My flight arrived in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in the early afternoon. I was tired, but determined to avoid napping and adjust to the 12.5 hour time difference. After checking into my hotel, I familiarized myself with Yangon by wandering the streets. I noticed early that the city is free of motorbikes, which makes walking much safer than most Southeast Asia cities. The people drive on the right side of the road, but many of the cars are imported used from Japan with the steering wheel on the right side.
The streets next to my hotel were bustling with people. Burmese men wear a skirt-like longyi, and women decorate their faces in thanakha, a yellowish paste made from ground bark. Betel chewing is commonplace, and the streets are spotted with red stains from spitting. Markets line the streets with flowers, vegetables, fruit, poultry, fish, and betel nut.
After growing weary of wandering the streets, I decided to experience my first traditional Burmese massage. For an hour, my blind massage therapist skillfully stretched my muscles while practicing her English and sharing her favorite idioms with me. At the end of the session, she said that she wanted to “chew the fat”. After an enjoyable conversation over tea, she would only accept 10,000 kyat (~7.50 USD) for the massage.
I started my second day in Yangon drinking tea at a traditional teahouse. The rest of morning was spent sightseeing in the city center, including Maha Bandula Park, Sule Paya, and colonial-era buildings. Yangon boasts the largest number of colonial-era buildings in Southeast Asia, but many of the buildings have been neglected and have trees growing out of the windows. The view from a bridge over Sule Pagoda Road was impressive, with the 2000-year-old golden Sule Paya melding with colonial-era buildings and modern steel and glass buildings.
After eating oily chili chicken and rice for lunch, I won my first Myanmar Beer lucky draw. The restaurant gave me 500 kyat (< 40 cents) for my bottle cap as the staff and some of the patrons cheered! I decided to go native at this point and bought a longyi and betel nut. After wearing the longyi for a few days I no longer worried about having a wardrobe malfunction and started wearing it without my cargo shorts underneath. However, betel chewing is not for me. Betel nut is actually made of areca nut and wrapped in a betel leaf. The betel nut I purchased also included tobacco and chili. Betel chewing gave me a stimulating buzz, but I didn’t like the taste and texture.
The rest of my day was filled with more sightseeing. Highlights included the reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Paya, the sun setting over Kandawgyi Lake, and Shwedagon Paya. Shwedagon Paya was the main attraction, as the pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline and is the most important and sacred Buddhist place of worship in the country. I was there just after sunset, and the blueish sky resulted in lighting that brought out the gold.
I ended the evening at the Sakura Tower’s “Yangon Yangon” rooftop bar. Both the Sule Paya and Shwedagon Paya are visible from the rooftop. I took in the view of Yangon from 100 meters above ground while sipping a Long Island Ice Tea with Lemon Tea.