Thursday, February 13, 2014

Going, going, Yangon

As you know, we left Koh Samui on an overnight bus, arrived in Bangkok in the wee hours, ate breakfast at the greasy spoon at the bus terminal (rice and 'omelette'), then found a cab to take us to the old airport, Don Corleone Mueang, which is still in use, but shows its age.
We waited for what seemed like forever, then got onto the plane to Yangon..

[Warning: lots of boring thrilling text, see the photos in another post]
The flight was fast - I'd only just nodded off when the flight attendant woke me to get me to put the seat upright. I think the flight time was around an hour..

Immigration check was one of the slowest I've experienced, not because of volume of people, just really slow work by the inspectors. I was third in line and it still took about 30 minutes to get through. I don't understand why, as we had obtained visas in Bangkok (on our first day, straight off the plane - happy with our big efforts!!), so it should take maybe 30 seconds: find visa, read visa, compare details in visa to passport, they match? stamp passport! next!
Instead it was something like, flick through passport, have a brief, probably unrelated, chat with colleague, read passport, fiddle with computer, take a nap, have a meal, find visa, have another chat, fiddle with PC again, read passport again, fiddle with PC, read the newspaper, go for a walk with the dog, fiddle with PC, flick through pages in passport, have a chat, stamp passport. FINALLY!!

Ok, so a couple of those things didn't happen, but it felt like that.. And that happened to the two people ahead of me in line, too, so I experienced it thrice.. Gaaah!

Customs: at the green line, there was a guy xraying our big bags and taking our customs forms.
Quick and no hassles.

Arriving in Yangon at night is not the best plan, mainly because the money changers at the airport are closing so you might miss the window (pun intended), as we did.
Not sure whose brilliant idea it is to close as a plane (half-)full of travelers arrives, but they did.

There are some ATMs, which didn't like my Japanese Citibank card. We thought we might have to pay in US$ to get to the airport, depleting our precious dollar supply. But then we remembered: my dad and awesome step-mum had given us a fist-full of Kyats when they met us in Tokyo last year!!
About $20 worth, which easily covered the taxi fare (Naomi negotiated the price down to 7,000 Kyat, when some drivers wanted 10,000 ! Kick ass!). $1 is (very) roughly 1,000 Kyat.

The taxi driver was nice, and suggested where we could go to see sights. We were already aware of most of these, but it was a nice welcome.
We arrived at our hotel, and the area around it looked quite poor, but the hotel itself was quite nice.
We checked in, showered (finally!!!!) and slept like the dead, grateful to be lying on a flat, comfortable, non-moving mattress, after the overnight bus.

Daytrippin'

We woke up refreshed, and got breakfast (included, but not particularly inspiring fare), and asked our hotel about bus tickets to Bagan, our next stop in Myanmar.
They phoned around and told us that the VIP bus run by JJ Express was already booked out and we couldn't get a ticket. If we wanted to go with another company, we should ask at an agency in the CBD area.
OK, time to head on out - we found that there is a loop train around the city, and one of the stops was nearby, so we decided to try it.
Walking through the neighbourhood was really nice - the little back streets, completely unmapped in Google Maps, were filled with little houses, and lots of kids and friendly locals greeted us as we walked. Getting a little lost was no problem, as we just asked for directions and got them with a smile.
So, first (lucid, non-sleep-deprived) impression of the Myanmar people was very positive. The kids just said "Hello!" a few times, there was no begging, no harassment.
I hope it stays this way - my personal policy is to never give to beggars, but to buy from local stores instead. That way, the local economy gets a boost (if only a small one) and I don't train people to think that begging is good.
I know my dad gave toys to a bunch kids on his visit here, and I'm not sure where that falls on this policy: are the kids now more likely to beg other tourists for toys? Or would they take it as a one-off show of generosity? Luckily, our very limited baggage space makes it impossible for us to bring stuff, so that thought can remain hypothetical..

Oh, by the way, I do sometimes give to street performers and buskers - the ones that actually do something for their money. I even gave a guy $2 for reciting a poem (in Hyde Park, Sydney) just because he actually made an effort, not just the usual "I need bus fare to get home to Rooty Hill" sob story.

Anyway, back in Yangon, we got to the station, asked about the next train to Yangon Central Station - due in 8 minutes, how's that for good timing! - and bought our tickets.
Awkward!!
They only accepted US dollars for the tickets ($1 each), though I probably could have pushed to get to pay in Kyats, according to a forum post I've read, and had to present my passport so they could write my name and passport number on the ticket.
As we were waiting for the train, a very friendly local guy came up to talk to us, shaking holding my hand (awkward!!)
for a long time, several times. But he was really friendly, and all my valuables were still in place after the encounter, so it was all good.

Check out the other Yangon photos here - rather than me repeat them in this post.

The train was nice - old, rattly with doorways, not doors, and open windows.
It went through semi-rural parts, and was a great way to go into the city.  We were not in a rush, which was good, as it's described as a slow train for a reason. It does a 40-odd km loop in about three hours, so you can guess how fast it goes...

Arriving at the station, we picked a direction, then changed our mind after looking at the map - in hindsight, we should have gone with the first choice as that's where the bus agent was, more on that later.

We walked around, looking for two things: an ATM that would accept one of our cards so we could get cash, and a bus ticket vendor so we could arrange to go to Bagan, the next stop on our itinerary.
For a long time, it felt like we'd find neither - every bus agent was either closed (it was a public holiday!) or told us what the hotel did: sold out.
We found one which offered a non-VIP bus, with normal ("slightly reclining") seats rather than the "almost fully flat" VIP seats, but I held firm and we kept searching. Good to have a plan B, but didn't want to give up on plan A so soon.

Finally, a break - an ATM took my ING Direct VISA Debit card, and spewed forth a huge wad of bills - 260,000 Kyat in 5,000 denomination bills makes for an impressive bundle of cash!
The ATM took 5,000 Kyat as a fee for this, making it the biggest ATM fee I've ever paid at AU$5+, especially considering ING will screw me with foreign transaction fee on top of this.
Oh well, now we have money for food, which is fairly important. And for the bus, which is vital.

We eventually found ourselves directed back to the other side of the station, where we'd headed when we first arrived on the train, and saw a sign advertising both JJ Express (which we knew was sold out) and Elite Express. When we asked about "VIP Bus to Bagan", they told us there were two seats left on the JJ Express bus!
They were at the second-last row of the bus, so (unlike the Koh Samui - Bangkok bus) we'll have people in front of us, reclining. Could be a huge PITA, but we'll see..

Having tickets in hand and being flush with cash, it was time to hit the town - we walked around, looking at the two main pagodas (Sule and Shwedagon), but not so keen as to pay the US$8 entry fee for Shwedagon. We saw it from outside, we were there, it's enough for two non-religious people.

We went to dinner at a Burmese restaurant called Pan Swel Taw, where we had some interesting food - spicy green curry rice (I almost died, it was so hot!), tempura watercress (a huge serving!) and a local noodle dish called Kyae Ohe. Good food, but so spicy!
Then home to sleep!

A great first day in Myanmar!