Postcards from Yangon

Postcards from 48 hours wandering in the downtown area of Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma).

At Yangon Airport, 1.00 am

Yangon street market

Yangon street market

If Myanmar is evoked as the country that captured time it certainly felt like time was hostage standing in the airport’s motionless immigration queue at 1.00 am. The digital hi-tech bustle of Hong Kong was another world and century away. Old men anxiously looked through the window, scanning the arrivals for relatives. The two worlds were separated by a mere nod grimly bestowed by tight-lipped humourless border guards who shuffled about in immaculate gleaming white uniforms and flip-flops.

Dark city streets

Busy Yangon street market scene

Busy Yangon street market scene

A night time taxi ride gliding through unfamiliar, slumbering streets. An unhinged dream conjured-up out of thirty hours of planes, queues and airports. Such streets, under-lit, and free of neon and advertising clutter, convey a dark mystery. It is quiet apart from the odd group of Yangoners sitting chatting on the pavements, late-night cafes being cleaned and dogs imperiously strolling on the roads, forcing the traffic to move around them. It is their hour now.

A couple of Bedford trucks packed with silent labourers lumber up the road. Floating high over the dark streets and houses is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a sacred beacon resplendently watching over the city with a golden shimmer. When we arrived in downtown women are working in the shadows, sweeping the streets.

Yangon: early morning streets

Makeshift street café on streets of Yangon

Makeshift street café on streets of Yangon

Five hours later and I leave the hotel to explore the old abandoned colonial club, the Pegu Club. Street sellers are wandering up and down foghorning their wares.

One half of Yangon seems to be cooking for the other half. Street cafes are set up everywhere with tiny plastic chairs huddled around large cooking vats and hot plates heated by charcoal fires. The occasional latecomer hurries through the crowd, straining as they carry their café stall suspended on a length of wood across their shoulders. They find a small patch of pavement, and start preparing food, mixing salads and adding dressings.

In stark contrast to night the streets are now very much alive, noisy, teeming, eating, bartering, exchanging. There are musky smells of spices, incense and fish broth. Strings of flowers, dripping with cool water, are woven by women into their hair. Monks circulate with offering bowls. An English sign proclaims ‘Waste today for shortage tomorrow’. Colourful packed buses belching black fumes career in and out of bus stops, their ticket inspectors hanging out shouting destinations as passengers leap nimbly in and out.  A beggar lies trembling on the pavement, hands scrabbling for donated bills.

At the Strand Hotel

Bar at the Strand Hotel

Bar at the Strand Hotel

The Strand Hotel is as cool, orderly and reassuring as its namesake street back in London. It is 1930s London, faithfully constructed with billiards table, shelves of malts and whirring fans. Myanmar touches have crept-in: there is tasteful lacquer art and someone plings and plogs on an unknown Myanmar instrument, the local answer to an afternoon tea piano. There are corners shaded with potted plants set for quiet gin time and colonial intrigue. The staff are Myanmar charm and appropriately dressed but it is the tourists who let the film set down. There are no linen suited Somerset Maughans here, just large cameras hanging off the cheap, disposable clothes of the modern travelling tourist.

Rapacious empire builders have been replaced by rapacious tourists plundering to build huge digital libraries for blogs (although to be fair I ask permission where others intrusively don’t). The tables are turned when I’m often asked to pose in turn for a local’s photo’ their capture of exotica in the unlikely form of a six foot three white Brit with undefeatable spiky red hair. I wonder how patient Myanmars will remain if an increase tourism brings yet more cameras endlessly capturing streetlife.

Down at the docks

Ferry approaching docks

Ferry approaching docks

Down at the docks people wait for the ferry slowly lining-up with the dock. Both men and women wear the ubiquitous longhis, the women holding delicate, colourful sun umbrellas. Bicycles are laden with string-tied packages. There are container ships moored at wharves while boatmen sleep in their boats under the shade of the bridge. Another classic timeless scene.

Yangon’s character

yangon-back-street

Yangon is full of timeless character and moulded by trauma, protest, fire, socialism, colonialism and the new ways. It is charming, friendly, ramshackled, atmospheric, peeling and tattered despite recent development. Much colonial architecture has been lost but in downtown the key buildings are being renovated to preserve a heritage unique in Southeast Asia. Barefoot workers nimbly scale the bamboo scaffolding, one careless slip away from death.  But step round the back and the decay is evident in slipping window frames, plants growing out of walls and eroded brickwork.

There is another side to Yangon: the satellite towns stricken by poverty, slums and utterly neglected by municipal services. Yangon is no different to all cities across the world where such areas are rarely seen by tourists or locals alike if they can help it.

Busy markets

Buddhist banyan tree shrine on streets of Yangon

Buddhist banyan tree shrine on streets of Yangon

In the market colourful stalls crowd the pavements forcing pedestrians through tiny alleyways. The stalls are bursting with unknown vegetables, deep-fried sweets, fruits, spices, nuts and herb foliage. Flies buzz around the offal and fish stands. Strawberries wrapped in bamboo leaf parcels are already starting to rot in the late morning heat. Dried rice husks are hung to feed the numerous chirping sparrows (London could learn a lesson here). Bicycles laden with goods offload their wares, a rickshaw cyclist dozes on a mat. A Buddhist shrine peeks out through the aerial roots of banyan tree, with offerings at the foot of its trunk. Large tables offer newspapers, pamphlets and literature for the voracious reading Yangoners. There is a tiny desk with phones for hire.

There is much for the senses to take in, while at the same time you have to watch your feet for the collapsing pavements and open sewers.

Sunset and a return to night

Shwedagon Pagoda at night (Image from http://islandsafarimergui.com )

Shwedagon Pagoda at night (Image from http://islandsafarimergui.com )

The hot sun finally breaks into a dusty red-gold sunset. The Shwedagon Paya, that has blazed all day in the sun with golden wonder, is now burnished with mellow crimson and gold as it magically floats over the city. It’s  golden dome, enshrined with ancient Buddhist relics, that informed Kipling: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”

The sunset is framed through the twin spires of a catholic cathedral. A ship sounds its horn on the Yangon river. Darkness swoops quickly. The street lights struggle, snap and then cuts out. Life goes on, the teahouses thrive, the paan stand man twists his tobacco into a betel leaf under a harsh bulb. Families peer out from the small interiors of shops and rooms. Babies and toddlers crawl about playing with cardboard packaging. Friends sit on those tiny chairs and share a pot of tea. The lights return, then go out again but the temples still glow golden. I wander, smoking a cheroot.

See also: Urban exploration in Burma

In Myanmar, Racing to Save a Colonial Past in Decay

Visit here for a more conventional take on the tourist sights, including the beauty and wonder of Shwedagon Pagoda.

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25 thoughts on “Postcards from Yangon

    • Thanks backpackerlee – enjoyed your article on that link. I do fear what tourism will do, especially coupled with the relative lack of environmental controls in places like Inle Lake. It’s a balancing act though with the need for jobs, income and investment for a country that badly needs it. Not easy plus I am one of those pesky tourists!

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  1. Dear Alex: thanks for these postcards. A real sense of your adventure. Did you find relics of family there? I’ll be in Ayr more or less May21-June21. Be great to see you. OxoxC

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    • Hi Christine – less family, more tourism but hopefully I will be back to explore that a little bit better next time and once I have done a little bit more research. See you in Ayr.

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  2. Nicely written piece, Fella, though slightly perplexed as to why you went via Hong Kong. Have you been on some extended overseas adventure you haven’t been sharing on your blog?

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    • Thanks for the link – interesting to see a focus on the nuns rather than the monks who seem to be far more visible on the streets. I saw quite a few of hose young novice processions and they seem to be a good excuse for a Myanmar-style party.

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