“This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.” I remember reading this quote of Kipling and knowing from that moment, I would find myself there in the future. In recent years. the affairs of Burma, or now better known as Myanmar, never seemed to make it into western news and we were left with the reminder from older generations of its appalling human rights record, sitting in isolation from the rest of South East Asia. The US and EU relaxed its sanctions for tourists to visit Myanmar around 2012 and since then, it’s reported that the conditions of roads, transportation and accommodation have flourished, and I was itching to see it for myself before the land became a little too familiar with the western world.
Formerly the capital and, also formerly, known as Rangoon, Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar and is starting to get recognition for its mixture of colonial architecture, golden Buddhist pagodas and increase in modern builds. As soon as I got out of the taxi, smells from the traffic and never-ending stalls of food hit me right away, while splatters of red rolled down the pavement. The town looks as though some few years back, it might have been conventionally beautiful. As it is, the buildings feel neglected; the result is a real jungle growing in an urban landscape.
After ten days of solitude and meditation, walking down the streets of Dagon township, the busiest area of Yangon, was a sensory overload. All sorts of smells layer over each other; people swarm the pavement in bouts; child-sized plastic stools wait at tables only a couple of feet off the ground, where a vendor will put down a bowl of whatever’s cooking and some fresh tea. It took a while to make the connection, but the red splatters I’d seen from first sight are actually the spit of men chewing betel nuts and tobacco from one of the countless shops on every street and in every alley. It’s a real sight when these men grin too – if the nuts stain the concrete, imagine what it’s doing to their teeth… Lack of dental hygiene aside, the locals are quite private people. In Thailand, if I were to hold my camera in the air and ask “who wants to have a photo?” People would swarm. In Myanmar, people are a little more reserved, coming out of their shells and reluctancy as you take yourself to an equal level with them. Naturally, this results in a sweeter sentiment. I found that generally, if you give your time to them, the Burmese are friendly, chatty and don’t let the language barrier stop them from trying to help you.
Street food stalls dominate the roads of Yangon. Myanmar shares long borders with Thailand, China and India; this has resulted in a fusion of food styles. There is some serious amounts of oil involved in the cuisine. If you can eat it, you can find it deep-fried in Yangon. Sitting down at a plastic table in the Indian-dominated areas, a soup with Indian-fried snacks such as samosas or pakoras and some raw veg will find its way in front of you. Some of the best noodles I’ve had were eaten in a Shan house in the downtown area. Oh, and Burmese salads made me feel like everything I’ve known about making a salad has been a lie.
Yangon has a few sights that might attract a traveller, but really, the city is just as good to walk around and get a feel for. I found myself stumbling upon small gems dotted around the city that I wouldn’t have hailed a taxi for, but finding them through exploring made me marvel several times throughout the day. I walked everywhere. I walked through markets old and new, selling goods from fruit to antiques and the artwork of locals. I walked through a handful of well-pruned flower gardens and parks, to find tranquility – slap bang in the middle of the surrounding roadworks and slight chaos of traffic.
Even the deteriorating, sprouting buildings are something to find yourself awed by, let alone accidentally spotting one of the city’s many pagodas, or on the flip side, the only synagogue in Myanmar.
Centred in the town is “the crown of Burma”, Shwedagon pagoda. Wherever you are in Dagon township, you need only to look up past the cracks of the flats and there’s a chance you’ll see the glimmering gold. The pagoda doesn’t stand alone. On the site, many smaller pagodas surround its parent, each gold and glistening, and seeming even more magic in the evening’s candlelight and with a quiet crowd making their rounds. Locals believe the pagoda is over 2000 years old – while this is uncertain since most of the township’s pagodas were built during the 12th or 13th century, it has stood majestically through wars, turbulent times and numerous earthquakes, while the rest of the city felt the effects of violence, conflict and nature.
Additional attractions that often find their way onto pretty Myanmar paintings and postcards is the boat restaurant that sits in Kandawgyi Lake. Inside is a restaurant and culture show that I wasn’t in a hurry to see, but the dragon-headed architecture is quite a beautiful sight at night time. Other sights might rival similar ones in Bangkok. Wat Pho is one of the Thai capital’s most famous landmarks; in Yangon, the Buddha reclines at a much bigger scale and is embellished with mosaics and various colours and materials. A view of the monument’s feet will reveal the tales of the Buddha, while meditators sit under his gaze for some quiet and peaceful reflection.
I was lucky enough to befriend the manager of the hostel I was staying in, so in the evenings, I got to experience Yangon as the locals do. It was on his recommendation I saw the Shwedagon at night (and having seen it in the daytime too, I’d really recommend waiting until the sun has gone down to visit). We chatted about our upbringings and our differences in education and culture over Chinatown’s street food. At night time, Chinatown is one of the liveliest places in the city, as families and friends join long tables for a cheap eat and conversation. As we were doing just that, the municipality rocked up and started shutting down the vendors who couldn’t produce a licence. At this point, the atmosphere shifted and I saw a change in my friend’s mood. This, he told me, is a common occurrence. Something I found interesting was that when he wanted the waiter’s attention, he made a kissing noise. I thought about the time I’d spent working in a restaurant and how I would have felt if someone had done that to me (not too pleased!) yet as it turns out, this is just the common way to grab the attention of the staff. It isn’t a derogatory gesture at all.
Other nights were spent at a town’s beer station, which was unlike any bar or pub I’d been to before. For one, the whole station was a couple of storeys off the ground and splashed in green light. Second, all chairs and tables slightly faced towards a ‘stage’, where women wholeheartedly sang to something similar to a karaoke backing of Burmese pop songs. In between songs, Asian EDM blasted and a handful of ladies took turns to parade up and down a catwalk. My companion told me this is also a common occurrence – and a favourite with the local men. Sure enough, every man in the room had their eyes peeled. It was here I also discovered that actually, beer is drinkable. Myanmar’s most loved alcoholic beverage is in fact a beer called… Myanmar.
Something I found quite endearing and positively unique about the country is the preservation of the country’s traditional dress and appearance. Both men and women wear long Burmese “longyi”. This is a long piece of cloth that wraps around the waist and falls to the feet. Men are commonly seen wearing wearing darker colours, whereas women will often sport bright, exotic prints and colours. The make-up women (and a few men) wear was completely alien to me, so naturally, I was fascinated. A fragrant paste made of a tree’s bark is widely used in circles or patterns on the cheeks, nose and sometime forehead. Its use supposedly has multiple benefits: for one, it’s believed to block the sun. It’s also thought to make the skin whiter over time. Whatsmore is that men find this cosmetic incredibly attractive. Coming from a western world, where make-up is comparably a lot more subtle, this interested me. Young girls wear it until they’ve grown into elderly women, for health or for beauty.
Little did I know when I planned my stay, I’d be visiting while the country was rearing itself up for the elections. As someone who didn’t know a lot about the current or past political situations of Myanmar, this was a fairly exciting time to go and learn. Candidates’ faces and opposing parties’ flags were posted on every street; big floats trailed up and down the main roads blasting out speeches and music. I met a French journalist the first morning in Yangon, who was writing a piece about the elections. She informed me that the military backs a Union Solidarity and Development Party; the opposition is the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by what became the very familiar face of Aung San Suu Kyi. She had previously led the party to a unanimous victory in the elections held 25 years ago, but was placed under house arrest by an unhappy military, who also annulled the party’s results. In 2010, the NLD boycotted the polls claiming an unfair and fraudulent election. A year later, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest when a former general was appointed as president. The Parisian told me through her coffee and cigarettes that what makes this election potentially unique is the presence of the EU, who will be watching the elections closely.
Locals, on the other hand, expressed frustration, finding the election a “political charade” – there are specific statements in the constitution that in theory could disable Suu Kyi from leading the country, not to mention a lot of speculation as to what the military will do if the NLD wins an overwhelming majority of the people’s votes (which, going by the amount of support I could see for the party during my stay, could well happen.) Only time will tell what the outcome of the elections will be, and of course, the actions taken when the results come to light.