Boarding a Yangon bound plane in Bangkok, my feelings were not of excitement or anticipation as one might expect, truth be told I was nervous maybe even a little scared. I had visited Myanmar in 2014 and only stayed for a short time. It was one of 14 countries I visited that year while traveling through Asia, Africa and Europe. I think it is safe to say that competition was fierce in terms of which one was my favourite country but it was in the end an easy decision. I was so taken aback by the breath-taking physical beauty of Myanmar but even more so by the kind hearted nature and welcoming attitude of its citizens, eager to show us their truly unique country. Memories of Myanmar stuck with me, the vivid accounts of Myanmar’s past from the Pagan Empire through to present day spurred my interest in the country onwards to the point where I decided that a degree in Burmese language and history was how I would spend my next four years.
So why was I nervous you may ask? Well committing to Burmese language, which is, I think we can all agree, a bit of a niche subject, I worried that the country and the people I had fallen in love with only two years ago and this seemingly utopian narrative I had created could all be in my head, a figment of my imagination. Looking out the window as we came into land and seeing the lush green canopies that surrounded the plane I felt oddly reassured.
I opened my passport to the page with my visa; the immigration officer beckoned me forward. I cleared my throat, as I was about to attempt some of the basic Burmese I had learnt in my first year of university. I went for it, her eyes immediately lit up; I was met by the friendliest of smiles. I too began to feel a smile stretch from one corner of my face to the other.
Thahara had arranged a driver to pick me up at the airport. As I came out a man wearing a longyi ran up to me and introduced himself as Francis. On the drive into Yangon our conversation consisted of my broken Burmese and his great English. I started to get very excited, almost itchy to get out and explore. I had not previously spent much time in Yangon and couldn’t really remember the city. Recommendations flowed out of Francis of what to do, where to go, all the best spots in town to eat and to drink, Francis’ knowledge was endless. As he dropped me off to where I was staying he even took the time to show me around my neighbourhood; this was the welcoming and kind nature I had felt the last time I came, it really was true. After Francis had finished giving me my much appreciated tour I dropped my bags off into my room and with a handful of Burmese phrases in my head and my address on a piece of paper I ran straight back out the door, I jumped in a cab, downtown bound.
Downtown Yangon is a truly remarkable sight, an honour to witness, even more so to be a part of. The hustle and the bustle is as real as it gets. As I wondered around and allowed myself to get lost inside the city, I took in the sights the smells the colours every corner something new. Men stroll past at all different paces in their longyis; a traditional sarong like garment, woman in their htamein and monks walking past in their saffron robes. Traditional restaurants and teashops litter the streets spreading an enticing aroma. Upscale cafes and restaurants dotted around too, the new mixes with the old here in an amazing way.
It was time for my first meal in Yangon, I decide on a little street café. I was handed a menu, all of it was in Burmese. Having only studied one year my vocabulary did not quite extend to the complexities of some of the dishes so I opted for one at random. A delicious noodle based dish in a peanut sauce, with freshly prepared vegetables dotted in-between, it hit the spot to say the least. I later found out the dish was called Shan Noodles or Shan Khao Swe. Shan Noodles is from the Shan region of Myanmar, where Inle Lake is situated, it has since become a staple in my diet.
Blown away by my first meal in Yangon I decided to explore more. Every street had something different and unique happening. I then found myself at a massive junction with an enormous golden pagoda in the middle. It was Sule Pagoda, said to be over 2,500 years old and standing at around 45 meters high; juxtaposed in the heart of modern downtown Yangon, it truly is a sight to behold. Stumbling upon pagodas and relics in Myanmar I have since found to be almost a common thing.
As darkness fell I thought I would go check out the nightlife. Francis had told me to go to 19th street or Tiq-seh-ko-lan. 19th street it turned out is the heart of China town in Yangon. With busy bars and lively restaurants, stuffed with tourist, expats and locals, it is a great place to go and have a drink.
Here I really learnt what it can mean to even only know a few phrases in a language, it really helps you! Even just my basic Burmese created much interest and bustle at my table from waiters and locals alike, the conversation started flowing and once again I was struck by how welcoming and excited the locals were to have me in their wonderful country. All of them had endless lists of places for me to go and things that I should see. Lots of them gave me their numbers too and told me to ring if I needed anything or had any problems; this is something I have found to be common since and is testimony to the generosity of the people here.
It got to ‘that time’ and the realisation that I had not slept in over 30 hours finally kicked in. I hailed a taxi and spent the next few minute bartering down the price of the cab. Starting at 5000 Kyat ($4/$5) we managed to agree on 3500 Kyat ($3/$4). Watching out of the window on the way home I started chuckling to myself. That gut wrenching feeling I had had this morning had disappeared. Instead I was filled with hope, wonder and amazement of this truly amazing country. In the past two years since I was last here it has changed a lot, but a lot has also stayed the same, those things that were the same I came to realise hadn’t changed in a long time and it didn’t seem like they were going to change for the foreseeable future. I have now been here for over two weeks, and reflecting back on that first night and the time I have spent here since then, has only made me fall deeper and deeper in love with this remarkable place. Myanmar right now is in its most exciting time. It’s hard to put into words what you feel when you are here but its something special, so special that I will be heartbroken to leave, and cannot wait to start planning my next adventure here. Come, explore, talk, eat, watch and experience all that this incredible country has to offer, in the most interesting transition anywhere in the world.