(A quick terminology note before we begin: Myanmar is one of those places where you end up playing “Istanbul or Constantinople”, trying to figure out whether to call it Burma or Myanmar, whether the main city is Rangoon or Yangon. (I was going to write ‘capital’ there, but for reasons that no one really understands, the junta decided a few years ago that it wanted to make itself a new artificial capital elsewhere. So it’s not the capital any more.) I’ve gone with what the country calls itself. I know that the Beeb, for example, prefers to stick with the old names, as a show of rejection for the military junta’s takeover of the prior regime. I can get that, but at the same time, I can’t help but wonder at the self-righteousness of a policy that expresses said disapproval by insisting on the name that Britain assigned the colony, upon its military takeover of the prior regime. So, especially given that the government is gaining more and more acceptance internationally these days anyway, I’m going with what the locals say. Myanmar and Yangon it is…)
The taxi trip from the airport to our hotel gave the lie to many of my expectations of Yangon. Driving through some of its northern suburbs reminded me more of growing up in Melbourne than anywhere else. Least of all the chaos of recent stays elsewhere in South-East Asia, or the dilapidation of Kathmandu.
Our four-day excursion to the Myanma capital was a last-minute addition to our travels around South-East Asia, but it was obvious it was going to be intriguing.
In the main part of the city, confusion and bustle is more evident, yes. The prevalence of left-hand drive cars in a country that drives on the left can’t be helping that, I’m sure. But a ban on bikes – pedal-powered or motor – marks this city truly a world away from those of Myanmar’s neighbours. As you’ll soon discover if you try to cross the road as you would in Hanoi, only to find that the traffic does not in fact part for pedestrians as expected.
And like the rest of South-East Asia, there is street food aplenty here, and the footpaths overflow with sellers of fake Ray Bans and a cornucopia of shiny things. It’s hard to walk far without being offered the services of a moneychanger, eager to do you a “good deal”, changing US dollars at well above the market rate (net of the sleight of hand that will have you actually walking away much poorer in Myanma kyats than you intended, if you were sufficiently unwise as to take the offer).
But there is definitely something more orderly about Yangon. Dare I say, something more British. (The smattering of old colonial architecture obviously contributes to this.)
There’s something more secure, too. At no point in our South-East Asia travels did we feel in any danger, and definitely Yangon was no exception. But it went further than that: though you do need to be careful of being ripped off by the moneychangers, Myanmar, a very thoroughly Buddhist country, has incredibly little crime. Ferry ticketsellers and restaurateurs alike will happily turn their backs on seriously large piles of cash in crowded areas as they go about their business, with no thought to the possibility of it being stolen. Crime against tourists is almost unheard of. Obviously this doesn’t mean you go around behaving like an unthinking idiot leaving your valuables everywhere, but there’s a trusting vibe to the country that is obvious and reassuring and pleasant.
It’s not a lack of poverty that’s responsible, either: there’s poverty aplenty, with most of the country effectively one step up from subsistence farming. One of the typical tourist recommendations is to head to the central train station, pay your $US2, and catch the Yangon Circle Line: a three-hour trip out into the pretty but far-from-wealthy nearby countryside and back around to where you started, past farmers markets, scrap yards, slums and everything else that outer-suburban Yangon has to offer. The ride was fascinating, but probably interesting more for the people-watching on the train, than for the view out the glassless windows. As the train passes through the main markets, and large sacks and wicker baskets overflowing with vegetables find their way into the carriages as their owners then set themselves cheerfully about their daily tasks, cutting, peeling and bundling, all mid-carriage, preparing to sell on down (or is it up?) the food chain. The train is how most produce gets into the city, and it seems to be the industrial quasi-kitchen-prep venue as well.
Much of that food, once it makes it into the city, proceeds to the street-side food stalls that dot many of the main streets. Chinatown, especially, comes alive with culinary variety at night.
And by culinary variety, I mean fresh produce, indefinable variations on meat-on-stick, and big piles of fried crickets. Which are actually quite tasty, as it turns out. Tastes kind of like chicken. (Although I’ve been told that you really want to rip the legs off before chowing down: the enthusiastic seller I dealt with evidently took care of that for me when he handed the tasty morsel over, but apparently otherwise, they have a somewhat irritating tendency to stick in one’s teeth.)
And then there’s perhaps the most common type of stall in all Yangon: the beetel nut vendors. Beetel nut is a cultural phenomenon in Myanmar: you can see evidence of it not just in those stalls, but in the red stains on nearly all the locals’ teeth, as well as the dried-blood-coloured splotches practically painting the footpath and roads, constantly prompting you to second-guess that “Myanmar is perfectly safe” advice I gave just before.
There’s evidently quite an art to beetel nut production and consumption: the nut is chopped up and wrapped in leaves, along with some form of white paste to keep it all together. Watching the practised manoeuvers of the stall-owners throwing together a fresh batch (it’s typically bought in bags of half-a-dozen or so, which, judging by the consumption habits of some locals I observed, must last all of about an hour) is really quite mesmerising.
Also sold on the street, by the way, was a surprising amount of Angry Birds merchandise. I say surprising not because I’m not used to seeing lots of Angry Birds merchandise – it’s hard to think of many places (especially in South-East Asia) that I haven’t seen it. But because one of the things that still sets junta-run Myanmar apart is the lack of availability (and ridiculous expensiveness) of mobile phones. There’s a certain double-take you do when you realise that the fashion is for wearing clothes which promote a game the locals are unlikely to have seen played, since it’s playable only on phones which only the country’s few tourists are able to acquire. (Similarly unusual: the Samsung Galaxy SIII is heavily advertised on large and prominent billboards throughout Yangon. But I’m not even sure that it’s possible to buy one there.)
With all of that, Yangon is just a bit different to anywhere else I’ve been. Generators dot the footpath (the electricity infrastructure is not exactly reliable), and (no doubt in part because of a lack of available power, as well as a lack of available patrons) the nightlife is almost non-existent, unlike most other Asian capitals. (That said, the Strand Bar – local haunt of the workers at the nearby British and Australian embassies – does half price drinks from 5pm til 11 on Fridays, and some of its regulars enthusiastically informed us that while yes, most places are done for the night well before midnight, there are most certainly a few haunts that can keep an expat going all night, if you wish to seek them out.) Everywhere you looked, there were these small accumulations of little differences that make the Myanma capital unique and intriguing.
And that was our brief experience of perhaps South-East Asia’s most reclusive destination. We were sad not to have had the time available to get out and see anything more than just Yangon: from everything I’ve heard from other travellers, the rest of Myanmar is an incredible country and well worth an in-depth exploration. But we were very glad to have gone and seen a taste of a different kind of Asia, even as it rapidly changes and opens up to the outside world.