Oh Myanmar! The last and most anticipated Southeast Asian nation! And how it defied even my expectations! The airport is new in Yangon, and one wonders where all the money is coming from. In the larger realm of Southeast Asia, the answer to that question is usually China, exercising it’s influence via the almighty Yuan. Upon the stamping of my passport, it is apparent that this is not China, at least not how I imagine it to be. Over a dozen cab drivers vied for my attention, and I chose the one I made first eye contact with. Call it the Occam’s razor of cab hailing: the first, most simple driver to pick is likely the best, simply because you minimize hesitation, asserting your domination in the negotiation so that the driver reacts more impulsively if you attempt to walk out on an offer. My eyes connected with a scrawny kid with a thin mustache. As we walked to his cab, he threw out 20 dollars as a figure for getting me downtown. I knew this was steep so I counteroffered with a “no thank you.” In response I got a “how much do you want to pay, and so we set the rate to 10 U.S. (the last American bill I had left) and 5000 kyat (pronounced chyaat, as in Auing San Suu Kyi), equivalent in total to around 13 dollars. The all-knowing internet dictates that it should have cost 6-8 dollars to get to town, but I am not one to quibble over a few thousand kyat. We hit traffic, as was his justification for the steeper rate, and indeed it took the better part of an hour to get to the Asia Plaza Hotel. The driver was fascinating, singing aloud along with the radio, and twitching oddly in his thumbs and wrists at random intervals. Perhaps he is a tweaker, I thought, or perhaps he has some nerve or attention disorder. It mattered not, because he got me to the hotel, despite his tendency to speed behind cars that were decelerating, then slamming on the break at the last minute. He let me sit in the passenger seat (on the left in Myanmar), so I got a front row seat to the action. I had a few hours to eat, shower, and wander around the town before my tour began, so I gorged myself on authentic Burmese chicken and rice, with mushrooms in green beans and a vinegary soup. Yangon is an Indian city with Southeast Asians, or it is a Southeast Asian city with Indians a la Kuala Lumpur. This is not even to mention the Middle Eastern/ Arabic communities that lend a certain mystique to the city and make you question if the ancient ivy-covered British-era apartment buildings are in fact the gardens of Babylon, albeit in disrepair after years of isolation from the rest of the world.
At 2:05 pm, after being awoken by one of the hotel’s extraordinarily dedicated and friendly concierges, I wandered downstairs to meet my tour group, but alas it was only I in the tour. Kay (pronounced Key) met me in the lobby with a left-handed handshake, as her bandaged right hand, lightly dabbed with red lipstick, was out of commission from a biking accident. We spent the afternoon touring the local cathedral (not only Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists n Yangon, but Catholics too!), the Chaukhtatgyi reclining buddha, and had tea at a nearby teashop. The afternoon was spent in the Shwedagon pagoda. After touring temple after temple, I had finally come across a temple that truly impressed. Shwedagon is really a complex of several different temples, with the centerpiece being a giant gold-leaf temple shining bright in the hot Yangon sun.
The following day I ate a breakfast of Mohinga and various rice-like pastries and goos. I met my leader, and the one new recruit in the lobby. More than surprisingly, perhaps impossibly, the other member had been living in Connecticut for the last 25 years, being born and growing up in Japan. Noriko, Cromwell, Conecticut comrade, it was a pleasure to meet a fellow Nutmegger in perhaps the most out-of-the-way, most unConnecticut places on Earth! The three of us caught the circular train to the market in Danyingon and then back the long way. The front part of the market consisted of people with baskets pedaling their wares from large trays and baskets sitting on the train tracks. When the next train came, the shopkeepers picked up their shops, moved a few feet over, and then returned to their places once the train had left. After the market ate lunch at a traditional restaurant, there ending our tour with Kay. I spent that night scouring the suburbs around Yangon on foot trying to find music clubs and punk rock shows. I eagerly wanted to see some Burmese punk, but never found my white whale of Yangon. As depicted, I had an unimpressive butter chicken at an Indian restaurant that required customers to take their shoes off and sit on small mats at short tables, a first time for me. The following morning I had explored much of the known Yangoniverse, and rather than search for more stars that had appeared to have burnt out long ago, like the city’s punk scene, so I found a place to rest my spirit in an air-conditioned movie theater. Judging by the posters, I would either be able to see a Myanmar movie, as the cashier put it, or Deadpool 2. It seemed to be a win-win, but alas at tht time only the Myanmar Movie was playing. It centered around a masked man who went around killing people, presumably for a greater cause but the gratuitous and overwhelmingly ketchup-y blood splatter would lead a non-Myanmar speaker to question the ethics of the man. Not unlike Deadpool 1, actually, but this man was no Ryan Reynolds, sporting a thin mustache like the cab driver who brought me downtown. The man had a tendency to move his three middle fingers when he was thinking or waiting to shoot someone. In the end, he is sentenced to be hanged, and inexplicably survives the hanging, his finger twitching on the gallows not signifying the nerve spasms of the newly dead, but showing that he was alive, just scheming. Perhaps he was scheming a sequel, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for news in the Burmese trades. I made a quick getaway after the film and flew back to Bangkok for one more night before my return.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.