I didn’t believe in love at first sight...until I saw Yangon.
From the air, it looked vaguely Thailand-ish, the packed roofs of its pastel colored suburban area as colorful as rows of smarties candy. As we tilted in the wind and eventually landed with a massive thud, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never even considered visiting Myanmar- nee Burma- much less touring it with my Aunt and Uncle. Myanmar/Burma, until recently, was largely off the beaten path of tourists due to issues with the corrupt government.
It is a widely held prediction, however, that Myanmar is going to blossom as a tourist destination in the next couple of years. Yangon itself is quite cosmopolitan. It is home to 7.2 million people- Burmese, Myanmar minority groups and many foreigners. It is the seat of rapid development in Myanmar and an established city in its own right- a fact that surprised me as our van sped down impressively large promenades, lined with cheerful red and white alternating curbsides and lush and cared-for green medians.
Men and women in sarongs strolled past, many young couples shyly arm in arm. Nearly everyone un-self consciously donned soft taupe paste smeared all over their cheeks and foreheads, a traditional Burmese form of sunscreen and skincare from the native Thanaka tree. This protects the skin against sun poisoning (among other things...like epilepsy).
I gazed in amazement as the van sped through the city, as Yangon proper is mercifully free of motorbikes (banned), but subject to the *dings* of bicyclists and the shouts of overly bold pedestrians who darted in and out of start and stop traffic. I gazed out the window at crops of tall, wide buildings. Many were shabby and whitewashed and had been overtaken by an unlikely duo of black mold and cheerful flower boxes.
A soft layer of taupe dust covered the sidewalks and rose into the air as people strolled down the sidewalks. Buses pulled up alongside of the van- they were spare, I noted. Their worn sides peeled paint and their windows were missing, kind of like gap teeth in a cheerful smile. People hung out of their windows, trying to catch a gulp of fresh air. Some stared at us from their seats. The gazes were not particularly friendly, nor were they menacing, just matter of fact. As we looped through residential neighborhoods, I noticed that faded blue satellites were ubiquitous and perched precariously on the sides of multistory apartment buildings- like alien, electronic beetles.
Dogs wandered autonomously through the streets, unfazed by the traffic or by sharing the road with people who paid little attention to them. They were on their own private missions and led their own private lives, and they all looked like they were part of the same family with their pointed snouts and perky, triangle ears, smooth coats and friendly, alert tails.
The streets of Yangon were diverse, to say the least. Some were quiet alleyways with not much happening. Others buzzed with activity. I glanced down one to find a full blown hacky-sack tournament, complete with a volleyball net and more than fifty cheering spectators.
The central downtown area featured the colonially inspired city hall- a grand white affair with spires. Directly facing it is an open lawn not unlike something you’d see in New York or Washington DC. In the midst of the picnicking families and the shy couples, there is a central obelisk that is supposed to represent Myanmar’s independence from the British in 1948. I couldn’t help but to see the Washington Monument reflected in it.
As we strolled on past the open green lawn, we were greeted by more colonial architecture, completely reminiscent of the age of the Brits. Under the imposing red, brick city hall, there was a far stretching and lively food market packed with roasted sweet potatoes, peanuts, salads, noodle bowls, cuts of meat and seasoning. It was sensory overload- the scents and sights surprisingly different from that of their Thai neighbor. As I oogled all of the goods and swayed to the sound of the bells that sugarcane sellers use to attract their customers, I noticed someone take a picture of me.
The waterfront of Yangon was something else. The parking lot was littered with candy colored plastic chairs. Food stalls and trucks were crammed into the already busy space and they sold everything from sausage to ice cream. Iron bridges with precarious wooden steps- missing in some places- linked one side to the next as the river flowed in between. It was- in the late afternoon sunshine- like a rollicking channel of gold. Seagulls rode the wind in a circular pattern above a certain old lady who gave me a toothless smile and offered up a bag of seed. Other vendors sat in the hot sunlight, their backs against the iron beams of the bridge, peddling their wares. Long, wide bellied boats sat delicately on the bobbing river, their captains waiting to ferry people back and forth. Once the boat was full, the engine sputtered to life with a belch of pure black exhaust and the whole crew lurched forward, bouncing over the glittering water. The waterfront smelled like garbage, charcoal, salt and seagulls.
As we flew through different sections of the city, my aunt and uncle commented that it reminded them of Mumbai. I had never been but it was clear to me that we were in the Indian quarter as we passed a beautifully adorned Hindu temple, covered in pastel faces. In other parts of the city, the French quarter, I was reminded of lower Manhattan. There were actual brownstones here that wouldn’t be out of place in the East Village, except for the enormous amount of dust and the women serenely walking with enormous piles or bowls on top of their heads.
As the sun slips lower and lower into the sky, we decided that it was time to visit Yangon’s jewel: the Shwedagon Pagoda. By the time we arrived, it was dark and the stars glowed. We took a lift to the top and stepped out, discarding our shoes among the hundreds of others. We stepped onto the still-warm floor of the pagoda and were taken back immediately by the pure volume of gold. Gold spires abounded, a forest of them around the central pagoda. Worshipers murmured softly in reverence as they circulated, clockwise, around and around the pagoda. It seemed an entirely separate world from the hustle and dust of Yangon proper. This is why Yangon is so magical: it's a city of dust and gold, the rush of the crowd and the quiet reverence of the pagoda.