So here we are in Myanmar. A potted history - The country has basically never been a democracy. It was ruled for centuries by emperor dynasties. Eventually the British colonised it. In 1948 it was given independence. Pretty much since then there was a civil war between the various ethnic factions which is still running today under the surface. A military coup occurred and in 2010 elections were held and a civilian government appointed. However the military still have huge influence. The country has been a closed economy for a long time and in the grip of sanctions. Recent events have seen a move towards a more open society.
Getting here is a challenge with visas and money issues to deal with. The local currency is the Kyat (Chat) while it is accepted by restaurants and bars etc hotels and tour operators want US dollars. There are no ATM's, credit cards etc so you have to bring what you need in US dollars and change it when you get here. Your mobile phone won't work but you can get internet sometimes.
We arrived at the airport armed with our dollars. There is a money exchange at the airport but it doesn't give the best rate. Guide books suggest using money changers in the towns. These come in two forms. You can either go into jewellers and suit shops and deal there or buy from traders on the street. Having said that, if your dollars are marked or dirty they will not take them. The hotel iron gets a lot of use tidying up currency.
We declined a transfer from our hotel at $15 and got a cab for $10. The hotel is very nice and has pretty reliable Wi-Fi. Having settled in we got a cab into the city in search of money. We went first to a bank. They smiled and said they didn't change money. I asked the security guard if the ATM outside worked. He laughed. We went to the market and asked around for a money changer. We were pointed to a gem shop and after a bit of banter soon had some Kyat. We needed some more so thought we would try a street changer. That went ok and we got a better rate but it was all in 1000KS notes. When you are given 85 of them it's a big wad to carry. Much of the money is dirty and well used.
Having got money we had a beer and had a brief look around Yangon then returned to the hotel. That evening we ate in a nearby restaurant.
When you are only staying somewhere a few days you have to plan your route out when you arrive. Next morning after breakfast we headed to a local travel shop. You can't book domestic flights on the internet because they won't take plastic payment.
We tracked down a recommended agent and began the process. The office was fairly busy and chaotic. We were dealt with by their English speaking member of staff. 'We want to fly to Bagan on Sunday' we said.'Yes' was the reply. In fact 'Yes' was the reply to nearly every question. After 20 minutes we weren't really sure what time the flight was, if it was direct or which airline we were using. We decided to go and check out the bus and train. The bus was very cheap but took about 14 hours. The train was more and took anything from 15 hours to 24 hours. Both were very likely to break down. Ok back to the agent.
We asked the same questions again and eventually we think we have a flight. It's a chicken and egg as to whether you book the flight or the hotel first. We had bitten the bullet and went in search of an internet cafe. We found one quite quickly and asked for one hours worth only to be told it wasn't working. So it was back to the hotel to use theirs. We managed to keep a connection long enough to book somewhere.
Going back to the hotel changed our plans and we decided to postpone a walking tour of the city and visit the feature site of the city instead, the Shwedagon Pagoda. It's a massive gold leaf covered Buddhist temple. It was within walking distance of the hotel and we followed a few monks to help us find it.
It is certainly an impressive place. Huge doesn't really cover it. We paid our $5 to get in and took the lift up to the temple complex. We had to leave our shoes behind and proceed bare foot. That didn't seem a problem until we stepped into the complex. Todays temperature is 35C, it is 1pm and the floor of the outdoor complex is marble tiles. Trust me you could have fried an egg on it. We were hopping from foot to foot and dashing for bits of shade much to the amusement of the locals. How they walk on it I don't know. They must have asbestos soles to their feet. Sensible people apparently visit in the early morning or late afternoon when it's cool.
As we walked around doing a River dance impression four young monks were sat smiling at us. I asked if I could take a photo and they said ok. After the photo one asked if we would sit and talk to them. He explained that his English was not good and he wanted to speak with English people. We chatted for about 15 minutes and he was very happy. I told him if anyone asks for a photo then the price is now a 15 minute conversation. He liked that idea.
Monks come in all shapes and sizes from 6 year olds in pink robes to 60 year old Dalai Llama look alikes. Their day seems to consist of sitting around temples or begging for money and food which people seem happy to give them. Our chatty monk said he was nervous of talking to foreigners. We explained that most foreigners would be nervous of talking to him. I suggested a big smile and hello always helped.
Having hopped our way around the complex we went down in the lift and were relieved our shoes were still at the entrance. Everyone else had put theirs in a plastic bag and taken them with them. Mind you the way they smell after 7 months of constant use I'm sure no one would want them. Next stop was a local lake. We had an enjoyable walk on the boardwalk which ran across it. There is a larger lake in the city but we opted not to go there today. Aung san su kyi's house is there but you aren't allowed to photograph it.
We had spent all day in the searing heat and were completely drained. We caught a cab back to the hotel. Taxis range from quite nice to total s*** heaps with missing windows. As you shut the doors bits fall off. Same price either way. It had been a long hot day, sleep came easily.
Today we decided to do our walk of the city. We hailed a cab (s*** heap) and joined the rush hour traffic to get to our start point. The walk would take us past many of the old colonial buildings plus Chinatown and Little India. Once out of the cab the now familiar call of 'you want to change money' started. Actually we did so we agreed a price. We had been impressed so far by how cheerful and friendly everyone had been. Once we had agreed the price the tout went and got the man with the cash. A small group stood with us as had happened the previous day. The guide books warn you not to hand over your money until you have counted out the Kyat. The chap said 'Don't give me your dollars until you are happy you have the correct Kyats'. I counted it twice and he handed it to Jill as I passed the dollars to his tout. We put the money in a bag and moved on. As we walked away I said to Jill 'Not sure why we need an audience each time'. An hour later in a bar we found out why. We had been diddled. We were about £20 quid short. It then dawned on us. Just at the point when he handed the money to Jill one of the crowd tapped her shoulder and said 'Which football team do you like?' She looked around. At the same moment the tout asked for the dollars and said 'I'm not sure this is a good note'. We were both distracted for a second. Just long enough for the money man to palm off some of the notes we had counted out. The bundle was so big we never noticed until it was too late. Lesson learnt we won't get caught like that again. It's a shame as it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Our walking tour followed a route in Lonely Planet. It took us around all the old colonial buildings. Some had been looked after and were now a Post Office or hotel, others were in a poor state. We stumbled across the British Embassy. I decided to take a photo of a piece of our green and pleasant land. Big mistake. 'No, no, no' was the very aggressive voice from an angry looking young man with a rifle. I hadn't seen him but he had seen me. Hands up, with a big sorry and move swiftly on. Clearly they are a sensitive lot.
People we have spoken to have been quick to point out that things are changing. We saw a row of ATM machines outside a bank with plastic wrapping on them apparently waiting to be commissioned. The USA has just passed a Myanmar finance bill as a part of the easing of sanctions. I think this place is about to explode. When western business, banks and hotels get in here their world will change forever. Time will tell if it's for the better.
We went to Little India and into the markets. Jill was in her element with the fabric shops. We now have several sarongs which she is going to turn into suits when we get home. I must say the girls here look beautiful in them. We bought some postcards from a young girl selling them on the street. She took us to the Post Office to get stamps and chatted away as we walked. The Post Office looked like it had been frozen in 1860. I decided against a photo.
Someone on a forum called Yangon a cesspit. Granted it is not a tidy place but it is not surprising with so little investment. It is hustle and bustle and nearly everyone has had a big smile for us.
Our next stop is Bagan. The flight is at 6.20am and we have to be at the airport for 5am so it is an early start. We had asked the girl at the travel agent if it was a big plane, a jet. 'Yes' she said.