The Kindness Trail in Yangon
As soon as 2012 rolled in, travel editors started scurrying for stories on Myanmar. Despite the plethora of recently published articles on this emerging tourism destination, I wanted to experience what it had to offer first hand. But first it required securing a visa (Starting June 1, 2012, visa on arrival is available at the Yangon airport for business travelers) and crisp new US dollar bills without folds or marks. There are no international ATMs or credit card facilities in Myanmar, and they only accept crisp US dollar bills. Upon landing at Yangon International Airport, it was not the modern airport that impressed me, but the friendliness of the immigration officer. Most immigration officers around the world have an air of seriousness and formality. This lady engaged me in a long chitchat and then personally led me to the baggage carousel to pick up my suitcase. Little did I know, this was the beginning of a trail of warmth, kindness, and sincerity I would consistently experience in Myanmar from taxi drivers, money changers, hotel staff and expats.
The thirty-minute taxi ride from the airport to downtown Yangon was in itself an adventure. The driver first adjusted the knot of his longyi (long checkered or striped skirt worn by men) before getting into an old cab dating back to the early 80’s. With my eyes wide open and hair wind blown by the alfresco ride, I gazed at the mix of old buildings and the new structures being built. I made a mental note of the many hotels I spotted. I wondered why my driver was driving on the wrong side of the road, only to realize both right and left hand vehicles are allowed on the streets of Myanmar. While there are no taxi meters, agreeing on a price of the fare before entering the cab was a suitable set-up.
In the evening, I met up with Karen, a young Filipina who had been working in an advertising agency in Yangon for the past year and a half. She took me to two favorites drinking spots of expats: The Savoy, her choice for intelligent conversation and 50th Street Bar and Grill where the tight-knit community mingle, shoot pool, and drink beers. Unlike other parts of Asia, Yangon has as a small, friendly expat circle, comprised mostly of international schoolteachers. No high-powered finance guys here. She told me about how much Yangon has changed since she arrived. There are definitely more advertising requirements coming her way, and she fears more expats will come and drastically ruin the cozy “where everybody knows your name” social scene.
The next two days, I hopped in and out of a series of amusing cab rides to visit the attractions and recommended restaurants around Yangon. Being a food and travel writer, I was curious to sample Myanmar cuisine. Unlike neighboring Thailand, their curries and salads were not overwhelmingly spicy. I hit two top restaurants serving Myanmar cuisine, Pandomar and Taing Yin Thar, which were both were virtually empty. On the very day Aung San Suu Kyi was receiving her Nobel Peace Prize in Norway, I found myself as the lone visitor at Bogyoke Aung San Museum allowing me to relish in seeing her bed as a young girl. When I inquired at the reception on the location of the nearest Catholic church, the hotel GM overheard and kindly walked three blocks to bring me to the nearest church. Early one morning, I visited the fish market, where I stood out as the lone tourist amidst local women shopping for ingredients for lunch or men packing large Styrofoam boxes of fresh fish. But they gave me big betel nut stained smiles and kindly obliged my requests to snap a few photos.
At the Shwe Dagon, I was confused when asked for a 1000 kyat donation for a plastic bag to put my shoes in. I conceded. But when an employee of the Shwe Dagon temple noticed what happened, he kindly ushered me back to the lady manning the donation box to amend the situation. I received my 1000 kyat back. Clearly, they don’t take advantage of tourists here. When I asked the cab driver from Shwe Dagon to take me to a nearby Mohinga stall to sample this famous local fish soup, before taking me back to my hotel, he kindly agreed. He patiently waited while I ate this national dish of rice noodle catfish soup. I enjoyed walking safely and freely on the streets without being pestered for goods and services. But with the increased presence of tourists, young kids on the streets are starting to beg. A young boy asked for my bag of food saying, “Hungry! Hungry!” A young girl outside the historic Strand Hotel peddled postcards saying the same word, “Hungry.”
Coming from the Mekong Tourism Conference just prior to visiting Yangon, I learned tourism is top priority in Myanmar, expecting arrives to double in three years. The monsoon season usually means low occupancy, but during my visit, the hotels in Yangon – from affordable East Hotel to the posh hotels like The Strand – are all packed with international business travelers keen to see what the opportunities Myanmar has for them. As I checked out of my hotel, three potential Malaysian investors had to check out, too, as the hotel was full. They had to move to another hotel with a vacancy. More hotels are sprouting in Yangon to address the growing demand, and existing properties have to remain competitive. The Governor’s Residence, a 1920’s colonial home turned boutique resort, will be renovating in May 2013 to update its rooms. In the airport, I met a Japanese corporate lawyer, who had traveled from Osaka to connect with a Japanese client doing business in Myanmar. There are many more business travelers like him seizing opportunities in this emerging tourism destination.
Right now, there is a buzz in Yangon. It is the hum of a destination about to be famous. It is a special time, where tourists are warmly welcomed, yet the tourist footprint remains barely visible. There is a joy in getting a glimpse of an authentic city yet to be invaded by tourists. It is charming to receive a window knob from the cab driver when it rains, to roll up your window in the dilapidated cab. It is fascinating to watch the morning rush of men in longyi commuting with their tiffin containers alongside Buddhist monks carrying their begging bowls. There are still many opportunities for tourists like me to experience Myanmar’s genuine innocence and kindness of her people. My only wish is that it would last for years to come.