All the Yangon Dudes, Myanmar, Bangkok Airways
“Watch out when you visit Myanmar,” says Lu Maw, one of the country’s infamous Moustache Brothers comedians when I first meet him. “The government will not like it if you steal or pinch pockets – they hate the competition.”
At first I am unsure whether to applaud or be appalled by his playful joke. In a decade when Myanmar’s turbulent story has frequently been splashed in scarlet red across the front page, politically sensitive jokes of this nature have been barely audible at street level. But following an exaggerated toothless wheeze of laughter, a sign that Lu Maw smokes too many rolled-up cheroots, it is easy to see the funny side of his meaning: to get by in modern Myanmar you need to put on a smile; even if it is one made from more gums than teeth.
Despite Myanmar’s historical reluctance to embrace the tourist dollar – in stark contrast to elsewhere in South East Asia – the country’s ruling military junta is beginning to ease its stranglehold on visa restrictions and immigration policy. For my part, an early wind of change accosts me upon landing at its sleepy international airport: the fortified barricades and open ended questions from customs officials are gone; in their place sits a fortified wine shop (stocked with bottles from northern Shan State vineyards) and an open armed passport officer. This is my first warning that Yangon is not the city it once was: when I enter the arrivals hall, I am not only greeted by a smile, but a handshake, joke and a better English accent than my own.
Of course, Yangon remains a city of devilish contrasts: whilst freedom exists on one side of the street, suppression is delivered with a hammer blow on the other. Life in guesthouses and hotels is punctuated by electricity black-outs, an invasive reminder to Yangon’s residents that the military junta is still in charge. Meanwhile, a forthcoming election is expected in October 2010 and democratic onlookers are eagerly anticipating a saffron-tinged revolution.
And searching for these optimistic smiles on Yangon’s vibrant daylight streets is easier than I first thought. When walking the downtown neighbourhood around Sule Paya, a golden Cornetto-like pagoda, it is infectious – I feel like I am in any free-willed, neon-lit city on Earth. The music on blaring speaker systems bounces between Beyonce and Akon; well heeled youths dress in tight jeans and designer t-shirts, clinking bottles of imported beer; and it is as easy to find a hamburger and fries as it is a bowl of steaming Shan khauk-swe (the country’s staple Shan-style noodle soup). The streets are punctuated with Guitar Hero t-shirts, Wayne Rooney and Avril Lavigne posters, and booths home to wired-up PS2 playing teenagers; the city literally pulsates with a newborn energy imported from across its multi-ethnic borders.
Gone are the colonial servants, English drinking dens and elephant hunts of George Orwell’s semi-autobiographical novel Burmese Days. In their place, new bars, Starbucks-esque coffee shops, discos and hotels are opening up to cater to the demands of tourists – for once, at an all time high. “Want to buy DVD Meester?” is the new mantra on the trader-laden backstreets.
True to Orwell’s colonial vision, however, there still remains a glorious menagerie of old-school British government buildings, which seem haunted by the ghost of Victorian England, but new rise Chinese hotels (like the Shangri-La owned Trader’s Hotel) now tower over the city’s iconic pagodas, symbolic of recent investment from the power corridors of Beijing. Amidst this eclectic mix, Indian, Thai and Burmese cultures and shopfronts collide, showcasing the vibrancy of the modern Yangon aesthetic.
Leafing through Burmese Days whilst befriending some locals, I am sure that Orwell himself would be forgiven for doing a double take. Burma’s most famous colonial resident, who once soaked up both the genial atmosphere and gin of Rangoon’s social scene, would be taken aback at the cosmopolitan spectacle that is now played out every evening and night in modern day Yangon. In previous years, politically-brewed curfews stretched across the city and taxi drivers would have been locked up for venturing out after dark. Today, however, there is an air of lubricated defiance on the streets and its citizens – including the fresh-faced, 20-something cab driver who introduces me to its neon and nightlife – are baring a brave new face to the world.
Late night karaoke bars and clubs now draw in Yangon’s young generation and from the Thiripyitsaya Sky Lounge in the Sakura Tower, where the soundtrack is Burmese rock rather than traditional Pwe opera, generation Yangon is determined to have a good time. According to an ancient Burmese saying, the evil time of day is “when feet are silent” and when the sun reaches its zenith. The rest of the time, however, modern Converse and Nike signature feet are more likely to be seen shuffling, dancing or discoing to homegrown rap stars or the country’s growing army of soft rock balladeers. It is a motto that the city’s premiere nightspots Pioneer and Monsoon undoubtedly applaud.
As my evening progresses, I have to keep reminding myself that I am not in Mumbai, Kolkata or even Bangkok. But with a view of the mythical Ayeyarwady River in the distance, home to both overloaded passenger ferries and overweight elephants – and a sunset redder than the scarlet betel nut chewed and spat on the streets by the locals – it is Yangon at its most cosmopolitan and beguiling. I head to 19th Street for its array of BBQ stands, buy a gigantic Myanmar Beer and drink in the quasi-liberal atmosphere.
Yet austerity still walks the streets. The Burmese remain one of the world’s few nationalities that obey their forebears and happily wander around summer or winter in knee-length skirts. The longyi, a seductive wraparound cloth worn by both sexes, though slowly being phased out by American jeans brands, is still a sign that Yangon keeps one foot – or one flirtatious hairy knee – firmly rooted in the past.
Later that night, I become acquainted with Ma Thin, a forthcoming Yangonite and owner of the Mayshan Hotel. In a city where people are often scared to speak out against the ruling junta for fear of appraisals, her frank approach to the city’s power-cuts and problems is like a hefty dose of Jon Stewart stand up comedy – but minus the Hollywood censorship. “Nobody cares about what the government says,” she shrugs nonchalantly. “We get on with our lives and they get on with theirs.” As if on cue, the light in the hotel unexpectedly switches off for the third time that day, and the hotel generator grumbles to life like a prop-wing plane. “See what I mean?” she laughs. Looking onto the streets outside, cast in black shadows and dejected streetlights, it makes it an easy decision for me to turn in for the night. I fall asleep as if warmed by chloroform rather than a lullaby.
The next day, whilst nursing Yangon’s fluid effects, I make my way to the Shewdagon Pagoda, a place perfectly pitched for early morning reflection. Perched on top of a small hillock north of the city, Myanmar’s crowning achievement is evidence that Yangon still keeps one foot firmly rooted in the past. The centrepiece of the city and the symbolic heart for the country’s 400,000 plus monks, Shwedagon is a colossus of golden spires and gilded Buddha statues. Rising nearly 100 metres into the sky, like the world’s most expensive ice cream sundae, the 2,500-year-old temple boasts more than 80 altars and bejewelled buildings. Like Bangkok’s Royal Palace or Beijing’s Forbidden City but offering more golden shine and sparkle than found in the average Swiss bank account, Shwedagon is the national emblem of Myanmar; an otherworldly slice of Burma’s religious legacy. During my visit, the midday sun glares like an angry God, making wraparound sunglasses compulsory for health, homage and Burmese Nights styled hangovers.
Quite accidentally, I then encounter Nhan Dan, a 31-year-old monk. A practicing Buddhist for 11 years, he is visiting Yangon from Inle Lake in northern Shan State. Dressed in ubiquitous saffron robes and with a face as smooth as a gold coin, his attitude is a surprising microcosm of the city’s modern day outlook. He listens to The Rolling Stones, smokes Rothman cigarettes and supports Manchester United (because “Alex Ferguson is a very good man)”, he tells me in softly spoken English. Down on the street, he sees a car totter by and he bursts into a fit of hyena-like giggles. “Ha-ha – very funny. I see a monk driving a car; very funny.” I begin to sense that Yangon is much more complex than I first thought.
Back in 1934, George Orwell knew that in Burma one does not set oneself up against public opinion. “In comfortless camps, in sweltering offices, in gloomy bungalows smelling of dust and earth-oil,” he wrote, “they earn, perhaps, the right to be slightly disagreeable.” Though the country’s former resident cannot be argued with, today Yangon is starting to show a different acquiescing nature. With elections tipped for October this year, perhaps its people could be ready for autonomy once more. I see an air of defiance, as though the younger generation know they are pushing the right buttons.
I leave for the city’s languorous airport the next day, along a traffic-congested serpentine highway, and – for one last time – run headlong into Yangon’s complexities once more. Horns blare, truck drivers spit from broken windows and there is a cacophony of screeches, squeals and spittoon pan pings. My taxi lumbers to a halt and for a moment there is complete silence. Peering out from my rolled-down window I see that the traffic has been brought to a standstill on both sides of the road. Breaking the spell, a solitary monk crosses the road, his saffron robe billowing in the morning breeze and dust. He uses a staff to help him across the worn out black and charcoal white stripes that line the street, while on-looking commuters maintain their respectful silence. Then, one by one, the monk is followed by at least 20 other monks; they cross in single file until there is more than 100 marching before me. It’s like a Buddhist take on The Beatles’ iconic Abbey Road crossing.
To my left, schoolchildren on buses bow their heads, and to my right passing traders, perhaps on their way to market, enjoy a sacred pause. It is like a communion, a coming together for a nation so ill at ease with itself. Yet in this fleeting moment, it is clear that a unity – albeit an unspoken one – exists on the streets of Yangon; and Burma’s monks may yet still be more revered than the new rock stars. Then, as if from the clang of a street-side gong, the traffic revs, exhaust fumes splutter and Yangon’s highway artery returns to the chaos which its citizens know and endure so well.