“This has totally changed since the last time I came. They have paved streets now!” This was one of the first comments a Canadian woman said as we shared a taxi from Yangon’s airport to the city center.
Myanmar is one of the most mysterious countries I’ve visited to this day. I did my research online before arriving to have a feel of what should I expect once there, but many sources were a hyperbole of an idea of what this country used to be, while others fell miserably short of what Yangon –and Myanmar in general– were for me.
It is understandable, though. Myanmar is changing at an uber fast pace. But don’t think for one second that this change is making Myanmar “just another country” in the blink of an eye – though they are trying hard.
Early in 2013, there were barely any ATMs and most things had to be paid in US Dollars. Today (January 2014), you can find ATMs in all major cities (though not all of them work with all banks) and you are able to pay hotels and restaurants in Kyats (Myanmar’s currency). This is part of their modernization, but city wise, Yangon is heading in all directions.
I have to point out something very curious to me. There is no denying that Yangon is proud of its parks and gardens. They trim and keep them as if it was their most valuable asset. On the other hand, buildings rot and crumble in front of your very own eyes.
I’m not talking about small or lower class buildings; the former courthouse, other major buildings, and even some pagodas look like their glory days passed several decades ago and now are just slowly decaying until they reach total dilapidation.
I saw hundreds of workers dedicated to the upkeep of the gardens, yet not a single person to clean or keep up a building or the street. I wonder why…
Under a first impression, Yangon feels like a shithole – pardon my French. Well, let me take it down a notch. It feels odd, uncomfortable, and messy at best. It does, but I don’t want to just stop there and leave it like that. Yangon must be like that for some reason.
I believe that even a city like Yangon must have some “gold nuggets” to make it worth seeing. And if not, then at least you experienced it as it is.
I believe that the reason Yangon (and Myanmar in general) is the way it is goes way back in its history. The country has been plagued with a grinding poverty that gives no real opportunity to most of the population.
But in my opinion, what makes it feel even worse is that Myanmar used to be the richest country in Southeast Asia but is now the poorest. How did they manage that? Corruption and isolation, among many other factors.
As a country that experienced plenty of traumatic encounters with foreign nations as well as oppression in the past – going as far back to the Mongol invasion, to the British colonization, and later the Japanese – Myanmar developed this isolationist mentality and behavior that mostly rejected foreigners from its lands.
Nowadays, though, this mentality has eased drastically and the country now welcomes and “takes care of foreigners”, as they publicly state on street banners.
The truth is, Burmese are very friendly when it comes to helping and extending a welcome to a foreigner. From my experience, many of them cared about my experience and some even went above and beyond to make sure everything was ok without necessarily getting all fussed about my presence.
Even though Myanmar had this isolationist ideal once, Yangon has always been a mix of British, Burmese, Chinese, and Indian influences. I’d say the British influence is most noticeable in their now decaying 19th-century colonial architecture – that once glorified the former capital city, previously named Rangoon.
The Indian influence is strongly present in the way locals act and the poor upkeep of the city. Honestly, Yangon made me feel like I was back in India, minus the intense crowds (actually, Myanmar was part of India under the British rule).
The Burmese and Chinese influences are expressed more in their culture and traditions, which thanks partly to their semi xenophobic behavior, have been kept strongly in their ideals and can be easily seen on the street on a daily basis.
This somehow makes Yangon a very exotic city. There’s a lack of most international brands, most things are done in a “rustic way”, and there is a lack of tourism infrastructure – so almost everything is done the way locals do.
A walk down one of its rundown alleys will give you a “culture” overdose – both good and bad.
The pungent smell of the gutters mix with the street food aroma; the burgundy clothed monks are to be found everywhere in the city; most people are comfortable walking barefoot anywhere they go; women wear the traditional Thanaka on their face to protect it from the sun; and most men still dress with a longyi –a long sarong-like garment– and chew betel nuts incessantly, giving them a reddened smile that will make you cringe at first.
And I can’t forget the betel nut spit stains found on every corner of the city (just like India!).
Even though this might sound and feel exotic for us, these details are imperceptible to them. The truth is, Yangon is a city with an identity crisis.
For starters, it was stripped of its capital status (was given to Naypyidaw, which was built from scratch, in 2005), its name was changed from Rangoon to Yangon –let alone the rename of its country from Burma to Myanmar– and it had its national flag redesigned more than once.
Most of the time you hear a mix of Rangoons and Yangons, as well of a mix of Burmas and Myanmars. Which one rules? Which they respect the most? Which do they identify with?
Probably this lack of identity is what brings me back to the lack of care in the city (except for its gardens, oddly enough).
Maybe they don’t care about the British colonial buildings that served once as powerhouse representatives of their former capital and now sit front row in the cityscape, rotting away into nothingness. Maybe they don’t care about their city enough, now that it’s been downgraded to “just” the biggest city in Myanmar. Maybe… Maybe…
As a last note, tourism in Myanmar is booming, again thanks to the recent opening of borders and ease of laws and rules towards tourism. Yet, Myanmar’s infrastructure does not evolve fast enough to keep up with tourism.
Demand has outstripped supply in most places where tourists are allowed (yes, there are parts of the country where tourists are not allowed). Hotels now charge over twice the standard for Southeast Asia and most prices (restaurants, transportation, and sightseeing) are constantly rising.
In my opinion, Yangon doesn’t have much to show except for Sule Pagoda and Shwedagon Pagoda – the most famous sight of Yangon (very nice and impressive, but not worth the $8 entrance fee, in my opinion).
The rest of your experience is based on experiencing and absorbing the daily life of Yangon, the markets, the smaller temples, the mess, the never-ending traffic, and most of all, the people.
I’m saying all this not because I hated Yangon or Myanmar, but because it is the way Myanmar is experienced. Myanmar is rough and not easy to understand.
Not only the pretty makes for a good, interesting, and enriching travel experience; the downsides add much more to it than you can think of. I didn’t really like Yangon, but Myanmar was my favorite country I visited last year, and this was part of the experience that made me love the country so much – aside from the beautiful and culturally rich destinations like Bagan and Inle Lake – which I really loved.
Still, it’s worth getting to know Yangon as an introduction to the rest of the country, which is a more remote and rawer version of what Myanmar is.
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