“This is Burma,” wrote Kipling, “and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.” How true that is. Interestingly, everyone wears skirts – men, women, children – long, kilt-like skirts. Getting off the plane in Yangon (the former capital because 5 years ago the military general’s astrologer allegedly recommended that he move the capital to a different city) was like stepping into a time warp. Myanmar, almost entirely cutoff from the rest of the world, remains a place without McDonalds, without ATMs, and even without the ability to process credit cards. Upon the advice of friends, I brought crisp, clean, new US Dollars, which were inspected for creases, tears, and dirt. One can pretty much only change money from USD to the Myanmar Kyat on the black market, where each $1 fetches about 870 Kyat – as opposed to the government’s official rate of 6.5 kyat per dollar.
Although Yangon remains the cultural and commercial capital of Myanmar, it is clear that the government’s attention is elsewhere – the infrastructure is crumbling. Streets are paved only in the middle, sidewalks stop, giving way to open sewers. It is the people, warm and good-natured, in spite of their situations, who make Myanmar a gem, rather than the sites. I saw almost no other tourists my entire trip in Myanmar, even at the Shwedagon Pagoda, a gleaming temple that is one of the most important Buddhist sites in Southeast Asia. As one of only a handful of Westerners in town, children giggled as I came down the streets and people paused with curiosity; though each time I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with people, they shared their enthusiasm that the world hadn’t forgotten them, that tourists were interested in learning about what was going on – about their culture and history. Part of me wanted to stay longer and explore more – let’s face it, after I heard about the jumping cat monastery on Inle Lake, that’s all that I wanted to see. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HddmMGMk1z4&feature=related
But in the end, I was meant to head back to Thailand, and flew out of Yangon a few hours before the earthquake hit.