First impressions from Yangon

Myanmar is like no other place I’ve ever been. I realize that as soon as we exit the doors at the small international airport in Yangon, into the hot, humid air that I’ve started to get used to after four months in South-East Asia. It’s intense, it’s bustling, it’s smiling, it’s different.
Longyi-clad guys, young and old, approach us, asking if we need a taxi to the center, as we walk through the sliding doors, but we dismiss them, and seat ourselves on the ground – our backs against the facade windows of the terminal building. We’re not leaving quite yet.

(My oldest brother getting a haircut at a small barbershop in Yangon)

My younger brother lights up a cigarette of  a cheap Cambodian brand as we wait. We were on the same flight from Bangkok, met up at the airport. I had spent a few days in the city sorting out my Burmese visa, and hunting for pristine dollar bills, he had spent his last couple of weeks in Phnom Penh.
Our older brother will arrive soon as well, straight from Norway; I’m definitively not the only one in our family who loves to travel.

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One month in Myanmar, that’s what’s ahead of me. Whenever other travelers have told me about their visit to this recently infrequently visited country, it has been with burning lights in their eyes, and great passion. Every single one of them loved it. I hope I will as well.

It will be my last stop, the last country I’ll explore before heading back to Norway after six months of travel. It’s my younger brother’s last stop as well, after almost as long, but for my older one it’s just the beginning of a new adventure. Lucky bastard! But I must admit, home is starting to sound more and more enticing. Getting back to Norway wouldn’t be so bad.

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Some more guys try to offer us taxi rides, but we shake our heads and say that we’re waiting for someone, and soon they leave us alone. I watch people coming and going. Picking up their loved ones and saying goodbye to them. Small girls, with nice dresses and short cropped hair, walking past while holding on to their parents hands. Travelers with big backpacks or rolling suitcases, disappearing into the building, or dumping their luggage into the back trunk of old taxis. I’m fascinated by all the longyies. This peace of cloth, almost like a sarong, that most guys here seams to wear; tightly wound around the waist with a big knot in the front. Some guys wear their longyies short, stopping just below the knees, giving a faint resemblance to Scottish’ kilts, especially since most of them are sporting some faint, checkered pattern in dark red, blue, green or gray hues.

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When my older brother arrives we take one of the guys up on his offer, and he leads us to a waiting taxi. It’s old, the light brown-leathered seats are worn, and the car smells of dust. The steering wheel is on the right hand side, which we soon discover is the same side as the cars drive on.

After driving for a little while I get a prickling sensation of something being weird in this city, something’s different. It’s something about the traffic, about how it flows. At first I can’t quite put my finger on it, all i know is that it’s something. Something missing maybe? And then suddenly it hits me! It’s such an obvious difference to it’s neighboring countries that I don’t understand why I didn’t see it at once. How could I miss it?

In the bustling, rustling traffic of Yangon, a big South-East Asian city, there are absolutely no motorbikes, not a single one. Motorcycles, motorbikes, scooters,they’re all banned, and it looks like the ban is strictly enforced. On the many-laned roads leading into the heart of the city there are only cars, and every single one of them – almost – have the driver on the wrong side of the car.

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“Where are you guys from?”, the taxi driver asks while I look out the window, devouring everything at other side of the glass with my eyes. The lack of motorbikes and 7/11s, the dirty run-down houses, all the signs in weird, beautiful letters, the golden pagodas, the small shops, the street stalls, the potholed roads of the side streets, the big government buildings, the people, the old cinema with the big “Wrath of the titans”-poster – wait, really? A “Wrath of the titans”-poster?

“Norway”, one of my brothers answer.

“Aah, Norway” the driver says and grins. “Aung San Suu Kyi is going to Oslo, yes?” his smile grows even wider. She is indeed. It’s the 10th of June and in less than a week she’ll finally receive her Nobel Peace price in person, eleven years after she was awarded it and almost two years after she was finally released from her house arrest.

“Myanmar is getting better”, he continues “And maybe next time you come here she will be president. That would be nice” he says with a little goodhearted laugh.

He’s probably right, the people seem optimistic, a smile is readily available on most lips, images of “the lady” are no longer banned and are sold on t-shirts and canvas. Yes the country seems to be on the right track, heading in the right direction. Hopefully.

What’s for sure is that we are, heading in the right direction that is. And even though my brothers can’t seem to decide if Yangon is like a India light, just different, or reminding more of something else entirely, I know for sure that the place is like no place I’ve been before, and by the month is up, Myanmar is definitely my favorite country in the region.

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