Nights in Yangon begin a bit like this. I’m pulling my big suitcase with a broken wheel down a puddly, dirt path in utter darkness. Pitch black, save for the huge luminous pagoda that lingers nearby over the lake next to Florent’s house. The city is a dusty darkling, save for the brightness in the face of the Burmese woman striding beside me, clutching a different handle on this foresaken bag. We reach a street. Florent drifts into the light on his bike. “I’m heading the opposite way to find a taxi.” Apparently, we are in a rush to get me to the bus stop (JJ’s or Joyous Journeys Bus to Mandalay) since the traffic has been terrible recently. 20km could take an hour. I pay no mind. Besides, it’s difficult to stop doing double-takes at that pagoda (called “paya” in Burmese). Because the bottom isn’t as well lit, it appears to be floating, suspended. Couples lean easily on mopeds parked close to the shore, clutching each other, their chatter agreeable and soft.
And my level of sheer, smiling content, in this country and at this moment near Pyay Road, is illimitable.
My experience has been one of only 48 hours so far. But the degree of hospitality that the people of Myanmar conduct almost thoughtlessly is already apparent. I sit in the taxi that’s swerving between lanes to get me to my bus on time. Nearly hitting dogs, bikers with no lights, and passerby. He meanders through sidestreets to avoid traffic along a road where the government is supposedly engaging in construction. About time!! Judging by the complete neglect the junta demonstrates toward public infrastructure – especially related to transport, i.e transportation
anywhere (car, train, by foot) – I find the construction zone sort of funny. People use the streets to walk by night, as only the adventurous would walk through the hazardous thoroughfare of 2m deep holes, cracks, and piles of refuse or bricks. In the backseat, I chew on betel nuts, blissed out. Its a bit dizzying, this concoction. You must not bite, but sort of gently grind the leaf-wrapped nut between your teeth. Supposed to be good for digestion, but the taste lingers on the border of too-poignant – like eating perfume.
I think of my first day. My feet picking their way through the maze of streets in central Yangon, like an over-sized market or grocery store. One long street boasts only electronics shops. The most delicious spicy pork noodle soup at the dingy King Cafe, sitting on small round plastic stools and sipping green tea. People grinning from their foodstalls, their array of mysterious fried bugs of the Isaan cuisine or equally mysterious fruits and vegetables laid out in woven baskets. They don’t call at you or heckle you as they do in Thailand, they simply grin. And fan the flies away. Even taxi drivers charge a fair price; I pause at each offer to make the calculations in my head ($1 = 846 kyat) and its always reasonable. The ride is complete with a discussion with the driver of family, points of interest along the way, even politics.
Things have freed up considerably. As I wonder at the unimaginably corny Burmese pop music videos and performances at City FM’s 10th Anniversary event (we watched this on the bus), a man next to me from the Chin province points every so often and says, “See this? Would’ve never been allowed 3 years ago.” He’s a Pentecostal preacher heading to a conference; his father had converted from animism to Christianity many years before. Where there was only 1 state-run radio station before (City FM), now there are 4 or 5. Videos with hostile or profane lyrics or girls dressed in anything above the knee used to be censored, now they are clearly aired. As I can see from my seat..Swooning girls, love songs, one is clearly a Kelly Clarkson tune.
Will post more about the day (including a 3-hour long trainride with farmers from the outer rings of Yangon’s townships and the Shwedagon Pagoda) soon. Must navigate Mandalay and find some Bamar eatert nearby…