Dawn skyline

I was expecting the entry to Myanmar to be an officious, bureaucratic process but it turned out to be quick & efficient. The immigration form I'd been handed before my final flight was fairly clear (although like so many such documents it had teeny-tiny spaces for answers - why do they do that?) and armed with this and the confirmation letter from the visa application website I sailed straight through. It was a bit strange to have my luggage x-rayed as I left the airport but other than that things were very familiar - and simpler than in lots of Western countries.

Outside I spotted an Exodus sign (the company who organised the tour) and met Lae, our local guide, and four of the other holidaymakers. The rest of the group (we would be thirteen in total) had either already arrived or were coming in on different flights - I'd gone for the inclusive travel arrangements option when booking the trip but apparently we five were the only ones who'd done so. Some people were coming from different places while others had just decided to make their own arrangements, it turned out that the easy option wasn't necessarily the quickest or cheapest - something to consider for next time.

We piled into a minibus and set off towards the city and our hotel. At first we passed through the usual airport hinterland of warehouses & business parks (with a surprising number of English names) before reaching more retail & residential areas. It was pretty hot & dusty (especially coming from a British February) but there was a lot of trees & greenery around. A lot of the buildings looked quite shabby, possibly a result of the monsoon rains they undergo for half the year (it was currently the middle of the dry season) although there was clearly a lot of construction going on. As we got closer to the city centre the traffic built up until we were edging through quite dense congestion.

A strange aspect of Myanmar roads is that although cars have driven on the right since 1970 most of them are right hand drive - the majority are secondhand Japanese vehicles. This meant that overtaking could be quite a challenge and usually involved the active participation of a passenger and/or lots of honking. It also meant that getting on or off a bus usually involved walking in traffic - a daunting prospect at first although we quickly got used to it. Another quirk, unique to Yangon, was that motorbikes & trishaws were prohibited in the city limits. Although the traffic moved fairly freely we'd find ourselves in an immobile clog every now & again.

After about half an hour we arrived at the hotel, a very conventional looking building. Keycards were handed out and after having spent around twenty hours in planes & airports I retreated for a shower and a sleep - remembering to set my alarm to help shift me to Myanmar time.

A big pile of Kyat

That evening the whole group went out for a shared meal with Lae, a pattern we generally stuck to for the first half of the tour. The restaurant was nicely exotic, al fresco under paper lanterns in the warm evening air with, at one point, the sounds of a Chinese New Year band drifting over from somewhere close by. Lae made suggestions from the menu (another recurring theme) and we started go get to know each other and to remember all the new names. The food was really nice, mostly curry and rice but generally a little milder than the Indian food I was used to. My preferred beverage in hot countries is the local lager and I, along with several others, were soon introduced to Myanmar brand beer which became the drink of choice throughout the tour.

Despite my earlier nap I felt myself fading towards the end of the meal and as soon as we got back to the hotel I collapsed into my bed. Sadly my body clock was still horribly out of sync and although I spent a long time in bed a lot of it was taken up by reading and failing to get back to sleep.

An early start (something I did most mornings, either through choice or offset biorhythms) saw me one of the first down for breakfast. This was similar to many I'd had in SE Asia before - lots of hot Chinese food (fried rice, cooked veggies, noodles, dim sum, etc.), an Egg Station, cut fruit, dilute orange juice/squash, and a surprising number of cakes. I stuck to a passable omelette, fruit and several cups of coffee to try to kick start my body clock. Soon after sitting down I was joined by Gillian, the one non-Brit in the group (she was from South Africa) - as the two early birds we became regular breakfast companions throughout the trip. Which was nice.

Our first excursion was a walking tour of the city centre. We had our first taste of walking into the street to board the bus and were soon disembarking in downtown Yangon. It was warm rather than hot (at 9:00 in the morning) and we wove our way through wide roads and narrow streets, taking in the sights & sensations of the city while keeping up with Lae as she led us through the town. There was the same mix of modern and slightly shabby that we'd seen on the drive from the airport, and juxtapositions of the familiar with the foreign & strange. As in other SE Asian cities it seemed like every building had a small (sometimes tiny) shop on the ground floor with residential units piled on top, usually accessed via a narrow entrance and steep staircase. One result of this was something I'd not seen before - several of the higher flats had a string descending to street level with a bag on the end, apparently goods were put in the bag which was then pulled up & returned with payment. Ingenious.

I'd arrived with US dollars but no local currency. The ATM machine outside the hotel hadn't worked for me so Lae had pointed out a more reliable unit when we'd reached the city centre, this had worked fine (isn't modern life great?) but had dispensed my cash in relatively small bills so I had a huge wodge to cram into my wallet. I'd intended this to be a test of the ATM system but my block of notes lasted me almost to the end of the trip - Myanmar was a very cheap place to live.

Our last stop was the Strand Hotel, a vestige of the Raj. Unfortunately it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, feeling more like a modern hotel bar than something from the age of Raffles. And the drinks were overpriced.

Very common 'flashing lights' halo

We had a bus to take us back to the hotel but I decided to wander around the town for a bit longer, taking my time without the need to keep up with Lae & the group. It was fun to meander around and soak up the city vibe but after a while I realised that I hadn't picked up a card from the hotel so wouldn't be able to tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go. Luckily I'd loaded the local area map into my phone and was able to navigate back via GPS. I'd been told that walking in daylight was a good way to reset your body clock after jet lag so it was all in a good cause but I arrived back hot & tired.

We had two places to visit later in the day. The first was Kandawgyi lake, a nice cool environment after the hot, dusty city but really just a big urban park. The second was Shwedagon pagoda, a 'must see' in my Myanmar guide book, who's golden 'spire' had been visible on the horizon from my hotel room. Our bus crawled through the increasingly dense traffic until we pulled into a coach-filled car park and headed for the entrance.

There was a 'dress code' for all the temples we visited in Myanmar - shoulders & knees covered and no shoes or socks, with no gender-specific additions or exceptions. Lae had warned us to come in 'temple dress' (later in the trip people got into the habit of carrying extra tops, skirts, etc. for temple visits) and as a group we were given a basket to leave our footwear in. As we entered we were each given a bottle of water and a moistened wipe to clear our feet when we left. To get to the pagoda itself we rode in a lift which struck me as odd - I expect to walk up stairs to reach sacred sites! - but this was the way and we effortlessly rose the three or four stories to the pagoda level.

The first impression was of a riot of gold. The huge central stupa - a solid structure, often containing some holy relic - towered above us, surrounded by dozens of smaller stupas, temples & statues. The polished stone floor was smooth & cool underfoot and although there were lots of people around it didn't feel crowded, there was a constant background noise of talking with the occasional bell being rung but the absence of footstep sound left a very peaceful atmosphere. There was a mix of worshippers and tourists (both Myanmar & foreign) and young children through to venerable old folk but the space felt comfortably shared - those at prayer were respected without needing to be tiptoed around. After a brief history of the pagoda Lae gave us time to wander around on our own and I had a wonderfully serene yet fascinating time exploring the site.

The sound of bells would often ring out, almost inevitably being struck by tourists. At first I thought this was disrespectful but we were told that it was fine for anyone to do so, especially if we made three rings which was considered auspicious. It reminded me of something I'd read about Tibetan prayer wheels, that the action of turning them was more important than the motivation behind doing so. The bells rang often but not persistently, it was as if the collective consciousness of the crowd determined a frequency to balance the atmosphere of the pagoda. Which was nice, if a little spooky once I began to think about it.

Birdsong in a Shwedagon temple

An unexpected sound came when I entered one of the temples and found myself immersed in high-pitched, echoing birdsong. Lots of small, sparrow-like birds were perched high under the ceiling and their evening cries swirled around inside. I tried to record it with my phone but it was hard to capture the dynamic movement and the sheer volume of the sound.

Several of the Buddha icons had 'flashing light' halos which seemed quite tacky to me, especially contrasted with the timeless, iconic statues. I guess it's just a different aesthetic, several of the temples had 'fairy light' decorations which had a similar look. Despite these challenges to my classical sensibilities it was a delightful space to be in, undeniably sacred but family- and tourist-friendly, open to all with a minimum of behavioural restrictions. There were lots of smiles on the faces I passed.

At the end of a long day I fell into my bed for another night of interrupted sleep - my ability to cope with jet lag seemed to have deserted me. After a fairly early start we drove back to the airport for a domestic flight to Bagan, the next stop on our tour.

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