Yangon First Impressions

13.01.11 Yangon First Impressions
Traffic! Yangon has a population of 6million so is not as tiny as I assumed. And bearing in mind the admonishment from Pete’s organisation that We Must Not Drive* and that even the rustiest bucket cost an average of $20 000, I kind of assumed there wouldn’t be so many cars. But there is, loads and the freeways through town are usually 3 if not 4 lanes wide either side. There’s a lot of pollution too! And the cars, well. Mostly old Toyotas with barely there upholstery and certainly no floor except the thin bit of metal stopping your feet from touching the tarmac. There are no seatbelts in the back of cars in Yangon. It is extremely rare to find rear seatbelts, even in the more modern (e.g. 1990’s) cars. They simply didn’t make them for the Asian market. So if you want to belt up, sit in the front. Which makes us, with our European (not to mention slightly child-safety-fanatically Swedish) attitudes and car seats, look a little quaint to say the least.
So there is an awful lot of traffic and an awful lot of cars, mostly held together by string and karma. If you get a taxi where all the doors open and windows close you are in a luxury sedan.
It’s plenty lush mind. An awesome array of palms, bamboo and the ubiquitous bougainvillea which grows like a weed. And trees and bushes of all kinds. In fact, just imagine all those little pot plants in IKEA blown up to tree size and you get the picture. And flowers! I don’t know the name of many but there is hibiscus and frangipane, arum lilies of all kinds and some giant yellow and spiky red flowers that are so common I almost don’t notice them anymore. And orchids! Orchids everywhere, some just hanging on our washing stands and strung on market stalls and balconies, growing without much attention at all. Until Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Yangon was known as the Garden City of the East but apparently a lot of trees have gone and with them the shade needed to grow more. Hard to imagine there was even more plant life as it’s pretty green and colourful to my mind. Lovely.
Which is needed to cover up some of the more unsightly buildings. The sad fact of sudden onset consumerism is that more buildings are thrown up as cheaply as possible and that means concrete. Fantastically versatile and fantastically environmentally unfriendly, it simply holds damp and moulds in a tropical climate. And becomes black and unsightly, demanding a lot of upkeep. Downtown there is an old colonial part and some quite impressive buildings, such as the old Post Office and British Embassy. Plus a fair smattering of shiny highrises, though how long they will remain shiny for is anyone’s guess. We do have some very stately mansions around our manor too, but many have fallen into disrepair and the once grand upper story, made entirely of teak, is often hanging on by a thread.
It’s also a BUSY town. People, people everywhere, sitting outside roadside eateries, shopping at makeshift market stalls and bustling their way to work and home and the monastery. The pavements are laughable, or would be if they weren’t so dangerous. Basically they are badly maintained storm drains, and some holes are big enough for you to fall in. And some are full of rubbish and stagnant water and no doubt rats and general yuckiness of all kinds. Getting a buggy along is a challenge but we manage by picking it up and carrying it and Alfie over the worst parts. More often though, Pete will take him in the backpack carrier which he loves and is a little less ardous, though perhaps not for Pete! Crossing roads is a lesson in confidence as you often cross 6 lanes by weaving through the traffic – there is no concept of pedestrian crossings here and I often end up following a monk or two (having taken a deep breath to fortify my courage). That said, there is much politeness between the drivers and rarely any horns tooted or voices raised, nor pedestrians run over. I guess it kinda works.
There is no discernible Myanmar look; the people are many and varied in colour and physical features. I think Myanmar has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in South East Asia and you can see that in the faces you encounter every day. Although, they are generally tiny it has to be said! How I wish I’d come here 10 years ago when I too was small and thin; I looked in a clothes shop the other day and thought they looked like dolly’s clothes. At a size 10-12 I’m probably considered obese but that is a compliment here (hence much rubbing of Alfie’s chubby legs). And another thing they have in common is that they are all unfailingly polite, friendly and helpful with a quiet positivity I think we seem to be missing in the West. Just yesterday Alfie didn’t want to come home from the market, being enthralled by some chickens and a cockerel as usual. A young man walked past and Alfie rather sweetly held up his arms to be lifted (for a better view probably) and seeing my dilemma, carrying my shopping as I was, this young guy picked Alfie up and carried him all the way home for me (about a 7 minute walk), dropped him off, waved goodbye and cheerfully set off back the way we had come. How fricking lovely is that?
There is a real mix of traditional and Western clothing too, though most wear the longyi (sarong skirt) in a variety of cotton/silk prints. The men tend to be a bit more sober with darker colours, less patterns and a smart shirt on top. They do look very dapper! There’s also a lot of young men with very trendy haircuts and skinny jeans; one of our young guards even wears black nailvarnish and I don’t think he’s a Goth. I guess I hadn’t expected the people to be so ‘modern’!
But then most of my cultural references regarding Asia come from reading James Clavell’s Tai Pan series one summer when I was 17 so pretty much everything is bright and new and wondrous to me.
Next up I’ll let you know a bit more about where we live, how the other half live and how ex-pats survive, even when there’s no Schweppes Tonic Water to be had!

*causing a death of any kind, even in an RTA, results in a mandatory prison sentence.

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