In Yangon

I’ve been in Thailand for a week now, and it took several stern conversations with myself before I resolved to start this post.

Strand Road, Yangon

Strand Road, Yangon © Jo James

My first four weeks travelling through Burma left me with a grubby, scribbled diary full of excitable notes to self: “Bulldog clips!” (underlined three times) and “Bago baby in a SLING”. I’ve been hoping that the swirling chaos of first impressions would eventually coalesce into a nice series of blog posts, but that will probably never happen, so I’ve decided just to start at the beginning, in Yangon.

The morning after my last post found me waiting nervously in the longest immigration queue at Yangon airport. To my mind, the first few days in a new country are like the first few days in a new job – you have no idea what you’re doing or how anything works, and everyone tries to take advantage of you. It might be fun, it might be awful – either way, you have no choice except to keep your head down and muscle through it.

Merchant Street after dark © Jo James

Merchant Street after dark © Jo James

Eventually the queue disappeared, my passport was stamped, my backpack reclaimed and I emerged into the arrival hall. Throughout this process I’d been surreptitiously following the lead of two Singaporean businessmen who had visited Yangon before. At this point, however, they disappeared in a minivan with blacked-out windows, while I stood there, surrounded by men in longyis, unsure what to do.

I changed some money and threw my lot in with one of the longyi-clad gentleman who took me out into the morning heat and waited with me while his friend brought a battered Toyota taxi around to the forecourt.

The Toyota was my first acquaintance with one of Burma’s many eccentricities. The Burmese drove on the left until 1970 when the country switched to drive on the right-hand side of the road (allegedly on the advice of a wizard). However, today, Burmese cars are usually imported from Japan, with the driver sitting on the right side of the vehicle, driving down the right-hand side of the road. Effectively, almost everyone is legally required to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road for their car.

Buses, Yangon © Jo James

Buses, Yangon © Jo James

After a slow and sweaty drive into the city, we stop-started our way into downtown Yangon. In my pre-trip reading, I had noticed that Yangon is most frequently described as ‘crumbling’ and ‘decaying’. While both are entirely accurate, neither word adequately expresses the sense that the city is still resolutely alive, getting by and making do with its crumbling, decaying edifices.

Large-leafed tropical plants sprouted from roofs, snack vendors carried their stalls slung from shoulder yokes, cracked pavements revealed sewers beneath, dogs napped under trees, students in green longyis browsed streetside book stalls and unseen residents in walk-up buildings unspooled strings weighted by bulldog clips of kyat notes in payment for bags of noodles reeled in moments earlier.

After reaching my hotel and spending a full five minutes transfixed, watching a leech make its way across the floor of my en suite, I went out to explore, hopping my way across the broken sidewalk in search of lunch. Along the way, I stopped for a glass of sugarcane juice and watched two small children playing at the edge of the street, their faces smeared with sandalwood thanaka paste, their hands smudged with dirt.

© Jo James

© Jo James

The rest of that first day continued to move in slow motion, the newness of everything forcing time to decelerate, each new sight or experience worming its way into my memory in a way that seldom happens in my everyday life.

Later that evening, my feet dusty, my face salty with dried sweat, I happened across Mojo – one of Yangon’s coolest bars, I’m told – where I drank Cuba Libres by candlelight and tried to write coherently about the day in my notebook. An exhibition was going on inside, and when I went in to look at the photographs – coincidentally of Tibetan nomads – I fell into conversation with an American teacher in her fifties who had moved to Burma after a divorce. She told me, smiling, “I love Yangon, you know, because nothing here makes any sense! Nothing makes any sense!”

Sidecar at rest © Jo James

Sidecar at rest © Jo James

Written in Rachadamnoen Coffee, Chiang Mai

8 responses to “In Yangon

    • So far, I’ve spent a month travelling from Yangon to Kawthoung (the southernmost point of mainland Burma). One more month to come, exploring the north this time. I actually only spent two days in Yangon on my first trip – someone else is covering the city for my guidebook – hopefully I’ll be able to spend more time there sometime soon… 🙂

  1. Wonderfully written – I was in Burma last year and had an amazing time. This bought it all back. Enjoy the surprisingly good shiraz at the red mountain estate vineyard near Inle Lake!

    • Thank you, Kate! Sorry it took me so long to approve the comment… As you know, internet isn’t one of Burma’s strong points – I’m looking forward to adding the shiraz to the list of things that are! 🙂

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