Yangon takes quite a bit of getting used: firstly while being part of a long line of insufficient queues to efficiently cater for the necessary passport checks and official stampings before glum officers, and then during the rather chaotic traffic scenes inside and outside the international airport.
Apart from the myriad of painted faces, what’s immediately evident is the huge amount of construction taking place at a slow and relatively inefficient pace: the high rise building projects attached to the airport and throughout many parts of the city.
After first catching our attention in the Arrivals area, Chit Chit passes us over to a young driver who fits our luggage into his Toyota, heads off towards our hotel and does much to promote his services for future ventures in and around Yangon. A nice young man dressed in camouflage trousers and singlet, I’m drawn to the huge watch that swathes his wrist in masculine glamour. It’s easy to slip into conversation as his English is no doubt well-practised on tourists. An affable young man he soon announces, ‘I plan to marry my fiance next year in a simple ceremony, to save on expenses.’
I’m pleased to be contributing to a young guy’s plans for the future though the traffic we must otherwise endure at this time of our lives is extreme, bumper-to-bumper and apparently normal for Monday to Saturday travel in Yangon. Even supposed short-cuts take a while to negotiate so as to make an inch or more of headway. Still there’s time for a few snapshots: our first fleeting sighting of Schwedagon Pagoda
and of the sale of betel nut quids, where we’re told a pack of three possibly costs around 100 kyat (10 cents US)
‘Besides it’s big business designing “quid” for a customer at a roadside stall by swiftly coating leaves with lime, adding areca nuts, a sprinkle of tobacco, flicking on more lime and bagging the package…
‘Betel nut chewing has a mild narcotic effect and is highly addictive. Spitting betel nut onto the streets is technically illegal and carries a prison term of up to one year,’ says our driver. ‘But you’ll soon find out, the law is ineffective. The red stains are everywhere, so common they’ve become almost like a red trademark on footpaths.’
I learn through an article by Hilary Whiteman entitled Nothing to smile about: Asia’s deadly addiction to betel nuts, these potent parcels of areca nuts and tobacco, wrapped in a lime-coated betel leaf and often spiced with cardamom, saffron cloves and sweeteners are staining the teeth of regular users a reddish-black; not only giving the users a ‘lift’ but oral cancers. “Having one is okay, but the danger increases when you start having the second one. When you reach a certain point, people will get cancer,” said Professor Ying-chin Ko, vice president of China Medical University in Taiwan who conducted some of the first studies into the link between betel quids and oral cancer in the 1990s. Though it’s unsupported by evidence some believe it’s due to the excessive use of pesticides and insecticide on the lime leaves.
‘Some drivers consider it a herbal remedy, to keep them alert. Others for staving off a toothache or acne; sometimes even as an aphrodisiac. But health officials face an uphill battle in convincing addicts it’s not worth the buzz.’
While the glamour of the boutique hostel is etched into my brain through photographs on the Viator booking site, as for many travellers thrown into the unknowns of a new city our hostel is immediately visually disappointing from the street.
There’s honesty in it being described as being ‘on a corner’ and rather ’boutique’ in nature : a stylish small hotel, typically one situated in a fashionable urban location. However without a proper vestibule to capture our traveller’s hearts, only steep dirty cementy steps lead to a first floor check-in point, a tiny affair with a couple of vinyl lounges and a desk.
‘I know I’ve already booked, but (considering other visual discrepancies), can I check out the room first before we decide to tote our bags up additional stairs?’
‘Oh no bother, we will carry for you.’
The room is OK by expected simple standards, though we’re immediately redirected to a room with a window at no extra cost. And there’s plenty to catch our attention or to be captured by a zooming lens:
In a rabbit warren sort of place, the plumbing and communal facilities are fairly basic. Some toilets are already signposted as being ‘Out of order.’ I find others that need a similar sign.
Without allowing too much time for further disapprovals of scant sheeting and the army of ants that’s already climbing corners and invading carry bags, we decide to brave the streets of Yangon, even while the mid-day sun shines down on a Vietnamese non-la, our feet heading towards Sule Pagoda and the nearby hotspots of activity and residual British architectural influence and historical relevance, cameras slung round necks, fingers poised as if on the trigger of a gun:
We return to the Boutique to rest up and catch a few action-packed movies on our wall-mounted TV before I decide to venture to the bathroom. The shower is cold but adequate enough to wash away the considerable dust of the streets. Besides it’s nice to freshen up however we can. I wash shirts, undies, and Ben’s socks, peg them to the curtain where they surely will fully dry overnight in the wintry heat that indicates summers in Yangon would be oppressive. Ben sleeps for a couple of hours while I mildly concern myself with an occasional niggle in my left ear.
At 4 pm we head across the road to a well-chosen tourist eatery, the Schwe Htoo Restaurant that delivers reasonable fried rice and mixed vegetables that prove tasty enough though far too large a plate even for two.
Unable to pass off our left-overs to beggars we eventually give our containers to a gratefull fellow at the boutique desk (though after a rather podgy monk knocks them back, obviously because it’s too late in the day for a monk to even consider the gift of food).
Wandering along the streets we felt we were getting the hang of the place.
And though it’s not my favourite city, I thought the large number of people taking advantage of the city’s central park – most men dressed in longyis – delivered a nice touch of familiarity on a beautiful afternoon that sported gold-edged clouds and brilliant expansive sunbeams from a slowly-disappearing sun, a perfect backdrop for the Independence Monument.
We learn a longyi is sarong-like tube of fabric worn by both genders; called paso when worn by men and htamein by women, though mostly everyone merely referred to the cultural uniform in its gender-neutral term “longyi”.
Men tie theirs by pulling the fabric tight against the back and tying an elegant knot in front. Women tie the longyi by pulling all of the fabric to one side, folding back at the hip and tucking into the opposite side of the waist, usually topped with a fitted blouse worn just to the waistband.
The Myanmar public travel in low class buses bearing high class signs. Mobile phones thrive in the hands of Myanmar youths. Men walk together, one hand around the other’s shoulder openly showing friendship rather than indicating a ‘gay’ tendency.
Crossing the road becomes significantly more than a leap of faith; and venturing down side streets reveals much about the state of communications.
Like in Hue & Dalat, we find the footpaths take some careful negotiating to avoid a foot or leg vanishing into the slushy darkness between wonky concrete slabs.
Birds are evident in far larger numbers than in Hanoi or other cities we’ve visited previously in Asia: flocks of pigeons, little wrens, and even one hoppy crow!
Before considering settling in for an early night, the city is viewed as alive & throbbing: horns blaring … whistles blowing …
the streets alive with construction and the jumbled webs of electrification ;
even hawkers and friendly shoppers, and tempting chefs of all things great, small, battered & fried.
Eventually the sounds morph into long languid moments of relative silence as if the city’s streets are taking a breath somewhere between 3 and 4 am.