We have only been in Yangon three hours, yet it is already apparent that despite the briefness of the flight, we are a world away from Chiang Mai and the comparatively cosmopolitan city experience Thailand has to offer.
Wandering down the streets in search of something to eat, I am reminded so much of India – a reminiscence (and nostalgia) I had not expected. As in India, most of the men are in ‘longyi’ – large pieces of fabric wrapped around to form a long skirt, fastened by folding over the top, rather than by tying a knot. My friend is unfamiliar with this and finds it odd, but I am comforted by the recollection of them. You can see that they are comfortable in their traditional dress – and cool, something you can’t take for granted here, especially in the humidity of the summer when the monsoon rains drench the city on a daily basis.
The women too are not dressed anything like those in Thailand, where western fashion has pervaded the cities. They are not even dressed like the people of the hill tribes in Northern Thailand, so close to the Myanmar border. Gone are the woven tunics and brightly coloured hats. The Burmese women are wearing long silk skirts and beautiful matching tops, more on a par with the saris and lehengas of India.
Although sweet and seemingly kind, the Burmese people do stare. A lot. But this is unsurprising considering that unlike in Bangkok and Chiang Mai where western travellers are almost more prevalent on the streets than Thai people, here you come across only a handful of other travellers. They are not as elusive as say in Bangalore – when I stayed there for two months I must have seen no more than five or ten westerners in all that time.
But once you get past the invasive staring and strike up a conversation, or buy some food from a street vendor, they are not aggressive but humble. Kindly in their manner, asking where we are from and wishing us well.
We did however upset one lady. She was selling some kind of meal and a local saw us looking on, somewhat bewildered (and tired and hungry), and said ‘very good’, nodding her head firmly. So we sat down and asked for ‘two’. Two of whatever she was cooking, it was difficult to tell. She produced some grubby plastic plates and began cutting up a clump of slightly crispy noodles with a large whole prawn on top. Everything went in, then she began mixing and mushing it together with her hands. I am wary about street food, and while we avoided any stomach dramas in Thailand, the similarity of the streets and stalls with India reminded me I had not been so lucky there. So we stood up, shook our heads apologetically and left. She looked crestfallen, insulted and perhaps a little angry, too. I felt horribly guilty, but I’m fairly certain I saved myself from a bout of Yangon-belly, or worse.
But alas, there was food to be found. And much more appetising, although unidentifiable. We bought some fried rings of some kind of flour or potato mixture – whatever it was, it was beautifully herbed and spiced. The mangoes too are small and sweet, boasting a darker and far more fragrant flesh than any mango you will find in an English shop.
As for our plans for the next three weeks in Myanmar, we are as yet undecided. There are the temples of Bagan, which will certainly grace our eyes, and a hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake during which we stay with local families in their villages. Mandalay also seems to have more to offer than just our flight out of there.
But whatever we do, we can certainly say adieu to the cocktail buckets of Chiang Mai and the ping pong shows in Bangkok.