Going… Going… Yangon!

A First-Night Neighborhood Wander in Burma’s Former Capital

By Dave Fox
Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

Our corner in the hotel lobby feels like a relatively safe place to pull out a large wad of cash; nevertheless, I glance to see if anyone’s watching before Kattina digs a thick envelope from her moneybelt.

“The total is 997 US dollars,” says Pupu, one of the two travel agents who has come to collect. Kattina counts out ten crisp hundreds. Pupu scrutinizes each bill to ensure it’s acceptable. Then, she opens a wallet to give us our change.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kattina says. They’ve driven to our hotel for us. Our “tip” is less than a taxi to their office.

The thousand bucks will cover a bunch of pre-booked services over the next week – hotels and domestic flights for me and Kattina, and our friends Rena and Gary, American teachers living in Vietnam.

This is one of the challenges still in play in a land just waking up to tourism.  It’s a cash-only nation. For safety’s sake, we’ve spread our stash among various pockets, luggage compartments, and secret pouches.

Our plan now is to visit Yangon’s most touristed (and spiritual) place, the Shwedagon Pagoda. But it’s nearly 5 p.m. Getting there before sunset will be a scramble. I propose an alternative – my favorite thing in any new place – aimless wandering.

Our hotel is in a residential area away from the city center. There are few other tourists in the hood. Location, location, location? Being nearer the “sights” has its conveniences, but this is a more authentic Yangon.

Within minutes, my apprehensions about Burma melt away. The city is mellow and easy. Motorbikes are illegal, which does delightful things to the noise levels. There are cars and buses. The favored mode of public transport is the pick-up truck. On side roads, however, the prominent sound is dinging bicycle bells.

I’m experiencing something I’ve missed out on and dreamed of in Saigon. Twenty years ago, the bicycle was the reigning vehicle there. Now, streets are clogged with growling motorbikes. On many visits, I’ve tried to imagine the city in quieter times. It suddenly strikes me: This is what Saigon used to be like.

We Frogger our way across a busy thoroughfare. On the other side, a dirt path leads into a local market. We squeeze past vendors hawking produce from wobbly bamboo stalls. There are mounds of chilies and ginger root, vast spectrums onions, bell peppers, carrots, bananas, dried fish – and fresh meats that worry me, given the heat, flies, and lack of refrigeration. A couple of stalls are selling clothes. At another, a woman hems pants with a pedal-cranked sewing machine.

Dusk fades to black, and we find a watering hole. Inside, there’s a “bar” – a table, really – with a beer keg and assorted bottles of local liquor. One bottle has a pineapple on the label. The owner, who speaks no English, seems to really want me to try it. Why not? A glass costs 200 kyat – about 25 US cents – versus 1,000 kyat for beer. I can’t tell if it’s got alcohol, but as he taps something from a keg, I squint at the label and catch “21%” amid the curly Burmese script. The man hands me a large fizzy beverage. He’s diluted this pineapple booze with soda water. It goes down easily, tastes non-alcoholic. By the end of my glass, however, I know that’s not the case.

Outside, a charcoal grill is singeing meat and vegetable skewers. I order an assortment of oversized toothpicks with okra, potatoes, and chickpea tofu. I’ve decided to go vegetarian for most of this trip – mostly to reduce the risk of stomach unpleasantries.

Later, at another restaurant back on the busy road, we sit outside and watch the traffic. Pick-up trucks with roofs over the back are crammed with more passengers than seems scientifically possible — not only in the backs of the trucks, but on the roofs as well. More people are standing on the bumpers, clinging to the roof bars. Guys on the back of each truck shout route numbers and destinations as the trucks roll in search of more riders. We want to jump on one, zoom someplace random, but we agree that would not be wise at the moment, given our drink-wobbled balance.

Strangers approach our table to say hello. If they can say it in English, they say it in English. If they can’t, they say it in Burmese – “Mingala ba!” – and smile when we respond in kind. Even from the pick-up trucks, people shout, “Hello!” as they drive by. Foreigners are still a novelty here, and people want to connect, even if just for one word.

It‘s hard to fathom that for years, this city has lived under vicious oppression. I sensed a collective angst and depression when I first visited the Soviet Union in 1986. Yangon’s not like that. People are outgoing, laughing, flowing with life and welcoming us into their current.

That’s not to minimize or trivialize the brutality that has reigned, or the plight of political prisoners who still languish. (And there are many.) These things have no justification. But it’s inspiring to see that people – at least those we see on this random street in Burma’s former capital – have transcended that oppression and found happiness in spite of it.

Published on Friday, November 9, 2012

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