I definitely felt like a guest in someone else’s house–someone’s sacred home–so I kept the camera in my pocket for most of the day, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells with nothing but my senses. It was such a special place to be.
Mission to Myanmar
Myanmar is the kind of country that blows your mind in so many different and surprising ways, I’m almost dreading writing my report on this visit, because I’m not sure how to organize my thoughts. In all of my travels, I don’t think I’ve ever traveled to a place more exotic. It was a shock to the senses, in all the good ways, and an introduction to a group of people I’ve never interacted with my entire life. I guess the easiest way to explain would be telling you to imagine what would happen if China and India hooked up and had a baby. The outcome would be Myanmar.
I spent four nights in the city of Yangon, which was both chaotic and charming, beautiful and dirty, and unfamiliar yet comforting, all at the same time. The following will be a smattering of notes, observations, daily activities and photos, however there’s no way to really understand a place like this unless you actually visit. I did, and I’m still not sure I comprehend it all.
Homework or Lack Thereof
I usually don’t do very thorough research on my future destinations and for good reason: I like to leave at least some element of surprise to enjoy when I finally touch down. It’s no fun if you watch a movie knowing everything about it first. So while I will watch a couple YouTube videos and perform a few Google searches, I purposely make sure I don’t feed myself too many spoilers. The best example of why this works for me, is how awesomely mysterious and interesting it was to see almost every woman and child on the streets of Yangon with big squares of thick, beige paste lathered on their cheeks. This paint was on the faces of almost every female, from women in the villages, to the city streets and even airport staff. I’ve been to 136 countries now, and this cultural phenomenon was one that I’ve yet to discover until this trip, and I loved it. And it was fun learning about by surprise, in person, rather than in advance from a guidebook.
Thanaka is made from tree bark. Women (and some men) use it for skin care, as both a moisturizer and for protection from the sun. The face paint would be one of a hearty handful of quirky and bizarre elements that made Myanmar one of the most interesting and unique places I’d ever visited in my lifetime. Just when I was beginning to feel travelers’ fatigue and start to question my purpose of seeing every country, with thoughts like, “Is that all there is?”, Myanmar was a loving slap in the face and a big burst of invigoration. I needed this trip.
It was past ten by the time I got to the hotel and I was starving. Unfortunately, I came up empty handed during my initial walk around the neighborhood. I hadn’t quite got the lay of the land yet but would soon enough learn the city and its areas. The only thing I ran into on tonight’s brisk walk was some weird smells and lots of stray dogs; some of them looking pretty menacing. I’d see more wild canines in Yangon than I’ve seen anywhere in my life (until Bhutan). They looked like they were running the streets. I conceded to a room service cheeseburger back at the hotel and then it was lights out. Big day tomorrow.
I don’t often rant about my lodging, but when a place is really good, I like to tell my readers. I want to remind you that I’m not getting paid for writing about this hotel, nor did I receive any free rooms or even a discount. But the Pan Pacific Yangon was such a score, I need to brag about it.
In all of my travels, this place goes down as one of my top ten favorite hotels. But not why you’d think: I’d certainly stayed in fancier places—like the Royal Mansour in Morocco—but few hotels have everything I’m looking for. This one did.
Let’s start with the location. The Pan Pacific is located right in the heart of downtown, next to everything. And I mean everything. The hotel was a short walk from Independence Square, the river and the train station, and directly across from the famous Bogyoke Aung San Market. But hold on, it gets better. The hotel is also connected to…drum roll…a mall. A freakin’ mall! And a cool one at that. Junction City is a five-level mall literally connected to the Pan Pacific Hotel. Not that I’m a big shopper, but the food court was super handy and convenient for many of my meals and perhaps the best part was that the mall featured a full-on grocery store. I was able to pick up a much-needed razor at the store, and when you’re in Myanmar, you have to try a bottled juice called Mogu Mogu. It’s labeled as “The juice you have to chew,” and you do…literally. I’ll leave it at that…just do yourself a favor and find a Mogu Mogu. Okay, we’re getting off track.
Back to the hotel, its style and décor were awesome, infusing marble, carpet, tile, glass and wood altogether for a really modern yet still warm look. The infinity pool overlooking the city was epic, and I’m bummed I didn’t use it. The restaurant and bar were fantastic, and since I wasn’t home for the holidays, I certainly appreciated the big Christmas tree and Christmas music over the sound system. Along with a very hospitable staff, this place just gave out a great vibe, and made you feel good.
Finally, let’s talk about the room. My corner suite featured floor to ceiling glass windows with amazing views of the city, including the river and the amazing golden Shwedagon Pagoda that shimmered day and night. Extras included a writing desk and a huge flat screen TV. The modern-designed room included splashes of old world charm, including mosaic tiles in the bathroom. A+ for whoever designed this place. Pan Pacific is a brand I will look for in the future.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: If you stay here, reserve a corner suite, called the Premier Corner King room. They aren’t horrifically expensive and even the gentleman at check-in admitted this was his favorite room. You can book a room at the Pan Pacific HERE.
I’d planned four nights in Myanmar, which is unusually long for me. 1.5 nights in a country is about average, but Myanmar was a bucket list country for me. I really wanted to set up shop and enjoy this place much more than the usual country “check-offs” I perform. I debated seeing another city or two—like Mandalay or Bagan—but I really wanted to relax a little on this particular stop, so I’d remain in the capital for all four nights. It proved to be a wise decision.
I was excited to get out on the streets after my recent food-fail in Laos, I made sure to stop into a local spot for breakfast. I ducked into a little joint called The Golden Tea Centre and was only able to order breakfast with the help of a nearby guide, who bailed me out of the situation as it was obvious the waiter knew not one lick of English, and I knew even less Burmese. I had a traditional breakfast, which included noodles, soup, a plate of dumplings and one giant doughy thing. It was good and super cheap.
Next stop was Yangon’s Central Railway Station. And while I was disappointed that the circular train wasn’t running (I think they were repairing the track), I was able to by a 14-cent ticket that would complete about half of the “circle,” and get me up to Mingaladon and back.
The ride was awesome; an incredible look at the different sectors and villages of Yangon. A few tourists were present, but not overwhelming. I was among the locals. Windows open, the weather was divine. I’d hit the jackpot weather-wise, and could only imagine how miserable this ride might be in the scorching summer heat. But today felt like San Diego weather.
At the end of the line, I contemplating getting off and exploring the neighborhood, but wasn’t sure how I’d get home. I opted for a grape soda at a little snack shack, then hopped back on the train for the slow-moving ride back to Central Station. Riding the train in Myanmar is a must and such an inexpensive way to see so much. I planned on taking the other route—the other half of the “circle”—later in my trip, but ran out of time.
Rest and Relaxation
I headed back to that awesome hotel for some afternoon chill time. Myanmar was part of a nearly four-week, nine-country journey, and I knew I should take it easy—especially this early on—to avoid burnout. Plus the Pan Pacific was such a comfy place to kick it. I was really enjoying myself here.
I decided to hit that giant pagoda before sunset, so grabbed a Grab and I was on my way. This was my first time using Asia’s rideshare answer to Uber, and I loved it! Just like Uber, Grab was very easy to use, and very, very affordable.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Make sure to research and download the popular rideshare services for countries you visit: Grab in Asia, Careem in the Middle East, Uber in many other places. Not only are they convenient and inexpensive, but they assure you don’t get cheated by unscrupulous taxi drivers looking to cheat tourists. You also get points/miles if you’re paying with the right credit card. So much upside!
I didn’t realize just how massive the grounds of the Shwedagon Pagoda was. When I passed the giant, gold monstrosity the night before in my cab, I figured the pagoda was just part of a little park or garden; but once I arrived, I realized this place was a full-on Disneyland of Buddhism. The pagoda was more massive than I could ever imagine, and there was so much more. It was surrounded my numerous smaller pagodas, temples, exhibits, monuments and statues. It was a full on theme park for Buddhists, minus the actual rides.
Fear of Feet
The only tough part for me was having to not just remove my shoes, but my socks too. For the germaphobe and strongly anti-foot person that I am, walking around completely barefoot among thousands of other people in a foreign country seemed like an absolute nightmare to me, akin to medieval torture. I don’t even walk around my own house without socks, so going completely bare soled outside, in a strange country, with mobs of other people would be almost unthinkable. But there was no time to think. I paid the woman, then the shoes and, gulp, socks came off. I must sound like a girly man here, but it is what it is folks.
I’d check the bottoms of my feet numerous times for the first twenty minutes inside, horrified at how black my soles were; and I almost had a heart attack when I felt something under my foot and realized I’d stepped on somebody’s cigarette butt. Yucko! But I soon got over it, and went on to enjoy the pagoda and all its surrounding treasures.
Soon I met an older man, a Buddhism student named Nay Lin, who was kind enough to befriend me and explain to me many of the features of the surrounding temples and statues. How nice of this man to take the time to walk me around the pagoda, giving me the history of each important facet of the property, snap pictures of me, and even show me how to perform a special good luck blessing for my specific astrological sign (I’m an elephant, by the way). Only at the end did he ask for a donation for his “school,” which I gave him. It was only later did I find out this was a little scam and the cash most likely wasn’t given to any “school.” Nay Lin was a fabulous actor, but when it was all said and done, the thirty bucks I gave him was actually a small price to pay for such a special tour. It wouldn’t be the last time I was scammed in Myanmar. Hold my beer.
I slept in the next morning and really took it easy for the first half of the day, lounging in my PJs, only to leave my room for the lavish breakfast buffet downstairs. Then it was more lazy time before I finally got my butt outta bed and back into the streets sometime after 11AM.
I had no plan, I just decided to roam and see what I’d find. I really liked Yangon. It was busy, chaotic, raw and real. I couldn’t get enough of those painted cheeks. The men wore skirts called longyis. I passed busy markets; people selling clothes and shoes, then street food, fruits and vegetables. The sun was out, the weather was perfect and people seemed relatively happy. Yangon was slowly stealing my heart. Then came the baby.
I’d just arrived to Maha Bandula Park when I met Nandamil and her adorable eleven-month old nephew, Champa. Both of their faces were smeared with thanaka. Nandamil was selling postcards, and I thought what better way to ask for a photo, than to buy some postcards. The plan was more successful than I thought. Soon Nandamil and Champa were escorting me to the river to help me ferry across: something I’d wanted to do already, and now I had a friend to help me get there.
The Village People
The village of Dala was a spectacular surprise and such a departure from the modern city across the river. Here were little houses, huts and fishing boats, and that was pretty much it. You would’ve thought I’d traveled hundreds of miles away to a remote village, far away from the city, if it wasn’t for the sight of the skyscrapers across the water. This was a nice little bonus; for I felt like I might have missed out staying in Yangon for the duration of my trip. This was another town I could see without the hassle of an airport or excruciatingly long car ride.
Rice Rice Baby
The three of us spent about an hour together touring the village by rickshaw. What a treat! Sadly, the leisurely tour turned stressful when I realized I was simply a pawn in an intricate scam that included inflated rickshaw prices, and most disappointing, a $40 payment for a sack of rice that would be supposedly delivered to victims of the 2008 cyclone.
Nandamil first took me to a corner of the village, explaining to me that I was looking at the home for the displaced cyclone victims. Then she asked if I’d buy a bag of rice to donate to the village. How could I say no to that??? The rest of the story is detailed in a separate blog, found HERE. I do not want me being scammed to take the spotlight of my visit to Yangon. All in all, even after the cash I was suckered to part with, I loved my visit to Dala and would to it again. No, seriously, I would do it again…tomorrow actually.
Back at the hotel, I rested a bit before meandering over to the mall in search of dinner. There was a little concert performance happening that was fun to watch. I popped into a clothing store to buy some (fake) Levis (I needed jeans) and finally made it over to the food court. The restaurant selection was interesting: it was all Asian. I mean, duh, I’m in Asia, but usually food courts in any country have a pretty wide selection of flavors. Not here. Asian after Asian restaurant. I just really wanted Chipotlé. I settled on sushi and then a banana milkshake and split.
Back at the hotel I was just about ready to call it a night, get in my PJs and watch some Forensic Files when I had to kick myself in the arse.
“You’re in Myanmar, ya old man,” I literally yelled out loud to myself. “Get out there and have some fun!”
I’d heard Chinatown was a fun time, so I forced myself outside, walking half a mile down the road to find a lively, loud and crowded street, filled with lots of late night activity. This was definitely where the tourists were, hanging out inside and outside of a stretch of little bars and restaurants all lined up together on one busy side alley. While I wasn’t bold enough to try any street food (I know, shame on me), I did end up planting myself at a table to enjoy a giant Myanmar beer and observe the nightlife going on all around me. Little kids soon approached, selling flowers. How could I say no? I ended up parting with a few twenty dollar bills, which is way more than these children ever expected, but their smiles melted my heart. I immediately thought of my eight-year-old God daughter and shuddered at the thought of her having the run the streets late at night selling anything to strangers. When the two little girls realized how much I’d given them, they put their entire collection of flower leis around my neck. I certainly didn’t need all those flowers, but hoped that meant they were done for the night and could go home and spend the rest of the night inside, with their family. It wasn’t long before the word got out and other kids ran up to my table with flowers. I bought all of theirs as well, and then ducked outta there before the whole neighborhood followed suit. What can I say, I’m a sucker for kids.
I woke up with a light hangover from my one beer. I’m such a lightweight. I enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the hotel and lounged around for a while before I finally got going. I wanted to return to Dala Village, but this time on my terms. I probably should’ve leaved well enough alone, but the village intrigued me so much; I really wanted more time there. Yesterday in Dala, after realizing I was being scammed, I just wanted out of the situation, but what if today I could be in control of the situation? I had a plan: I’d venture over to Dala on my own; no guide, no rickshaw driver, no anything…I’d refuse any and all “services” offered to me and explore the village on foot.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: If after/while stomping around the city and you find yourself in need of a cool drink, and more importantly, a clean restroom, stop into the 5-star Strand Hotel for a beverage and some “relief.” Sarkies Bar has an awesome selection of cool and fruity drinks and really nice facilities to “refresh” yourself ( I needed to tend to my swamp-ass). The quick stop was just what I needed before venturing on.
Dala, Take Two
So here I was, heading straight back into the place that had caused me so much stress the day before. But it wasn’t really the “place” that did me wrong. I actually adored the village itself, which is why I wanted to come back. This time I took the big ferry: The “Cherry.” Locals pay 20 cents to cross, foreigners are charged $2.70. Not really fair, but it’s less than three bucks, so whatever. The ticket included the trip back and a bottle of water; so even for $2.70, a steal. Before I boarded the ferry I was offered a “guide” to show me around the village; I quickly and sternly refused. It may have been legit this time–after all, it was organized through the ferry company–but I would take no chances. I was flying solo today.
The boat was packed, with mostly locals, who sat on plastic chairs throughout the ten-minute voyage across the water. I saw only one other tourist: a solo female, and hoped she wasn’t walking into a scam. I should’ve made an attempt to talk her up and warn her, but it didn’t happen. Soon we docked and the boat emptied out onto the docks of Dala.
As cold-hearted as a seasoned New Yorker, I looked straight ahead and didn’t even acknowledge all the solicitations for rides and guides. Most people left me alone after my first no. One guy with a motorized rickshaw kept insisting, driving fifteen feet in front of me and stopping every time I refused his services. Finally after five or six attempts, a half-mile down the road, he finally conceded and headed back to the docks. I could not be swayed.
I had no plan today; just a pair of sneakers and GPS on my phone. I’d wander Dala until I tired. I was looking forward to the exercise and whatever pleasant surprises lay in my direction. My first stop was the Dala Mosque.
This was actually the point where “annoying rickshaw guy” finally gave up, thanks to a minder at the mosque who waved me in. I didn’t get his name–I should have–but he was kind enough to offer me a tour of the entire property, including a climb up into the minaret and on to the roof. I’ve always wanted to do this! I explored the mosque with my new friend for about ten minutes before moving on with my journey.
The rest of the afternoon was an absolute delight, consisting of walking, walking, walking and more walking. I found Dala Village absolutely fascinating in so many ways. It was like stepping back in time. Though the bustling metropolis of Yangon was less than a mile away, Dala seemed a whole world away, both geographically and chronologically; like stepping into the 1800s. I criss-crossed through the tiny passages of the village and in between little shacks and huts as curious kids waved and smiled and elders nodded hello. I saw so many people and things I wanted to take photos of, but I used my iPhone conservatively. I definitely felt like a guest in someone else’s house–someone’s sacred home–so I kept the camera in my pocket for most of the day, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells with nothing but my senses. It was such a special place to be.
I don’t know if I had my shoes on too tight, or if I was just that out of shape, but by the time I arrived back at the docks, I was in bad condition. I’d walked so much–for hours and hours, miles and miles–that I’d done something that injured my left foot. By the time I’d arrived back at the hotel, I was limping. Mom was right: Getting old sucks
This Little Piggy Went to Market
I had one more stop to make before I could leave Yangon: the market. The Bogyoke Aung San Market was not only the city’s most popular market, but it too, was connected to my hotel (Another reason I loved The Pan Pacific so much!). Unfortunately I had arrived just as the market was closing up, so there wasn’t much action happening, but I had a nice stroll through the aisles nonetheless, limping and all.
It’s a Wrap
I treated my aching body to a wonderful massage that night. The Himalayan treatment was new to me and I loved it! Then, it was off to bed; I had an early flight out the next day. I was sad to go.
I absolutely adored Myanmar and it’s a place I will return, for much longer. Yangon was a winner and I feel like I could’ve easily enjoyed a two weeks there alone. Not to mention all the other cities in the country, from Bagan to Mandalay to Naypyidaw. Myanmar is a winner. The people, the culture, the landscape…so many things to do. Most importantly, it’s the mystique of Myanmar that was calling me back before I even left.
Next stop: Bhutan.
And Now…the REST of the (Insta)Story!