'Mingalaba' & smiling faces in Yangon

Don't know about you but I'd always dreamed of visiting Burma, or Myanmar* as it is now called by the people there (although not by Aung San Suu Kyi... more about her later). Friends from Barcelona had visited some years back and loved it, they especially spoke about the friendly people there and I'd been dying to go ever since.

Every now and then the country would appear in the news, sadly telling us about more repression and human rights abuses and Aung San Suu Kyi's continued house arrest. Then suddenly the news started to brighten, the military leaders started to loosen their grip and Burma moved seemingly closer to democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi, known there as 'The Lady' was released and tourism opened up. We jumped at the opportunity to visit.

We arrived in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) after a brief stop in Bangkok to pick up our visas. Hotels were oversubscribed and we ended up paying more than we had hoped as everywhere was full. Burma is busier than it has ever been before because of the recent progress so the hotels are getting away with charging silly prices, something that we continued to encounter throughout our time there. I'm sure things will change soon though as competition takes hold.

Yangon was a lively city, with smiling faces everywhere saying 'mingalaba' ('auspiciousness be upon you') and with food stalls on every corner.

Al fresco dining Myanmar style
Betel nut addiction is what has turned this chap's railings red.
We experienced our first tea shop there, Lucky Seven. In tea shops the Burmese have business meetings, meet friends, talk shop and you guessed it, drink (bad) tea. And, according to the Lonely Planet, they might be frequented by government spies! We also went to a typical Burmese restaurant whereby you just choose the main curries and the rest is standard. The rest comprises of raw veg and salad with dipping sauce, soup, pickled tea leaf salad, peanuts, no less than three chilli based dips, rice, oh, and a fish dip! We also sampled our first Myanmar beer, called... Myanmar. Fellow travellers Michael and Gali from Tel Aviv had tipped us off that the bottle tops had prizes under a rubber seal. If you didn't know or mention it, the waiter/waitress would happily walk off with your bottle top, presumably keeping the prize to themselves.. But we were in the know, thanks to our Israeli friends. We won beer and money, bingo!
Many Myanmar dishes. This beer did not bring us luck but others did.
At the Lucky Seven Tea Shop.
The smiling faces, more often than not, had a very unusual feature. A treatment that has been used for over 2,000 years by Burmese women, girls and younger boys called Thanaka. It's made from tree bark and has anti-acne, moisturising and many other properties.
We visited the revered Shwedagon Pagoda and it didn't disappoint. The main paya is magnificent at night. And it's bordered by many other temples. There was a nice mix of Buddhist monks, nuns and devotees.
More temples at sunset at Shwedagon Pagoda.
It must have been electrifying that night in 1988 when 'The Lady' gave her homecoming speech. The very speech that was the start of her political career and led to her house arrest. She talks about that night recently as a guest of Desert Island Discs. Listen here if you can. She's an amazing lady. You see her iconic image and that of her revolutionary father's everywhere, he is also called Aung San. From shops to cars to tea-houses.
'The Lady'
Iconic image of Aung San, independence leader of Burma.
We travelled by tri-shaw in Yangon, our first experience of this type of vehicle in Asia. Watch us here. I look petrified! A tri-shaw is like a bike with a side-car with room for 2, one facing forward and the other backwards. Just the first of many forms of transport we took in Burma. The next being a long bus ride to Bagan...
Tri-shaw drivers resting.
* I call it Burma for the sake of this blog, for no other reason than it's shorter to type!

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