On Saturday Zoe (the middle school principle), along with a few other returning staff, led our group of new teachers on a walking tour of downtown Yangon. We spent five hours traipsing around the busy streets of the largest city area in Myanmar. We started at what used to be Trader’s Hotel, one of the highest end hotels in the country, we walked down for a view of Sule Pagoda which is in the center of the city in the middle of a round-about. Turning down another road, Zoe pointed out many of the government buildings and important places including the independence monument (a symbol of Myanmar’s independence from the British).
With the country just recently opened, it is under constant construction on every corner. Literally everywhere you look there is something under construction. Here is one site we came across.
It was such a fascinating walk with so much to see around ever corner.
We came across a few stalls that were selling books which seemed kind of strange. Zoe explained that when the country was closed there was strict control over reading material of all sorts. Now that it is open and the regulations are majorly loosened, the people love to read. It is a privilege to them. So they copy books and prints hundreds of more of them (they certainly don't follow copyright laws here) then sell them at low rates so everyone can afford to read.
There were so many fantastic buildings, bunches of them left over from the time of the British rule of the country. All of them crumbling, peeling, cracking, and covered with vines and/or mold from the tropical climate.
We passed many embassies on the way to The Strand Hotel, another high-class establishment, where we rested our feet and viewed the fabulous art gallery.
Crossing several busy lanes of traffic we passed through a small wet market on our way to the riverside. Zoe showed us where we can take the ferry over to another town across the river.
Only staying near the river for a few minutes we continued through the busy Yangon. There was so much to see! At one point we saw a group of men playing some sort of game on the street. After I had snapped a photo they asked others to please not take any photos so I am lucky to have this one.
We also saw a couple "pay phones." If people want to make calls but don't have a phone they can find one of these stalls where the ladies will let you make a call for a price. These are regular house hold phones that are attached to landlines that run all the way from the street to a nearby building.
There were plenty of stalls selling all sorts of things to eat. From snacks in the form of bagged chips and what not to fried food to meat on sticks that you put in boiling broth to cook.
We meandered through the streets for quite a long while more until we came to the Indian Spice Market (I believe the true name for this is Theingyi Zay Market). It had many tiny entrances all along the walls between stalls selling all sorts of goods, I wouldn’t have even noticed how to get in if they hadn’t pointed it out. The inside of this market was pure madness. It was so cramped and had so many people in it I have no idea how people manage their way around. I barley made my way in before turning back around to come out. Kim had a similar experience went into find the spices with Sharon. It is very overwhelming being around so many people.
I had been carrying around little K who is about two years old and it is amazing how much the locals just LOVED him! Almost everyone we walked by, especially women, would gawk and smile at him. He was given many small gifts, a banana, a flower, a fruit, along with multiple people asking to hold him. Whenever we passed someone who was close enough, which was all the time, they would touch him or squeeze his cheeks. We even got our picture taken. It was a strange experience and I was very glad that he didn’t mind it because otherwise it could have been awful for him. We enjoyed looking at the produce and other foods for sale outside of the market.
After the Indian Spice Market we traveled another twenty minutes or so to Bogyoke Aung San Market. This is probably the second biggest tourist attraction in Yangon (second only to Shwedegon Pagoda). It is a huge exotic place that sprawls over a couple levels and a large area of land. Defiantly designed for tourists it has a huge expanse of shops that include high-end jewelry stores, many shops to buy fabric to be made into clothing, and so many souvenir shops including lacquer ware, shoulder bags, puppets, slippers, gems, and t-shirts. We probably won’t be returning to this market anytime soon because it had a strong commercial feel to it. Plus there were more touts here than anywhere else we had seen in the city (a tout is someone who persistently tries to get you to buy their product – they many follow you around pushing their merchandise in your face for a long period of time and are very annoying).
Right around the corner from Bogyoke we found a phenomenal Shan Noodle shop where we both had a bowl of Shan Noodles that were amazing! We also shared some dumplings that were simply to die for along with some fresh mango juice and fried tofu (that Kim especially enjoyed)! Here, drool over some pictures of the deliciousness:
We were very thankful for Zoe and the others to show us around town but it was an exhausting and over-stimulating experience. I’m glad we kind of have the lay of the land down and we will defiantly go downtown another weekend soon so we can have a (hopefully) more relaxed time getting to know the area.
---- If you haven't already, take a read through our transition post 36 Hours in Bangkok ----
We arrived in Yangon on a warm dark night. It didn't take us long to make it through customs and find our bags. To welcome us was the school’s director, Almber, my principal (of the High School), Randy, the middle school principal, Chloe, and the elementary school principal, Zoe. We piled into an ISM bus with all of our luggage and were off to our new apartment. Also in our building at Pearl lives Almber and Zoe (along with a number of other ISM employees). The two of them personally escorted us up to our new apartment to make sure we were happy and had everything we needed before leaving us for the night. They provided us with $100,000 kyats (about $100 USD) and a welcome basket that included:
To see our new apartment take a look at this post: Our Apartment.
Our first full day in Myanmar was quite busy and really great! After a shower and unpacking just a few things we went downstairs to find something to eat. The first two floors of our condo are filled with businesses, mostly restaurants and stores. When we got to the bottom floor we ran into Almber who showed us around a bit. He brought us across the street to a little market called Asian Light which has a fair selection of groceries as well as household items. We poked around for a bit then went back to the condo to eat at the bakery. The Yangon Bakehouse is a social restaurant who’s mission is to help battered and beaten women get on their feet by teaching them how to cook/bake and work in a restaurant. We ordered a sandwich and some small quiche. It was quite a pricy place (our bill came to about $9 usd) but it was great food and for a great cause.
Shortly after we finished we met up on the ground floor of the condo with the rest of the new teachers and the welcome staff. We took some time to change money at the money exchange on the ground level then wandered around in Pearl for a bit longer before boarding the bus. The ISM PTA was so kind to bring us all out to lunch at a lovely local restaurant. A few of the parents met us there to welcome us and show their support. It was a buffet style lunch in an old British house and included shrimp and fish skewers with sweet chili sauce, fried rice, thai chicken and vegetables, pork salad, cold sliced beef with tar tar sauce, and a green salad with cheese sauce. For dessert we were served mango mousse and a fruit salad. Lunch was excellent! We were surprised that there weren’t any Burmese dishes and are looking forward to trying true Burmese cuisine. We enjoyed walking around the grounds of the estate and running back to the porch when it began down pouring. It is monsoon season here (May to October) which means that the sky is almost always overcast and it often lets out enormous amounts of water suddenly that floods the streets and everything else.
Kim began talking with one of the PTA mothers who, after finding out Kim was a chef, mentioned that her sister just opened up what sounded like a café of sorts that served coffee and pastries. She said that her sister might be looking into expanding to include a wider menu and asked if she could contact Kim. Although this specific opportunity might not amount to anything, we are very excited to be right in our assumption that Kim will be able to find prospective jobs by just meeting different people.
Back on the busses we were taken to get some household items. We went to Ocean View which is a type of department store with a variety of household goods and groceries. We were told just to get the essentials and that we would have plenty of time to come back and get other goods. There we purchased:
-surge protector strip
-all purpose cleaner
-wall hanger for shower
All of this came to $58,000 kyats (~$60 usd). The store itself was extremely busy and they only gave us an hour to grab things so it was very hectic and a bit stressful., but it was a good first trip all in all. This is a picture of Kim on the conveyer thing in the store. It is brilliant because it locks the shopping cart wheels so it doesn't roll.
When we got back to our apartment one of the workers from Eco (the business who service and maintains the apartments) came by with an inventory list. We had to go through the list item by item to say what was in the apartment and make sure that everything was in good shape. Our hosts warned us not to sign unless we checked every item. We are missing a few things like a bureau for Kim, a dish drainer, another garbage bin, etc. so hopefully they will bring those by in the next couple days.
At this point we were still exhausted but we really wanted to try and stay awake so we could sleep through the night. We decided to go find some groceries and headed across the street to the Korean grocery store. This was an interesting experience. As soon as we walked in all six cashiers turned to us and bowed while saying what I assume was ‘welcome’ or ‘hello’ in Korean. As we began to wander around the store there were many more workers standing around who seemed to be only there to greet us (again with a bow). Everything was in Korean and there were many strange items. All of the products were very expensive (as it was a very nice store that was very clean and well lit) but we didn’t want to leave empty handed so I got a box of moon-pie like cakes that I had tried a sample of and Kim got a thing of soda.
There are no crosswalks so we almost died multiple times crossing the street back. But Zoe said that the locals would get in A LOT of trouble if they were to hit a foreigner, so they might come very close but they would never actually hit you. It kind of reminded me of a game of frogger where you had to try and get to the next line on the road.
So we went back to Asia Light to grab some things to eat. We grabbed:
-apple juice (~$2.00 usd)
-mandarin orange juice (~$2.00 usd)
-yogurt (~$0.70 usd)
-crackers (~$0.85 usd)
-chips (~$0.50 usd)
-milk (~$2.00 usd)
-chocolate cake snack (~$0.35 usd)
-creamhorn like snack (~$0.35 usd)
-clock (~$2.60 usd)
-2 adapter plugs (~$0.65 and $0.20 usd)
When we returned we finally were able to get online! Yay! The internet is not quite as slow as I expected, it does take an extra few seconds to completely load a page but it is defiantly better than what I was prepared for. We took some time to Skype with Robin, Sonny, and Stan (and by we I mean me because Kim feel asleep while I was getting it set up. So that was our eventful first day in Myanmar. I am so happy that everything has been going smoothly and that ISM is so welcoming.
Sunday began with our first trip to the wet market. There are many, many wet markets all around, Zoe led us to the one closest to our building. It was about a half a mile away. As we walked there Zoe shared little tidbits about the neighborhood and life in general. One thing she mentioned was about how they changed the import regulations for vehicles a year or two ago so now there are an extraordinary amount of cars and trucks on the roads making it difficult because the city was not designed for them. Another thing she mentioned was how they tried to fix up the city a bit when they hosted the South East Asian Games back in December. They made the sidewalks a bit nicer but you still have to be careful when you walk around to be sure you don’t step off into a crack or hole.
We will be making a post all about the wet market very soon!
For lunch it was getting a tad muggy out so we decided to get take out and eat in our very cold air conditioned apartment. I went down to one of the restaurants in the Pearl complex (in the building next door) and ordered from a little shop there. I got two types of fried noodle dishes, one with larger noodles and one with small rice type noodles. Only one of the dishes was supposed to have seafood but they both ended up having an array of shrimp, squid, and fish in them. Although I will eat seafood every now and again I’m not a big fan so that was a little disappointing. We also got a chicken soup dish that was very tasty. I was surprised that there was no chicken in it but rather it was made with chicken broth that was thickened and creamy and served with the thin rice-type noodles. Lastly I grabbed some tea leaf salad. This was something we had read a lot about and was excited to try because it is one of the main dishes of Myanmar. It was a cold salad that had a mixture of things in it including pickled tea leafs, nuts, and seasonings. Each noodle dish was $2.00 usd, the soup was $0.50 usd, and the salad $0.85 usd. So we ate lunch (and had leftovers) for about $5.35 usd.
We met up with the rest of the new teachers and our hosts (the principals and director) to board the bus headed to Shwedagon Pagoda. See our whole Shwedagon experience on this post: Shwedagon Pagoda | The temple of all Myanmar temples
After the visit to Shwedagon everyone stopped at a hotpot place for dinner. Hotpot is where you have a large container of broth in the middle of the table to share with the group. Everyone goes to pick out ingredients to add to the broth, this ranges from seafood to tofu, from noodles to eggs, from vegetables to greens, and so much more. After letting the ingredients stew in the broth for a bit everyone enjoys a big bowl. It was a fun event for sure, the food was good and more filling than I had thought. Kim got a little stressed out when everyone began throwing random ingredients in that didn’t normally go together, perhaps next time we will set up a game plan first.
What a weekend! I can’t believe how much information we have received so far and how much we have learned in just this little time here. I am so glad that we are here for so much longer which will hopefully be enough time to see and do all the amazing things that Myanmar has to offer! But for now, bed, it is orientation first thing in the morning.
First thing Monday morning I hopped on the ISM bus to school where I finally got to see where I would be teaching for the next two years. The High School has two buildings (one of which used to be the middle school) with a small outdoor space in between. We have one large art room that will be shared between me and the other new art teacher. I will also be teaching out of one of the computer labs for my digital media/ 2d design class. We have quite a bit of work to get the room ready for students next week. The tables and stools were recently purchased from the west and really make the art room. There is a range of supplies that need to be sorted and organized. There are also preparing a small adjoining room for us to use as well. This room needs to have carpets removed and furniture moved in as well as other projects done to ready it for the students. I’m not sure how we are going to work everything exactly but we will know more when we see our schedules later in the week. (I'll do a post soon all about my school, with lots of photos I promise)
After a tour and a new teacher meeting we went over to the middle school where they hosted lunch for all of us. They prepared a variety of Myanmar dishes most of which were meat and/or vegetables in either a broth, sauce, or curry. They were served with rice and a clear-broth soup. Everything tasted very good and most were not spicy.
We then had our first Myanmar culture lesson. Zoe started by showing us various maps of Myanmar and Yangon, explaining the different regions and ethnicities who live in each. We talked about different restaurants to go to, transportation, sites around the town, and other various city related advice. Auntie Amy then joined us to talk about Myanmar traditions; she showed us the traditional dress, explained Myanmar customs, and shared with us some Myanmar snacks. She was so sweet to give us small gifts to go away with. We received one pair of owls figurines – a symbol of good luck in the Myanmar culture. She also gave us these two small dolls always land heads up no matter how you throw them – they are given to people who are down on their luck to show them that no matter what happens in life you can always get back on your feet.
After school Regi, the other art teacher, and I joined Zoe to go meet Gail, the previous art teacher. She had invited us to her apartment so we could greet each other before she left for her retirement in Texas. Over a glass of wine she shared with us the Yangon art scene and all of the progress she has made with the art program over the years. It was lovely to be able to absorb some of the knowledge that she has about art at ISM and in Myanmar.
Kim has been keeping busy this week organizing the household and finding her way around our neighborhood. Our new friends Steven and Sharon live right downstairs with their kids H & K; Steven is a Social Studies teacher with me at the high school. On Monday Sharon and Kim went to the wet market to get some groceries. She got 20 quail eggs for 600 kyat ($0.60 usd) unfortunately only about a dozen of them made it home. Pork was also purchased from a meat vendor which turned out to be very fatty and expensive, 8000 kyat for 1 kg ($8.00 usd for 2 lbs). Being a foreigner that they don’t know they tend to jack up the prices of everything. We are working on developing our bartering skills. It was amazing to come home to all of the suitcases unpacked and the house in order! I am so lucky to have a wonderful partner!!
Although it was fairly late when I returned home I wanted to talk with my family because I hadn’t gotten the chance yet. Luckily I was able to Skype with Andrea, Sam, Zane, Dad, Drew, and Autumn, all at the same time! It was so nice to see everyone and get to share with them a bit of the adventure that I have had so far. Before long I had to say goodbye because I was so very tired! Long and exciting days!
Another orientation day started with the director of the school addressing the entire ISM faculty. He shared with us all about the school’s mission, the school’s directive plan, his philosophy, and what we were to expect in the next few months. Afterwards we headed back to the high school to have a school only meeting. For lunch some of the returning teachers took us out into the neighborhood to show us some good places to eat. Oddly enough many of the usual places were closed (we later found out there was some sort of holiday), so we all hopped in the bus and headed to a restaurant down town. There was a big group of us and unfortunately they only had two English menus, needless to say it took us quite a long time for everyone to order. After which we ended up waiting a while for our food to start arriving, when it did become coming it took about 45 minutes from the first plate to the last plate. I’m not sure if I mentioned it before but we quickly realized here that the concept of one person ordering their individual plate is very strange to them. In Myanmar culture (and many others) they eat by getting a variety of plates to share and all eat a bit of everything at the same time. For this reason they do not wait to serve everyone at once, rather they bring dishes out when they are ready. This happens very sporadically. It is strange and defiantly something we will need to get used to. After lunch we returned to school where I only had a very short amount of time in my classroom before grabbing the bus back to Pearl.
Kim had been very busy during the day and I walked into an amazing smelling apartment. Kim had found her way to CityMart which is a more high end grocery store for the area that has a larger selection of goods with a variety of meats, frozen foods, cheeses, and a few aisles of dry goods. For dinner she made a delicious soup of carrots, eggplant, onion, pork, baby potatoes, with a chicken curry base. We invited another new teacher over to enjoy the meal and Li Qi made great company.
The rest of the week continued with about the same routine; I went to school from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm returning home about 4:45 pm after days of meetings and getting my classroom prepared. It became pretty stressful and overwhelming with the amount of information I was presented with and the short amount of time I had to get ready for teaching the following week. But I made it through. I ate out at the stalls near school a couple times usually having a rice dish with a bit of protein and some veggies. Here is where I ate on Thursday:
Kim spent the rest of the week going on adventures with Sharon, H & K. They found the park to go for a walk in, went downtown for an indoor playground, tracked down the stationary store, and did lots of laundry. We have shared washing and drying machines in the building that only hold a very small amount of clothes at one time. Most people find easier to hand their clothes up in their house to dry. There are some very helpful housekeepers who have been hired to do laundry for other people in the building who have switched over our laundry on more than one occasion. They do it just to be kind and don’t expect anything in return.
It was an intense first week. Everything of course still feels very foreign and new but mostly in an exciting, adventurous kind of way. It feels nice to be unpacked and getting to know the area. I'm looking forward to feeling more settled and for school to start on Monday. Here's to a weekend of rest and of course more adventuring.
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world