Our first morning in Yangon dawned bright and chilly. "Perhaps the famed Myanmar heat was just a myth," I thought to myself hopefully. We showered and had breakfast, and by the time we stepped out of our rented Airbnb apartment, I wondered if the cold from barely an hour earlier was just my imagination.
Welcome to Myanmar. Or "Mingalabar!" as the locals are fond of saying.
The intense heat made us scramble into the first taxi we saw, and for 2,000 kyat (about $2), we were transported in comfort to the Asia Plaza Hotel in Bogyoke Road, barely half a kilometer away.
Our instructions were to wait in front of the hotel, the designated meeting point for the day's tour. At a quarter to 8 in the morning, there was no one there, so we stood outside in the heat for a few minutes, unsure of what to do. Finally, a young Burmese man approached us and ushered us into the hotel lobby where we could wait in relative comfort. He introduced himself as Thuya Lwin from UrbanAdventures.com, and he was to be our guide for the day. He wore a traditional Burmese longyi and spoke great English.
After a few minutes, two young ladies from Canada and Vietnam joined us, completing our merry little band of travelers.
Before we left the hotel lobby, Thuya went through the basics of the tour for us, as well as the standard etiquette to observe while in Burma. He also talked about the fundamentals of navigating the streets of Yangon, which is rather important because Yangon drivers are crazy. With all the essentials out of the way, we were off! Our first stop was the Yangon Central Railway Station where we would board the Yangon circular train.
Basically, the train just goes around the city in a wide circle with stops along the way, making it a great way to really see into the heart of Yangon. The trains are hand-me-downs from Japan and Thailand, so it's a very slow journey—about 3 hours to complete the entire loop.
While waiting for our train, Thuya told us more about Yangon and its people and history. He talked about how in the early 20th century, Yangon was one of the most progressive cities in Asia. However, they went through many decades of civil and military unrest, so they were quite literally left behind by their neighbors. Right now they're still just shaking off the stupor of having been at a standstill for so long and doing their best to catch up.
Finally, our train arrived and the mad dash to climb aboard commenced. Luckily, we managed to get seats near the rear of the train. There was a slight commotion when a lone tourist, possibly Chinese, got her head stuck in the closing train doors with the rest of her body still on the ground. Scary stuff, but luckily, the train is so old, slow, and rickety that she was extricated out of her predicament easily enough.
For the next 1.5 hours, our train meandered around Yangon. Inside the train, the sights and sounds of humble folk going about their daily routines surrounded us. There was a mother teaching her little boy his alphabet, a man reading the day’s newspaper then promptly dozing off, young people chatting.
Vendors wove in and out of the train cars, hawking myriad delicacies from fruit to quail’s eggs to deep-fried sandwiches.
Looking out the window, it was hard to deny the poverty. There were areas with rickety houses, and areas with old, crumbling apartment buildings. There were areas littered with so much trash that you couldn't see the ground beneath, and areas that stank of rotting produce. Despite all the squalor, though, what really stood out about the city was its spirit. People accepted their lot in life and made the best out of it, from what I could tell. Even with all the hustle and bustle, it all actually seemed quite peaceful.
At the halfway point of our journey, Thuya directed us to get off the train. We were at Danyingon where Yangon's busiest wet market was. At this point, we were going to see a typical Burmese market in action.
Now, being from the Philippines, I'm no stranger to wet markets. Danyingone, however, was rather spectacular -- or horrifying, depending on how you look at it. I found it to be a mix of both.
The sheer volume of produce and people was staggering, as were the sights, the smells, the textures. There was so much activity, so many people going this way and that that the market itself seemed like a living, breathing organism -- an ecosystem of sorts.
Oddly enough, it actually seemed quite organized. For instance, you would know exactly where to find root crops because they definitely won't be in the (stinky) section where they showcased fish and shrimp paste.
After about 20 minutes of going around the market, we made our way back to the train station. The next train wasn't arriving for another half an hour, so Thuya got us cold drinks to pass the time. He also demonstrated the Burmese habit of chewing on betel nut and tobacco. Now, it's hard to miss those telltale red stains on Burmese streets, so it's fascinating to know that it actually has a sort-of science to go with it. They take a leaf (I forgot what it was called) and spread some sort of white paste on it. Then they wrap up the betel nut and their tobacco flavor of choice in it and chew away. It produces this red liquid, which does a lot of disgusting damage to their teeth (and streets!), but hey, it's their thing, so live and let live.
Finally, the train comes, and once again, we scrambled on board for another 1.5-hour journey. This time around, we saw more ponds that grew watercress and nicer houses along the way.
Most Burmese folks wear paste on their faces as makeup and sunblock of sorts. It's a little disconcerting at first, like war paint, but after a while, you can see that it's actually quite nice. Especially on the little ones. They just look terribly cute.
We finally arrived at our last stop. We then rode on these awesome Yangon tricycles along Bo Min Yaung Road, which is an entirely different experience in and of itself.
Our last stop was at a restaurant where we had lunch before disbanding. It was quite a nice restaurant, too, by Burmese standards -- more Chinese than Burmese, if you ask me. While waiting for our orders, we were served snacks -- deep-fried samosas and spring rolls. The Burmese do love their fried food.
After that hearty lunch, it was time to say goodbye to our group. They were still going back to our meeting point to disband, but we were already in the same street as our apartment, so we opted not to go back. By this time, the midday sun was in its element, so a quick nap in our air-conditioned flat was definitely in order.
All in all, it was a great tour, but probably better suited for the tail end of a trip when one has gotten tired of pagodas and wants to see a different aspect of Burmese living.
Know that it will be hot, smelly, and uncomfortable. The circular train journey itself will also be uninspiring. But if you ask me, that's what makes it all the more interesting. Because it is normal—nothing more and nothing less. And being a traveler in this very strange land stuck in time, it can be a real joy to be part of something normal.
Iris Clamor is a writer and all-around Internet slave who is constantly on the verge of an existential crisis. She writes for thelostones.net and iriswrites.com.