Official rate: US$1 = 5 Kyat
Black Market US$1 = 10 Kyat
Equivalent to sterling £1 = 12 Kyat / 24 Kyat
Sunday 29th December 1968
We landed in Rangoon at 13.30 local time, which is an hour ahead of Indian time and six and a half hours ahead of England. Although customs at Rangoon went through the luggage with a fine tooth-comb, none of us were really sure what they were looking for. Everybody on the plane was thoroughly searched, but it was efficient and we had completed all formalities within half an hour of landing.
We all travelled in to Rangoon on the airline bus, which took us to the U.B.A. office. We were going to spend the night in the office, but the others who had paid full fare were taken to a hotel. Three of them were in the Orient hotel, which was just around the corner, and two girls were taken to the Strand Hotel, which was a bit further away. Why they split them up we don't know. We left our luggage in the office and headed off to the Orient Hotel to meet the others.
It felt strange walking through Rangoon. After the teeming masses of Calcutta, the city seemed deserted by comparison. We also realised that because tourism to Burma was not possible at that time, the group of us who had arrived on that flight were probably the only tourists in the country, even thought were only on a 24 hour transit visa. It also felt good to be able to walk along the tree lined streets without being hassled by beggars or people trying to sell things.
We needed to get some Burmese money and decided to ask a rickshaw driver where we could change some. He told us to get on board and while he took us around to the Orient Hotel, we agreed to change one U.S. dollar for 10 kyats, which was double the official bank rate. When we got out of the rickshaw we paid the driver the dollar and he gave us the 10 kyats as change. The fare was complimentary.
The Orient Hotel was like something from last century. It was large and very colonial in appearance. It was also in a good state of decoration and well staffed, considering that they did not get many tourists. The others had already left to go to the Shwedagon Pagoda, and so we went outside and caught a bus to go there ourselves.
At the Shwedagon Pagoda we had to take off our shoes and socks before we could go in. We then had to climb up what seemed like thousands of stairs up to the top. The Pagoda was a most beautiful place. A large stupa contained not only some of the relics of the Gautama Budha, but also some relics of three other Budhas that had been born a long time before him. As you can imagine, this pagoda is one of the holy of holys to Buddhists. The stupa is 320 feet high and the bud at the top is made of pure gold, which according to the guide book consisted of 8688 sheets of gold. Each sheet measures a foot square and is valued at about US$300. I calculated that the value of the bud alone must be in the region of 2.6 million US dollars. In addition to the gold, the buildings were encrusted with many diamonds and semi-precious stones. All around me people were buying small pieces of gold leaf then sticking it on the statues. The accumulation of years of gold leaf left the place looking so fabulous that words just couldn't describe it. I felt privileged to be there and couldn't help thinking that so few tourists had seen it.
We met up with the three from the Orient Hotel who were also walking around the temple complex, and from the Shwedagon, we all shared a taxi to the Sule Pagoda, another smaller Pagoda near to the airline office. Compared to the Shwedagon, this one was disappointing, so we decided to split up with the others and go for a walk around Rangoon. We found the post office and I posted the letter I had written on the plane. I later found that it took just 2 days to get to Liverpool.
We had arranged to meet up with the three from the Orient hotel for a meal that evening. We decided to eat in the hotel restaurant to finish off what remained of our money. Also because the evening meal was included for the others and they understandably didn't want to spend money eating out. They introduced themselves as David and Prudence from England, and John from USA. The hotel had automatically assumed that David and Prudence both being British were married, and had allocated them a room together. Fortunately for Prudence, David and John agreed to share and let her have the single room. They showed us the rooms, they were so large and old fashioned, but well decorated with big wooden ceiling fans turning slowly. It was like a time warp, just as I imagined the hotel in the days when the British ran the place. I don't think it has changed a bit.
We had a fantastic large meal that evening, waited on hand and foot. Surprisingly the dining room was quite full, probably well to do locals and businessmen.
We had been careful to check the prices before we ordered to ensure that we had enough money to pay. When the bill came it was exactly as we had calculated. We still had a few pyasa left over, which was to be the souvenir coin from Burma. I had kept a coin from each country visited so far and was quite disappointed when the waiter didn't bring the change. When I asked for the change he got very agitated, saying that a rich tourist like me shouldn't be bothered about a few pyasa. I explained why I wanted the coin, and he reluctantly gave me the change. I guess he thought it was a tip, and looking back I can understand why. We had not eaten in such a grand place up untill now and were not used to leaving tips.
The others decided to get an early night, so Lou and I took a walk around the area. We saw a house where the door was open and people were all gathered chanting what appeared to be prayers. I asked what was happening and was told it was a house of mourning. We decided not to stay and walked back to the Orient, where I had left a bag to collect later. We managed to avoid the disgruntled waiter. On the way back to the airline office we found a British registered mini parked just down the road to the airline office. It also had a diplomatic badge on it, so I guessed it must have belonged to somebody at the British Embassy.
Back in the airline office we each set up our mosquito nets over tables, taking care to tuck the ends in underneath the sleeping bag. It was just as well we did because that night the net was covered by thousands of mosquitoes all trying to get a good feed, while we slept inside, even though it was a very hot night and the lights were left on all the time. At one point I must have touched the inside of the net and immediately felt the sting of dozens of mozzies biting me through the net. You don't usually feel a mosquito sting, but when there are lots of them in a concentrated area, you know about it. I was very tired and despite the hardness of sleeping on a table, I still managed to get a good sleep even if it was only a very short sleep.
The next morning the airline bus came to collect us just after 6 am. We were the first pickup, but the driver went straight past the Orient and went directly to the Strand to pick up the two girls who had stayed there. He then headed out to the airport. We tried to tell him he had to pick up at the Orient, but he didn't understand any English, and continued merrily on to the airport, arriving at 6.40 am.
We told the check in clerk that the driver had missed out the Orient Hotel, and this started a bit of a shouting match. While they argued about who's fault it was, we checked in and went through customs and immigration into the departure lounge. There was another flight going to Peking, and the passengers for that flight had formed a long snaking queue around the departure lounge. They also seemed to still have their baggage with them as they filed out of the door and onto the plane they looked like refugees.
David, John and Prudence arrived in the lounge at about 7.45, having
arrived by taxi, and we boarded our plane at 8.15. We had a nice breakfast
shortly after take off, then I went to sleep. Shortly before we reached
Bangkok, the stewardess woke me up to see if I would like some more to
eat before landing. You don't often get offered second helpings of airline