It’s a metropolis unlike any other in Southeast Asia, a city frozen in time. Yangon at once dismays and delights with its contrast of extreme poverty set amongst a backdrop of charming British colonial architecture. You won’t at first recognize it as a city of 5 million residents. It has a decidedly small town feel. You’ll notice something missing. There are no skyscrapers. And no motorbikes! They’re nowhere to be found thanks to a citywide restriction. So as you might expect, traffic in Yangon is atrocious. Yet the people drive slow. In fact, they even seem somewhat courteous. The pedestrians don’t appear rushed, and many take the time to greet one another along the bustling streets.
Life in Yangon, Myanmar’s Old Capital
The main thoroughfares of Yangon are cleaner than expected, especially in comparison to the likes of Manila or Jakarta. This says nothing to the fact that the smell is just as pungent. You might even describe it as terrible, but terrible in a different sort of way. Even so, it only adds to the atmosphere of the place. The experience of floating through a relatively intact culture as daily life flashes before your eyes is awe-inspiring.
Dreams of a Golden Past
The women and children of Yangon exhibit faces painted with thanaka. Some wear it on their arms as well. This whitish colored paste made of ground bark acts as a sunscreen, cooling agent, and cosmetic beauty cream. It’s been a staple of Burmese culture for thousands of years, and you’ll find the practice is alive and well! Most of the men (businessmen included) sport a traditional longyi as they go about their daily routine. At about 2 meters in length, it looks like a sarong. The patterns are oftentimes simplistic and representative of different ethnic groups found throughout the country.
I’d be remiss to speak of Myanmar without mentioning the locals’ affinity for chewing betel nut. It’s ubiquitous no matter where you go. In Yangon you can buy it from street vendors on every corner. It seems that nearly everyone chews it. Everyone! The sidewalks have long been stained many times over with deep red splatters of spit. During the colonial period the British had to paint the bottom of their buildings red, lest nasty splashes of saliva decorate the exterior walls. It’s such an integral part of the culture that in old times it was an honor to be offered the already chewed betel nut straight from the King’s mouth. But that’s one practice lost to history. You won’t see that nowadays. Shucks! Oh well.
Another thing you’ll notice in Yangon is the obvious absence of cell phones. Only a small percentage of the population can afford them. For communication on the go, tables are set up every couple blocks along the main streets with a landline telephone that runs into someone’s home or business. An attendant mans these tables with a notepad and a calculator. If you need to make a call, present the number to the attendant and they’ll work out the cost. Is it a bit old school? Yes. Is it effective? Sometimes. You see, telephone lines in Myanmar are notoriously unreliable. They can be unpredictable to say the least. But then again, you aren’t visiting Myanmar to talk on the phone, are you??
Rebirth of Burma
One reason you will love Yangon is because of how safe it is. Travelers rarely encounter trouble. Even as a solo backpacker you need not worry. Maybe it’s the strong Buddhist influence that keeps everything in order. Or maybe it’s the strict laws and harsh punishment for crimes committed against foreigners. Either way, the locals won’t give you a second look if you count change in the market or stop at an ATM after dark. Of course standard precautions apply. Still, it’s nice to not have to look over your shoulder the way you would in many other cities. The people are friendly yet unobtrusive. In fact, you’ll be greeted with curious smiles and the occasional, “Where are you from?” as the residents strive to practice their English. It’s both refreshing and addictive to let your guard down and interact with the locals on a more human level.
Walking the streets of Yangon is like drifting unseen through a dream. It’s like stepping back in time as a ghost from the future. Everything is different, yet nothing has changed seemingly for many generations. It’s a gift from the past that can’t remain unchanged forever, as Myanmar tourism continues to grow. Here sits a former mighty capital at the crossroads between Asia and India, where one ends and the other begins. Here you’ll find a once powerful empire that fell subject to a western colonizer and has since toiled in desperation for freedom and rebirth. All the while, soaked and steeped in Buddhist belief. And that makes for a beautiful and unique environment. Sure, every big city in Southeast Asia is somewhat unique. But Yangon is something else altogether. It’s in a league of its own, for better or worse. It’s special. And you can’t help but feel that a renaissance is in the making.
Beauty is meaningless until it is shared.
– George Orwell, Burmese Days
Have you traveled to Myanmar? What’s your favorite part of this beautiful country? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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