6th November 2016
Arriving into an unknown destination in the dead of night is probably not the wisest of ideas at the best of times, but especially as a lone female backpacker, in a country that is frugally visited by westerners and one that only opened it’s borders a few years previously after a 65 year ban on international tourism and trade. But sometimes you have no choice.
Not only that, but during the darkness of night, you often see a side of a city that you otherwise wouldn’t experience. And this is more often than not, a very good thing! Otherwise you might think twice about visiting your destination, although more often than not, it’s too late by this point to turn back and change your mind.
I landed into the three month old ship shape and shiny Yangon International Airport in Myanmar (Burma) at 00:10 on 6th November. Everything was pristine. The service was excellent on arrival from the airport ground staff and paralleled the exceptional treatment I received within the business class cabin of the Dragonair flight from Hong Kong to Yangon. Where bottles of Tattinger flowed freely, the food was out of this world and the service was outstanding. I was about to be hurled into a very different world.
Passing through immigration, my e-Visa received the stamp of approval and my passport (after being intricately perused), was additionally handed back to me with an expression that wasn’t quite a smile, but perhaps just passing of gas. Either way, I was allowed into the country and the month long journey within this long-awaited land was about to begin. It was crazy to think that about 100 years or so earlier, my great-grandfather had made the same journey to what was then, Burma whilst serving with the army in what was British Colonial India.
After collecting my luggage and exiting through the sliding glass doors into arrivals, I was greeted by a man dressed in traditional attire from my hotel. I was exceptionally grateful to have pre-booked an airport transfer with my hotel. Not only did this provide peace of mind to myself, being a very anxious person at the best of times, but the events to follow made me feel much safer than being within a randomly flagged taxi. Later in my trip, I soon discovered that most taxi drivers in Yangon haven’t the foggiest idea of where you want them to drive (unless it’s one of the main religious monuments) and that the chance of them finding my hotel was probably nigh on impossible. So anyways, my driver and I made our way to the entrance where he rushed off and collected his vehicle, stopping to pick up me and my luggage before making the 16km journey to the hotel.
Shortly after departing the airport, we reached a set of traffic lights. Nothing unusual about that. The streets were barren of people and life. Except for one car in the lane next to us, and a small boy, maybe only 5 or 6 years of age, trying to sell items to the occupants. I wandered to myself what such a small boy was doing out by himself so late at night. The area we were in didn’t appear to be impoverished and there were no other people in the vicinity who I could have acknowledged as being with him. Soon enough, he lost interest in the first car and made his way over to ours. He made an aggressive gesture towards myself, thrusting his items towards his window. I shook my head but smiled kindly towards him. He proceeded to take a homemade wooden machine gun from his side, pointed it directly at me and pretended to shoot me. The aggression in such a young person really took me aback. I didn’t know how to deal with this situation or how to even process this in my mind. Thankfully, the lights turned to green and we went on our way, but that little boy has haunted me ever since. His reaction towards me made me really consider staying within this country. Part of me wanted to say to the chauffeur “Take me back to the airport! I’m out of here!” But I was in shock. Stunned silence, and trust me, that doesn’t happen all too often.
Moments later my silence was broken by roaring engines as four cars which could have been taken right out the set of The Fast and the Furious, roared past, under-taking and overtaking, swerving around our vehicle and speeding off into the night. LED lights aglow, music booming and the the deep sound of the engines penetrating the clear, quiet nights air. These vehicles oozed wealth and just left me feeling even more puzzled about this unusual land I had arrived in.
We continued our journey, the driver completely unfazed by the previous events. Up ahead, there were flashing blue lights and hoards of people in the streets. As we inched closer, I realised that there had been a car accident between four vehicles. Injured and confused people staggered into the street towards the few vehicles comprising of oncoming traffic whilst others helped aid those who were trapped within their vehicles. Others, stood in the road watching the scene unfold. Once again, this was a little insight into Yangon life that I probably could have done without experiencing within the first 20 minutes of arrival. Unfortunately, in Myanmar, RTA (Road traffic accidents) are commonplace. This is due to most of the vehicles being foreign imports and therefore, right-hand drive but unusually, in Myanmar, people also drive on the right, thus creating a recipe for RTAs.
Before too long, we reached the hotel. In one piece. Safe but perplexed. I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling wandering what on earth I had done and whether I really had lost the plot completely. I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t feel like I could do this anymore, and I really lost every ounce of confidence that I had in my abilities to travel alone. That little child haunts me but is a constant reminder that the world isn’t a safe and beautiful place. It’s not peaceful, there is poverty and suffering. There are people who have aggression towards others due to the pent up frustration of their situation. I’ sure I would feel the same in his shoes. How scary and frightening it must be for that little boy on a day-to-day basis. I have to remember that if it wasn’t for this country needing help and the support from the western world, then maybe we wouldn’t be so drawn to this country so much in the first place. This beautiful country has been cut off from the world for so long, and I have to to remember that it is a privilege that we are allowed to travel here at all. In hindsight, I have experienced nothing but kindness and generosity in my time here and the incident with the little boy was just an anomaly in what is very welcoming and tourist friendly country.
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