Our trip to Yangon, Myanmar last weekend was somewhat spontaneous, suggested by our friend Jessie whose goal this year is to explore all the countries in South East Asia. We didn’t really know what to expect or do, beyond visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda and wander about the city. But we had a most wonderful time, and felt like we’d stepped back into the past, seen what Singapore could have been like in the 60s and 70s. Men still selling betel nuts and leaves by the roadside and hawking them on trains. Electric lines still criss-cross the streets, most of which still have no traffic lights, so everyone just brazenly jaywalks. Dozens of monks and nuns, dressed in their saffron or pink robes, walk around barefoot, carrying their aluminium tiffin carriers.
Our first day wandering around the city, we found the bridge to the Bogyoke market closed. The bridge was across some train tracks, and to get around them, we had to take a long detour – another 30 minutes under the hot sun. Later, when we decided to take the train that circled Yangon to get a better feel for the local life, we realized how blasé people were with the tracks. People were leisurely strolling along the tracks, or had pulled up plastic stools to sit right alongside the tracks – their version of people watching perhaps? And they didn’t have any qualms jumping off or flinging themselves onto the cars even when the trains had started to pull away from the stations.
We weren’t quite as brave. The “circular” train route we took turned out to be under construction, so the train was only running partway. We didn’t realize this of course, when we bought the tickets, not knowing any Burmese. An hour after we’d pulled away from the station, the train rolled to a stop at some random station near the airport, and most everyone jumped off, save a couple old men who sat unconcernedly on. After 10 minutes of waiting around, we got off to discover that the locomotive pulling the train had already been detached. Nobody we asked seemed to understand English either. Since we had time to spare, we decided to wait it out. Then a train came alongside ours into the station, heading back towards Yangon Central Station, where we’d gotten on. The conductor peered into our car at us, and motioned for us to climb onto his train. But it was already starting to pull away at the time!
Eventually though, the workers brought around another locomotive and reattached it to our train, in the direction of Yangon Central Station. So all’s well that ends well. Haha.
We were quite taken with these little nuns going about their business, in search of their evening meal, and followed them down the street.
From what we’d read online, one of the bustling areas in Yangon is Chinatown, the area roughly bounded by streets 18th through 24th. In the evenings, the streets are lined with rows of plastic tables and chairs and hawkers grilling meats along the sidewalk. We went right before the peak period, around 4pm in the afternoon, so while there were some hawkers set up on the street corners, some of the streets we walked down were almost eerily quiet. We walked by shuttered store fronts, and gates with faded and peeling paint that had seen better years.
The architecture dredged up memories of Chinatown in Singapore about 30 years before, before the government had revitalized the area by tearing down some of the older structures and repainting the remaining in vivid bright hues. My grandmother had lived in one of those 3rd storey apartments with the dim naked bulbs, steeply sloping eaves, and wet kitchen with its ever-present inch of water that refused to drain away. Even then though, I remembered the streets as being cleaner. Still, it felt like we had walked back in time.
A short two days, but it felt just right. The next time, we want to hit up the countryside, especially Bagan, with its over 2000 pagodas and stupas and lush greenery.