One of my favorite discoveries while traveling is coming across close-knit, like-minded friends who are reminiscent of friends back home. They immediately involve you in whatever upcoming plans they have going on so in this case, not only do you quickly feel comfortable in a new environment, but also culturally engaged as you take part in activities revolving around the place you’re visiting. In Yangon, Myanmar, this was exactly the case.
Although citizens are banned from hosting foreigners at their homes, this rule isn’t strictly enforced, especially for expats. And why so many expats living in Yangon? Well, in 2005 the military suddenly announced that they had switched the country’s capital city and while Naypyidaw became the new capital, Yangon remained the country’s cultural and financial hub.
A few days prior to our arrival I had found Jake, an American journalist working in Yangon who had offered to host Carlo and I during our final days in the country. Living with other international friends also working in the city, Jake explained that he and his flatmates lived in “The Mansion.” I didn’t think too much of the name and arriving there wasn’t so easy.
After Carlo and I had failed at visiting the country’s capital in the morning, our bus from Bagan arrived to Yangon by 8pm. I quickly bargained with a taxi driver but after an hour of driving around the city and through its seemingly endless traffic, it was clear that he didn’t know the address which he told us that he had. Due to the government banning motorbikes from the roads in the nation’s wannabe capital, traffic was unbearable. Walking from place to place almost seemed like a bright idea since it became common to sit in standstill traffic for hours on end.
An hour and half more of me directing the driver to the wrong address provided by my offline map, and it was getting tough to continue sitting. The bus ride was already eleven hours so the last thing that Carlo and I wanted was for the forty minute ride to turn into anything more. But it wasn’t our day for transportation and what should have been a simple cab ride turned into a three hour ordeal, essentially a night tour of the city.
Eventually we arrived to Jake’s after giving him a call so he could explain the directions to the driver again over the phone in the local language, something we quickly realized we should have done from the beginning. Around 10pm our long day of travel came to an end as we stood face to face with “The Mansion.” It was just as the name suggested – two kitchens, two balconies, three stories, five bathrooms, and over eight beds. We spent the night talking with Jake and two of his flatmates, Adela (an American teaching English) and Connor (an Australian working as a journalist) in their second floor living room.
The next morning Carlo and I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important religious site in Myanmar and according to legend, a sacred spot since before the beginning of time. The spire of the main pagoda was immense, towering 99 meters (325 feet) and all around it were smaller pagodas. We spent several hours walking independently around the premises. I was personally burned out from the countless similarly styled pagodas that I had seen along my travels through India, Thailand, and Myanmar, so after walking the grounds, I took a seat to people watch and use the ground’s wifi, seemingly some of the best in the country.
When Carlo had finished at the pagoda, we walked to a nearby park to join Jake and his friends for ultimate frisbee, only Jake wasn’t there and neither were his flatmates. Carlo and I lounged in the grass, watching other foreigners we didn’t recognize play frisbee. When they had finished their practice, they came and introduced themselves. Turned out that they were more friends of Jake’s and he had gotten caught up with something back home. As night fell, Carlo and I joined Jake’s friends to dinner and very quickly a new plan involving going to a favorite bowling alley unraveled.
Talks of the bowling alley had Carlo and I eager to visit. Supposedly it was straight out of the 90s with vintage artwork hung all round, manual machines to keep score, an eclectic crowd, and cheap beer. But unfortunately to our dismay, we had arrived too late and the bowling alley was dimmed into darkness, closed for the evening. A few minutes later and several other friends had arrived but plans suddenly changed again. There would instead be a house party back at “The Mansion.” We grabbed a taxi and sped back, for once bypassing the seemingly endless traffic since it was late at night and the house was out from the center of the city.
When we had arrived, Jake had already picked up snacks and beers, the ultimate party essentials wherever you are in the world. With the second floor living room speakers blaring indie electronic music throughout the house, the night began. The following days in Yangon were spent going along with Jake, his friends, and their plans. We played more ultimate frisbee in the park, explored an abandoned amusement park, went to a pool party (hosted by the owner of Yangon’s #1 rated restaurant), dined at the best burger joint in town (I hadn’t eaten a burger in three months!), and on our last evening, enjoyed a relaxing Sunday picnic of expats in the park.
After a little over three weeks, Carlo and my journey in Myanmar had come to an end. We had met countless new faces, arrived early, arrive late, hiked everywhere, fell sick, tried new flavors, and even got a taste of expat life in a country so newly opened to foreigners. Waking up early the next morning, Carlo rushed out the door to catch his flight back to Bangkok while I remained in Yangon until flying to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia later in the night. I had already arranged with my couchsurfing host there, Patrick, that I’d be arriving late. As we continued to exchange messages back and forth, we also uncovered that not only had he met Carlo a few weeks prior when Carlo was passing by Malaysia, but Oscar, our British friend we had met on the bus from Bangkok to Hpa-An, was surfing with him the same time I would be!
As I packed my belongings, a wave of excitement overcame me. I was feeling very ready to move on to a new country, to travel with new people, to try new foods, and of course, have an unexpected reunion with Oscar during my one day layover in Malaysia. I said my goodbyes to Jake, Adela, and the others, re-thanking them for including Carlo and I in all their plans as I hailed a taxi to the airport. Now it was the countdown to my 40 hours in Kuala Lumpur and I was eager to see how much I could pack in…