A day in Yangon

The idea for the Christmas holiday was that it would be three weeks of relaxing. But when choosing Myanmar we felt we couldn’t just fly in, sit on a beach and leave. So when my colleague, Emma and I planned the holiday, we didn’t book any tours beforehand deciding we would look at what was available when we got there.

We stayed at the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon, one of the higher end hotels in Yangon and about 40 minutes from the airport. It had a swimming pool which only Eleanor went into, while the temperature of the air was warm (about 30℃), the water temperature was a lot cooler than that and did not tempt any of the adults to go in.

We spent the first day sightseeing for ourselves. A taxi took us to the Bogyoke Aung San Market. It isn’t open on Mondays, and we were flying out on Tuesday, so we went on the first full day. A market undercover of a large colonial facade with cobblestone streets between the buildings. We could have bought sunglasses, gems, clothing (we did), jewellery, antique furniture, tiger balms (we did), and anything Burmese. Eleanor and I bought Longyi’s, which are like sarongs, but the ones we bought then are of stiffer material, with no movement in them – straight up and down! What we have all come to realise is that once you have seen one market in Asia, you pretty much have seen them all and with the agreement that we had had enough, we went to the Rangoon Tea House for lunch. It had been recommended by someone who now works at one of the international schools in Yangon.

The Tea House was about a 20 minute walk, walking alongside buildings telling of a colonial past were shadows of their former glory. Some left in dereliction are going to ruin, others have been restored. McDonalds and Starbucks have not arrived in Yangon… yet (so no mug)… but KFC has but there were more independent shops and it was refreshing not to see these franchises all over the place. The Tea House provided a good lunch including… chocolate samosas. So good that we went back that evening for dessert. Chocolate samosas, like Din Tai Fung’s chocolate dumplings are probably a ruination for the gourmet, but these were delicious.

The Lonely Planet provided a suggestion for the evening. A Puppet show. Htwe Oo Puppet Show. We took a Grab (a version of Uber/Didi) and it left us in the middle of the road flanked by apartments, some in a state of dilapidation. With in-trepidation we took some stairs up and walked through the door into the puppeteer’s living room. You can see below the heads of Eleanor and Emma, well Martin and I were behind them and that was the back wall. The show was going to be in his living room. All in all there were 10 people in the audience, captivated by the movement of the puppets but by the hand movements of the men and women as they manoeuvred 12 or more strings to make these puppets dance, fly, hop, jump, walk, bow and even control a horse and a rider. The show was 45 minutes in length, all set to music and narrated by recorded tinny voice. At festival time at local temples, this show could go on for hours, well into the night time, retelling local folklore, I was glad that I was not at one of those shows 45 minutes was just enough.

Our puppeteer took 20 or so minutes to explain the history behind the puppets, the craftsmanship that goes into making these realistic, anatomically correct puppets, and the skill behind learning the craft of making these marionettes move. He truly is a master and he is training up the next generation. All the puppeteers are part of his immediate or extended family. This man and his puppets travels the world. When I had been booking tickets, I saw that had we been a couple of days earlier he would not have been in the country. He would have been at the Macau International Parade.

Operating within his home in the township is an act of passion and necessity. He once performed his shows in a theatre. A theatre that if you aren’t filling the seats, the theatre must still get paid. A show needs marketing to draw people in. But running this puppet show during the time when the military were in charge was mighty difficult since to advertise “puppets” when the government at the time banned the use of the word – no matter the context was nigh impossible. This man lost everything. The theatre, paying for the puppets to be made, and the crew all cost money. The tourist scene in Myanmar is not and was not strong enough to sustain a business through word of mouth and so he brought the puppets to his home. This was a homely show, and a worthwhile trip. Just have faith when you get out of the taxi that you have come to the right place! And spread the word – word of mouth and trip advisor is just fine when you only have seats for about 10 or so people.