|Our day started yesterday, as neither one of us got any sleep. We were downstairs before 4am, with our bike boxes and panniers ready to be loaded into the taxi. It was already hot and humid outside, and a faint sound of a Thai radio station was playing in the background. Our driver arrived 15 minutes ahead of schedule and quickly loaded our stuff into the van. The couple of travelers we were sharing the taxi were making their way downstairs. We went past a few beautiful temples, and countless shrines to the King before we got onto a major road to the airport, with massive billboards towering over buildings on our right. Then there it was, the massive structure that is the Suvarnabhumi International Airport - the massive, greater than life posters of the king greeted us at the entrance. We paid no overcharges for our bikes, and they took them without questions asked. Going through customs was a synch, and no one cared about our extra carry-ons. We were 45 minutes delayed for take-off, but it was neat to have a huge Boeing 747 come square with our window at one point. We heard that the new airport still has a lot of issues that need to be worked out - we hoped that nothing major was going to happen, as in a mid air traffic jam on take-off. It all went smoothly, and before we knew it we were on our way to Yangon.
We flew over a massive river tributary, some stunning mountain ranges and then endless stretches of farmland patchworks below. At first glance the landscape resembled that of rural Canada, but on closer inspection I realized we were flying over rice padi fields. When the sun hit the water in the fields at the right angle, a perfectly round reflection of it could be seen gliding across the water' surface. It was a beautiful image. Before we knew it we were landing in Yangon International Airport. The airport is not impressive, and drastically diminished in its stature when compared to the Suvarnabhumi International Airport we left just an hour earlier. The runway was very rough, and patchy. We stepped out of the plane onto a mobile, covered staircase. The air felt balmy and hot. Carrying two heavy panniers in my right hand, I wanted to have a chance to put them down, but never got the chance. We all boarded a bus that took us a few hundred metres towards the main entrance. As soon as we got off the bus, and started walking towards the entrance, we saw a beautiful, young woman with the traditional pale yellow makeup on her face, called Thanakha. Thanakha paste is a combination of moisturizer, sunscreen and perfume, made up from the grounded bark of the Thanakha tree. There was construction happening overhead, and a few workers were 'welcoming' the newcomers with wistful gazes from above. The immigration room consisted of a row of about 10 white counters. A few of the ones on the left had a bright blue sign that read "foreigners". Line-ups consisting of foreigners formed there, while nationals were processed through the counters on the right hand side. The line-ups were moving rather fast. Most of the immigration officials were women. They all adorned white collared shirts, beige knee length skirts with belts, and black, mid-calve socks with black heeled shoes - from a distance they looked like some sexy black boots. Myles thought so anyway. When it was our turn, we handed over our passports. They took them and smiled. The process was over very fast, and they handed back our passports accompanied by another smile. They did not use computers at any point. We were free to proceed to the next stage. From there we saw our bike boxes, standing on the side. We were helped by a young guy to put them on a cart, and he escorted us through customs. We decided to go through the 'nothing to declare' section. We told the customs officer about our camera, and he just waved us through without a second thought. Earlier, we agonized needlessly over the declaration forms we had to fill out, but he didn't as much as gaze at them. The young guy was still insisting on pushing our cart. He was quite determined, in fact, to push it all the way outside the airport lobby. We stopped him, and parked our cart with our stuff at the side, to take a moment to think through all the chaos.
We were hassled by a number of taxi operators. One guy offered us 12$US, and later a special price of 10$US. He disappeared, and another guy swooped in offering us the same service for 8$US. Everyone was watching our every move. Wheeling, and dealing going on all over the place, the entire time, without a pause. All men at the airport were wearing collared shirts tucked into their longyis, and flip-flops. There wasn't much space to move around or to attempt to get away from it all. We quickly decided on a budget place recommended by the LP. Myles ran out to phone to confirm vacancy. I waited inside with our stuff. I was hassled, or chatted up by a very young girl. She enquired about where I was from and welcomed us to Myanmar. All the while she kept turning around on her tippy-toes, as if she was looking to make eye-contact with an adult. A man finally came around, and offered us 8$US for the ride. Myles was back having confirmed vacancy at the Haven Inn. We made a swift decision to go with the 8$US offer. Three guys grabbed our stuff before we made a move for it ourselves, and carried everything into the van. I cannot imagine the amount of energy it would take for us to convince them to let us do it ourselves. As soon as we were in the van, they were asking us for money for their service, their hands stretched out in desperation. As soon as we handed a dollar bill to one of the guys, he pointed to his mates who also helped carry our stuff. We gave out two more dollar bills, and then another, fourth guy showed up, arms outstretched. We don't remember him helping. We carried on without giving him money. They are on you faster than you can think. They know how to play you, how to make you crack. In that manipulating, I saw desperation. I wanted to give them all hundred dollar bills, so they can go home and feed their families. I cannot do that though. They know fully well that people flying into Myanmar have no Kyat bills on them, only American dollar bills.
Our taxi was a beat-up old van, with broken door handles, and back door that didn't close. Such is the state of all official and non-official taxis in Myanmar. Our driver was very nice. He pointed out things along the way, and even told us of a black market exchange place on the way - we were too confused to deal with money at the time. He was also probably just drumming up business for a friend. Can't blame him for trying. While in the cab we learned two Burmese words "ce-zu-beh", and "ce-zu tin-ba-deh", meaning thank you and thank you very much, respectively. We even got a chance to practice them, as a woman selling cigarettes approached our van. She gave us a wholehearted smile for trying.
We saw poverty at every corner. We passed hundreds of monks, mostly young, wearing deep red robes and often carrying brightly decorated fans and alms bowls. They were all barefoot. We passed women with thanakha on their faces, balancing massive loads on their heads. Virtually all men, including our driver were wearing their longyis. Women wore sarongs or long skirts. There were trucks carrying people like sardines in a can. Busses looked very full of people as well. Some trishaw-styled bicycles appeared on the one street in particular. Most of the cars looked very old, and many not in the best shape - with a few notable exceptions. The cityscape appeared very green. We passed a lake and a park, as well as many massive trees on the way. We passed a few golden stupas, which our driver pointed out with pride along the way. We were taken aback. The intensity of our experience overwhelmed us. This is a very different place altogether, and we only saw a tiny glimpse of it.
We stayed at the Haven Inn, an old house on a fairly quiet street. As soon as we got settled into our musty room, we felt relaxed. After some showers we decided to enjoy a quick nap, which turned out to last into the next morning.