We flew from Kilimanjaro to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) where we had a hellish five-hour layover before a hellish redeye to Bangkok. After a brief 36 hours in Bangkok to get our visas for Burma/Myanmar, we headed to Yangon, which was Burma’s capital city until 2006.
Burma is at an interesting inflection point in its history. Even after a week in this country, we still have no clue what it’s really called. And apparently neither does our President.
The historically oppressive government has been liberalizing, and after being shunned by the West for decades, it is finally opening up to tourists. Obama is the first sitting US President to visit this country of 50m people. They just got their first ATM in November, they don’t take credit cards yet and you have to exchange crisp US $100 bills. The people are enjoying their first sips of Coca Cola in 60 years. Tourism is on the rise but is still under-penetrated, which we really grew to appreciate on this trip. You can walk around Yangon (4.5m people) for half an hour without seeing another tourist. And Lonely Planet considers it the safest city in Southeast Asia.
Yangon is typically just a stopover city en route to Burma’s more spectacular sites such as Bagan, Inle Lake and [from what we hear] Ngapali Beach. Prices are still insanely low in the city — take a cab anywhere for $2, or have a great meal for not much more. Foreign investment has started to pour in, so you’ll see old decrepit buildings alongside brand new apartment complexes.
Yangon’s biggest attraction is the massive Shwedagon Pagoda, a sprawling hilltop Buddhist temple that is best experienced at sunset to see the dome caps glow in the orange light.
So we exchanged a few hundred bucks for about $10 billion Burmese Kyat (see below for our Scarface-sized mountain of Burmese cashola) and were on our way.