Wandering around Yangon, Myanmar’s mythical capital

Five days in Myanmar’s chaotic capital, Yangon, provided us fascinating insight into the city and country’s present (and hopeful future). In other ways, we left feeling like we barely scratched the surface of this rapidly-changing metropolis…

Like Mandalay, Yangon has a history that, even by New Zealand standards, doesn’t stretch back hugely. Although existing as a village for far far longer, it didn’t become Yangon until King Alaungpaya conquered central Myanmar and built a port city there, from 1755. But the city was flattened by fire in 1841, and destroyed further during the Anglo-Burmese war of 1852.

After this time, with the British now in charge, a new city grid was laid down and a bustling colonial centre constructed. Migrants poured in, especially Chinese and colonial bedfellows from India, and the early twentieth century city’s ethnic mix was actually majority Indian for a time (although, despite the benefits of this diversity we’d today celebrate, it should never be forgotten that the British encouraged this primarily as a divide and conquer tactic, to dilute the power of the Barmar majority).

But there’s no getting around the fact that yet another fascinatingly dynamic and complex urban mass emerged from this history. A lot from this period – both impressive and crumbling – remains standing today, providing a veritable visual feast for visitors. Downtown Yangon actually feels and looks in many ways like a less chaotic Kolkata or Mumbai: the unique mixture of architecture, street markets, religious buildings, people; the heat, smells and noise. There’s Chinese temples and storehouses, mosques and Hindu temples, and, just like other British colonial cities, a synagogue and Armenian church!

The unique feature of Yangon’s urban form comes from its grid, with long narrow streets running perpendicular to the waterfront, designed to allow a breeze to filter uptown. Main roads cut across them east-west, creating a situation where each street is further subdivided into upper, mid and lower blocks. Many streets, blocks, have specific industries and identities. A book I’m reading at the moment brings this to life in wonderfully descriptive detail:

“Here on the corner, you can find a great local barber at the Thiri Mon; antique chairs and a cut-throat razor shave for 1000Ks…A bit further along, Mr Myant Thein proudly acts as host at his Penang Restaurant, where he’s been serving excellent Myanmar Muslim food for twenty-five years…Next up is World Star Antique Shop, once overseen by an owner who seemed intent on showing no interest at all in selling his goods. There were treasures here, such as British made antique Berkefield ceramic water filters…”

– Bob Percival, Walking the streets of Yangon

Although undoubtedly an energetic metropolis, Yangon’s infrastructure is seriously creaky. Multiple power cuts per day – on, off….on, off; even our hotel’s generator was taken out at one point – and chronically congested traffic make the experience just that little bit less accessible than you’d want of a big city.

The main bus station is impossibly impenetrable, more like a neighbourhood of streets, and is situated on the city’s northern outskirts. Once you’ve negotiated your way through the taxi mafia – Lonely Planet describes the city’s drivers as the most honest and courteous in Asia, to which I say hah! – you’ve got a long, hot, possibly hair-raising ride ahead. There appear to be bus/minibus options to/from downtown…who knows? Best you get a SIM use the local version of Uber to ‘grab’ your rides wherever you need to go.

The creakiness extends to downtown, too, which is truly shabby chic, but firmly on the shabby side. This is no gentrified city, yet anyway. Although wistfully melancholic, many buildings look perilously close to the point of being unrecoverable, the result of decades of, how to put this politely, ‘underinvestment’ by the military government. It’s left the city (the country, really) in a race just to get back to the surface, let alone soaring above the stagnant waters of inertia.

(As always, though, there’s two-speeds of economics going on, with some places being transformed, while much else remains as it ever was.)

But, in spite of all this, Yangon has that magic ingredient – intrigue – that makes these cities so interesting to experience. It’s just an interesting place to be in, to walk around its streets and make sense of its buffet-like range of signifiers, each a window into a different characteristic, a different facet of the story.

Of course it wouldn’t be Myanmar without a pagoda or ten, and Yangon is no exception. In Myanmar pagodas (Buddhist temples) are called paya, and the holiest is one around which the city was laid out.

Shwedagon Paya is one of Buddhism’s most holy sights, and the original pre-Yangon village was built around it. The pagoda contains eight of Buddha’s hairs as well as relics from three other previous Buddhas. Legend has it that two merchant brothers met Buddha 2,600 years ago, and were given the jewels from his head (presumably it was head hair) to bring back to Myanmar. King Okkalapa enshrined them in a temple, and one has stood in this place ever since. It’s worth pointing out that archeologists disagree, dating the first stupa back to the Mon period, between the sixth and tenth centuries.

Either way, it is without doubt one of the country’s more remarkable paya, and we spent a great deal of time inching our way around the complex, watching the throngs of people praying and making offerings at the large number of adjacent halls, temples and birth day images. In fact, aside from the neighbouring Maya Wizaya, it was the only one we visited whilst in the city.

(Maya Wizaya was built in the 1980s and is notable for being one of the few you can walk inside, where you’ll find fake trees crawling up the sides, leading to fantastical depictions of constellations. Quite unique.)

I left Yangon wishing I could have spent longer there. There’s a lot to see and much we didn’t get to experience: parks, museums, neighbourhoods, paya; even downtown felt barely scratched. Alas, however, our visas were up and our flights back to Thailand booked. It was time to move between borders once again.

(Full disclosure, though: our Yangon experience was quite unlike the other places we’ve visited to date. We have friends there, you see, part of the expat community providing knowledge and expertise to assist in the country’s continued development. We spent the last day of our first visit with them, being absolutely treated to a five-star brunch buffet, one whose sheer scale made my eyes spin around like a stunned cartoon character.

On our return from the South, we stayed with them, and spent our final weekend chilling, yarning, eating, and learning about their lives as a gay expat couple in Yangon. These experiences undoubtedly influence the desire of return, the desire to better see and know the city; perhaps I feel like I didn’t get there, yet, not in the usual fashion of our meandering, anyway.)

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