I’m jolted from my sleep by the plane crashing into the ground, bouncing high up in the air, swerving left and right, bouncing a few more times before finally coming to a halt on the runway. I very nearly slip into the customary bad moods that occur after being pulled from my sleep by someone’s – this time the pilot’s – incompetence, when I look out of the window to, it must be said, a rather barren, flat landscape. It is not the view that lifts my mood, but the realisation of where I am.
There are some moments when you must allow yourself to take stock of where you are and enjoy the moment. This was one of those. I look up to where, if I believed in heaven, my dad would be and mumble to myself “I’ve finally done it.” I’m in Myanmar.
A few weeks before I was sat in a guesthouse in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand enjoying a beer and a chat with some backpackers, when an English guy with one of those nasily, dull Home Counties accents plonked himself down and announced this piece of wisdom:
“I’ve just been down the nightmarket. It’s well weird. No one speaks any fucking English.”
George Orwell once described a character of his as “one of those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should not be allowed to set food in the East.” Here was a modern day example of that.
Eager to escape this ignorance – again, something that is becoming more and more common on the overrun Backpacker Trail – I was looking forward to my forthcoming trip to Myanmar (or Burma, but more on that another time). I had often thought of it as the “Final Frontier”, but the truth is that it isn’t really at all. Nowhere really is undiscovered anymore (except perhaps North Korea), but this is probably the closest you are going to get to a real adventure in this part of the world.
Being an ex-colony, English is fairly-well spoken, particularly by the older generations, and with the sanctions (possibly) lifting in coming months, more and more foreigners are piling in to see what the country has to offer. But what is most refreshing, particularly about downtown Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is that it is not like every other city in the world. There are no Starbucks, Subways, 7/11s, the gentrified buildings that mark the corners of most other cities in the world, although if you do fancy some “comforting” Western cuising you can take the pick of such wonderful chains as J’Donuts (Dunkin’ Donuts in everything but name) or Tokyo Fried Chicken (no prizes for guessing the inspiration there).
But what of Myanmar itself? I will not go into too much detail about the political situation here, but will try to talk about life here.
The thing that surprised me most on arriving was the people. Having spent a year in Indonesia, I was used to being approached constantly, stared at, waved at and having your photograph taken at every opportunity. I had got used to this in-your-face mentality and, having heard about the friendliness of Myanmar people (not Myanmarese, that makes them sound like a female body part that that happy-chap Morrissey sang so wonderfully about), I was expecting something similar. However, I experienced something entirely different and what I had first recognised as rudenness from the Myanmar people, I soon learn was shyness. Perhaps it comes from a lack of exposure to foreigners, perhaps it is something entirely different but the majority of people here, rather than come up and talk to you, will sit back and watch you, sometimes aghast, from a distance. If you make eye-contact with them, they will usually look away instantly. However, despite being a mildly irritating saying, never is the adage “Smile and the world smiles with you” truer than in Myanmar. Occassionally you will be met by a confused look, but 9 times out of 10, if you smile at a person in the street, you will get a beautiful smile right back.
Then there is the food. First of all, unlike the rest of the region not everything is spicy. There is a variety of spicy, bland and sour dishe. And, of course, with its location sandwiches between the two culinary giants, Myanmar has a great mixture of Chinese and Indian foods.
My first experience of the food here was on the night I arrived in the country. I met my boss, Eugene, his wife and family and asked them to take me to a local restaurant. We sat down and I asked what they recommended. Eugene replied, “The Mohingwa, it’s the national dish and I can highly recommend it.” So, on Eugene’s recommendation, I ordered it. It came and I was about to dig in, when I thought I would ask what was in it.
“It’s a fish soup” was Eugene’s reply.
Despite spending over a year in Asia, I am still quite a fussy eater and this thought turned my stomach. I tentavely touched a little bit onto my spoon and slurped it. Actually, it was delicious. The fish you could barely taste and there were all sorts of other flavours chucked in.
Another event occurred just a few days ago. At the moment I am working from the home, and office, of Eugene and every lunchtime his wife cooks some great Myanmar dishes, as well as some Western ones. On this particular day I had had a few too many drinks the night before with my Couchsurfer, so my stomach was struggling a little bit. Lunchtime came and I almost excused myself from eating, but figured it would be deemed to be rude. I sat down at the table with my food in front of me and asked what it is we were eating.
“Sour fish” came the reply.
That one, I can’t say I enjoyed as much as the Mohingwa or other dishes I’ve tasted.
The first impressions of this interesting country are, for now, very good. Once you pass the shyness, the people are remarkably friendly and the ease of getting around is refreshing after a year in Jakarta. Taxi drivers appear to be, on the whole, honest and it takes no more than 20 minutes (and cost no more than 3 pound) to get anywhere in the downtown area. There are pleasant lakes and stunning Pagodas to walk and relax around and café culture is relatively good, if you can get past the banal pop music that is blared out of the speakers in many of the places.
At the moment this is just a mind-dump of ideas since arriving in the city and over the coming weeks I hope to shed a bit more light on life in the city.