The roads were wide and the buildings were tall. Our taxi circled roundabouts with traffic. After the hills of Shan State, Yangon was big and hot, but exciting. As our driver took us from the airport to our hotel, we sped by malls and apartments on the rise. He pointed out Inya Lake as we drove by. “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi lives there. You know her?”
Less than two months prior, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had won a supermajority of seats in Myanmar’s parliament – a rapid change given that she had only been released from fifteen years of non-consecutive house arrest at the end of 2010. Dissidence had been brutally crushed over decades of military rule, but now, our driver was regaling us with how happy he had been to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi. A former student of mine, a former refugee from Myanmar, had just recently been able to return home for the first time in many years. The country had been reshaping itself, and, given that the NLD opposition had dropped their prior support for a tourism boycott, there we were. The flowers our driver draped over the rearview mirror swayed back and forth.
We walked from our hotel to Bogyoke Aung San, a large market. On the way, we squeezed between street vendors selling books, t-shirts, fruit, keys, nearly everything. We had seen Aung San Suu Kyi calendars and NLD flags already, scattered about in different towns, but Yangon flourished with a wider variety of political merchandise, including bags and t-shirts. Admittedly, a thrill surged through me to see what I knew was a shift, though a yet incomplete one. Discussions with my former grad school classmates and students, refugees, rang in my ears, and I grasped at the difference.
Even before these discussions, before being taught how to properly pronounce Aung San Suu Kyi’s name by a patient classmate, I remember sitting in my undergraduate library with the New York Times in my lap, reading rising death counts as the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis unfolded. Myanmar’s junta delayed and blocked international aid, and likely underestimated the damage and death toll. The cyclone, the country’s worst natural disaster, swept through the Irawaddy Delta and past Yangon, leaving floating bodies in its wake.
And now, a contrast of mossy and run-down colonial buildings and rising new construction flanked us, as vendors sat by their variety of wares in the heat. We headed into Bogyoke Aung San itself, wandering through its different stories and divisions: fabric, lacquerware, gems. I avoided the latter, as mining is a source of revenue for the government. Signs hung at each shop, declaring official license. Instead, we bought paper mache owls at a stall near the food court.
We walked back toward our hotel as the air cooled and the sky darkened. Food carts had popped up and we eyed them as we walked by, stopping for dosas and fried chick pea balls and chips and a smoothie as we circled the blocks surrounding our hotel. Lanterns strung across the street had been lit, and a crowd gathered to hear a monk speak.
The next morning, we were back wandering the roads, this time down toward the ferry terminal along the Yangon River. I realized the streets seemed different to me because there were full of cars, rather than motorbikes, which were banned in Yangon. After playing pedestrian and sweating in the heat, we ducked into a teahouse, this one Muslim-owned, for some really tasty sweet milky tea and pudding.
Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country, with the dominant Theravada Buddhism well intertwined with nat (spirit) worship. Just as Myanmar is diverse ethnically, it is religiously, with Christian, Muslim, and other minority populations. Though Buddhist monks helped lead the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests against the military government, there is also a Buddhist nationalist, anti-Islamic movement called 969, led by a monk. The Burmese government has not granted citizenship to the Rohingya Muslims and over a hundred thousand live in camps for internally displaced persons. The thousands of Buddhas I saw everywhere across the country were peaceful figures, but the religion is preferred by an oppressive regime and is sometimes weaponized.
From much of the city, it’s hard to ignore the sharp gleam of Shwedagon paya, the country’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda. The enormous gold stupa is hard to look at in the sunlight. Even so, in the middle of the day, crowds of people – the minority of us foreigners – skittered shoeless across the hot tiles from shade patch to shade patch under its bulk, visiting various intricate shrines. I can’t pretend to ascertain the meaning, it isn’t mine, but I looked at everything.
We then wandered to nearby Kandawgyi Lake and cautiously walked across its precarious boardwalks, my sandals now digging blisters into my skin. After reaching my pain threshold, we got a taxi back to our hotel where I changed into shoes, and then I got a smoothie at a street stand to cool down. For those who wonder about my lax street food/drink consumption: I did get campylobacter, but consider it worth it.
That evening we then wandered through the lovely dusk, checking out restaurants and stands. As I investigated what, at first glance, appeared to be noodles in the cold light, the lady running the stand told me, “papaya!” I decided to give it a try, so she mixed up a salad for me, warning me through words but mostly gestures of the spice. And it was. I began to sweat, much to her delight and that of her daughter, and we laughed and joked back and forth. She also told me the names of the other dishes she was selling, which I surely screwed up when I later wrote them down. After finishing my tasty, but somewhat torturous, salad, we bought drinks and an ice cream for me at a small shop nearby. As we passed the salad lady, I showed her the ice cream, and everyone laughed.
On our last day, we took the circle train around Yangon, a bumpy and slow ride that gives a better glimpse of the outlying areas of town. A young man sat with us and tried out his rather good English, asking us about the news – North Korea’s bombs, satellites, cyber war. More agricultural areas and factories flickered by the window. We all jostled along.
For a late lunch, we stopped in another teahouse, and had more delicious tea, samosas, fried gourd, puns, puri with potato curry, noodles. The teenage boy servers rapidly carried orders back and forth.
After final souvenir and gift gathering, and more walking, we went back to the salad stand for our last dinner. The owner and her helpers beamed at seeing me and, upon serving me a tofu salad, plopped a glass of ice water down along with my tea with a laugh, as they remembered my sweaty struggles the night before. I tried to convey I was leaving the next day and couldn’t come back. I took their photo, and we said goodbye.
Across the street, we got sweet pancakes with nut slivers and coconut for dessert, and then headed to our hotel to pack up. I wrapped my souvenirs and was sad to go. Activity carried on as the street vendors conducted their business. Birds flew amid the tangled power lines. The lamps strung about the streets punched their light into the darkness.
Some recommended reading on Myanmar
Pascal Khoo Thwe – From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey
Emma Larkin – Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma
Emma Larkin – Finding George Orwell in Burma
Thant Myint-U – The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma