Upon Arrival in Yangon (Rangoon), we were greeted by a shinier, more modern airport than I expected. After a short shared cab ride we arrived near the city center, which is marked by the gleaming Sule Pagoda stuck right in the middle of the city’s busiest roundabout. The agenda for the first day: visit the Thai embassy to apply for a new tourist visa.
Myanmar is slowly modernizing but still a different world compared to neighboring Thailand. For example, there are no ATMs in the country so you must enter holding enough cash to cover your entire stay. Our first mission was to exchange most of the U.S. dollars we bought in Bangkok to Myanmar Kyat. We headed to the Aung San Bogyoke market where the best rates are supposedly found. Since every merchant around seems to deal in currency exchange it was no trouble at all to purchase several giant stacks of kyat at about 2,500 to the dollar. All of the merchants, though, are extremely fussy about the condition of the bills they accept. First of all, no “small head” bills (referring to the old $100 bills) and any wear-and-tear whatsoever on any bill warrants a reduced rate or downright refusal. With the exchange sorted, we hit the Thai embassy.
I was thoroughly questioned about the unusually large number of sort-term Thai tourist visas filling my passport, but was granted “one last” two-month visa. We wandered the streets of Yangon for a bit later on after checking into a hotel.
Myanmar’s captial city is, although not without its own strange charm, a generally unpleasant place. Overcrowding, extreme poverty and lots of trash keep it far from the top of my list of favorite cities. I think it has certainly seen better days, as has the rest of the country. But despite the unfavorable setting, most of the people I encountered were quite friendly and helpful. Pui and I decided to visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda before catching an overnight bus to Mandalay the next day.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most significant Buddhist site in all of Myanmar. At the center of its large complex of impressive shrines, zedis, murals and statues stands the main paya, a 98-meter mountain of gold. A local guide named Jiaw Dein (my new Burmese name?) quickly took notice of me and Pui. He worked up an astrological chart for each of us and showed us to the shrines we should visit according to the day of the week on which we were born. 2007 will be “100% lucky” according to my chart. And I’ll be married by 2009.