Monday 21 January 2019

Return to Yangon

I love Myanmar. I l especially love Yangon. That may surprise some people. Most visitors choose to spend only a couple of days in this former capital city, see Shwedagon and then head off to Bagan or Inle. But they are missing out on the glorious chaos of Yangon, a chaos lived out in streets that teem from early morning to late at night. It is two years since I was last here and much has changed. There more restaurants and banks and trendy cafes have popped up in surprisingly large numbers. Best of all, efforts have been made to clean up some parts of the city and to improve the environment of those living there - although a huge amount remains to be done.

Yangon is a city of contradictions. The influence of Buddhism is everywhere with monks and nuns a constant presence in the streets and yet the Muslim call to prayer is heard throughout the day. There are also Hindu temples, churches of various denominations and a synagogue that serves the remaining 20 Jewish residents of Yangon. There is even a Jain temple although that may now be without a congregation as I understand there are no longer any resident Jain families. The built heritage is also astonishingly diverse and includes some of the finest colonial period buildings in Asia. Many are decaying, some have already lost and others are being saved including the Burmese Favourite department store, established in 1918, empty since 2005 and now undergoing restoration.

Arched windows, Chinatown
Colonial building, Downtown Yangon
Entrance, Chinese temple
The best way to discover the secrets of a city is to explore it on foot and so during my recent visit I spent many hours strolling through the numbered streets, arranged on a grid system like that of New York. I delighted in wandering up and down the lanes, finding markets I didn't know existed, using my ten or so words of the Myanmar (Burmese) language to engage with people and to secure a photographic record of my trip. Knowing those few words  - hello, how are you? thank you - was in many cases enough to win the warmest of smiles and a hearty response, even if preceded by a look of surprise. There were some linguistic surprises for me too such as the two boys playing football in the courtyard of a Chinese temple, keeping score in English and pretending to be Manchester United against Arsenal.

I have already mentioned the ubiquitous presence of monks and nuns. They can be seen everywhere, collecting alms in the mornings and then walking the streets throughout the day. The monks early morning round to "collect the rice" is a disciplined affair, barefoot in all weathers and locations including the wholesale fish market where the ground is covered in waste. In the mornings people stand at the side of the road waiting for them to pass so that they can donate to them and then receive a blessing.  Most Buddhist men will spend at least some time as a monk even if they choose to do so for a short period before returning to secular society. There is no such obligation for women but the nunneries (like the monasteries) take in orphans and children from poor families unable to look after them. Many of the girls out collecting are extremely young, even less than ten years old. They usually walk in pairs or small groups but I came across larger groups of eight or ten on a couple of occasions.

Despite being an experienced traveler, I felt protective towards these children and began buying fruit in the mornings in order to give it to them as they passed by. I was aided in this by the generosity of some of the vendors who for reasons best known to themselves insisted on giving me extra fruit but refused to accept additional payment. I encountered this behaviour on many occasions during my time in Myanmar. But back to the nuns. On one morning having already given away all of my fruit I placed a few bank notes into the collecting bowl of the smallest girl in a very young group. The others immediately surrounded me calling out and holding up their bowls. How could I refuse? I could only think of my own grand daughters and how I would feel if this was their life. On a lighter note nuns come in all ages. I met two older women sitting outside Bogyoke Market. I asked if I could photograph them. They agreed but asked me to wait a moment to allow them to tidy up their clothing, taking my request very seriously.

A young monk at the fish market - notice the bare feet
Mister Ayub with his portrait
Ko Mint Lwin
Daw Khin Eye
If I have time and can find somewhere to print from a USB I try to return to the people who have allowed me to photograph them and present them with a copy of their picture. In Yangon I was able to do this for several people. These included some interesting characters. Mister Ayub has a shop in 29th street. His family came to the then Burma from Surat, Gujarat in the 1840's, established a business and have been in Yangon ever since.

Ko Myint Lwin is a barber. I noticed his open fronted shop and its very old furnishings as I walked the streets on the first day of my trip. His elderly mother, Daw Khin Eye was sitting outside the shop and told me that she thought that some of the chairs originally came from the UK. I treated myself to a 30 pence haircut when I returned to hand them copies of their pictures.

Ten years ago I bought myself a Vivienne Westwood sweater that I can't bear to part with. It has been repaired many times and I needed to repair it again in Yangon. U Zaw, owner of a small tailoring shop in the Bogalay Zay market fixed it for me on my second day in Yangon. He established his shop, New Land, in 2016 when he moved to the city from a much smaller town. It was also a new profession for the family as his father was an engineer who worked on the railways. U Zaw did not want to accept payment from me saying that I was a guest. I insisted on paying but again, the cost was less than a pound. He works on an old Singer machine.

U Zaw, a tailor with a generous heart
Dried fish vendor, wholesale market
Informal street market, Downton Yangon
Yangon is a city of markets including huge wholesale fruit, vegetable and fish suppliers, smaller more local affairs and large numbers of seemingly informal vendors grouped together in particular streets. On this visit I walked from my hotel in 38th to 13th Street, enjoying the chaotic scenes of Chinatown and the Indian Quarter. Here amongst the old but surviving shop houses I saw chickens being plucked in enormous vats of water, meat of all kinds being cut up and displayed and snacks, fruit, vegetables and household goods on sale. Vendors call out to attract customers and delivery vehicles manage to manoeuvre amongst the most crowded and narrow of streets, albeit not always successfully. On my final day in the city I saw a delivery van accidentally overturn the stall of a woman selling fruit. Some very severe words were exchanged despite the driver getting down from his truck to help put things right.

Porter, wholesale market
A cleaner environment
Since my last visit some efforts have been made to clear the once horrifying alleys that are hidden between the numbered streets. Previously piled high with domestic rubbish and overrun with rats a number have been cleaned up by Doh Eain, an NGO that works with artists to beautify public spaces. A few simple swings and slides have been installed and the local children now have somewhere safe and pleasant to play. The project was paid for through crowd funding, perhaps demonstrating the scale of the challenge and the competing priorities in a country trying hard to deal with many issues. Small scale community based projects such as this are important in supporting people to look after their own environment.

Regular readers will know that I sometimes struggle with food when traveling. This is because I am  1) a vegetarian 2) addicted to coffee and cake 3) picky. Yangon coped admirably with me. I returned to my old favourite Pansuriya which has good coffee and a variety of tasty vegetarian dishes. Food is served in a large airy room decorated with old pictures of Yangon and other memorabilia. But I also have a couple of new favourites. Rangoon Tea House is a modern version of an old idea, serving good tea and coffee, a big range of Myanmar traditional food and dishes influenced by other cultures. And for the most authentic experience, nothing beats Lucky 7 Tea House. A huge cafe, it is busy from morning to night, has great staff, serves great tea and the tastiest samosas I have ever eaten - and I've been to India twice.  You might need to wait for a table at both places, but the wait will be worth it. And what about cake? Well, there's always the Strand Hotel's cafe.

I said at the beginning, I love Yangon. I can't wait to return - and I won't wait two years next time.

You might also like Myanmar Journey Part One - Yangon

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here

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