Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma): Going Betel Nuts

One of the first things I noticed entering into the country was how clean and new the international airport was, much different than the domestic airport right next door. I think I came across one ticket booth in the international airport. Luck would have it that I met another Canadian who was interested in flying north that same day. Although I didn’t want to fly out of Yangon right away, I did want to see what the process was like to book a ticket. I had an investor’s eye, of course, I wanted to see how things were done in this country.

Welcome to Myanmar

Yangon reminded me of a Jakarta, smaller but still crowded and hot. Unlike Jakarta, however, Yangon is much greener. As I’ve written before, Myanmar itself reminded me of a greener Cambodia. Many of the buildings in Yangon are over a hundred years old and look decrepit. The narrow streets hardly allow room for a sidewalk, if at all. When there is a sidewalk it’s often cluttered with betel nut stalls (which can look deceivingly like ice cream shops because of the coned paper they use to sell bulk packs), motorcycles, or other shops selling anything and everything. It is here that I truly appreciate the Burmese and people of Myanmar, they don’t pester you for a tuk tuk, boom boom, marijuana or anything really. They let you go on your way with nary a thought of bothering you any more than you would bother them. They are remarkably congenial people with wonderful smiles, well, at least those who didn’t chew betel nut for the better part of their life.

I spent most of my time walking around the streets on a self-guided tour. I followed part of the guidebook, but took a few detours through some back alleys. The weather was hot and stifling so I tried to stay in the shade, but I really wanted to see the city on foot.

Burmese Buildings in Downtown Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma)

To me, Yangon is an elegant city in a way that you’d have to see in person in order to appreciate. While walking the streets you can imagine what the country was once like, though the current state of the buildings and what you hear in the news is a little less than glamourous. The hundred-year-old buildings awash with dirt and neglect drown in the hot summer sun. On the outset, the city looks as if it’s falling to pieces, and it may be, but the spirit of the people seems to be alive and well.

Independence Monument
Independence Monument
Sule Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar
Sule Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar

I walked by the Independence Monument that stands next to the Sule Pagoda, which occupies the roundabout in downtown Yangon. It was on these streets a few years ago that Buddhist monks, overturning their donation bowls, protested the beating death of three of their own. The military regime didn’t think much of this show of independence and began firing on crowds. It was one of the first times the trouble in Myanmar came to light as it happened thanks to the internet. As a result, the government shut down the internet which made a bunch of governments impose sanction on the country. The internet, I’m happy to report, has since been re-instantiated and works well… most of the time.

Square bananas
$23 square bananas.

I did manage one major fuck up in regard to exchanging money and no, it didn’t happen at the hands of a money changer. Nay nay, a fruit seller. They’re actually known by another name but I can’t remember what it is. Anyway, they were square bananas. I only wanted two, not the whole bunch. He said $2 and I remember it clearly, but I kept pulling out 5000 KS notes (~$1 USD = 865 KS) thinking he’d stop me when I’d hit enough money to cover the cost. Well, he stopped, after four bills. No change. I thought nothing of it until later that day when I bought a bottle of whiskey for 2500 KS. WTF? HAD! All being told, those two squared-bananas cost me $23. Well, there goes another day in the country. I should’ve been a little more aware of the exchange rate.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I missed one of the most memorable places in the entire country by following my vices instead of the tourist trail. The place I’m talking about is Schewdagon Pagoda which is in just about everybody’s photo album from Burma… except mine. I did manage to snap a picture of it from my hostel at night, but I never made it to the actual place. What did I do instead?

Well, first, I made the error telling myself that I’d come back to Yangon later because of my flight. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while travelling it’s that when you say “I’ll do it later,” you won’t. Do it now. Take a picture. Make a video. Update your social media accounts. Because as far as travelling goes, you probably won’t cross the same place again for what could be longer than you think. Better to err on the safe side and do the things that are important, first.

Second, I had been on a whiskey kick and wanted to try out a Burmese brand. I found and brought it back to the hostel. However, the day I was planning on visiting the pagoda I also met some rather friendly Americans who were on a short vacation from work. They had cracked their first beers at noon. One thing led to another and a beer run needed to be made. So off we go to purchase some more booze and, of all things, betel nut.

For those of you who know what betel nut is, you’ve probably already thrown up in your mouth. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the stimulatory properties of the nut I’d say I’ve found the perfect replacement for washing out foul-mouthed kids.

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Betel Nut Stall

Prepared on the spot by street vendors, these stands are like tailors in Thailand: everywhere. One leaf, some glue-like spread, and then finely chopped betel nut on top, they roll all of this into a tiny ball that you are to put in between your cheeks. The resulting taste is something like soap but makes your mouth look as if you’ve just had your wisdom teeth pulled and the dentist neglected to stitch you up. A slight tingling sensation numbs the spot where you hold the package and as your saliva starts to flow in reaction to the betel nut’s presence, you need to spit and out comes a small stream of blood-red mouth water. Chewing it hastens the numbing action and sends the excreted stimulants to your brain which, should you not be used to this combination of betel nut and alcohol, will cause a slight, if not complete, dizzy feeling. It wasn’t so bad at the beginning, but then I chewed and chewed the stuff and well, my tummy didn’t really like that too much. Nor did my head.

After returning from our beer run, (we also bought more betel nut and cheeroot cigars, which would become one of my favourite vices in the country), the hotel owner stopped me at the door. Noticing that I was a little worse for wear, he suggested that I sit down outside. So I did. Well, I’ve never been around the sun in a spaceship but I do remember a certain swirling feeling that not only graphically reminded me of what I had eaten during the day, but it also incurred the wrath of G-forces to plant my ass down in a stupor behind a bush. I sat there, ruminating my choices and their consequences. Why oh why did I think it was such a good idea to try foreign stimulants? Collecting what I could of myself, I made my way upstairs (my room was on the top floor of a six story building with no elevators) and crawled into the first human waste depository I found. Sweaty and stinky, I did what I had to do before stumbling up two more flights of stairs in order to pass out on my bed.

It was this same night that I would wake up at 11 pm and realize that I had not gone to the pagoda. Luckily, I could see it from the top of my hotel, and that’s the only picture I could get of the historical monument.

Schwedagon Pagoda Faraway

Alas, three days and a hangover in Yangon was enough before I decided to move on. Having lost out on $23 during a bad fruit purchase, I couldn’t justify staying in the city much longer, there were other places to see. My next stop would complete what’s known as the Asian Temple Trifecta. That is, Bagan.