As emerging democracy Myanmar begins to open up after five decades of isolation, a country once soaked in “blood, dreams and gold” is now armed with steely optimism and a rebellious punk streak. Author Shehan Karunatilaka visits the capital, Yangon, a city on the cusp of a new dawn.
The roads are wide and clean except where they are poor and narrow. Magnificent trunks of teak, mahogany and rosewood line the streets, architectural relics of the British Raj hide from the developer’s wrecking ball and empty buildings peel like old photographs. Peering over the rooftops are Buddhist stupas decked in gold, pointing at the heavens.
The air is warm with smoke and cooking and fresh with orchids, like those worn in the hair of Myanmar’s matriarch and pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi (“The Lady”). The air also carries anticipation of what an emerging democracy will bring and whether the country also known as Burma will learn from the past or repeat it. My guides are full of gossip. And they’re grateful that tourists no longer stay away from the once-isolated city.
Yangon retreated from popular imagination with the decline of British Rangoon in the 1940s. You might expect to find an impoverished, neglected capital in a land stuck in the time of marauding kings, thieving colonials and savage rulers. Instead you’re confronted with an amiable city built by conquerors and bureaucrats. The streetscapes are filled with patches of green, white and gold and slow smiles form on bronze faces that reflect the Subcontinent and Far East. There are lakes, parks, pagodas, tea houses, bars, the strangest museum you may ever visit and the aforementioned punk scene.
The documentary Yangon Calling shows the punk movement to be a handful of young bands playing to handfuls of young people. The haircuts and leathers look authentic, the sound less so. But it doesn’t matter that the bands here “play punk as well as The Clash speak Burmese”, according to a cheeky expat. At least it is evidence of a new Myanmar, allowed to raise its head after decades of forced conformity.
I retreat to The Strand, once “the finest hostelry east of the Suez”, which has been renovated to retain its Victorian chandeliers while offering wi-fi and satellite TV. A note on my writing desk reminds me that W. Somerset Maugham or Rudyard Kipling may have penned a shopping list here.
I’d read about a city south of Bengal and west of Siam (now Thailand): once the second-richest town in Asia; bombed by both sides in the Second World War. Owned by Britain, loaned to Japan, before falling into its own hands. The domino that toppled before Vietnam. A country rich in jade, sapphires and oil but whose people remain steadfastly poor. A land of adventure for a young George Orwell and a 20th-century study in Orwellianism. “City of blood, dreams and gold,” said Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda. Indeed.
I visit the city’s white elephants – pachyderms so sacred that they are fed, pampered and never put to work, giving birth to that derogatory term in English. The albino jumbos look like all elephants do outside of cartoons: unimpressed and tired.
Named in 1755 by King Alaungpaya and reflecting his futile hopes for the then fishing village he had conquered, Yangon means “end of strife”. Rechristened “Rangoon” by the British, the city has seen more than its share of strife and has welcomed far too many false dawns.
Contrary to the travel advisories, the local people aren’t shy to talk politics. During my short stay I experience as many colourful opinions as I have Burmese curries. On my walks downtown I exchange chatter with a socialist mending shoes, a liberal peddling pharmaceuticals and a racist serving tea. I am lectured over mohinga about the Rohingya – one is a delicious fish broth filled with fresh herbs, the other a thorny human rights situation that remains unresolved.
I follow the grid across messy streets filled with glistening fruit, grilled meat, used books, colourful fabrics and the inevitable electronics. On some corners they sell blessings, on others boons. A wish come true involves an orange wristband, a quiet chant and parting with 2000 kyats (about $2). My guide tells me I’ve been ripped off: “Dream come true only cost one dollar.”
The buildings betray their age, their European origins and their neglect. The cobblestoned streets are as kind on the feet as the tree-lined avenues are on the eye. Some of the mossy buildings contain shrines, some offer scenic views and some even have tenants.
For a country claiming to be homogeneously Buddhist, there are more than a few religious buildings that are not. I walk past stately St Mary’s Cathedral, the old Armenian Church of St John the Baptist, the Hindu Sri Kali Temple, the Mughal Shia Mosque and the immaculate Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, which was once temple to thousands of Jews but today is a refuge for the two dozen who are left.
Maha Bandula Park, with its wonderful foliage and giant obelisk, is flanked by the High Court, City Hall and Sule Pagoda – three very different buildings, each more impressive than the other; one made of red brick, one of white stone and one gleaming with gold.
The sun joins me and leads me to the city’s enduring attraction, Shwedagon Pagoda. The rays bring colour to Yangon’s cheeks and cast shimmers on the jewels that adorn the city’s crown. “Shwe Dagon rose superb… glistening with its gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul…” W. Somerset Maugham waxed lyrical in his 1930 travelogue, The Gentleman in the Parlour.
The 99-metre-tall stupa is the centre around which shrines and shrubs revolve. The compound encompasses a park, a pond and a museum. The pagoda is said to contain eight hairs of the Buddha, over 7000 diamonds, rubies, topaz and sapphires, “more gold than the Bank of England” and millions of prayers of the faithful.
It is coy about its age. Legend says 2600 years (sixth century BC) but archaeologists suggest it was built between the sixth and 10th centuries AD. The Shwedagon has endured earthquakes, fires, uprisings and sieges. It has weathered three Anglo-
Burmese Wars and was a focal point for the independence movement, the 1988 pro-democracy protests and the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
The assault on the senses is staggering, especially when visiting Shwedagon Pagoda during the orange of sunset or the cool of dawn. From the giant half-lion, half-griffins that welcome you into the shrines assigned to days of the week, it’s a marketplace trading in blessings and covered in gold. Get lost in the shrines, statues, carvings, fables and flowers and in the swirl of your thoughts.
Some dismiss Yangon as a one-wonder wonder. You may add this to the long list of injustices. There are other pagodas, such as Sule and Botataung, that could give Shwedagon a run for its gold. There’s Kandawgyi Lake – with a replica royal barge – and Inya Lake, where The Lady and her nemesis, General Ne Win, once occupied opposite banks.
Stroll through People’s Park or check out the city’s growing arts scene. Pansodan Gallery showcases contemporary paintings and holds Tuesday-night soirées; River Gallery represents leading and emerging artists.
In the early 1970s, travel writer Paul Theroux favoured walking aimlessly in the city, observing the women with thanakha make-up and the men in longyis “looking… like a royal breed, strikingly handsome in this collapsing city, a race of dispossessed princes”.
If the weather turns, a visit to the National Museum of Myanmar, with its throne room and royal regalia, may appeal. If you enjoy the bizarre, pop in to the Drug Elimination Museum, where kitsch and propaganda combine to showcase the former government’s haphazard war on drugs.
Then there’s the food. A cocktail of Indian, Chinese and Thai influences creates cuisine that is rich in flavour without being overzealous with the chilli. My first dinner is a delight enjoyed at Le Planteur, a stylish home in an elegant garden serving fine European-Indochinese fusion.
My next adventure features Mandalay Beer and a barbecued seafood platter at the vibrant 19th Street food market. In between are visits to Padonmar Restaurant, with its home-cooked favourites, and Shwe Sa Bwe (+959 4210 05085), where young Burmese of humble background prepare excellent French gourmet under the tutelage of an expat chef.
The hip establishments, such as Rangoon Tea House (+95 9 9790 78681) and Sharky’s (+95 1 524 677), and the classic-style Kipling and The Strand bars are worth experiencing to glimpse how Burma’s past sits with Myanmar’s future.
I spend a night at 50th Street Bar with the city’s newest locals: expats from Asia and Europe who find the pace and exchange rate favourable. I’m introduced to beer named after the country and a whisky that kicks like a mule. Many claim that Myanmar’s exiles, adventurers and entrepreneurs are returning home and looking to shake things up.
I devise a mini tour for myself in tribute to the nation’s absent patriarch, General Aung San (father of The Lady), whose assassination in 1947 marked the beginning of the Burmese tragedy. I begin at the end, at the old Secretariat, where the great man was gunned down during a morning meeting.
Grass has grown over what was once the headquarters of the city. The building, though decrepit and unused, is still imposing and impressive, a red-brick complex with turrets amid palm trees and an unkempt garden. Entry is restricted but you can wander the perimeter, peep through bars and guess at the deals that went down here over whisky and bitters.
Bogyoke Aung San Museum (+95 9 4201 63321), located in the general’s old house, features his letters, clothes, library, medals and classic car, though it doesn’t resolve the speculation about who killed him. A political rival, U Saw, was hanged for the murder but conspiracy theories abound on the net, pointing the finger at British and American interests.
I end at Scott Market, locally known as Bogyoke Aung San Market after the beloved general. With more than 2000 shops selling clothes, jewellery, parasols, handicrafts, lacquerware, silverware and paintings that range from expressionist to pointillist, you can spend a leisurely afternoon or, in my case, a frantic hour shopping for gifts and souvenirs.
My guides don’t mind sharing stories over cold Myanmar Beer. They tell me about The Moustache Brothers and their controversial comedy shows; about Abraham Sofaer, the Yangon actor from the original Mission: Impossible TV series; and about life in this unplanned, Westernising city where you can photograph monks but not cops.
I then confess that all the pagodas I’ve visited look alike to me. “That’s just like Buddhism,” says my friend of three days. “The message is so simple – impermanence, karma and compassion – but you have to repeat it many times before you can understand it.”
We raise our glasses, for travel is very much the same – you can scratch the surface on your first visit but it’s on your many returns that you truly unravel a place. While Yangon’s next dawn may well be a sunrise, the time to visit is now, if only to witness the changing light and the falling shadows. And to listen to a handful of punks growling and whispering at a darkness that looks set to pass.
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