Yangon and Kalaw
No city epitomises the division between democracy and dictatorship more than Yangon.
After five decades of military rule, the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in November 2015, the first elections for 25 years. It’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been a figurehead representing hope for those wishing to join the democratic world, her pedestal only raised higher by house arrest and enforced separation from her half British sons.
The colonial buildings, remnants of 19th century British rule, crumble and disintegrate under blankets of green, mildew, mould and plant life. The Secretariat building is nothing but a shell.
The traditional markets, with regionally clad women crouching on the floor, offer another insight into the dirt and squalor of days gone by, and days still here. Cross the road and you’re bound to spot shiny, golden pagodas, decorated with gaudy neon flashing lights. The Sule Pagoda, dating back more than 2,600 years, is worth a visit, as is Myanmar’s landmark Shwedagon Pagoda.
Turn the corner, and you’ll find a hint of modernity in terms of Coca Cola adverts. Marvel at the eccentric: You’ll find that your taxi driver's seat is on the right, but he will drive on the right as well.
If you’re looking for a city with modern trappings and swanky restaurants Yangon is not the city for you. If you’re looking for a window into a country on the brink on monumental change, book your flight.
If Yangon is the pinnacle of Myanmar’s urban modernity, the muddy markets of Kalaw will show you traditional rural life. Just wandering around you’ll see ladies chopping bits of chicken with stray dogs sniffing around, strange traditional snacks, and babies bundled and tied to mothers' backs. Constant trucks and mopeds, laden with cauliflowers, ginger, potatoes and aubergines, stream in and out of town.
Kalaw is a small town, creeping out from its centrifugal market, bounded only by the beautiful surrounding hills. It’s a popular spot for walking, and with the help of a local guide, you’ll be welcomed into isolated villages. Although the original walls still stand, many houses have been updated with blue corrugated roofs. However, the shoeless smiling children running around, the single dirt tracks and the lack of electricity, pays as a reminder that the modern world is miles away.
To read part two of our trip, about Inle and Bagan, click here.