Sunday 2 February 2020

Faces of Yangon

Yangon is one of those cities that tourists visit for a couple of days, go to the main attractions and then leave thinking they've seen everything. They are wrong. True, it may lack the sophistication of some major Asian cities, has little in the way of nightlife and its public transport system can be challenging. But none of this matters when there is something, or someone, interesting around every corner. The eclectic mix of architecture that includes Indian and Chinese influences, crumbling survivors of the colonial period and classic Burmese style pagodas is reflected in the diversity of the people, many of them happy to share their story with interested passers-by.

Buddhist monk on Yangon's Circle Line train
The best place to see this rich mix is of course in the streets, particualrly the numbered lanes that cross the main boulevards of the city centre. From 17th Street to the high 20's it is a good idea to look up and admire the many remaining shop-houses, some of them 100 years old. Built to accommodate a commercial purpose on the ground floor with a residential unit above they are beginning to fall victim to developers so go and see them now. Some have retained their wooden facades and in 19th street in particular there are a number of Clan Association buildings with Chinese signage and the occasional, live, fighting cock tethered outside. There are also numerous markets. 17th Street hosts a famous daily street market as does the upper end of 38th Street, both of them selling all kinds of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish as well as flowers, spices and other goods. The famous Bogalay Zay and Bogyoke markets are also worth a visit although the latter a little too touristy for me nowadays. Outside of the organised markets there are countless, often "informal" vendors selling snacks. fruit, household goods or offering various street side repair services.

Happy vendor, 17th Street
Waiting for customers, rickshaw driver, 14th Street
Interesting as the architecture and sale goods are, it is of course the people of Yangon that bring these streets to life and who hold a special attraction for me. They also make this one of the most photogenic locations I've ever visited and in general people are happy to pose for photographs. It is also relatively easy to take candid shots of the city's street life. One of the iconic sights of Yangon and Myanmar generally is the daily procession of Buddhist monks and nuns collecting donations of rice, other foods and sometimes money from the faithful who hope to gain merit from this good deed. I often find this to be can a moving sight as some of the nuns in particular are very young, many of orphans or from families too poor to look after them.

Breakfast in the San Pya fish market
Shy porter, Thiri Mingalar wholesale market
As well as walking the streets of Yangon, I enjoy visiting the huge wholesale markets located just a short distance from the city centre. The San Pya wholesale fish market and the vast Thiri Mingalar fruit, vegetable and flower market receive few foreign visitors.  So few that I don't recall seeing a single tourist during any of the visits I've made. The workers may be a little surprised to see a foreigner but are nonetheless very welcoming. In most cases they are too busy to spend much time talking but the workers are generally relaxed about being photographed. This makes up for the overpowering smell at San Pya which permeates everything and which will require you to send all of your clothes to the laundry after a visit!  Waterproof boots are also strongly advised if visiting.

This cheeky pair followed me around Thiri Mingalar until I took their picture
Worker with neck tattoos,  San Pya fish market
During my most recent time in Yangon, I had the privilege of visiting the neighbourhood of a good friend who I first met as a guide four years ago. Yuzana Garden City is about a thirty minute drive from the city centre. Primarily a residential area, it also has a large, busy market selling the usual food items and household goods. Until recently the market location was not busy as the vendors preferred to set up shop at the roadside. This may have been good for business but it prevented traffic from passing or in some cases even entering the streets. The local authority stepped in and there is now enforcement in place to prevent this behaviour - although it doesn't stop some vendors sneaking back to the street side in the afternoons!

As we walked through the market, people called out "hello"and "where are you from" - something that I have experienced in my travels in many countries, but here they also like to tease. The female vendors in particular have a good sense of humour, suggesting I might like to marry their friend or take them back to London with me. Several of them claimed me as their relative when neighbouring vendors expressed surprise at seeing me. My kind of humour. Here, not only were people happy to be photographed but some also requested me to take their pictures or those of their friends. I often find that when someone volunteers their friends for a picture, what they really mean is they want one of themselves but are too shy to ask. My hour or so in the market here passed very quickly and I am extremely grateful for the experience.

Herbs vendor, Yuzana Garden City
Snacks vendor, Yuzana Garden City
Rickshaw driver waiting for customers, Yuzana Garden City
I've written several times about the etiquette of photographing people in the street but it's worth mentioning a few things again. If I want to take a close-up or a more "formal" portrait, I always seek permission first. I wouldn't want someone to come up to me shove a camera in my face and then walk off. If I can I make efforts to talk to the person a little before requesting a picture. It's helpful to walk with someone local as they can interpret and also advise on any important issues that might not occur to an outsider. If I want to photograph children I always ask the parent or an adult accompanying them and I never photograph children who are alone. In markets I often buy something from a vendor first. This works better in some cases than in others. Buying a few pieces of fruit is not a problem and they can always be given to someone who needs them more than me. Fish, meat or live animals is a bit more of a problem! Obviously for candid shots things are a little different but it is still important to be sensitive and if someone says "no" or indicates they are unhappy with being photographed then accept this graciously and point your camera elsewhere. It is always good to show people their pictures on the camera screen and if possible to print copies and take them back to the although this can be difficult due to one's schedule or because it can be hard to find the people again.

The portraits featured in this post were taken over five days in January this year. I printed copies and was able to distribute some of them. I plan to continue this project and to capture the stories of some of Yangon's people during my next visit.

You can see more pictures from Myanmar here.

And to close, some more citizens of Yangon...

Rakhine woman, fruit vendor outside Indian Bazaar
Buddhist nun, 18th Street
Vendor, 17th Street
Alone and watching the world go by, 17th Street
Just me and my phone, porter in 17th Street
Ponderous look, 38th Street
Preoccuiped smoker, Merchant Road
Mister Ayoob, merchant in 41st Street
Time for a rest, 17th Street
Confidence, Innsein township, Yangon suburb