Myanmar: Yangon - where planning is useless and randomness is welcome
The excitement of hitting the road to an unknown destination is hardly comparable to the fascination itself when I am deep into the journey, especially if the journey brings me across Myanmar.
I have tried to prepare with some readings, mainly books, blogs and articles as resources aren't too vast, but nothing could prepare me for what I will have experienced in this land.
Anyway, any preparation is practically useless as few things appear in reality as they appear on booking.com or on the map.
When preparation is unnecessary, there comes the luxury of randomness
My hostel in Yangon is literally undiscoverable. I very quickly realize that addresses in Myanmar simply do not work, and I just need to rely on people I meet on street. The taxi drops me somewhere "very close" and I start wandering around streets full of people chilling on the street with no name, and no sign of a hostel. An old guy, frying something like donuts on the pavement, sees my lost persona with a backpack and makes an insisting sign to follow him (as if I have many choices). He points me to what seems like a deserted building above, and shows three fingers pointing up (which should mean 3rd floor, I guess?). I head through the dark stairs and there, right above the fried donuts, on the 3rd floor I find my home for the next few days.
I have a few targeted venues and temples to visit BUT after the third non-existing or impossible to locate spot, I surrender, throw my Lonely Planet in the bag and immerse in the charm of randomness. Yangon is pretty hectic indeed. Downtown & Chinatown are extremely overcrowded with stands with people selling clothes, fruits and food on the street (including intestines, grilled on a ...barrel, and something from the cockroach family, sold on a... stick). Crossing the street is an intimidating act in Yangon (no pedestrian crossings or lights, of course). Initially I try to always stick to some locals who look at me with a pity and laugh, until the moment I actually start bravely making signs to the cars to stop and start crossing all on my own - small win, but I feel I am integrating.
Most of the time I am nearly the only white person on the street. As I get a beer and sit down to chill in the park near Schwedagon Pagoda, random girls approach me one after the other as they want to take a picture with the (rather sweaty) white single woman with the beer. At some point it actually gets overwhelming (which I will later get totally used to).
Schwedagon Pagoda is undisputedly the main landmark in Yangon. Suddenly, I find out where all Westerners hang out...but while in my mind it is supposed to be a place of peace, quiet and worship, it is actually flooded by people with cameras, people shouting and running around, people trying to sell me something, so I quickly make a round and leave with a hope that I will find a different spot over the next days, where I can witness a more authentic Buddhist atmosphere. It is anyway a beautiful work of art, manifesting the great human aspirations to be closer to the higher power they believe in.
Local festivities and Full moon excitement
One of the reasons why Schwedagon Pagoda was probably so crammed with people (locals and tourists) is the Full moon elation crawling everywhere around the city. In the evening EVERYONE is on the street - I actually find it cute how young and old people are dancing to the sounds of some local festive music, all dressed in their traditional clothing and just having a good time. Apparently, while it is not every month, a few times during the year there is a Full Moon celebration in Myanmar, when there is some special kind of a...moon?!
Discovering the secrets of Yangon while eating and drinking
I wish I could experience it more, as Yangon has so much to offer in terms of food and variety - one could really go to a very luxurious restaurant and feel as if in France, but what rather grabbed me is eating on the street. Every day I meet with three friends, who I met for the first time at the airport - two backpackers from Austria and one from Czech. One of the evenings we choose a random street place to eat. While marveling my noodles and Myanmar beer, we suddenly hear, feel and see a festive performance by a dozen of cat-sized rats right next to us on the street. I have never seen EVER in my life a rat larger than those, who accompany us for dinner that night.
At a next occasion, in a very good "Lonely Planet' restaurant, while enjoying my noodle soup I see a gigantic flying cockroach next to myself on the table and feel no panic. I start laughing as the waiter calmly comes and catches it and I am gladly realizing - I am indeed well integrating.
Yangon has a fascinating night scene as well, which I also wish I could have experienced more, but at least we manage to get to one of the famous Rooftop bars at sunset. While it is by far not the most beautiful and easy to discover city, I slowly start falling in love with the secretive atmosphere.
Meditation - silence does exist somewhere in Yangon
The Vipassana meditation, which attracts people from all religions and backgrounds nowadays, has indeed started in Myanmar. It helps people see things as they really are, while they fight all distractions and inner devils in the course of ten full days of silence and deep meditation, discipline and self-exploration. I have always wanted to do such retreat (and I still do) so I am determined to find the Mahasi meditation center, which is one of the first venues in Myanmar to start hosting Vipassana retreats. As all other experiences of mine to that moment, finding the Mahasi center is of course not a straight-forward goal. I figure out that the taxi drivers, while extremely nice and cute, are also extremely clueless when it comes to maps or anything that is "outside of their region". Hence, after going to a few wrong locations I decide to take it slowly and simply try to get somehow close and then surely someone on the street will know how to direct the taxi to the Mahasi center - and my strategy works! Third taxi and I am finally there. Of course, nothing responds to what is announced online and the kind lady at the Welcome desk dies laughing at me saying "oooh did you see the meditation talks online? Ahahahah, oh poor tourists!" . But as she takes pity on me for all the trouble I have had to find them, she sits me down to watch a Documentary, in which there is a guy on point just to ask me every 2 minutes if I am too hot or too cold, and every time I move, he comes to ask me if I needed something (sweet...). Then I walk around the building of the huge mansion and finally i find it - my desired place of peace and quiet. Little by little I learn about the secrets of Yangon and I am sure - no destination is as described in the books, it all depends on what faces of a place one will manage to discover within a limited amount of time.