You have to stay on your toes when considering a trip to Myanmar, because things are changing fast. Most of the old warnings aren’t true anymore – at least, in Yangon there are ATMs everywhere, a plethora of hotels, and no one seems to care if you use crummy wadded up kyats or dollar bills to buy your durian. In fact, I haven’t seen a dollar bill since being here, crisp or otherwise. I have, however, seen plenty of durian.
That said, the border situation is still precarious. When Rob and I first considered visiting Burma in 2012, its borders were closed to tourists. The only way in or out was a flight from Yangon, and we didn’t have time or money to do that. Earlier this year the southern border to Ranong opened, but I heard just two days ago one of the northern borders to Thailand closed again.
Myanmar (or Burma) has been in our durian fantasies since the beginning of 2012, when we launched our year of eating durian. I was doing some preliminary, n00bish durian research and found a line in Wikipedia about how hundreds of years ago the great kings of Burma once organized a trade route to connect the upper and lower parts of the country just so they could get their ruby-ed fingers on some of the deliciousness.
Of course, the article didn’t mention particular empires, and the region currently called Myanmar had plenty of coexisting kings. So which king was the one using state money to satiate his durian love is still unknown (this book suggests it was the kings of Mandalay).
Despite having my curiosity piqued for years, we flew into Yangon not really knowing what to expect. Information about basic travel was conflicting – and I found almost nothing about the durian. So we were delighted to find that Yangon was a colorful, pretty city with a eye-catching architecture, happening street scene and durian on just about every corner.
The many narrow alleyways are flanked by tall colonial-style buildings, crumbling city blocks trimmed in delicate victorian facades and ornamented with satellite dishes and tarps. Men walk in the traditional lungyi, women and children paint their faces with a thanaka, a white paste made of tree bark. Through all the chaos, the city feels safe and surprisingly quiet. Every afternoon a hard rain swept through.
Rob pointed it out to me on our second day there: no motorbikes. They’re actually banned in Yangon, and it’s neat to see what a difference it makes in noise and air pollution. It doesn’t stop traffic from becoming a tangled clusterf*** of taxis and buses every evening, but it did make it easier to cross the street.
Above all, it was nice just how nice people were. People gave us directions without us even asking. They appeared from the chinks in the walls to help us order vegetarian food.
This guy stopped in the middle of four lanes of traffic just to ask where I was from and how I was enjoying his country.