Hello from surreal Yangon

Hello from Yangon, Myanmar, after a three-hour flight to Bangkok from Manila, and then an hour’s flight from Bangkok. The phones don’t work at all — no mobile phone from outside the country works in Myanmar — and Internet is spotty at best, so it’s rather unnerving to be so unconnected all of a sudden.

Surprisingly, for such an unconnected place, it’s a pretty modern city. It’s got five million people so it’s fairly large, and on the way from the airport to my beautiful hotel, I saw lots of modern buildings and bustling commercial districts. The airport, too, is nicer than our NAIA-1.
Of course, this kind of bustling city with one foot in the past and the other in the future is pretty standard for Asia. In fact, I was just saying in the car earlier that Yangon reminds me of Colombo even now or Phnom Penh 15 years ago, before the tourists started coming. It’s got that funny and rather haphazard combination of energy, sleepiness, frenetic commercialism and old-fashioned charm.
But considering how exotic Myanmar sounds — it got only 300,000 visitors last year, according to some tourist literature I received from the Ambassador of Myanmar; he was kind enough to send his staff over with a bunch of literature on Myanmar when I’d mentioned that I was headed to his country — and how cut off it still has been from much of the world, it’s pretty much a surprise to see such modernity all around.
The modernity is combined with a very distinct Burmese flavor, though. You see monks everywhere, and about 70% of the people on the street are wearing the long skirts that are the Burmese national dress. It’s such a pretty sight, really, to see everyone in this modest long skirt.

And the golden pagodas are lighted up, with people praying on the floor. I saw at least two of these on the way over to the hotel, and what picturesque sights these were.
Meanwhile, my hotel is a gorgeous jewel of a hotel. It’s not over-the-top luxury but more understated elegance and comfort coupled with authentic Burmese culture. The shop and the hotel walls are all decorated with art I want to take home, so it’s a nice marriage of antiques and contemporary art as well.
And for our first night in Myanmar, we weren’t so hungry after a pretty tasty dinner on the plane; but we had a full-course Burmese dinner served to us on lovely lacquer trays in the hotel garden, all dramatically lit up. Talk about a nice start to an exotic trip I’ve been looking forward to for weeks now.
But I’ll talk about Yangon and the hotel in a later blog entry.
I’m returning to Yangon and this same hotel for some more R&R at the end of my visit; but tomorrow I’m off to Bagan, the old capital of Myanmar and home to over 2000 temples on a flat plain, which is even more in the middle of nowhere than here, to just get lost in antiquities. That’s really going to be a step back in time. But happily, I’ll be seeing those temples in style, on a luxurious boat that’s the best way to see Bagan’s temples and Myanmar’s countryside.
But going back in time — even the luxurious way — has got its tradeoffs. From tomorrow, I’ll be totally cut off from the world! That’s almost never happened before. Even in the most remote areas of Ukraine, India, Sri Lanka or Turkey, for example, I had either Internet or mobile or both. But tomorrow, I’ll have a five-star boat serving four-course meals on silver platters under the stars with the temples of Bagan as background — but absolutely no mobile or Internet.
But I guess it’ll be rather nice for a change, in a never-endingly eventful and forever wired TRAVELIFE, to part ways with technology and work, even for just a little while.
If you don’t hear from me for a while, that’s because I’m probably cut off from civilization and too busy shopping for jade and lacquerware in Bagan’s markets or exploring this wondrous 11th century city, one of the greatest Buddhist sites in the world.
Good night from the lands of the past.