After a few days in Singapore, we boarded a flight to Yangon, Myanmar. A country that fairly recently opened its borders to outsiders, “Golden Myanmar” has seen a significant jump in tourism and exposure to Western influence.
What a shock to the system. After the gleaming, air conditioned malls of Singapore we find ourselves sticky. It’s about 27 degrees too hot and intensely humid. Wide-eyed and frizzy-haired, we enter the airport terminal and are greeted by a bunch of staring Burmese, signs in a language that may as well be hieroglyphic directing us to baggage claim, and – wait, is that a Burger King?
Is this our first glimpse of how Myanmar has flung open the doors to…the Whopper?
Little did we know this would be the first of many cultural mashup mindwarps.
Beyond the noticeable initial shock of seeing a 6′ white woman in shorts (it’s winter here after all, 101 degrees or not, and shorts are not a typical Burmese dress), everyone seems friendly. Curious. Shy. Unsure what to think of us with our wireless headphones around our necks, Birkenstock sandals and heavy oversized duffels full of things we’re suddenly realizing we’d very likely be able to live without for the next two weeks.
We’re in Myanmar to sail the Irrawaddy with Avalon Waterways, and so head off to find our transfer. After being warmly welcomed by Nyo, a Yangon local who is just a couple years older than I am, we heave our bags into a sprinter van and head off.
Not for long.
Traffic is an issue in Yangon. My pre-conceived notion of a third-world Southeast Asian country does not include traffic issues – and cars, not motorbikes or tuk-tuks. Full sized Japanese brand cars. I spot a 4Runner and have to take a picture.
Nyo tells us the locals value the ability to get where they want to go, and many spend everything they have on a car. She also tells us it is not smart to watch the police cars, take pictures of the police or military vehicles, or look “too long” at the camouflage-emblazoned teenagers with machine guns.
In our hour drive from Yangon International Airport to the Sule Shangri-La (10 miles apart), we start to learn that in Myanmar – even now – someone is always watching.
We settle into the hotel, freshen up and head out in search of the local market for elephant pants and longyi (traditional Burmese attire in the form of one long sheet of cloth that wraps around your bottom half like a skirt and is tied in the front).
This is our first gander out of fairly westernized areas and it takes me .02 seconds to realize I do not fit in. I am tall, athletically built, blonde, blue-eyed, well fed… I’m feeling rather big.
My dad used to come back from trips to China and say he felt like a periscope. I now understand the notion.
It’s about the time that we’re meandering the 13th identical row of cheap jade trinkets and thousands of yards of longyi material that we meet our knight in shining armor.
Pronounced “mih-min”, this confident little dude hooked on like phonics and we were goners. We proceeded to be escorted stall by stall through the marketplace, Min Min pointing out the essential Burmese tourist tokens as locals glanced up and smiled knowingly.
We were being worked.
To his credit, Min Min was the best salesman in the entire market. He was patient but firm, pushy but playful, curious and talkative. Somehow we ended up buying a whole lotta Burmese stuff – longyi, elephant pants, drawings of monks, jade elephants, and carvings.
After a few hours and a few more kyat (Burmese currency, pronounced ‘chet’), we begged exhaustion and said goodbye to Min Min. He’s probably now slinging goods from the back of a new BMW, but was a fun introduction to Burmese hospitality and warmth.
This was just Day One. Tomorrow, we dive headfirst into Yangon and Burmese culture.