First impressions of Myanmar

Before leaving Thailand, there was one last spanner to be thrown into the works when my debit card was eaten by a rouge ATM. It’s not an issue right now as I’ve got enough dollars (the universal currency) to keep me going for a while and then I’ve got my credit card as back up. The card got cancelled straight away online but due to bad internet connections I’m still attempting to organise another to get sent out.

Bangkok Airways have quickly become my favourite airline to fly with. When flying from Chiang Mai to Yangon a couple of days ago, we were on a small plane, only two seats on either side of the aisle and this meant that there wouldn’t be an accessible walkway for me to get on the plane easily. This wasn’t ideal but fair play to them, they asked if they could lift me onto the aircraft. This definitely isn’t my style, but I begrudgingly agreed. When I saw there were only six steps or so up to the plane I told them I’d prefer to lift myself up onto the plane, which they were fine with. The flight was just over an hour but I still managed to fit in coffee, cake and a couple of beers.

SAM_5928

I had no idea what to expect from Myanmar, a country that has only really opened its borders to tourists in the last couple of years. We landed at a small airport; small considering it was an international airport at least. The staff that came to help me off brought an aisle chair with them which made things a lot easier getting to the exit, but they seemed perplexed when it came to getting me down the stairs. I saved them the trouble, getting on the floor and sliding down the stairs. With one of the staff helping me with my bag we made our way through the airport.

We passed a toilet with the standard disabled logo on, written next to it was ‘Invalid’. This isn’t the first time I’ve come across the word invalid being used when I’ve been travelling, when I took the train across Kazakhstan, the lifts at some of the stations were referred to as ‘Invalid access’. This is obviously a massively out dated and at home, offensive term. It’s not great to see it being used when I go travelling, but at the same time, I was happy that they had accessible toilets unlike when I flew out of Dhaka. The next sign really confused me. Just before I got to immigration, there was a disabled sign again but this had ‘seaman’ next to it. I still can’t get my head round that one. Answers on a postcard please.

Hostel world hadn’t said that the accommodation that I’d booked was going to be accessible, but with the limited options available I decided to go for the one that said it had elevator access and I’d work around everything from there. There were two steps into the hostel and four up to the lift. The room isn’t huge but comfortable and I have an en suite bathroom which makes things more comfortable, despite not being accessible. I always find that when bathrooms aren’t accessible, it’s always better to have these struggles in private as opposed to the chance of people walking past in a shared situation.

The staff here at the Agga youth hostel are very friendly and helpful, saying that I can call reception if I need any help. I don’t know if I’m surprised by this, but maybe it’s an insight into their culture’s attitude toward disability. I asked for directions to the town centre and the best place to get a taxi from and set off. Getting a taxi was probably easier than I’ve ever found it before. I know that sometimes chair users can hail down taxis and get ignored, but here I didn’t even raise my hand to call them over, they saw me waiting at the side of the road and pulled in.

I got dropped at a Pagoda in downtown Yangon and started to explore. There were limited drop kerbs and when I did find one, it would be half crumbled or blocked by a car. This meant walking at the side of the road which a lot of other people were doing. I stayed looking around the immediate vicinity of where I was dropped off and found my way into a park. When looking at the monument at the centre of the park, one of the locals came over to say hello. He was telling me that he had just finished studying tourism at college and now was a good time to visit Myanmar because a lot would change quickly now that the borders had opened. He recommended a few Pagoda’s I should visit, a good restaurant that served local cuisine and where the night life was.

Hungry, I made a move for the restaurant that had been recommended. I walked down the narrow 29th Street looking for Daw Saw Yee and after a couple of hundred metres I had all but given up but just over the next junction I saw the sign like a homing beacon. I was tempted to go adventurous at this place when I saw mutton brain on offer but they had none left. Instead, I went for the safer option of chicken curry and some of the local Myanmar Lager Beer. They handed me the bottle so I could have a look to check if this was what I wanted, it looked good from the outside and so I went to open it on my brake (essential wheelchair skill) and see the confused look on their face, then impressed when I unveiled the open bottle to them. The food was really decent sized portions but a little bland compared to what I’m used to. The beer was going down nicely so I decided to go for a second.

It was pitch black by the time I left the restaurant at half past seven and I decided that it could be interesting to push back the two kilometres to the hostel. The streets were buzzing with stalls set up down each side of the road selling phones, calling cards, accessories, food and more. Earlier on I’d been told that the place to go for a beer was China town down on 19th Street. The roads weren’t marked well enough for me to make out the signs at this point and I kept going until a junction made it easier to make a left.

As I walked down this random street, I saw a sign that said ‘Beer, Music’ and thought, well I like beer and I like music so I might as well check it out. There was a promoter for the bar sat outside who I guess was there to drag in the punters and show them to the unmarked lift to the bar on the fourth floor. I went into a dimly lit room with a trail of red LED lights around the top of the wall and an un lit stage, a little bit seedy but I thought I’d see how things unfolded. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes the guy sat on the electric piano at the far back of the stage started playing away and a woman came to the centre of the stage and started to, I’m not sure what it was she was doing but it’s a stretch to call it singing. It was like watching a bad karaoke session of songs that I couldn’t understand. One after another the girls kept on coming up and belting out these tunes that were out of tune. There were one or two that were showing an improvement but I figured it was my 5% Myanmar taking effect and wasn’t enough to keep me in there for any longer than I needed to be.

The following day I decided to check out a couple more pagodas as the tour guide I spoke to the day before made them sound like the highlight of the city. I started with a pagoda on the riverbank that dated back more than two thousand years. It told the story of two merchants that had travelled to India to meet Buddha when had become enlightened and asked for a gift from him. Buddha had given the brothers 8 strands of hair which they brought back to Myanmar and place in the temples after building them.

In the centre of the pagoda was a star shaped corridor with walls that were engraved and covered in gold leaf. The walls were 12 feet high and connected to a golden ceiling. There was a monk sitting around one of the corners. I stopped and pointed to my camera, asking him if it would be okay to take a picture. He nodded and I took the snap. I looked at him to say thank you and he pointed to another monk that was sat to my left. The second monk moved the arm of his robe to reveal a little pile of money. I could take the hint. It seemed that even the monks had got on board with the new element of tourism in Myanmar.

Schewdong pagoda was my next stop and was a little further out of town. At over 2000 years old it was of a similar age to the first pagoda I visited but this place was massive. There were hundreds of little temples, shrines and statues surrounding the main pagoda and from the number of people there it seemed to be a hit with the tourists. It was clear that there had been a lot of restoration work done here, maybe a little too much to the point where I felt it had lost it’s authenticity. With cash machines dotted around and wifi available, it seemed like it had stepped too far away from what it was built as.

Pushing away from the pagoda, I noticed that my tyre was starting to grind slightly against my side guard. I had a look to see what had happened and saw that one of the spokes had been ripped out of the hub. I didn’t think this could happen with Spinergys as they’re made of titanium. I’m not sure when it happened either, I guess it could have been when I flew in from Chang Mai and I just didn’t pick up on it straight away with everything else that was going on. I’ll look for a local garage over the next couple of days that might have the tools I need to make a temporary fix.

SAM_6037

It had been an absolute scorcher of a day and was pagoda’d out. I wasn’t feeling great back at the hotel and crashed out for a few hours. Needing to be in close proximity to the toilet, probably because of something I ate, it seemed like a smart idea to have a chilled last night in Yangon before I took a bus up to Bagan the following day.

One thought on “First impressions of Myanmar”

  1. Hey Pete,

    Enjoying your tales of Myanmar! I’m heading out there wheelchair bound (tetra) in Feb but I keep being confronted by hurdles in trying to organise the logistics…….. I’d be very grateful if you can drop me a mail so I can ask you a few questions. You seem to be overcoming the challenges as we speak.

    Cheers

    Piers

Leave a Reply