Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Pagoda prayers, dusty roads, and Tanya Tucker: Impressions of Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon has been on my radar, albeit way off to the side, for decades, ever since I read about Beyond Rangoon in Entertainment Weekly's summer movie preview 22 years ago. That 1995 Patricia Arquette film got half of its title from the former name of the largest city in the country previously best known as Burma. (Incidentally, Burma debuted on my radar half a decade earlier, via "Mountains of Burma," one of many standouts on Midnight Oil's 1990 album Blue Sky Mining.)

Despite my passing interest in Burma/Myanmar, it would be the last Southeast Asian country I'd cross off my to-do list. (And I still haven't seen Beyond Rangoon!) If that makes it sound more like a chore than an adventure, well, it kind of is. Yangon, which is not exactly a cushy metropolis with easy horizontal mobility, requires a bit of work. Thank God for my four-star accommodations at Jasmine Palace Hotel, which puts Yangon right above Vientiane in Laos, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and dead-last Koh Samet off Thailand's east Gulf of Thailand coast, on my list of most-to-least-favorite places in Southeast Asia.

Not that Yangon really cares what visitors think of it. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, occasionally bordering on obsequious, but the city itself is like a detached employee who is too busy texting friends to be bothered with impatiently waiting customers. Yangon doesn't care that you've arrived, and it's certainly not about to break out the good china.

Billed as the Southeast Asian metropolis with the worst infrastructure, the sprawling city is dusty and dirty, despite the efforts of the women who diligently sweep the streets with old-school brooms. Dilapidated city buses are the extent of public transportation, so if you want to get around the rush-hour traffic, your only options are to negotiate the rickety, uneven sidewalks or to stay home.

On my final evening, an American expat in Bangkok sums it up as a "fun city but not particularly easy," and the "not particularly easy" part pretty much nails the Yangon experience. It's not fun in the "good times" sense, but more as a cultural curio. Anyone who has ever thought of "Asian" as a catch-all for interchangeable people and customs across different countries should spend one week here. There's no mistaking this for Bali, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore.

It's not that I have a problem with underdevelopment. That quality actually works in Cambodia's favor, making Siem Reap and Phnom Penh two of my favorite Southeast Asian destinations. But underdevelopment is better suited to smaller, more modest cities that are uncluttered and unburdened by overpopulation and bumper-to-bumper traffic. In those places, it builds character, which is something Yangon could use more of outside of its famous pagodas.

Yangon may lack charm, but that doesn't mean it's a bore. Over the course of five days, it made strong impressions. Here are some of them...

The look A Southeast Asian version of Tanzania's Dar es Salaam, only with more paved roads and no livestock interrupting traffic. But as in Dar, four- and five-star hotels hover over one-star housing on the outskirts of the city center, occasionally filling the higher ups with twinges of guilt while overlooking the true grit.

The looks Aside from my one-year stint in Cape Town, I've spent the last decade plus living in countries with a paucity of black people. I'm used to the race-inspired attention, but the locals in Yangon bring the art of the stare to a new high.

The people Few Western faces pop up among the peak-hour downtown population - or anywhere else. Many of the men wear longyi sarongs (right) instead of trousers, and nearly everyone wears flip-flops. The level of English spoken is considerably lower than pretty much every other Southeast Asian country I've visited, which is too bad. These are some of the loveliest people I've encountered in Asia, but the language barrier gets in the way of meaningful communication with them. Can they possibly be this agreeable when talking amongst themselves in their native tongue?

The customs Be prepared to doff your shoes before entering the pagodas (the two largest ones, Shwedagon and Sule, dominate the Yangon skyline), and respect the locals engrossed in prayer. Yangon's "number one" and "number two" pagodas, as Shwedagon and Sule are respectively called by locals, are not just tourist traps but emblems of a devoutly Buddhist culture. Like the city itself, the pagodas haven't been tidied up in anticipation of your arrival, so be careful not to slip on the damp floors during rainy season.

Downtown It looks like an urban center that was destroyed by world-war bombs and rebuilt in a day. A plethora of electronics stores reminds you that you haven't time-traveled back to the 1970s.

The money It confounds. Unlike Thai baht, the bills are all the same size and demand considerable concentration to decipher denominations. Were they designed to make it easier to rip off tourists? That's my inner cynic talking - the Burmese people I encounter give me no reason to suspect dishonest tendencies among the general local population. But the money is so hard to keep organized. On the plus side, there are no pesky coins to make your pockets bulge.

The shopping I nearly fell off my chair when I heard "Can I See You Tonight," Tanya Tucker's 1980 Top 10 country hit, playing at Mr. Chef, a restaurant on the fourth level of Dagon Centre 2. Named like a sequel, Dagon Centre 2 is a crowded mall that feels more like a 1970s community center than the slick high-fashion malls of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

Tanya Tucker "Can I See You Tonight"

The traffic Dense and chaotic, with no motorbikes, just cars, it befits Yangon's status as a Southeast Asian metropolis. But judging from the volume and frequency of honking horns, Burmese drivers are not as patient as their urban counterparts in other major Southeast Asian cities.

The taxis They're serviceable on the outside and shabby on the inside, with no seat belts to increase your chances of surviving getting from point A to point B. Oh, well. I guess you get what you pay for, and you don't pay a lot for taxis in Yangon. It costs only 7,000 kyat (US$5.15) to my hotel from the airport, and I never pay more than 4,000 kyat (US$2.94) for any trip I take over five days. But the bargain comes with some effort. Who wants to negotiate the fare every time you hitch a ride?

The food Toto, we're not in Bangkok anymore. The street food scene, though bustling, isn't nearly as compelling as the one I left behind in the Thai capital. It's hard to go wrong with fresh sliced pineapple, but the dried-up samples I see on the side of roads look like they'd require a bit of water to go down smoothly. Interestingly, the best meal I have (twice) in five days is the Korean fried chicken and garlic mashed potatoes at 50th Street Bar and Grill. The chef here has even figured out a way to make cole slaw interesting: Just add blue cheese sauce!

The mojitos Shaking and stirring them just right is a rare art indeed, but Myanmar bartenders can really turn out a drink. Yangon cocktails are some of the yummiest I've had in Asia. Thai mixologists, take note.

Midnight Oil "Moutains of Burma"

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