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 among a backdrop of charming British colonial architecture. You wouldn’t recognize it as a city of 5 million. It has a decidedly small town feel. There are no skyscrapers. And shockingly, no motorbikes! That’s thanks to a citywide restriction. So as you might expect, traffic is horrendous. Yet most drivers are pretty patient. I even found some to be downright courteous. Pedestrians weren’t in much of a rush. Many took time to greet each other along the busy streets.
The main thoroughfares of Yangon are cleaner than expected, especially in comparison to Manila or Jakarta. But the smell is equally pungent. You might even say it’s terrible. Terrible in a different sort of way. But I suppose that adds to the experience in a way.
Old Traditions Intersect with Daily Life in Yangon
The women and children of Yangon paint their faces with thanaka. Some wear it on their arms as well. This white colored paste made of ground bark acts as a sunscreen, cooling agent, and beauty cream. It’s been a staple of Burmese culture for thousands of years. Most of the men (businessmen included) wear a traditional longyi as they go about their daily business. It looks like a sarong. Patterns are usually pretty simple and represent the various ethnic groups found throughout the country.
Myanmar also has a thing for betel nut. Street vendors sell it on just about every corner. It’s so popular that the sidewalks have been stained many times over with deep red splatters of saliva. During the colonial period, the British had to paint the bottom of their buildings red. Or else color splashes of chewed betel nut spit would soon adorn the walls. It’s such an integral part of the culture that in old times it was an honor to be offered the pre-chewed betel nut straight from the king’s mouth. I don’t imagine that’d be too popular nowadays.
Another thing you’ll notice is the absence of cell phones. As of this writing, only a small percentage of people 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. Each table has an attendant with a notepad and a calculator. If you need to make a call, talk to the attendant. 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.
Of Days Gone By and the Rebirth of Burma
Unusual for a big city, Yangon is very safe. Travelers rarely encounter trouble. Even as a solo backpacker you need not worry. Maybe it’s the Buddhist influence that keeps things in order. Or maybe it’s the 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. Standard precautions still apply. But it’s nice to not have to watch your back all the time as you would in many other cities. The people are friendly without being overbearing. You get lots of curious smiles and the occasional, “Where are you from?” It’s refreshing to let your guard down a little and interact with the locals on a more personal level.
Walking the streets of Yangon is like drifting through a memory. Like stepping back in time as a visitor from the future. Everything is different, yet nothing has changed. It’s a gift from the past that won’t last forever. Situated at a crossroads between Asia and India, it’s the site of a once powerful empire that fell victim to colonization and has struggled for rebirth ever since. For better or worse, this place is in a league of its own. And you can’t help but feel that a renaissance is underway.
Beauty is meaningless until it is shared.
– George Orwell, Burmese Days