I've put this post off for about three weeks now, which is not actually as long as I'd thought. We arrived home on the 3rd but it feels like we've been back for four months; which makes it even more difficult to synthesize my feelings about our stay in Myanmar, the country in which we spent the most time. What I'm writing will probably be disjointed and vague, but in that way they'll at least match my photos.
Myanmar, or Burma (if you're wondering why I use these names interchangeably, refer to this article) is a country that is frequently featured in Western newspapers, and yet we left Vancouver in January knowing next to nothing about its landscapes, both physical and cultural. We knew only three people who had visited Burma in the past three years, and it was on their word that we were traveling there; but we still weren't sure of what to anticipate.
Yangon is Myanmar's capital city, but the remnants of Rangoon, it's former title, are everywhere. Colonial buildings are either hollowed out and grey, or newly painted in very non-Empire pastels, the lines between bricks painted white to make them appear well-maintained. Unlike Bangkok, most signs are in both Burmese and English. And unlike Hong Kong, the English is translated very well.
You look up four storeys at aged crown molding, then look down to the street where groups of men in longyi sit on plastic chairs made for children, drinking tea. This scene takes place in every alley and almost everyone smiles.
For the most part we stayed close to our hotel near the river. We walked a lot during the day and would usually go to bed by 9pm. It was always cloudless and not unbearably hot. One day we found a café filled with hip teenagers, and they had ice cream and donuts and wi-fi. It was so different from all of our surroundings up to that point that I felt overwhelmed by how little we would really experience in this city. The ice cream was good, though.
The Strand Hotel, Yangon, Myanmar
Writing from the bed in a room with ridiculously high ceilings, a colonial relic that isn't decaying but has cracks. There is a desk on our floor with a nameplate that says "Butler." It's undeniably weird, but the person who attends the desk is so nice that it doesn't seem to matter here.
In the cab here we zoomed and lurched in our seats. In Bangkok, everyone drives like this and there is an ease to it--you are just floating along in the backseat. In Burma, apparently only taxis drive like this while everyone else drives at a normal speed, so you feel like you are going to die. It was night time, too; everything dark but simultaneously lit by some kind of lamp--half light, half shadows, or maybe just poorly lit. Then, a giant, glowing golden temple across some water, rising up into its diamond point.
A note on The Strand:
First open in 1901, this Victorian-style hotel was built by the Sarkies brothers and followed the success of Singapore's famed Raffles hotel. The Strand is not the last gasp of colonialism in Yangon; it is a living and breathing, albeit endangered vestige. From the architecture and décor to the mannerisms of the staff, it is old school.
The hotel is beautiful and the staff are amazingly kind, but it's easy to sometimes be uncomfortable in a place where the Empire's tracks are kept fresh. What caught us by surprise were the guests. When we arrived, we were maybe one of four groups staying at the hotel. In the next few days, tour buses began to drop off 10 to 15 new guests at a time, all of whom were on seniors' tours from varied European countries. We were under the impression that there was little tourism in Yangon and we were wrong. And these were real tourists, on tours, often dressed as if they were about to go on a safari (no joke): a modern retelling of a 19th Century story.
This is why it's so difficult to piece this trip together. I was constantly surprised, my initial impressions contradicted at every turn, so I cannot really tell you (you should just see it for yourself).
Not sure what time, maybe 6am
Strand Hotel, Yangon
Every morning I am woken up by birds. There are small sparrow-like chirps and then there are crows that sound like monkeys. 20 minutes later music starts to play from somewhere in the street.
- walked to the water and the Scott's Market (Bogyoke Market) to look for longyi- went to "Buddha's First Sacred Hair Relic Pagoda" or the Botataung Pagoda where we had to take off our shoes and socks before entering
- inside was a gold labyrinth housing ancient treasures (obscured by iron bars and dirty glass)
- also inside, a pond with small turtles
- bought two avocados from a stall inside in the pagoda gates; one is slightly larger than average, the other the size of a small butternut squash and looks like a dinosaur egg
I'm getting upset trying to write this because I'm realizing how little I remember of the aspects of everyday life in Yangon. I can say with certainty that I've never been to a country where people have smiled more at a complete stranger (and an obvious tourist). Whether these smiles are genuinely happy ones doesn't really matter. To feel for a second that your presence is welcomed can be so rare while traveling that this simple gesture is something worth remembering.
I'll finish piecing together these thoughts in the next post, film photos coming soon!
We stayed at The Strand Hotel
92 Strand Road, Yangon, Myanmar