The first thing you notice is the really old-looking carpet as you walk towards immigrations at Yangon International Airport in Myanmar. The strong feel is of a place forgotten by time, and is, fittingly what has been proffered as the appeal of Myanmar as a whole. Strangely enough, despite the design choices, the international terminal started operating in 2007.
Myanmar immigrations officials sit at old desks retrofitted with a camera and a glowing, anti-viral device from Samsung. They urge you to step forward, and then to step back as they attempt to compose a proper photo. They quickly look over your visa paperwork, which is now up to $50 per entry, while scribbling information.
There are several $5 per use ATM machines located behind them, a relatively new, but quick, development for the country. Several years ago, one had to bring crisp $100-bills for exchange, and you note that many people and internet-sources still cling to this outdated information.
(Myanmar was Burma and Yangon was Rangoon until the military regime declared these changes in 1989. Likewise, in 2008 the military government moved the capital from Yangon but it is still the largest city in the country.)
Departing the airport there is a large queue of taxis. As is the case in other southeastern countries, there is no requirement to take the taxi at the front. You ignore all of them all together and start walking to your left (northeast). The sun is intense and the air is filled with dirt—a combination from construction of the new airport terminal and the dirt roads whose top-layer ascends skyward in the wake of vehicles overhead.
The Yangon streets are dusty from the airport to the town. You’ve passed the construction vehicles, the semi-blocked roads guarded by military and the wooden shacks from which watermelon are sold. People stare at you in awe. The most popular question you field, in broken English is “where are you going”. When you tell them the train station, they look at you they either stammer about how it is a long ways away, or just stare at you like you said you are a unicorn.
Twenty-five minutes after leaving the Yangon airport, you’ve arrived to the Puyuet Seik Kone train station. The ticket office looks quite old, and through the metal bars, appears dimly lit inside. Your train ticket costs 300MMK (.30USD) which you pay as the train comes clattering up the tracks. You haven’t figured out if the train that has just arrived is heading north or south, but you climb aboard anyways. This is the Yangon Circle Train and one way or the other, it will get you to your destination.
The interior looks to be without lighting, solely lit, rather, by the ambient light outdoors. The floors constructed of old, worn wood appear in relatively good condition for a floor that gets so much use. Nearly all the benches, which run front to back on each car, are filled. Where people aren’t sitting or standing lay giant sacks full of produce alongside miscellaneous goods being transported around Yangon.
As the train stops, an older lady eyes her helper on the platform. People scramble from the metal ladder to the wooden stairs and up into the car as others quickly hop out. The old lady drags her giant sacks, one by one, to the edge of the door at which point her helper pulls them off and throws them in a pile on the platform with a thick thud. As the train starts to lurch slowly away, the last sack is unloaded. This scene repeats itself endlessly with items and people loading on or off depending on the distribution needs.
As for you, as the train moves, you sit in the staircase with the door-less opening ahead of you. It allows you to watch the scenery go by without having to crane your neck, while generating a nice cooling wind. You find it fascinating how nervous people are of stuck or open doors on trains in the developed world while enjoying the immense benefits of such in places like Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The tile floor is covered by a thick coat of dirt. The air-conditioner fills the dimly-lit living room with cool air. The refrigerator is full of old food, including a bag of rotting carrots. The bathroom has an old Japanese-made water pump affixed in the corner (which presumably pulls water up from below), and a laundry machine just outside which dumps waste water across the sloped bathroom floor. The floor is continually damp. The toilet is wedged in a tight closet-like room. Its floor is filthy, visually-aided by the lack of light in the room. This is the state of lodging in Yangon.
At street level, the streets are full of cars, trucks and tractor-like vehicles. In stark contrast from cities in Vietnam, there is a near complete absence of motorbikes on the Yangon streets, banned for all non-government officials since 2003 (there are many rumours why, but nothing definitive).
You start walking, noticing that the buildings of Yangon are almost all seemingly in beautiful states of ruin. They have a certain patina to them, earned from years of neglect, dirt and the occasional plant life growing from the structures. There is also a lack of advertisements, billboards and graphics as you walk the streets.
You step up to the outdoor booth of what looks to be a locksmith. You need to make several keys for where you are staying. You look to the left and right but no attendant can be found. As you are about to leave, a gentleman shows up and leads you across the alley to a different booth. You realize he saw you standing at his competitor’s unmanned booth and took the opportunity to get your business.
The machinery is a far cry from the west, where computer-operated machinery and other wizardry effortlessly cuts keys in no time. Rather, he is armed with a grinding wheel and some hand tools. He cuts a rough copy and then gets to work with files trying to match the other key by eye. After some effort, he produces to you the duplicates and you get on your way.
The outdoor market you have stumbled into is quite robust. There are no tourists to be found, only locals hawking their wares: chicken parts, flowers, rice, seafood and produce. Towards the end, you come across a large building with fruit sellers on the exterior. You note that many of them are selling giant watermelons.
“Today or tomorrow,” the seller asks, seeking when you want to eat the watermelon.
“Maybe today,” you respond as she shuffles watermelons about.
“This one for today,” she affirms, her hand splayed out on top of it.
As you walk along the perimeter you notice an old man standing in a beam of light, surrounded by shadows. It is a perfect photo but it seems like taking one here would invade his space. You make the gesture to ask for his photos and he shakes his head in decline. You move along.
Around the corner you see that you can access the interior of the building. Inside, down a darkened hallway lies a tea shop of sorts. Everything is rich in texture and grit. You head inside, inspect the tea shop and continue surveying the scene.
You climb the set of wooden stairs that you stumble across in the center of the building. At the top of the stairs is a furious scene of seamstresses busy at work. It feels like a garment factory circa 1900, with old sewing machines sputtering away under dim light. Of all the people here, every single one working is female; half of whom are clearly amused (or bemused) by your strange presence, the other half too focused on their task to notice.
“Leh-pay,” you phonetically announce as you sit on the stool at the tea shop downstairs, tucked nicely within the dimly-lit dirt-floor scenery. The kid at the counter goes into a flurry. Tea, from a large metal pot over fire, is poured into a cup, followed by some water, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. He grabs another vessel and starts pouring the mixture from one to the other (this process is known as pulling tea) in an effort to reduce the temperature, build proper froth and mix the components together.
Having finished the tea, and having not had just black tea in Myanmar, you make motions to order just black tea from that large black pot. Every tea served, to date, is mixed with evaporated and/or condensed milk and you are feeling like the special properties of the tea are being lost.
After a good bit of motioning, the point is delivered. They look at your curiously and keep on ensuring you really want just the tea, which you affirm. The tea is poured into a glass, uncut by milk, uncut with water, uncut with sugar. The tea is astringent, bitter and highly concentrated. It has probably been steeping and concentrating for hours over the heat. It is a wonder what milk and water do to tame this beast (when ordered as a reasonable person does), smoothing out the harsh edges.
Meanwhile, this glass of high-test, forever-steeped, rocket-fuel sends your stomach into panic and your mind into flight. It is a caffeine blast your body is unprepared for, sending you down the darkened aisle to procure filtered water in an effort to harken recovery.
After having negotiated and completed your 3,000MMK ($3USD) taxi fare to the airport, you walk up to the ornately embellished, but tired-looking, gold exterior of Yangon’s domestic terminal. It is the older of the two terminals (international and domestic) and is readily apparent as you step inside. Carved wood railings wrap the perimeter across the second floor which looks down on the first. As you turn the corner in the bathroom, you notice a rapidly, flowing broken pipe spewing water over a quarter of the floor. To aid this problem, a large hole has been cut out of the floor down to earth level so that the water flows outside.
At the ticket counter you hand the representative your passport. She asks to see your booking confirmation email and then checks you off a handwritten log on a clipboard. She grabs a blank boarding card and scribbles in the necessary information such as flight destination. For seat assignments she pulls off a sticker and applies it to the card. If you wanted to transfer the ticket to someone else after having received it at the counter, there is nothing preventing you.
A quick walk through security leads you into a large area where everyone is seated facing the runway. In the far left corner in front of you is a reasonably well-stocked grocery store, perhaps the best you’ve ever really encountered in an airport. The prices are reasonable enough and the selection is varied. You grab some kettle-fried potato chips tossed with chili flakes and head out.
There is a staircase at the other corner, behind a jug dispensing complimentary, potable water. You head up the staircase with its sweeping wooden banisters to find a cafe (with advertised WiFi) and a bunch of multi-colored seats that at some point were utilized by Thai Airways, which is emblazoned on the seatback. Contrary to the ground floor, there is no one up here and it is very relaxing and carries a nice, peaceful vibe. Of course, the unintelligible announcements combined with the departure displays which don’t provide the requisite information make this seating area a little more treacherous.
You head back down, inquire with the gate agent if your flight is boarding and are typically left half-confused. You stand waiting, intermittently asking if your flight is leaving every time a bus pulls up to transport passengers across the airfield. Eventually, she takes your ticket and you board the rickety bus for the trip to the prop plane parked nearby.
In a touch over an hour, Inle Lake.
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