By Elena Thomas (Student at Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Myanmar was undoubtably one of the most meaningful journeys i’ve undergone in my life thus far. It’s vast differences from my own cultural familiarity were frankly astounding.
Our trip began upon our arrival to the Yangon (formally Rangoon) airport. The airport was quite an experience in itself, seeming to be trapped in time from 30 years ago. The security measures were of a much smaller scale than that of Heathrow or JFK in New York. The visa I was required to get consisted of a small questionnaire online from a dodgy website which I printed off myself and supplied at the arrivals counter upon my arrival. The strangest thing about Myanmar is that EVERYONE prefers US dollars to their local currency-BUT they only accept perfectly crisp pristine american dollars. This fact seemed of much concern to me as I stopped at the ATM before our taxi departure to the bus station. I took out some of both and headed out to the frenzy of men dressed in “longees” (long pieces of fabric wrapped around their waists in a skirt like manner with a large knot near their belly button) outside alongside a line of mismatched senescence looking cars. The drive from the airport to the bus station was nearly an hour and between my travelling companions we paid roughly USD$2 each-an ludicrously minuscule fare. Driving through the streets of the city at night with only the yellow and red lights of the vehicles to see by and the rain stirring up mud on the mopeds transporting entire families, I was overcome with a sense of sheer unfamiliarity. Hopping on such a short flight from Hong Kong I had somehow arrived on another planet entirely. There were trucks carrying as many human beings as physically possible including those clinging onto the edges with limbs hanging off or perched upon the roof grasping onto handholds for their lives. An interesting observation of traffic and driving commonplace in Myanmar is that blinkers-although functioning on all vehicles-aren’t actually used. Instead, a complex system of honking replaces them. When one plans on transporting themselves to a divergent path of travel, they simply honk repeatedly and assume those around them will hear their honks and adjust themselves accordingly. The so called ‘bus station’ was a scene unlike anything i’ve experienced in my life. Hoards of vehicles and busses with an eclectic range of images and words printed on them surrounded us; “Surf’s Up-Beach Wave to Bangkok” or “Princess and Toad Travel Inc” were plastered upon surprisingly expensive looking coaches with gaudy cartoon images. Walking around the dark muddy frenzied bus station grounds, men bombarded us endlessly with completely broken english in attempts to persuade us to travel with them. Hawkers (mobile street venders) were roughly every ten feet often selling some strange concoction involving a large leaf and a sticky residue substance (I would later discover this to be chewing tobacco commonplace amongst the locals). After finding our bus company’s shack-like open-air headquarters and using the most unsanitary squat toilet i’ve ever used in my life, we decided to hunt for some manner of nourishment. We found a stand selling a crushed veggie and peanut concoction with fresh herbs and peanuts. The health code was questionable at least but it tasted absolutely delectable and put us back a whopping $0.40 USD.
After a seemingly endless overnight bus ride we pulled into an open plot of barren soil (bus station) in Bagan and were greeted by dozens of men chasing after after the vehicle like paparazzi. Whilst we exited the bus, they loudly proclaimed the numerous services they were offering us. We chose a man with a large van to fit the friends we had just made on the bus from Chile. The day involved the renting of e-bikes (essentially smaller motored-vespas) and copious amounts of perusing on said e-bikes. We ate at a small restaurant with a set menu featuring local delicacies such as yak and goat meat and other unnamed concoctions with freshly squeezed tropical fruit juices to wash it all down. The manner in which Myanmar people infuse nuts, citrus juice, and fresh herbs into these salads by pounding them together with a mallet is truly an art form. Never in my life have I had so many mouthwatering dishes formed solely from plants. After a few dozen pagodas and wild dog spottings later, one of my travel companions wiped out on their b-bike thus thrusting the motor out of its nest and making the vehicle immobile. A stranger walking by and offered us his mobile to ring our rental company. In sheer moments, a man pulled up on an ACTUAL vespa (rather than one of our inferior e-bikes) and gestured it to my friend. He then proceeded to walk the broken vehicle back to the headquarters no questions asked. My friend was absolutely ecstatic with his upgrade. The kindness of the stranger letting us borrow his phone and the man from the rental company astounded me. Our rentals were $3 USD per day and we had exceptional service. We had a break down later that day and yet again the man came putting along with a replacement vehicle in moments. We returned to Yangoon for our flight home and went to a politically radical and palatally pleasing cafe. After a two hour discussion with the owner of the restaurant about the political history and customs of the country, I was utterly infatuated with Myanmar. He had been to prison four times for speaking his political opinions. The kindness of the people with so much less than I, the infinitely unfamiliar flavours and colours, and the alluring sense of unexplored territory I experienced there are unparalleled. Strolling through a street market en route to the airport induced sensory overload. The smells of fresh seafood and meat, the vibrance of the vegetables and garments, and the bark mud painted on the faces I past were all just so completely foreign from my life’s commonalities…