View from the Circle train, Yangon

All the men are wearing skirts. The streets are alive with smoking hotplates and jostling crowds, bus conductors reel off local destinations like auctioneers and commuters rush to board trains that look like they’re from the 1930s. And all the men are wearing…skirts?*

My first impressions of Myanmar was through Yangon: a rapidly modernising city with more than a few old nooks and crannies. It’s not a place I’d been recommended; indeed, most people who recommended Myanmar to me (and there have been a lot) added ‘but don’t spend too long in Yangon, it’s not that nice.’

Colonial-era building, Yangon

I disagree. Yangon has a fascinating depth to it, coupled with friendly, welcoming residents and some brilliant fusion food. Admittedly, at first sight, it’s a noisy grid of numbered streets, with the occasional glint of gold from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and other Buddhist stupas dotted about town. But look closer and you’ll find glimpses of history down every side street – moss-adorned balconies, grand, Classical-style structures now hollowed out and purposeless and the still-gleaming teakwood bar of The Strand Hotel, once the temporary home of British colonials on their break from the remote jungle towns up north.

Burmese dancers at Karaweik Palace, Yangon

Colonial Burma is long gone – as too, is the name, according to most locals I’ve spoken to so far, though I remain divided over what I should call this country after reading about its more recent history.

One overriding thing that makes Myanmar so palpably different to the rest of Southeast Asia (that I’ve seen) is the sense that you’re looking down some sort of time-tube and this is what Laos or Cambodia might have been like, twenty or fifty years ago, before the tour-trippers came in force and pancake stalls appeared in every major city.

You only have to step onto the circle train that runs around Yangon to glimpse a slice of untampered local life that it’s becoming harder to find in centres like Hanoi or Luang Prabang. It’s not always a pleasant slice to witness: suburbs give way to slums and litter-heaps, a very visible reminder of the poverty that exists here. Further down the track, farmers work water-logged fields just a few miles outside of the urban centre.

But as I travelled up and down the country (more on this later), one thing is always the same. People smiling.

Boys in Dala, across the river from Yangon

The people of Myanmar are pleased to see you. Actually pleased. There’s no endless stream of backpackers here, so they haven’t grown tired of us yet. And at a time when the country is still in its fledgling stages of a tourist economy, not to mention the toll of this summers’ floods, it’s not a great stretch to see that most appreciate your business and are happy to have visitors’ input.

So thanks to all those people who tipped me off. Inle Lake will still be as beautiful and Mawlamyine’s temples will (hopefully) still be standing in five or ten years. But now really is the time to come to Burma if you want to experience a way of life that may soon cease to exist. 

Karaweik Palace, with Shwedagon Pagoda in distance

*Sarong type garment worn by men and women called a longgyi. Small thing, but this is the difference that really stands out on arrival!