We came to Myanmar because years of a repressive junta has prevented globalization making it as bland as other rapidly developing counties have become. No Starbucks, no KFC and even the Scottish restuarant hasn't made it out yet. It was important to remind ourselves of that when we walked past the big dead rat in the middle of the street, it's guts on display, or breathed in the smell of sewage from the not quite open, but not quite enclosed sewage system.
Despite a Christmas party, a few too many cocktails with Phil, a few glasses of wine during Jodie's Birthday dinner, packing whilst pissed and a 4.30 am start, the trip out was fine. Our hungover tempers remained intact, a glass of champagne in the lounge at 6am to take the edge off and being at the front of the plane thanks to airline points meant the holiday started as soon as we arrived at the airport. We feel spoilt, but we can get used to that.
Yangon is a really interesting place. The public buildings mostly date back to British Colonial rule and you can see that they were constructed during a time a great wealth and optimism. The area around the Strand in Yangon is not so different from the area around the Strand in London: buildings from the late 19th and early 20th Century, with architecture influenced from all over Europe designed to house hundreds of paper pushing civil servants. The big difference is that no one seems to give a s*** about the ones in Yangon since about 1960 so render is falling off in chunks and trees growing out of gutters and roofs and mildew from decades of wet seasons rather ruin the look.
Some renovation is taking place but it will take a while before it really makes an impression. When and if the project is completed, the city will be hugely impressive.
Apart from the colonial buildings Yangon resembles the older and poorer parts of many Asian cities. Small shops selling similar products are grouped together in narrow chaotic streets, smells alternate between divine and disturbing. Rats and piles of plastic rubbish are all too often part of the view and poverty is very very real. Street vendors sell books, fruit, sim cards and food that can sometimes be tempting and other times........ Well let's just say chicken anus is a real food out here so one needs to be very careful about what you choose.
When Jodie and I travel to new places we tend to try to avoid the big bland international hotels, opting instead for more interesting local places. As the tourist industry is still taking off in Myanmar the interesting places are few and we opted for a place on the wrong side of interesting; the York Residence B&B. The pros: centralish, cleanish, it felt safe and reasonably well priced. The cons: down a dark and dingy ally with lots of building work, staffed by tired and dirty looking youths, up the steepest stairs a human can navigate and a bit too noisy. We won't be going back.
A significant part of day one was spent dealing with the results of a slight lack of organisation on my behalf that led to a real insight into Burmese efficiency. Understanding that we arrived on a Saturday night and wanted to leave early on a Mon morning I decided to arrange train tickets through a travel agent in Yangon. I obviously took my eye off the ball in the few days before flying as at the airport I realized that we did not know how we were going to get the tickets and the agent had not confirmed that they had bought them. The following actions happened: find agents shop early, amuse ourselves until all the shops opened, notice ours did not open, phone a few numbers and find it will not open and be told to just go to the station and get our own.
That's not great. What is worse is that the train was full. As were the planes. Oh how I had missed that look from Jodie that communicates 'you are a useless f***wit of the highest order. In fact, you are the king of f***wits' so very effectively. So after a few useful jibes and minor unpleasantness we decided to go back to the station to find an alternative train. On the off chance some miracle had happened we asked if an agent had booked tickets in our name and were delighted to see our rather distinctive names in the handwritten ledger. Hurrah. Problem solved. Perhaps.
There are no computers anywhere in the Mayanmar Railway system. Instead legions of civil servants pore over huge ledgers and stacks of paper in dark, slate floored rooms with hierarchy illustrated by the size of desk. In this world everything needs to be just right. Not having a ticket is far from just right. Even though they had our names and passport numbers allocated in very neat handwriting to seats, we were still far from home and dry. There followed a strange and stilted conversation, emails on iPhones presented, passport scans offered and pleading, pathetic looks. This then led to 30 minutes in a back office, watching a mouse try to eat people's food whilst a very nice and senior man wrote us a letter with all our details. He then took us on a 20 min walk to meet 'The Station Master', a very senior and serious man who had our destiny in his hands. 'The Station Master' appeared to be in a good mood and after more words, and yet more stamps added to the letter, we were told all would be well. We would not get a new ticket but the letter, with it's stamps and signatures would do the trick. Hurrah! And the helpful man wouldn't even accept a tip.
Now I think my small oversight was not such a bad thing as it led to this little adventure. Jodie may hold a different view.
We are now on said train as it quite literally bounces its way through the Myanmar countryside at 50km an hour. It is a 15 hour trip and most of our fellow passengers, including the Buddist monk besides me are well prepared with snacks, water and juices. The FT's? 3 museli bars, a Toblerone, 4 cans of tonic and a litre of gin. What could possibly go wrong?