Yangon is fabulous. It's a dump. It's dirty, skanky, the pollution is bad and the traffic is worse. The buildings look like they're on the verge of collapse and the sewers are covered with terrifyingly wobbly paving slabs, if they're covered at all. But there’s something about it that just makes you smile. The multicoloured houses (with the added decoration of unidentifiable stains), the tiny roads, the street food, the fresh fruit abounding on every corner, it just has a palpable energy to it you can't fault.
Geographically, Myanmar is squeezed between China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos, whose people and cultures have spread into the country itself for centuries. This is reflected in the people, as men walk past sporting some solid Indian beards which contrast sharply with the meagre couple of hairs on the more south-east Asian chins.
The pagoda, the Catholic church and the mosque sit next to each other facing the park, the mosque calls to prayer mingling with the church bells as the monks collect their alms around town. This almost utopic image obviously contrasts with the dirty, bloodstained underbelly of Myanmar’s conflicted society, but in Yangon itself, we were blissfully oblivious.
There is something lacking though, especially for a south-east Asian city. Motorbikes are illegal. According to an (irritatingly plausible) story, a politician got caught in traffic once because there were too many motorbikes, and so turned up to a meeting in a rage, declaring that motorbikes must be banned. And so they were. And so now the traffic is a slow, lumbering crowd of cars spewing smoke at 2 miles an hour instead.
Another spectacular example of governmental common sense is that the cars are right-hand-drive, even though you drive on the right hand side of the road, which is a thoroughly bizarre experience. The reason being that they (rightly) wanted to divest themselves of the remnants of British colonialism, so changed the side of the road people drove on. However, seeing as everyone already had right-hand-drive cars, they couldn’t face the hassle of changing anything else and decided to leave it at that.
As we sat in the aforementioned traffic from our hotel in Yangon to the airport, we had ample time to chat to our very amenable taxi driver. The democratic elections had just taken place, so we decided to see what he thought about it.
Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be the best person in the world. Almost everyone we met (including a dodgy monk) had a picture of her somewhere, in a wallet or on the dashboard. As the driver tried to describe quite how wonderful she is, he faltered.
‘She is...strong, she is...power she is....you know, power, she is....she is a power ranger!’, he finished triumphantly. Though what colour her lycra suit is remains a mystery.
There are thousands of stray dogs on the streets in Myanmar, and they exist harmoniously with the people. We mentioned this to the driver, and he agreed. The dogs here are very clever, he conceded. In fact, he continued, the dogs are far more intelligent than the military government that they had, and thus proceeded a tirade against the (horrific) wrongs committed by said military government, that I tried to listen to whilst images of dogs in ties having heated board meetings about the future of Myanmar whirled around in my head.
On our last day in Yangon, a friendly but very forthright man accosted us on the street to tell us about all the excellent activities we didn’t have time to do in the last few hours of our trip. He also recounted some fabulous mythical tales about dragons and one about a mysterious bell weighing the same as 100 elephants, which disappeared centuries ago in the Yangon river and still incites search parties to this day.
The capital of Myanmar has so much to offer apart from the obvious sights such as the Shwedagon pagoda. It’s a cultural and social crossroads, the glossy cover page for a country filled with cultural and social problems. There’s much more to Myanmar, but Yangon is a good place to start.