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From Yangon

By Sahand Rabbani

from Yangon

Dear Friends,

With my late-night flight out of Hong Kong delayed, by the time I landed in Yangon and made it to the immigration counter, the time was just past midnight, so my passport received a stamp dated Saturday, September 2. The arrivals hall was active, nonetheless, with eager taxi drivers competing for attention. I exchanged some dollars for kyat and engaged a driver. About twenty minutes later, I had arrived at the Best Western Chinatown Hotel.

The next morning, I set out along the bustling boulevard known as Anawrahta Road, admiring the colorful, albeit decrepit, colonial buildings, and selectively delving into the dense and narrow streets that run perpendicular to this major thoroughfare. I failed to grasp why this area is referred to as Chinatown, for it seems as discernibly Burmese as any other part of town that I have since seen. In any case, it is perhaps for me the most interesting neighborhood, for its narrow numbered streets are each their own mystical alleyway lined with noodle vendors, stray chickens, and children at play. One of these streets, 19th, is famous for its grilled skewered meat stands. At night, plastic tables and chairs fill the street and locals and tourists alike flock to the scene.

At this early hour, though, the main attraction was on 26th Street, site of a local meat, fish, poultry, and produce market. Both sides of the street are packed tightly with vendors who sit on the ground and showcase their products on low tables or mats. As if the street were not tight enough, long stretches of produce line the center, so the foot traffic is forced to either side. Naturally, I was surprised when I first saw a truck attempt its way through. Indeed, the crowd of shoppers opened a path and the truck proceeded straight through, with its chassis high enough to clear the lines of produce in the middle of the street, leaving them untouched or at least lightly dusted with exhaust.

I further witnessed the sale of four carp fish to two young boys. The vendor, a middle-aged woman, wrangled the live fish from a shallow metal pot and clubbed their heads with a wooden bat until the fish went limp. She then weighed them in a balance, shuffling around counterweights of various sizes until finding the right combination. (Apparently, Myanmar uses its own system of weights and not the metric or imperial systems, but this was not apparent to me during my visit.) She descaled the now unconscious fish and sealed them in a plastic bag for the customers.

From 26th, I continued walking east toward the Sule Pagoda, a large gilded stupa that sits in the middle of a roundabout at the intersection of two major roads. The pagoda is circumscribed by a two-story ring of shops. I paid the 3000-kyat entry fee for foreigners and was instructed to take off my shoes and socks, leaving me to waddle around the uncomfortably wet floor of the pagoda barefoot. The place was impossibly intricate but would be nothing compared to the Shwedagon Pagoda that I would see the next day.

After wiping my feet and slipping back into my footwear, I continued walking east and south toward the river, seeking refuge from the heat and humidity in the lobby of the famous Strand Hotel, a newly renovated hotel from the colonial era. I made a reservation for high tea for the following day, freshened up a bit, and returned to the mounting heat outside. I walked north from here, to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, a bazaar housed in another colonial-style building. But the jade, jewelry, and fabric vendors here did not excite me, so I hailed a taxi for a mere 2000 kyats (about $1.50) for the legendary Feel, an iconic Burmese restaurant serving myriad curries and other local food. I enjoyed a delicious lahpet thoke, a "salad" of pickled tea leaves, peanuts, and fried garlic chips, a delicious and oily treat. In addition, I had a crisp Myanmar lager to drink and two curries, one of lamb and chickpeas and another of fish. The fish curry was spectacularly tender and flavorful and became my favorite meal of the trip.

After lunch, stuffed, I limped back to the hotel along a busy street, negotiating a sidewalk in horrible condition, rife with holes, booby traps, and languishing stray dogs. Crossing the street is an ordeal in Yangon, where pedestrians do not expect the right of way and cars do not offer it. Even in the rare case when the pedestrian's path has a dedicated light, a green signal does not immunize against turning traffic. Offered no incentive to cross at intersections, pedestrians often cross anywhere along the road. I rarely attempted this on my own and instead tagged along with locals who were expertly trained in the trajectories of oncoming Burmese vehicles.

I cooled off back at the hotel in preparation for a night of decadent luxury. I took a taxi to the distant Inya Lake to the north of the city, arriving at the grounds of Le Planteur restaurant. Housed in a stately villa with a view of the tranquil green lake, the restaurant serves French fare with a muted Asian influence. After watching the sunset in the backyard and enjoying a glass of wine, I sat down to a coursed dinner where the most interesting dishes were the early ones: raw scallop and tuna with wasabi ice cream and a generous slab of pan-seared foie gras. Overall, the food was good, but the restaurant is clearly striving for a level above its current grade (as evidenced by its prices!) and is still lacking some of the fine detail. The courses were rushed, for one, and I was asked how I wanted my lamb done, an option that I certainly should not have had.

I reveled in crapulence for the remainder of the evening and easily slept through the night for the first time since I had arrived in Asia a week earlier.

The next morning, after breakfast, I took a taxi to the Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon's foremost tourist destination. This enormous gilded stupa sits atop a hill and is visible from much of the city. Elaborate arcades of steps ascend to it from all four cardinal directions. Again, at the entrance, I was instructed to take off my shoes and socks, leaving me again barefoot to wade through stale rainwater. Foreigners pay an entry fee and are identified easily from their race. During my ninety-minute visit, I did not encounter a single foreigner amid the hundreds visiting the pagoda that morning. The gaudiness and extravagance of the pagoda paralyze me when attempting to muster a meaningful description, so I abandon the effort. I am afraid to admit that my visit to the definitive Yangon landmark was compromised by perpetual discomfort. The sun reflected mercilessly off the white tile floors, and the unfortunate odds of barefootedness finally caught up with me when I jabbed my toe on an unidentifiable rusty metal pin. I was all to happy to leave the shoeless zone even though it meant that I would have to tumble down the hill along the stony side roads parallel to the arcade.

From the bottom of the pagoda's ornate eastern entryway, I meandered toward Kandawgyi Lake, a manicured public space with a few small parks along the northern edge and a boardwalk, partially under construction, on the southern edge. I walked the length of the boardwalk and enjoyed scenic and serene views. At the end, I hailed a taxi to take me a ways off the main drag to Jing Hpaw Myay, a restaurant specializing in food from Myanmar's northern state of Kachin. Alas, after a forty-minute taxi ride in crawling traffic, I arrived to learn that the restaurant opens late on Sundays. So I asked the taxi driver to return downtown to a chique new restaurant that had been recommended to me by a fellow passenger on my flight from Hong Kong, the Rangoon Tea House. A tidy, trendy restaurant near the Strand, it unabashedly caters to an expatriate clientele with an exclusively English menu and framed accolades from English-language periodicals lining the walls. Nevertheless, the food was delicious. The lahpet thoke rivaled Feel's and the butterfish curry was tender and flavorful.

With a few hours still to go before my reservation for high tea at the Strand, I dried off back at the hotel and then returned. The Strand's high tea was disappointing, but I welcomed the hotel's five-star comfort as respite from the oppressive weather and often steaming odors on the streets. I opted for the Myanmar high tea option rather than the traditional English one, figuring that anything is better than bland crustless cucumber sandwiches on white bread. I was wrong! The Myanmar version included fried oily mush and a tasteless, stale rendition of the tea leaf salad. The sweets were gooey and tough. Enjoying the place's one comparative advantage, I lingered there for over an hour, as if my sweat-drenched pants were glued to the rattan chair.

Indeed, my reluctance to leave must have been a subconscious aversion to the obligation that loomed, a visit to the riverfront Botahtaung Pagoda. I continued east along Strand Road as street vendors were setting up their hot pot stations for the evening crowds. Piles of offal, including intestine and liver, were stacked high near boiling pits of broth, but the customers were yet to arrive. By the time I reached the pagoda, the sun had recently set. The line for entry was massive and I had resolved against any further barefooted adventures, so instead I wandered toward the only accessible segment of the riverfront just beyond the pagoda, weaving between gridlocked taxis and jumping over muddy puddles formed by the recent drizzle. The riverfront itself was hideous, littered and pungent but nonetheless teeming with locals out to drink and eat. Exhausted, I stumbled back into the streets and was turned down by half a dozen taxis before one agreed to take me back to Chinatown. I did not succeed in conveying the address of the hotel, so the driver plopped me down at 19th Street, which was raging in full force at this hour.

On my final morning in Yangon, I set out for Yangon Central Station to ride the Yangon Circular Railway, a rusty commuter train that runs in a loop and connects downtown Yangon to the neighboring suburban area. I had read that the train ride provides a good way to see local life.

The Yangon Central Station is another fine example of a grand colonial building in disrepair. From the outside and afar, it is a majestic palace, but from up close or inside, it appears abandoned. According to articles in the Myanmar Times, there are plans to completely rebuild Yangon Station and its surrounding area, but until then this station will serve its purpose not only as a gateway to the rest of Myanmar, but also as a home for many otherwise homeless.

At the platform for the Circular Railway, I bought a ticket for 200 kyats from the station attendant (about fifteen cents) and was instructed that the next train would leave from Platform 7 at 9:25. In truth, such a train never arrived, but around 9:40, a train did arrive at Platform 6. It was an old rusty train featuring the Japan Rail logo, and all signage was in Japanese and English. I hurriedly inquired if this train ran the circular route, and I received several conflicting opinions. With the trains running over an hour apart, I decided not to forfeit the opportunity, so I boarded. It was not until an hour into the journey at a critical juncture that I would learn whether this train would in fact bend back toward Yangon again or continue to hurl north into the Burmese unknown. (That I survived to write this letter is the clearest indication that the train turned back.)

I suppose I did witness local Yangonese life, and it is sobering. As the train left central Yangon, the towns became increasingly rural and abject poverty came into clear view. Families live in shanty towns along the tracks, sleeping amid heaps of litter and roaming roosters.

Vendors walked the aisles of the train cars selling various edible goods (unlike in the Mexico City metro, where vendors sold nail clippers and anatomy textbooks). The products on offer included sliced watermelon, fried things, grapes, nuts, and kwun-ya, areca nut and slaked lime wrapped in betel vine leaf. In Myanmar, chewing this carcinogenic package is far more popular than smoking. They are sold at street-side stands on nearly every block. Many working men, especially taxi drivers, are constantly chewing on these and spitting out projectiles of red saliva onto the street. The streets of Yangon are dotted with the desiccated red stains left behind after the liquid evaporates.

The train took around two and a half hours to complete a full circle, but I stayed on for another twenty minutes (topping 7.4 radians of total radial displacement) to alight at Kyeemyindaing, the station nearest the Kachin restaurant that was closed the previous day. This time, it was open, and I enjoyed a delicious meal of steamed fish in banana leaf, pounded dried fish with ginger, and shredded beef tenderloin with garlic. As the English menus often lack prices, I am nearly positive that I was charged more than double the official price for this meal, but I was in no mood to engage anyone on this topic.

I hailed a taxi back to the hotel and passed the next several hours before my one-AM flight by taking a long nap in the refrigerated hotel room as Yangon blazed in the early afternoon heat. It is here, in the hotel room, just moments before departing for the airport, that I conclude this letter.

I have no regrets from my three-day diversion in Yangon. While I would have loved to see the rolling Buddhist monuments of Bagan, the city of Mandalay, and Inle Lake, there simply was not enough time. Beyond time, perhaps I am also gradually losing the stamina for prolonged travel in the developing world. After three days, the heat, humidity, incessant honking, pollution, ubiquitous stench of garbage, and the unsightly betel nut chewing has weighed on me.

Myanmar has a long way to go, but with foreign investment pouring in since the start of democratic reforms in 2010, the future is bright. From the limited conversations I have had with taxi drivers, people are optimistic, too. Perhaps I will return one day to a Myanmar totally transformed.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
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