I didn’t really know what to expect from Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma). I know many people who have visited and they all told me not to expect too much. So, it was with lowered expectations that I arrived in town, late at night and tired from three busy days in Bangkok getting visas and preparing for the trip.
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The Yangon airport was, if not the most spectacular in Asia, clean and easy to negotiate. Immigration was efficient and quick. I didn’t need an ATM at the time but I did notice, in spite of warnings that there might not be any, that there was one in the terminal. Myanmar is quickly being modernized and the banking infrastructure appears to be rapidly improving. Outside the terminal, there were plenty of taxis in designated areas and I just picked the closest one, negotiated a fare to the hotel, and climbed inside.
My first impression of Yangon, from the back seat of a taxi, was that it is dark. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it as to why but, there are few streetlights and most of the city’s illumination comes from signs and windows. In the shadows, everything looked clean if maybe a little shabby. Driving is on the right but steering wheel location seems to be picked at random for most vehicles. The cab driver was friendly enough, spoke little English and drove us to our hotel near Inya Lake with no fuss.
We checked into our room. By Bangkok, mid-range hotel, standards it was a little worse for wear but clean and pleasant enough. After settling in, because of the late hour, we were famished. We asked the desk clerk – a jolly guy with a quick wit and the kind of smile that lets you know he is genuinely glad you are there – for recommendations and he suggested a Burmese place a few doors away. We agreed and he said he would walk there with us. It was kind of a sprawling place; lit with fluorescent bulbs and crowded with locals (in fact we were the only westerners there). The large picnic style tables were covered with many places, delicious looking but unfamiliar food and mugs of Myanmar brand beer. Many people smiled and nodded to us when we walked in. It was comfortable.
We soon discovered why the clerk had walked us down; the menu was only – as I guess we might have expected – only written in Burmese. We didn’t know what to order so we just had our new friend pick for us. He disappeared and after about ten minutes plate after plate of food started arriving. In a few seconds our table was covered with a huge whole fish, prawn curry with tomato and herbs, a bowl of morning glory (swamp cabbage) sautéed in garlic and sesame oil, small bowls of pickled vegetables, chilli sauce and bowls of rice. It all went quite well with our second (and third) mugs of, quite good actually, Myanmar beer.
I was afraid we weren’t going to be able to stand after we finished. There was so much food and drink the meal felt almost decadent. Without asking a busboy brought a small bowl of sweet, almost praline-like, candies and I made the universal signal for the check. The total came to 12,000 kyats; less than 12 USD. I muddled my way through asking the waiter how to say thank you in Burmese and he taught us the word, “Mingalarbar”. “Mingalarbar” indeed.