Walking through the markets of downtown Yangon, I passed baskets full of chicken heads and unfamiliar fruits and vegetables that could be props in a science fiction film. I think that was maybe a pile of pig anuses. Men wearing sarongs with faces streaked with white stripes, some kind of paint or sunscreen, squat on the sidewalk playing a game with bottle caps on a grid etched with chalk. Young lady monks with shaved heads and pink robes fluttered about with donation bowls, alms for the monastery. Bicycle taxis with sidecar seats escorted their fares past buildings under construction, crisscrossed with scaffolding of bamboo. Spindly golden spires reach up from giant half dome stupas high above the cityscape and catch and hold the eye from miles away, and the wide and easy smiles of the people of Myanmar have me believing them to be the friendliest on the planet. Smiles despite the poverty. Despite their despised oppressive rulers that can freeze their assets and send them to jail for speaking ill of the government. The people of Myanmar seem eager to please, proud of their culture, and excited to finally participate in international relations.
Before landing, I was expecting Yangon to be something of a hole, having heard of the country’s infrastructural issues and long sequestered history, but right away I was blown away by the majestic golden façade of their international airport, emblazoned with fiery gold leaf and delicately patterned in a way I’m starting to become very familiar with. I had read that getting downtown from the airport via public transit was something of a nightmare to figure out for someone new to the country, and reluctantly counted bills for a cab, but when I saw the line of young boys in sarongs holding placards with the names of those soon to arrive, I thought I could score a free ride and save myself the trouble of scouting for a pad. Voila, the first boy I talked to eagerly called his hotel and reserved me a spot in his dorm.
The pair of families he was waiting to pick up, two European moms from Hong Kong with two kids each, ended up adopting me for the next 24 hours in our first foray into Myanmar. I like experiencing the dynamics of different traveling groups and I admired the bravery of these moms dragging their kids around to such remote places. The kids were very bright, learning Mandarin and Cantonese in school, inquisitive to both charming and taxing capacities, and great fun to travel with. Their youthful lens on the world lended a contagious energy to my own experience and made little things exciting again. They loved the dilapidated state of the first bus we rode in on, and so I loved it too. Being based in Asia and well-traveled, the moms scored me many tips to help me fill out the dark spots in my itinerary and I got their contact information so I could rendezvous with them when I got to Hong Kong.
Yangon has Hindu temples, mosques, cathedrals, and even a synagogue, but the country is predominantly Buddhist – almost 90% so. Connecting the dots between sights in Yangon, I’m learning the people of Myanmar – do I say Myanmarans? Myanmarians? Myanmartians? -- take Buddha idolatry to the next level. The enormous golden stupas that dot the city grid house Buddhas of every variety. Handheld porcelain Buddhas line the way to behemoth Buddhas. Lazily reclining Buddhas watch over rooms full of smirking Buddhas seemingly teaching other Buddhas Buddhism, and enshrined Buddhas with flashing casino light halos watch over Buddhists bent over in shrunken prostration.
As I booked my flights before leaving for Asia, it was my expectation that Myanmar was going to be a backpackers paradise and that my dollars would take me far; the trouble is, I’m having tremendous difficulty getting anyone to take my dollars. You see, the government places heavy foreigner tariffs on housing, transit, and access to monuments and these institutions only accept U.S. dollars – but if the greenback in question has a tiny stain on its border, a miniscule rip, or even a persistent wrinkle, it’s no longer accepted as legal tender. And once you’re in the country there’s no practical way to withdraw U.S. dollars: there are no ATMs that accept foreign cards and so I got all my U.S. cash ahead of time, changed over from Rupees in Bengaluru. At the entrance of Yangon’s largest stupa, the Shwedagon Paya, I watched with growing dismay as the ticket staff stacked bill after bill of rejected currency on the counter. All single dollar denominations. It’s completely maddening, and I’m very worried about being upstream and without cash that anyone will accept.