It was nearing half past two when I first stumbled onto the steps of my hostel in Yangon – jet lagged, grimy, and covered in a thin layer of reddish-brown dust. I probably looked just as fresh as I felt, and all I could think of were sleep and food. At the time, I didn’t realize that my time in Myanmar would be marked by such an unusual combination of sensations.
After doing all of the usual airport rituals, I emerged to find dozens and dozens of taxi drivers in white, pressed shirts and green skirt-like bottoms vying for my attention. Wait…men in skirts? I thought that only existed in Scotland. Then I remembered something I’d read in my research – the men (and women) in Myanmar wear longyis, a long piece of fabric tied together in the front to form a maxi-skirt type of clothing item. Real men wear pink, but the real-est (thanks, Iggy Azalea) definitely wear skirts.
I ended up splitting a cab from the airport with two new friends I met during the plane ride from Bangkok – a spunky, free-spirited French lady and a tall, bearded Australian guy. We struck a deal with a young gentleman for just 3,000 kyat, or $3, each for a ride into town. After a humorous hour-long cab ride riddled with language barriers and travel stories, we finally ended up in downtown Yangon knowing little more than how to say min ga la bar (hello in Burmese). Our cab driver was kind enough to buy us some of the sweetest fresh papaya I have ever tasted, the perfect treat on a hot, dry afternoon in the city. Needless to say, he got a tiny tip from me for being so hospitable.
Shortly after settling down in the hostel, my Australian friend and I decided to check out some of Yangon’s street markets. Alas, sleep would have to wait. We zig-zagged through street stalls selling everything from car engines to laundry detergent to chicken feet covered in flies. It seemed like every street in Yangon was bordered with vendors, most of them advertising their products verbally in Burmese. Sounds of oil frying blended with drills, car horns, music, and the tap, tap of footsteps on the sidewalk. Everywhere I turned, Yangon was buzzing with life. The energy of the streets was invigorating.
Naturally, what instantly had me enamored were the dozens of food stands selling a variety of freshly-cooked, Indian and Chinese-influenced meals in the true Burmese fashion. After almost 48 hours of erratic eating habits and a 12-hour jet lag, my mouth watered at the variety of scents swirling through the air, a blend of rich spices and herbal concoctions mixed with the pungent tones of onions and curry. I bolted for the nearest food stand, which was a middle-aged woman selling freshly-made dosai, an Indian-style vegetarian crepe.
I would later learn that the area we were exploring was India Town, where the majority of the Indian-Burmese descendants in Yangon live and work. Food markets lined these streets, which were home to a handful of beautifully-decorated South Indian Hindu temples. It wasn’t uncommon to see women in saris walking amongst others in t-shirts and pants, along with some women wearing hijabs. No amount of research could explain to me the layout of the city – it took a grandfather-like Chinese taxi driver to teach me everything in his best, most polite English. He’d picked me up with terribly painful feet from the local train station and agreed to bring me back to my hostel. Somehow I found myself seemingly understanding more and more as he spoke, even though the language barriers were steep.
Right next to India Town, where we happened to be staying, was China Town. The taxi driver gentleman told me he grew up right around here, and that his whole family was of Chinese ancestry. Here one could find night markets, Chinese street food, and celebrations for the upcoming new year. He also mentioned, with a hint of pride, that this was the best area of the city to live in. We said our goodbyes as he dropped me off, and before leaving he reminded me eagerly to check out the food markets in the area.
The food market streets were a world of their own. I’m talking hundreds of baskets and plastic containers filled with fruits, vegetables, grains, eggs, meats, and unidentifiable food items. Whole ducks hung from their necks encased in clear, glass boxes. Newly-caught fish sat carefully inside of plastic bins, staring at passers-by with their wide, glossy eyes. There were people crammed between vendor areas, wheelbarrows, and moving cars. Women carried giant tubs of produce on top of headscarves. The whole place was an absolute chaos of people, plants, sounds, smells. It reminded me of why I love markets so much, and this thought had me smiling to myself as I shuffled through the madness.
In the coming days I would get to know the grid-like streets of Yangon through the soles of my shoes, walking great lengths each day. My worn out running shoes had never seen jagged sidewalks, potholes, and gravel like this before. I walked so much that at the end of each day, my feet ached from toe to heel. However, my fascination with the Burmese way of life urged me to continue despite the discomfort. As soon as I would stop for a quick rest, something would catch my eye and off I’d bolt, forgetting temporarily that I was in pain just seconds before.
In Yangon, my walks would start early in the morning, partly because the cool air created the perfect ambiance for a walk, but mostly because I was jet lagged as hell and was always wide awake by 6 AM. Before dawn the city was asleep, with just a few insomniac taxi drivers cruising through the streets and the occasional shopkeeper tinkering away at their displays. As opposed to the daytime, the paved paradises were a tranquil ocean of dust and wire-ridden street lamps. After a while the morning sun would burst through the hazy sky, hanging overhead like a bare, orange light bulb, reflecting off the shimmering gold embellishments of the golden stupas scattered throughout the city. Never have I seen such a stark contrast in one place – the difference was quite literally “day and night.”
The biggest of the city’s pagodas was the Shwedagon, the city’s most grandiose golden temple which is said to hold three original Buddha hairs. Wandering through this giant campus, I noticed people in prayer before giant, dazzling statues, monks ringing giant gongs, and young girls giggling while looking at something on their phones. All in all, there were hundreds of golden stupas surrounding the giant, central one.(I’ll post about my experience there soon.) The steps of the Shwedagon were lined with vendors selling flowers, incense, shrines and various Buddhist religious items. Though these items seemed geared to tourists, I didn’t see a single one around me – just a handful of smiling Burmese women chatting with arms intertwined.
I ended up picking up some wooden prayer beads for $1 from a motherly woman, her eyes in wonderment of me, with my Burmese face but an American voice. Finally I’d learned to say “kyei zu tin ba de,” or thank you very much. Every day I would have the same exchange with waiters, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and guest house owners, usually followed by you are only one? I like to think my dichotomy was endearing to people. Maybe it was just plain confusing. Whatever the sentiment, a smile usually assuaged any confusion on the faces of locals, instead bringing bright, beaming eyes, crow’s feet, and a red-toothed smile stained by years of chewing the local narcotic, paan. Later my solo-traveler-ness would bring me into some very memorable encounters with locals that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.
My tired feet also took me to the riverside, which was a dusty port full of cargo workers hauling food items, cement, rice, and bottles from ships docked at the pier. The river wasn’t life-changing – it was dirty with soot, the water murky and grayish-brown, but it was the displays of daily life on the riverside that truly caught my eye. Men and women both were doing the hard work – there didn’t seem to be any social rules against women in manual labor. This came as somewhat of a surprise to me, but I decided it was a pleasant one. The resilience and power that I saw in women throughout my time in Myanmar would eventually encourage me to rethink my own abilities and limitations. This little side thought that began here on the docks ended up defining a lot of my trip here.
Yangon welcomed me kindly. When I arrived I really didn’t know what to expect – I’d heard very different things about the country from a variety of sources. It kind of seemed like a giant beast of a country, only a little of which I would tackle during my trip. I quickly found that there were so many things to do in Yangon, and not nearly enough time!
Though my head was still engulfing the culture shock I was experiencing, my heart quickly submerged into the lovely, open community. On a first impulse, I immediately extended my stay in Myanmar for an extra week upon getting internet access for the first time since I’d arrived; this would end up being one of the best decisions I’d made during my time in Southeast Asia. Love was in the air in the form of red dust, motorcycle exhaust and the scents of sizzling street food. I didn’t know that this place would offer me so much more than what I’d seen in this first leg, but the surprises that awaited me would certainly surpass any expectations I originally held.
Have you been to Yangon? Have you ever wanted to go? Tell me your stories in the comments!