09 January 2009

Yangon day one

Yangon is located in the Ayeyarwady Delta region of Southern Myanmar and the first thing that strikes you when you fly in is just how flat the landscape is. Pancake flat for what must be hundreds of miles in every direction. From the air it is easy to see why the area was so devastated when Cyclone Nargis hit last year. The whole town has an air of dishevelment about it, although I'm not entirely sure if any of this is resulting from the cyclone.
We are staying in a nice clean guesthouse which has the rather bizarre name Beautyland Hotel 2. Despite the strange name the location is great. We're smack bang in the middle of downtown Yangon one street from Sule Paya Road, which would be 5th Avenue if this was New York! The owner is also really friendly and has been giving us lots of help and advice.
Our first task was to obtain some local currency, the kyat, which in any other country would be a simple process. You go to the bank, ATM or bureau de change . . . easy. Not here it isn't. The kyat is a closed currency and can't be purchased outside of the country. You can't draw kyat out of an ATM here because there are no ATMs. Withdrawing the money from a bank is also impossible as economic embargoes by the EU and USA mean that there are no international banks here, making credit cards and travellers cheques mostly useless. This means that the only sure fire way of getting money when you are in Myanmar is to bring every penny you think you may need with you into the country. When I say penny what I should really say is US dollar.
So you turn up with your wallet packed full with a months worth of money and go get it changed at the bank. Well there's a problem with that too as in 2003 Myanmar's private banking system collapsed leaving the state run national banks with the whole playing field. Because there's no competition these give you an exchange rate that is about half of the real world value. This leaves you with only one option . . . the black market.
To test the water we headed off with a 100 dollar bill to a real market, where we subsequently found the money changers black market. Our 100 dollars converted into 114000 kyats. But being as the largest note issued is 1000 kyats we had to stand there and count through a half inch wedge of notes which all felt very dodgy. The wedge of notes was that thick that even with the money split between us we couldn't fold our wallets over. Once we had that shady business out of the way we headed off out into town to find our feet and see some of the sights.
The first thing we noticed was that it probably takes longer to walk 10 meters here than anywhere else in the world, it's a real obstacle coarse. Not only do you have to dodge around the normal shops and shoppers, you also have to contend with a dense market that covers the entire width of the pavement on nearly every street. Then add in the state of the pavements, which are like the giants causeway only more wonky. And not forgetting to mention a smattering of open storm drains and it all becomes a real challenge.
Our first port of call was a 2200 year old temple called Sule Paya, which is situated in the middle of downtown Yangon in the centre of the towns busiest roundabout. Liz said that in a funny way it reminded her of the Elephant and Castle in London! The temple is 46 meters high and covered from base to tip in gold. Making it look slightly out of place in amongst the traffic and shops.
Our next port of call was Botauang Paya which is temple complex on the Yangon river front at the southern edge of town. On route we passed many of the old colonial era buildings. None more impressive than the Strand Hotel which was originally built by the Sarkies brothers who were responsible for Raffells in Singapore. With rooms costing between 425 and 900 dollars a night I think it's a little bit out of our price range. We did pop into their bar for a bit of a nose around but there were no other patrons in there so we headed back out and carried on our way.
It was then that things took a turn for the worse for me. I think it must have been the heat (the temperature felt in the mid 30's) and two days of travel with only about two hours sleep that got me. By the time we got to Botataung Paya I thought I was going to pass out and I didn't fancy Liz's chances of man handling me on her own! Thankfully the kind ladies in the ticket office let us shelter in there whilst I recovered. After about half an hour and a litre of water I was fine again.
Botataung Paya is famous for containing a strand of hair reportedly from Buddha himself. The other unusual thing is that unlike most stupa this one is hollow and you can walk through it to look at the relics stored there. The route through is a kind of disorientating mirrored maze. It feels like you are walking in a zig-zag line, but you are in fact going round in a circle (maybe I hadn't fully recovered from earlier!). The exterior of the stupa was being reguilded whilst we were there and was covered in bamboo scaffolding and rattan.
When we were outside in the courtyard another strange thing happened. We were accosted by a group of about 10 Indian women who all wanted to shake our hands, pose with us and have their photos taken. It was most bizarre ike we were famous people! The one woman kept pulling at Liz's chin . . . not really sure what that was all about. After all of that excitement we felt like we needed a drink and found an old style colonial era bar called 50th Street Bar; Grill to rest our feet.

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