Myanmar has been at the top of my bucket list because from what I heard, it’s like the Cuba of Asia. For the last 50 years, Myanmar has been closed off to foreigners. Like Cuba, it’s one of the few places left that are stuck in time. As I walked through the streets of Yangon, I couldn’t help but notice the decrepit British colonial buildings, the crumpling infrastructure and the lack of Western influence. Generally, the Burmese are not glued to their cell phones and the wifi service in Myanmar is spotty at best. It’s sort of a throwback to when people didn’t have cell phones and sat at tea houses and had conversations. When I first traveled through South East Asia, it was 2005 and I didn’t own a cell phone. I didn’t have Google maps or Instagram. I had a map to navigate through a city by traditional means. I got lost all the time. The only way I was able to call my family back home was to buy a calling card; there were no sim cards. I went to internet cafes that had dial-up internet service to email my friends about where I was. I sent postcards along the way to friends and family back home. Without the internet, I felt very far away from home. I haven’t felt that way in a long time until I came to Myanmar.
I stayed at the lovely Pickled Tea Hostel just a 10 minute walk from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s set in a quiet neighborhood with a terrace where I would eat my breakfast every morning. The breakfast by the way was hands down the best breakfast I’ve had at a hostel. The best part was that it was free every morning. One very important tip I must mention before I forget is that they accept US dollars but only if it’s a brand spanking new note. They will not accept bends, or crinkles trust me I tried. This is important if you exchange money or try to use US dollars anywhere
Whenever I arrive in a new city, I don’t plan much for the first night, I try to walk around and get my bearings. I met James who lives on the same street as the Pickled Tea who offered to drive me downtown for $3,000 kyat which is around $2. I don’t think he is a legit taxi driver but I felt like I was still giving back to the local community. Yangon’s weather was typical of South East Asia, sweltering hot. I found refuge in Rangoon Tea House which had wifi, aircon and delicious tea and fruits. Myanmar is known for their tea probably from when they were occupied by the British. Afterwards, I headed to Shwedagon Pagoda for the sunset. I heard that you have to go during the sunset or sunrise when the golden pagoda is illuminated by the sun. One note here is you have to cover your shoulders and legs. I wore my sarong around my waist and a cardigan.
I had never seen a pagoda before and this one was quite impressive. The only thing that confused me was they would have Vegas-like lights around some of the buddha statues. I’m not buddhist but there is something very zen about watching people pray and listening to their spiritual leader chant. The taxi drivers in Yangon are not shady at all. I think they are so new to tourists that they don’t know to be. Every time I would ask the driver how much he would quote a rate that I was willing to pay.
I don’t know if it’s just Yangon or the rest of Myanmar but Yangon is a go to bed early and rise early kind of city which is perfect for me. The Pickled Tea had the most exquisite breakfast of their signature pancake, samosas, coconut rice and donuts. Because I’m a believer that the best way to discover a culture is through the food, I couldn’t wait to try the shan noodles at 999 shan noodle shop. It’s the city’s best noodle shop and at $1 it was amazing. It’s like comfort food in a bowl. I walked off my noodles and went to a couple of contemporary art galleries in the area. I popped into Pomelo for Myanmar, a marketplace for the disadvantaged Burmese to sell their handicrafts. A portion of the proceeds go directly to them. It’s the perfect place to find the boho-hippy goods you need for your home. It was happy hour in my book so I headed to The Strand Hotel which is a historic British colonial building where many famous people stayed. They have a great cocktail bar. I ordered an old man drink and people watched. My motto is high and low; eat $1 noodles for lunch and have an $8 cocktail at a historic location.
So I’m obsessed with Anthony Bourdain, he’s my spirit animal. Before I came to Myanmar, I watched the Parts Unknown episode where he goes to Myanmar. In Yangon, he ate at Kaung Myat which is a restaurant on 19th street that is known for their grilled meats at night. There is an endless amount of people watching opportunities and the street is buzzing at night.
On my last morning in Yangon, I did what most New Yorkers dream of doing, nothing. I sat on the terrace of my hostel with a cup of coffee, wrote in my journal and read Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
This is around 5:00pm when we just arrived
The sun is setting at this point
Literally golden hour
The Pickled Tea’s amazing breakfast
Exploring the streets of Yangon
Exploring the street food in Yangon
The buildings in Yangon reminded me so much of the ones in Havana
The bananas here are smaller and thicker than the ones we get back home
Rangoon Tea House is an escape with wifi, aircon and tea
Grilled skewers on 19th Street
999 Shan Noodle Shop
This one looks like a congee
Pomelo for Myanmar
The bar at the British colonial building – The Strand Hotel
Old school cocktails at the Strand Bar
Trying to find Kaung Myat on 19th Street