On this trip, I had the opportunity for a voluntourism experience in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar with a non-profit organization called Be The Change Global Outreach. The organization planned everything from flights, hotels, tourist attractions, agenda and clinic days; so I just had to pack my bags and show up. I left Houston on my own to meet up with the team consisting of a paramedic, nurse practitioner, dental hygienist, two nurses, another pharmacist (in addition to myself), a photographer and two miscellaneous super-helpers; we intended to provide medical care to a community identified near Inle Lake (more on this part of the mission here) in addition to a youth camp plus its staff in Yangon (more to come on this part). The rest of the team had taken an earlier flight to enjoy a 12 hour layover in Tokyo on their way to Myanmar – I opted to take a later flight leaving at 7PM on Friday evening so that I didn’t have to use an extra vacation day from work. After a 15 hour flight from Houston to Dubai, 8 hour layover then 6 hour flight from Dubai to Yangon – 30 hours; or 2 books, 3 movies and a lot of sleep later – I arrived in Yangon, Myanmar around 11 AM on Sunday morning.
The rest of the team wouldn’t arrive until around 7PM that night so I had to venture on my own from the airport to the hotel. I was concerned about my ability to communicate with a taxi driver on arrival, but to my surprise, I was approached right outside of customs by a friendly, English-speaking, Burmese taxi driver who offered to take me to my hotel. I showed him the name and address of the accommodation and he called them to confirm the directions while I exchanged money. The airport was a very convenient place to exchange for Burmese money called Kyats (pronounced “chets”), the exchange rate varies depending on the type of USD bills you have to change –$100 bills get a better exchange rate (1360 kyats per $1) than $50, $20 (1340 kyats per $1), etc; also of note, the USD bills must be crisp and new to be accepted (this goes for the money changers as well as vendors throughout the country). I withdrew crisp $100 bills from my bank in the states before leaving.
After I exchanged my money, the taxi driver took me on the 15 minute ride to my hotel. The driver turned out to be a tour guide who drives tourists from the airport and offers his services as a tour guide throughout their stay in the country. He had a flip book of photos of himself at different local attractions with foreign tourists, had we not been on a pre-established schedule his services could’ve been helpful to see the city from a local’s perspective. He charged 10,000 kyats for the taxi ride, which I had been told was a 3,000 kyat ride for locals; no surprise on the upcharge as this was a common occurrence throughout the trip. I’m not a haggler and felt that receiving a safe transition from the airport plus interesting information provided along the ride were worth, what comes out to, $7.30 usd.
Shwe Pyi San Yar Hotel is very close to the airport, but in the opposite direction from the center of Yangon. There is not much around this area and I wouldn’t recommend staying here, our group booked this location because we were heading to the airport the next morning to fly out to Bagan, so it was convenient for this purpose. The hotel was sufficient, it had air conditioning and they said there was hot water on request if you called the front desk (we didn’t, it was warm enough outside that a cool shower was welcome). There were members of the staff who spoke English, but communication was broken and strained. There is an onsite restaurant and I believe breakfast is included in the price, though we left too early in the morning to try it.
There was not much in the immediate area around the hotel and I was hesitant to take a taxi into town by myself; so I ordered lunch from the hotel kitchen – steamed rice and mixed stir fried chicken and veggies (a Chinese dish that reminded me a lot of moo goo gai pan). It was decent considering the limited options in the area. Then I set out on foot to explore a bit before the rest of the group arrived. I made it two short blocks before coming upon a couple of goats grazing on an open lot, then a lady beating a long stick on the ground herded a dozen more small goats onto the lot. She let the goats graze for a few minutes; a couple of them started fighting and smashing their heads together, so she approached and whipped them with the stick which did not deter the fighting much. Before I knew it, she was herding the goats down the road and out of sight. In the mean time, I was passed by a couple of young boys on a bicycle, a few motorbikes stacked with people, and a lady carrying a basket balanced on her head full of some kind of homemade snack for sale; an interesting glimpse of weekend afternoon life in this neighborhood. I walked ten more blocks and began to see smaller shack-like residences with people lingering around, kids were poking their parents and pointing at me, I quickly realized I had entered into a community that was not used to tourists gallivanting through and I felt like an intruder. I was feeling uncomfortable and sleepy so I went back to the hotel for a nap. I slept until the group arrived around 7PM and then we headed to dinner at Golden Duck which was suggested by a local acquaintance of one of the team members.
There is a lot of Chinese and Indian cuisine in Myanmar, and traditional Burmese cuisine also tends to incorporate those styles. Golden Duck is a typical Chinese restaurant that is very popular in Yangon. We had our local friend make suggestions and ordered a family style meal including, of course, their famous duck, some spicy soup, fried rice, lo mein, pork ribs, Chinese broccoli and the works. It was tasty but certainly not a light meal. After dinner we went back to the hotel and went to bed.