Flying into Yangon late at night I couldn’t believe that five million people live in the city. The glowing, car-choked arteries I saw on my ascent from Bangkok were entirely absent. Below me now were vast areas of foggy darkness, an archipelago of dim and spartan illumination. At Yangon International Airport, “ATIONAL AIRPORT” was unlit. The terminal smelled faintly of cigarette smoke but it was modern and clean – and eerily quiet.
Yangon used to be Rangoon but its name was changed in 1989 when the military junta decided to revert to an older name out of national pride. The name Rangoon emanates imperial romance to many in the West; Yangon is an enigma. It isn’t even the capital city anymore. That honour has belonged since 2006 to Nay Pyi Daw, a planned city in the middle of nowhere. Yangon literally means “Enemies run out of”, and it speaks volumes of the Burmese experience with interlopers that the city was called this even before the British arrived to seize it in 1824.
The first person who spoke to me outside the airport terminal in the warm night air was a young man in a longyi, the traditional dress tied in a knot at the waist and running down to the feet.
“Excuse me, sir, would you like a taxi to the downtown, sir?” He spoke with a subcontinental mellifluosity that had echoes of old world imperialism about it. His teeth were red from chewing betel nut, the preferred vice of Burmese men. East Africans have qat, Europeans have booze, Andeans have the coca leaf, and the Burmese have this nutty little stimulant. He intermittently spat out the window as we drove.
At one point about ten minutes into our journey I asked an innocuous question about traffic and there was a silence for so long that I assumed he’d forgotten I asked something. We came to a stop light and he turned to the open window, expectorated a burgundy rope of saliva, then eloquently began to deal with my question. And that was my introduction to betel nut.
We drove past the University of Yangon. My driver was an economics graduate working as a cabbie. It isn’t uncommon in Burma for people to end up doing work totally unrelated to their academic qualification. Lawyers working as tour guides, accountants as manual labourers, historians as trishaw drivers, and so on. A Burmese academic based in the United States, Dr Myint Oo, — a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine — has said that degrees from the country’s universities “aren’t worth the paper they are printed on”, but the University of Yangon actually has a venerable history. It was established in 1878 when the British Empire was at its relative zenith and as recently as the 1950s it was one of the best universities in Southeast Asia. Those days are long gone, though, and now the storied institution finds itself outside the world’s top 23,000 institutes of higher education.
I was horrified by the near-misses we had on the way to the city. Cyclists and pedestrians appeared from nowhere. Every second or third streetlight was dead or stuttering and whenever an ancient man on a bicycle materialised out of the inky night beyond the taxi’s headlights I’d grip my seat and hope the driver saw him. When we arrived at the top of my hostel’s street I walked past a burly European man, probably around fifty, with shaggy hair and a vacant look just staring into space with a large beer in his hand. “So that’s how it is in Yangon”, I thought.
For breakfast the following morning I sought a famous noodle shop that serves Shan cuisine, the Shan being just one of many Burmese ethnic groups. My hostel was on 12th street and so I had to take a walk along the chaotic Anawratha road to 34th street. It was 8am. The noiseless menace of the night before was gone, replaced on the streets with a wholesome atmosphere of honest toil; the shouts of workers, the honking of horns, the reading of newspapers, the drinking of tea.
Yangon’s downtown area is laid out on a grid; a vestige of the colonial era. In theory it should make the city easily navigable, but the streets are often poorly signposted so walking past your destination is a common mistake. The traffic was difficult at times. In Burma they drive on the right, but many cars are Japanese imports meaning the steering wheel is also on the right. Perhaps this quirk affects spatial awareness to the point that it accounts for the city’s drivers’ apparent reluctance to slow down for pedestrians.
The humanity of Yangon is megadiverse, the city holding in its embrace Dravidians with skin the colour of coal, people of northern Han ancestry with milk-bottle complexions, and every conceivable shade in between. Religion permeates the city. I walked past a Salvation Army church thronged with congregants, the raucous sound of singing pouring out onto the street. Not a hundred yards away a Hindu temple, then a Buddhist shrine under a Bodhi tree, a mosque, a synagogue; Yangon has them all. But these are not mere decorations, the residual constructions of a pious, bygone age. These are the tools that enable the Yangonese to live and breathe their faith in the present.
The streets of Yangon are festooned with gritty, maroon splashes. With no little gentility, men frequently pause to spit at the side of the road. Women wear thanaka on their faces, a white paste made of tree bark thought to be good for the skin. Sometimes it appears as swirls on their cheekbones, other times as squares. Its application is as subject to the whims of fashion as anything else. One old woman drinking tea had it all over her face and arms. Burmese women are traditional and demure in their dress. In a modern world of hypersexuality they are a jarring sight in their elegant modesty.
I arrived at my noodle house about forty-five minutes after setting out, dehydrated and exhilarated, and paid a dollar for a bowl of spicy noodles with pork and pickled vegetables. While I ate, an old monk came and sat down at the restaurant’s entrance with an alms bowl. One of the waiters, perhaps fifteen years old, brought the monk rice, touching the bowl gently on his forehead with great solemnity before emptying the contents into an unseen receptacle. The monk left. Not a word was uttered by anyone involved in the rite during the five minutes of its duration.
After I finished my meal I went for a walk in the suffocating heat of Yangon at midday. Quite quickly I realised this was a bad idea. The overwhelming traffic noise, the perilous roads, the grime, the smell of incense; I wanted to get away from it all until the intensity of the sun abated. On 50th street, perhaps a mile away from where I was, I knew there was a celebrated bar frequented by expats. I made a beeline there hoping to get chatting with a colourful character or two. Ice cold lager in air-conditioned surroundings sounded more appealing the further I walked.
Down on 50th street there were a few foreigners and some wealthy locals drinking, eating and playing pool. The expats mostly kept to themselves, but I got talking with an Australian man in middle age who was in the city to open a hotel for a well known international chain. He hated Yangon — hated it — and had sent his wife and children back to their home in Saigon where he lived before being miserably anchored with what he considered a hardship posting. We got on well and shared a few beers and whiskeys together before heading to 19th street together, the Khao San Road of Yangon — Khao San Road of course being the famous backpacker street in Bangkok, a “decompression chamber between east and west” as Alex Garland put it in The Beach.
Being honest, one couldn’t describe anything in Yangon as a decompression chamber. With Yangon you are immediately submersed in deep water without apology, though 19th street at least has what might be considered a vibrant nightlife and attracts a lot of young westerners. It’s lined with bars and restaurants selling kebabs and other snacks on sticks and cold beer and cocktails. Despite the presence of tourists it is undeniably authentic — if poverty bestows authenticity. People still live in ramshackle houses, and chickens can occasionally be seen wandering around. Filthy children in bare feet beg at the tables of everyone — not just tourists — a sure sign that their poverty is wretchedly genuine.
My single-serving friend began to hunger for the company of the fairer sex after my conversation ceased to entertain him – after his libido had been sufficiently aroused by the presence of some beautiful local girls – and he asked the young bar staff repeatedly where a massage might be procured.
The toilets in the bar were among the worst I’d ever seen and I dreaded the pang in my bladder whenever it came, no matter how much I drank. Soon after my drinking partner left I got chatting with some local Hindus, two brothers. One was brown and the other so black it indulged the orientalist in me and I felt like he was a bona fide connection with India’s ancient, pre-Aryan past. He sat silently and charismatically and smoked while his brother regaled me with tales of his time in England. I drank a concoction of orange juice and Jaegermeister until the world started to swirl and I stumbled home with the rats feeling for all the world like a character in a Conrad novel.
The next morning I walked the four kilometres to Shwedagon, the absolute must-see, number one attraction in Yangon. This is the part where I say No visit to Yangon is complete without a visit to the Shwedagon PagodaTM. This colossal, gold and diamond-studded edifice is one of the holiest sites in Buddhism. When I first caught a hazy glimpse of it as I walked along People’s Park my attention was drawn to flocks of birds like dots, dwarfed by the golden stupa, flying around its pinnacle. It seemed as sacred to me at that moment as a Himalayan mountain at dawn when the early morning sunlight turns jagged, snowy peaks orange and pink and you struggle to comprehend the scale of things and even your own place in the universe.
On entering the grounds you must take off you shoes, then you begin the long dark walk up many enclosed steps to the hilltop. The entrance is like a city in itself. Souvenir vendors were selling things made of ivory and teak and more; at least that’s what the signs said. I hoped they weren’t true. Nobody hustled for my business. I bought a hand-carved elephant made of jade. It felt surprisingly heavy in my hand.
At the top of the stairs I signed a tourist book. I noted that I was the first tourist to sign for that day, but the woman at the desk told me that I was in fact the twenty-first and that a full page had been filled before I arrived. I thought nothing more of it and continued my walk up the tunnel. I emerged blinking into the sunlight to be met by a gnarled old Burmese man who offered to be my guide. He quoted me twelve dollars for a tour of the site, which I agreed to, wishing to do my part for the local economy.
Up there on the hot clean tiles of the hilltop, people worshipped with a fervour I hadn’t heretofore seen in a Buddhist country. Buddhism was not some inert relic, but vigorous and muscular, the stories told there as real as the pilgrims’ own flesh and blood and bone. Families picnicked under holy trees and old people snoozed beside reclining Buddhas and the whole site teemed with hectic spirituality.
My guide, a septuagenarian who graduated in Law, asked me what day I was born on. When I said Friday he did some quick astrological calculations. We went to a shrine marked with the appropriate day of the week and after dousing a statue five times with water he informed me that my power number was 21…and then I recalled being the twenty-first tourist of the day. Looking up at the jewel-encrusted umbrella atop the giant stupa I briefly felt a profound serenity and reassurance wash over me and then, just like that, it was gone.
The clouds were low-lying and the sky dark grey when I left. I hailed a taxi just as rain began spitting onto the warm, tropical ground. I wanted to pay a visit to the fabled Strand Hotel on the waterfront, near the British embassy, where Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, and Rudyard Kipling drank in the city’s prime. The hotel was beautiful, and in the bar I had a couple of beers, but it was empty. I played a game of pool with myself and hoped a man in a khaki suit and panama hat might turn up and join me, but despite the ceiling fans whirring soothingly in gorgeous rooms with obsequious staff, the Empire coming to life remained no more than a reverie.
I took a long walk from Hledan street downtown to the understated and poignant mausoleum of the last Mughal emperor of India a half hour walk away. Exiled by the British, he lived out his days in Rangoon pining for his homeland writing mystical poetry not unlike that of Hafez. To get there I walked along hot, dusty suburban streets dappled in treeshade while construction workers toiled in unyielding afternoon heat, and painted women sat in painted huts selling noodles and tea.
The caretaker of the mausoleum was a short, friendly man in a Muslim prayer cap. As I arrived a wealthy young couple, perhaps Indian or Pakistani, were departing. It seemed that the gravesite had a steady trickle of interested tourists arriving, but not enough that they were ever overwhelmed. I was mechanically walked through various framed photographs and points of interest and eventually told “You give me donation”.
I went to the airport. My taxi driver — a fat, jocular Muslim (whose very first question to me upon leaving the mausoleum was “You are Muslim?”) asked me where I was from. I said Ireland, but he repeated Holland over and over again with great enthusiasm; “Europe, Europe, very good”. I was too hot and tired to correct him. We passed Catholic and Anglican red-brick churches and colonial administrative buildings along a main boulevard, all of them beautiful and not at all out of place in tropical rain and surrounded by palm trees. Much of the colonial architecture that remains in Yangon is in a terrible state of disrepair, but it still bowls you over, a wild architectural portmanteau as satisfying as your third beer on a Friday night. If the country’s economy were to develop and the powers-that-be decided to prioritise restoration then the city could be the most beautiful in Southeast Asia. Empires — as the Burmese well know — come and go, but Yangon would be immortal.
This article first appeared at Ajarn.com.