fee (800-ish baht, I think) and get the visa in three days (so apply Monday morning, get it Wednesday afternoon), or you can pay more and get it the next day, or even more (around 1100 baht, I think) and get it that same afternoon.  (Although note that to apply for a same-day visa you’ll need some justification for why you need it the same day – such as a flight confirmation for tomorrow.)

And then you’re done, until whenever you paid for your visa to be ready – at which point you line up all over again and pick it up between 3.30pm and 4.30pm.  It’s actually all particularly straightforward.

One final note:  on the application form, they ask for a brief employment history.  Apparently they have a history of refusing visas for people who’ve worked for NGOs or as journalists.  Mightn’t hurt to leave that off if it applies to you, I suppose.  They don’t ask for any proof of employment or anything, so you can put whatever you like, really.  I always liked the sound of “professional traveller”, myself.

Sula Paya in the centre of Yangon

And there you have it – enjoy your time in Myanmar