It’s Myanmar now, no more Bummer: Welcome to Yangon…


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The Golden Spires of Shwedagon Pagoda

I’ve been to the Burmese/Thai border-town Tachilek many times on visa runs, and so have had my eye on the country for years, while never having a pressing need to collect the stamp, just to satisfy my personal mandate to visit every country in the world before I die—or it does…

And I’ve been to the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot a few times, too, and even though it’s on the Thai side, while the other is officially Burmese, it always felt more truly Burmese to me, Muslim Burmese mostly, refugees I suppose, and complete with nearby violence and cross-border excursions from Karen (no, not her) tribal violence in the area…

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Yangon local market

But I finally got serious about visiting the real Myanmar a few years ago. So did everyone else, apparently, and demand suddenly exceeded supply to the extent that not enough rooms were available, and those that were, were pricey. Think a dozen or two Expedia listings for Yangon three years ago, a hundred or two now…

So far it feels good, here now in Yangon. I’m flashing on Hanoi 1996, but it could just as easily be Viangchan 2000 or Phnom Penh 2004, that sweet spot between development and primitiveness, when there are enough amenities to allow indie travel, as opposed to fail-safe group tours, but not so overrun with travelers that it spoils the reason you came in the first place. Or maybe Chiangmai, Thailand 1992…

That means that you’ll get a lot of smiles without too much trying and maybe a few scammers trying to get their hands in your pants—pockets. It also means a lot of signs in a language you don’t understand, and very few in the international language—English—such as it is. So what there is for foreigners are few and far between, and higher-priced, to boot…

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The Jewelry section of Bogyoke Market

But that assessment should be qualified. Prices are higher in the most obvious tourist gathering places, such as Bogyoke Market, which is otherwise a very interesting and nice, a central market for crafts and local products, the likes of which are getting harder to find in this world of malls and suburbs. But menus without prices in the down-and-dirty comedores? Not a good sign—but not to worry, whew, buck and a half for a meal with green tea included, decent deal…

Ironically you can find some very reasonable prices in very sanitary conditions in some of those very malls that I otherwise abhor, like good-quality espresso for little more than half a buck USD, which would cost almost twice that in the fancy places near the central market. Go figure. Moral of the story: avoid the touts and loud shouts, as the best things in life are quiet, sweet and discreet…

And the Burmese are sweet, notwithstanding the seemingly random violence that still haunts the country along its edges and among its minorities. So Myanmar has the dubious distinction of being the only Buddhist country with overt religious violence, at the same time that it has a reputation as the strictest of countries in the Theravada school of Buddhism, a major interest of mine…

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Dhamma Joti Meditation Center

So I went to check out a Buddhist meditation center called Dhamma Joti, and it looks pretty good, ten day retreats available that apparently are free, and with room and board. Of course, you’re expected to meditate most of the day every day, but that’s what you want, right? Yeah, right. This is not Buddhism lite…

I personally would only hope that there would be some temple life to go with that, which may or may not be the case. Many Westerners don’t want any religion to spoil the flavor of their ‘wellness’ broth, so that could conveniently be missing. And there are others, too, yet to be thoroughly sussed. Apparently Myanmar is getting a reputation for such centers. If the price is right, the tourists will bite…

Shwedagon Pagoda is the big tourist draw in Yangon, though, gold and glittery and crawling with tourists, I mean ‘pilgrims’, golden spires to inspire you and money-changers right there in the temple to relieve you of the extra pounds under your belt. There are also many lesser sites if you want to get totally stupa’d with them, a Buddhist bang for your buck, five quid a head and the palatial estate is yours—and theirs—for the day…

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Yangon street vendor

They even have Christian churches with meetings on Sunday, helluva deal. There are ATM’s everywhere now, and nobody gets too hot and bothered by a creased banknote any more, very civilized for a country on its way to the tourist big-time. There is a Chinatown and a downtown, though I can’t tell the difference. So the last day I did a six mile hoof looking for a temple for meditation et cetera, and think I found one–cool. But that’s still ten days away, and I’ve still got three of the Big Four sites to tour. And this is still Old Asia, where you’ll see things that long ago disappeared elsewhere, things that only poverty can produce. Enjoy it while it lasts, next stop Bagan…

 

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