Last Stop in Myanmar: Yangon

Yangon is a big city. Bottom line. At first the former capital felt like it could be anywhere, but I soon noticed its distinct Myanmarness: the produce on the street clearly grown in the surrounding farmland, the food stalls with the water (or is it oil?) bubbling in the center to cook the skewers that surround it, or the ones with a dozen different dishes to accompany rice, the telltale red stains on the streets, the gleam of a gold pagoda rising up from behind the walls of traffic, and, specific to Yangon, the lack of motorbikes. They have been banned in Yangon and I didn’t realize until I got there how strange it is to me now to just have cars fill a street. I haven’t seen a city without motorbikes in so long.

I was initially worried that two days in Yangon wouldn’t be enough, but it turned out to be plenty. I had arrived on a night bus, reaching my hotel by 6:30 am, and after waiting in the lobby for three hours and being told my bed wouldn’t be ready till after noon I had to get out and explore. I did a self-guided walking town of Central Yangon, starting by weaving through the crowded sidewalks of Chinatown overrun with produce stands on my way to Sule Pagoda.

This pagoda is in the center of traffic and surrounded by dingy little shops. I didn’t bother paying to go in, I just wanted to see it from the outside. It reminded me of Patuaxi in Vientiane but much grander. It’s a shame the base is all covered in storefronts.

I took a short break in a patch of shade in the park, with a view of the Independence Monument and City Hall, before continuing my walk up a main avenue to the Bogyoke Aung San Market. This complex has the typical tourist market things like bags, jewelry, and lacquerware boxes, but it also has sections for fabric, wood carvings, and antiques. Antiques are a big concern in Myanmar; there are warnings everywhere about not being able to bring antiques out of the country. I didn’t get anything, just wandered, killing time until I could get into my room. On my way back I stopped for some street noodles and a spring roll – a steal at 800 kyat.

After finally checking in I waited till late afternoon to go see the biggest attraction in Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda. I’d heard that if I do one thing in Yangon, this should be it, and I see why. The pagoda is not simply one structure but a whole complex of them, all ornately designed and shimmering with decoration. Unfortunately half of Shwedagon is under cover as it’s being worked on, but the top is still impressive, and even just wandering around could take hours depending on your pace. I spent three hours there, taking my time to soak in the architecture and waiting for sunset, when the lights turned on and lit up the spires against the darkening sky. As this happened the pagoda became a hive of activity: monks lit candles, people poured holy water on different statues, volunteers in an orderly line swept the ground, and all around people prayed.

While I was happy to wander alone, I had two conversations at Shwedagon that were the final note in the symphony of kind, friendly, talkative people of Myanmar. First was a girl just two years older than me. She asked to take a picture with me, then sat down next to me and we talked for a while. Beyond simply where I’m from and “only one?” (the Myanmar way of asking if I’m there alone) she asked what I thought was important for our lives. A deep question for a new acquaintance. She absorbed my response and said “thank you for your answer.” She was humbled when I told her my positive opinion of the people in her country and told me if I needed anything at all she wanted to help me. I said I was perfectly content, but thank you.

Second was a monk who, in his 70’s, is studying to become a teacher of Buddhism. After working 14 years in banking he left his profession to live the simpler life of a monk. We talked about mindfulness and how the base reaction to all things around us is like and dislike. Through betelnut-damaged teeth he explained to me the meaning of the days of the week in the Myanmar zodiac, and what the phases of my life would entail based on the day I was born. I just finished a good phase and am in a worried one until 35. Then I can marry and live in very good for 19 years. In my 50’s though I’ll have to move around a bit as a slightly bad patch comes back, but just 12 years later that’ll be over and I’m golden till the end. I was enthralled by his explanation, and he wrote it in my book so I could always have it and explain it to others. On a page now dotted with red spray.

Having done all the most popular attractions I wanted to in Yangon on the first day, my second day was relaxed. I had one task for the day: go to the National Museum. Just like mountains make me happy, when I’m a little overwhelmed in a city I’ve found that taking some time in a museum calms me. I remembered Phnom Penh and how at home I felt in the museum there; the same with Brisbane, Buenos Aires, and Rio. It’d been a while since I had been in a museum so it felt like the right thing to do.

I walked into the first gallery and was shocked at myself as I slowly observed the paintings and wood sculptures. I was emotional, overcome with happiness at where I was at that moment. I wonder if traveling has made me start to let down some of that emotional barrier I’ve always had up and actually acknowledge moments like this. Food for personal thought. Anyway, the museum started out great but as I moved up the floors it became less a museum and more an anthropological study. It didn’t help that the painting galleries were closed, but as I wandered through musical instruments, fossils, and mannequins wearing traditional tribal clothes I started to lose the initial joy I’d felt upon entering. It took just an hour and a half to make my way through all 4 open floors but for me personally, I don’t think I could have picked a better activity for my day.

On my way back I stopped for lunch at a street stall near the museum that no tourist must ever have stopped at. I walked up to the woman behind the curry stand and she looked at me with a terrified expression. She signaled for the only person who spoke English to deal with me. Through a few words I ordered chicken curry with rice and some side dishes – “all of the vegetables” – which I ate at a plastic table and chairs fit for a five-year-old. I swear I felt their sighs of relief hit my back as I left, but maybe they at least found some entertainment in my strange presence. From my side, this last chicken curry was by far the best I had in Myanmar, in the most random of places.

I treated myself to an iced coffee on the walk home and took an evening to relax. This was my final night in Myanmar; the next morning I would board a flight to Bangkok, spend another night in the BKK airport, then go to India. It may not sound like I did much in Yangon and maybe I didn’t do it all, but even just walking around was an activity there. I think I got a good feel for the city.

Yangon also confirmed something that I had a suspicion of before I even got there: cities in Southeast Asia just aren’t for me. With the exception of Chiang Mai, I can’t point to a city in the past three months that I really felt comfortable in. To me the best parts of Southeast Asia are the rural parts, the small villages, the places where the pace of life is slower and the scenery is the draw.

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