Myanmar (Burma)


Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Locals on a bridge over the streets of Yangon, Myanmar — June 2, 2004


Rush hour, Yangon, Myanmar — June 2, 2004


Vegetable market on the street, Yangon, Myanmar


Shopping for books and things, Yangon, Myanmar


Sule Paya, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Local transport, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Selling singles, Yangon, Myanmar — May 31, 2004


Reclining Buddha’s footprint, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Traditional lunch at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Enjoying street food, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004

I met this crew in various places, the German lady nearest my left was staying at my guesthouse. The next gal, a Czceh named Blanca I met in Thailand, on Tonsai beach, while rock climbing. Pier, the Frenchman on the right, I also met here in town. Each person at the table had a different risk tolerance for street food ordering. I usually take food risks, but was more conservative this evening. Others at the table, didn’t following their gut as closely, or maybe their gut just decided to come back up, the way it went down, just to talk a little louder. In the end, we were all oK.


Longyi fashion လုံချည်;, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004

The eyes of this Buddha were made at this glass factory.


Selling curd, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Street scene, Yangon, Myanmar


Dusk over Yangon, Myanmar — June 2, 2004


Street cafe, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Cycle rickshaw, Yangon, Myanmar — June 4, 2004


Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Unfinished, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004

I heard these buildings were finally finished. When I was here the work had been halted, apparently the budget had run out or there was a political deadlock halting progress.


Not my favorite: typical street food, Yangon, Myanmar — June 22, 2004

RE: Typical Street Food
Hi Brian, I read your travel journal on Myanmar with great interest because I’m from there… I’m especially disappointed to hear that the food was terrible — this is one area people visiting Myanmar have very little knowledge of. And, guide books like Lonely Planet don’t point to where good and authentic food can be found because they haven’t done the right research. If you ask me about our food, I would say that it is very subtle and has many varieties. Burmese people like their food to have a range of tastes from spicy to bitter. If you tried the street food in Myanmar then you are bound to be disappointed — it’s not like Thailand or Malaysia. When I was young, I used to enjoy getting snacks from the street vendors. Nowadays, people don’t trust the oil they use and the hygiene of course. Since you live in San Francisco, I suggest you check out the typical food that we eat at Burma Superstar — try the authentic stuff. I know it’s a pretty good restaurant because I lived in the area for 3 years! George Orwell didn’t know a thing about world cuisine because he came from Britain… . sad but true. Next time you plan on visiting Yangon do let me know — I’ll point you to the right restaurants :-)

Cheers -- -- Thurain


Visiting Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004

myanmar/yangon_lokanat gallery_building

Lokanat Gallery Building, Yangon, Myanmar — June 4, 2004


Typical Mazda Mazda B360 taxi, Yangon, Myanmar — June 4, 2004

The biggest mistake Mazda ever achieved was producing multitudes of the otherwise worthless vehicle pictured above. In that no one bought any of these cars in European and American markets, the end result was disastrous for the company; some analysts even expected that Mazda would sink and cease to exists as a result. Yet, somewhere in the bowels of the company, alongside the same stupidity that created this machine, came a stroke of luck. Someone somewhere convinced a government to take the entire line of this otherwise worthless car and buy it. And that is the story of how Myanmar ended up with thousands of these leaded-gas only, stinky, cramped, yet reliable people movers.


Sule Paya by full moon, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Rush hour during the golden hour, Yangon, Myanmar —June 2, 2004


Reclining Buddha, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Supreme Court building, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


City Hall, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Juice vendor, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Beautiful script, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Downtown street scene, Yangon, Myanmar —June 4, 2004


Reminiscent of San Francisco but really Yangon, Myanmar — June 4, 2004


Enchanting view of the Shwedagon Pagoda shimming above Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004


Dilapidated, Yangon, Myanmar — June 4, 2004


Street signs, Yangon, Myanmar — June 4, 2004


Book store, Yangon, Myanmar


Downtown Yangon, Myanmar — June 4, 2004


The gutter, Yangon, Myanmar — June 4, 2004


Temple donations, Yangon, Myanmar — June 3, 2004

Myanmar 2004 Journal

30 May — 23 June, 2004

Myanmar (Burma) was where I spent monsoon June. What a magical country! Steeped in tradition and culture the country is as beautiful as Southeast Asia gets.

While in Myanmar, I visited Bagan— the famed ancient Buddhist landscape with over 4000 temples and stupas, Inlay Lake (quite possible the most serene and chill place on earth), Mandalay— but no Mandalay Bay (sorry Las Vegas) and Yangon— the green and peaceful capital. One great thing about a fascist government: Horn honking is punishable by fines, making Yangon the quietest capital city in all of Asia! I wish others would heed Myanmar on this issue— noise pollution outweighs all other types in Asia.

I guess my only complaint about Myanmar was its food. It was terrible, worse than what the communists serve up in Cuba! Even George Orwell states in his 1927 novel Burmese Days that the food is “hideous.” The way I understood it, oil (cooking oil) is viewed as a sign of wealth, and they would pour and fry and sizzle that grease so much it would make Shalimar (the Pakistani restaurant in the Tenderloin of San Francisco) seem like eating a green salad. The hygiene was terrible too, worse than India, I dare say. We all got hit, even the 48-year old Austrian who hadn’t had diarrhea since 1985 suffered a bout. Then again, I guess you could say Myanmar primed my stomach for what was next to come… India. Well, at least there is Burma Super Star back home on Clement Street in SF where I can enjoy California-cum-Myanmar food in air-con luxury. Can’t wait to eat that Mandalay salmon again!

myanmar_route_map China India Bangladesh China Mandalay Laos Yangon, Myanmar Yangon, Myanmar Thailand
Myanmar map | My Itinerary

Wednesday, 2 June — Yangon

Yangon is one of the most exotic places I’ve been. I guess when you have a place that is the meeting and mixing grounds for cultures as intense as Chinese, Indian, and SE Asian, you are going to have a bizarre place. Throw in a fascist government that squanders cash and doesn’t repair any public works, and a bit of rain during rush hour and you have complete chaos. The sanitary conditions have been terrible, at best, to say the least, but locals don’t seem to notice. Everything is always wet. Nothing dries (at least during monsoon June.) At the same time, the vibe is quite nice with some of the most charming people this side of Kampala.

Friday, 4 June — The all-night bus

It may look like nothing special, but the receipt below represents a memory from the BKK→YAN→DAC→CCU series of flights on beloved Biman Bangladesh Airlines. Being an open ticket, Biman requires confirmation of each subsequent flight more than 72 hours in advance. I decide to walk over to the the local Biman branch in Yangon to confirm my next YAN→DAC flight segment.

“How can we confirm your onward ticket without proof of a Bangladeshi visa?” asks a well-dress Biman clerk sitting behind a desk whose contents include pictures of exotic destination where Biman flies. He hands back my passport and papers.

The request is fair so I walk outside, hail a taxi and head to Bangladeshi embassy. I clear security and enter the simple yet elegant visa services room. Several Bangladeshi diplomats sit behind a desk. There is no queue so they luckily see to my business immediately. I eagerly explain my situation.

“We need to see your confirmed air ticket before we can issue you a visa.” calmly explains one of the diplomats as he hands back my passport.

Thinking I will have a better chance convincing Biman to confirm my ticket, I roll back to the airline office in the same taxi. The same Biman clerk listens to my dilemma.

“Then you are not flying to Bangladesh,” the clerk counters. “The airline will be fined if you fly there without a visa, and you might have to fly back here, where you also would not have a visa. And I might loose my job.”

I am dismayed, but the airline has a valid issue. I taxi back to the Bangladesh embassy. As downtown Yangon rolls by, I ponder how to present a convincing case. I would much rather be outside touring the exotic city of instead of managing the red tape of airline versus embassy.

The same consular chaps are in the room when I arrive. There is still no queue so I immediately present my case.

“It is forbidden to grant a non-Myanamar citizen a Bangladeshi visa in Yangon without proof of air travel.” proclaims the same man I spoke to earlier.

Frustrated, I challenge the embassy staff. The man offers me a cup of tea and a chair and we chat for a while about America and my travels. Suddenly the man proposes a 10-day Bangladeshi visa will be granted, at the cost of USD $100. I happily fork over the dough. I will have to pick up my passport later in the day, but I am given a receipt to show Biman Airlines proof of my visa. I head back to the Biman office where the clerk subsequently confirms my next flight.

I have a few hours to wait before I can pick up my passport so I head to the Yangon Gems Museum and witness an outstanding collection of rubies, sapphires, topaz and other colorful precious and semiprecious stones. Some are as large as a watermelon. In the shop, I buy a small but clear topaz. Around 4pm I return to the embassy to collect my passport. On page 19, I find my full-page Bangladesh 10-day visa. I am happy.


Deutsche BahnI grab my bags, leave my hotel at 3:30pm and take a taxi to the Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station where I board the Yè Thu Aung Express bus in window seat 18. We leave Yangon at 5:00pm and begin the long drive to north Mandalay. I paid extra to reserve my seat but unfortunately the guy sitting next to me has taken on the terrible habit of chewing betel nut on the bus. He is spitting out maroon-dyed saliva in a bag hanging on the seat handle on the back of the seat in front of us. The bag, half full with his colorful, menthol smelling saliva, is bouncing around with the bumps of the bus. The saliva is getting shaken up and bubbling and I am worried the bag might fall onto the floor and spill the disgusting discarded saliva all over the place. I seldom get motion sickness, but the thought of it all begins to greatly nauseate me, so I give up my premium seat and move away as far as possible to the back of the bus.

At one point a cheerful attendant passes out a cherry-flavored moist towelette; he is unaware of my earlier predicament and I decide not to complain.

We take a midnight stop at a busy makeshift, road-side stall. There are many people standing about, smoking cheroot, chewing betel nut, and drinking tea. My guess is we are near a town called Aungpan. I sit down and order a well-deserved noodle soup. It tastes outstanding. The local ambiance adds to the flavor. We leave our stops after thirty minutes and head north. The bus pulls into Mandalay sometime around dawn. I collect my luggage walk with a group of travelers that I meet on arrival and we find a local guesthouse. I check in and sleep until noon.

Saturday, 5 June — Mandalay

Mandalay is a place where magic happens. I wanted a draft beer and water, so I point to both on the table next to me. My waiter takes my empty H2O bottle to throw away, but moments later, returns with it full of beer. How funny! But what a great idea! The back alleys of Mandalay are outstanding. There are wooden houses everywhere and stupas and loud speakers blasting exotic music or highly reverberated speech. The food is terrible. Really nothing to repeat here. Burma Super Star in SF is a rare case where the is better in the US that where it originates from. The people though are so cordial; whenever they give something, they use both hands! I love them.

Monday, 21 June — All night bus

At 11:30pm I grab my bags and wait at the main junction in Nyaungshwe. The Yè Thu Aung Express bus arrives around midnight. I board the bus and take seat 16. We arrive to Yangon the next morning and I head back to the Okinawa Guest House.


Tuesday, 22 June — Yangon

During the day I visit the Biman Bangladesh office to collect my final ticket. Later that night my hotel staff informed me I had a visitor. To my surprise it was the staff member from Biman earlier in the day; he comes by to take my out and show me that Yangon does not—contrary to popular belief—have a boring nightlife. We visit some elite hotel clubs and bars, watch an excellent Filipino bands play the latest pop hits, and drink good beer. At one of the hotel clubs I see some American marines dancing to the music. I can’t believe the hospitality of the airline.

Why Two Names?

The country’s official name is Myanmar, and domestically it is Myanma. The government in power employs this name to allegedly better represent all of the country’s people but more importantly to distance itself from the previous government and rule by the nation’s founding father and hero, General Bogyoke Aung San (February 1915 - July 1947.) Myanmar is also the literal and ancient name as well, used for hundreds of years prior. If someone/thing is from Myanmar, the adjective is Myanmar. (Myanmar people, Myanmar food.) The previous, and still popular name is Union of Burma, or simply Burma. The United States, UK, France, etc. still uses the name Burma in official documentation about the country. However, the name Burma may not accurately represent all the people in the country. About 70% of the citizens are, in fact, Burman. Yet, the remaining 30% come from many minority groups including Shan, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Chinese, Indian, etcetera. In fact there are more than 100 ethnic groups in the country, most of whom have historically struggled against the Burman majority at one point. So you can see, calling the country Burma linguistically can exclude much of the country. Nonetheless, those opposed to current government control, both domestically and internationally, insist that the name still be Burma— the name instilled by General Bogyoke Aung San, the modern founding father of the country. And Burma certainly possesses a ring in one’s ears that Myanmar doesn’t seem to project. Nonetheless, I still call the place Myanmar to include all involved and to mimic the term that most people inside the country use to describe themselves. In the future, maybe a third name may be created that would include all involved and distance itself from politically motivated government motives.

Should You Visit Myanmar?

This is the question asked on the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook.

Myanmar still contains culture, clothing and tradition that faded from the rest of South East Asia 50 years ago, and it is full of friendly people doing whatever it takes to make the time more enjoyable. The land is a geographic meeting point between China, India, Thailand and Laos and a melting-pot of the best (and worst) these grand and ancient cultures have to offer. Imagine!

The government is highly centralized, corrupt and abusive, but very little of the money I spent there went directly into their hands. If you go, try to follow suit. The locals, on the other hand, were ecstatic that travelers were in Myanmar supporting their fledgling businesses. It was the best vibe in the region so far and it once brought tears to my eyes to think that we would want to boycott these kind people. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the highly brave and popularly elected (and often imprisoned) opposition leader insists that people not visit her country. This decision has major merit and is worth ample weight towards your decision; but do know that without tourists money, all the small business owners in the country would be left with no source of income other than what menial jobs currently exist in the country: rock crushing, temple building, prostitution, drug running and ??? It is a tough decision, but I believe cultural exchange is the best way to solve long-standing problems. I say “GO to Myanmar and tread very lightly; give as little to the government as possible.” And while your at it, ask these questions: Should you visit the United States? Should you visit China?