Note from the author
This was written after my second visit to Myanmar in 2004. I rolled out of my guesthouse in Bangkok to catch the six a.m. minibus to the airport. The only other passenger was a Brit called Malcolm. He was also catching the plane to Yangon. We ended up travelling together for a bit.
The Golden Smiles Inn
By the time I’d grabbed my backpack from the trunk of the taxi Malcolm was already half way across Merchant Street and was disappearing into the crowd.
“Wait for me,” I yelled.
No time for the “Look right, look left” routine of childhood, I just dived into the road with eyes glued on Malcolm’s blue backpack appearing and disappearing like a confused genie on the crowded sidewalk on the other side. I survived crossing the road and elbowed my way through the throng, wondering how I was going to find the Golden Smiles Inn if I lost sight of him.
Malcolm vanished and a sea of brown faces swelled around me obliterating any trace of him. I paused to take a deep breath to quell the mounting panic and systematically began to examine my surroundings. Out of the colourful blur emerged a small, white sign, the kind of sign that anywhere other than Yangon would have been illuminated by neon. The sign, with a yellow happy face, was cracked, hanging crookedly next to a gap in the crumbling façade of the building nearest to me. Black letters announced my destination.
I struggled past the crowds waiting for the juice to be extracted from long sticks of sugar cane slowly being cranked, like sheets on laundry day, through a contraption that bore a striking resemblance to my grandmother’s old mangle. I fell over the step at the threshold as the light changed from blinding to dim and caught a glimpse of Malcolm’s bum turning the corner up a long flight of very wide and dark stairs.
I followed, leaving behind the noise of the streets and the quick glances of the people in the entrance, waiting for photocopies from an antiquated machine buried deep in the recesses of the stairwell. I turned the dark corner with memories of hunting for a flat with my cousin in the Glasgow Gorbals forty years previously. Her nose had crinkled at the very obvious smell of urine on the staircase.
“What would Margaret think of this,” I wondered momentarily as I passed four dark and dirty oil barrels stored on the landing.
Arrival at the first floor brought light and an improved outlook. To the right, through a glass door, emerged a couple obviously having completed some business in the office that lay beyond. To the left was a similar door, its chestnut-coloured, wooden paneling shining to waist height and then a window. I was transported from the Gorbals to a cotton warehouse in the commercial area of Manchester, the city of my childhood. But the Burmese dancer painted on the wall, swaying hips draped in a colourful longyis, arms in a welcoming posture, tall headdress tapering upwards and falling in a cascade of gold about her ears, was a long way from Manchester. Capital letters, brilliant gold on the glass, announced a welcome to the Golden Smiles Inn.
The door was wide and swung behind me as I entered. Malcolm was already ensconced in a wicker chair.
‘I thought I’d lost you,” I said as I swung my backpack off my shoulders. The other inhabitants, three young men, had clearly been surprised from their afternoon siesta. One was still trying to raise himself from a horizontal position on a wooden bench placed against the far wall without dislodging a guitar obviously set aside to accommodate the more pressing matter of sleep. Another rapidly untied, flapped open and retied his paseo, the tube-like piece of cloth worn like a skirt by the majority of Burmese males. When the extra material was tied into a rosette at his very slender waist and draped fetchingly over the flattest of stomachs in true Myanmar sartorial splendor, he opened the mirrored door of an antique wardrobe and drew out sheets and towels. The third, the ‘manager’ Nay Myo, assured me there was a room for me but they needed a minute to prepare it. The soft slap, slap, slap of his rubber thongs receded down a dim hallway. I joined Malcolm in another wicker chair and watched what passes for hustle and bustle in Burma as the young men laconically went about the business of making up two rooms.
Light and heat flooded in to the lobby from the open French windows that led to a balcony. The noise of traffic filtered up from the street, muffled somewhat by the laundry hanging limply on ropes strung across the arches of the balcony. The laundry was clumped haphazardly across the makeshift washing lines, the result of scrunching up the merely damp to make room for the recently washed. Among the sheets and towels I clearly discerned underwear and made a mental note to do my own laundry unless I was prepared for my unmentionables to become the sight that welcomed everyone for breakfast.
This was my second visit to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. On my first visit I had stayed in the suburbs, close to Kandawagyi Lake within easy walking distance of the Shwedagon Pagoda, a prototypic Burmese temple, crowned with a huge golden hand bell, thrusting skywards in search of celestial bell ringers. The gardens, the flowers, the old colonial mansions decaying with a gentility that befitted their origins, and the long rambling roads around the Royal Lake were peaceful and pleasant but this time I wanted a different experience. I wanted to stay in inner Yangon, where the wide streets, laid out in a grid, ‘imperial and rectilinear’, were crowded with life.
Contrary to expectations, formalities at the Mingaladon airport had been a snap. On my first visit new arrivals and returning residents were equally clueless about procedures for immigration, money changing and baggage collection. The officials managed the inevitable scrimmage with a typical Buddhist calm that on first acquaintance seems a lot like nonchalance, even downright disinterest. Myanmar politeness includes a reserve that precludes telling you what to do in case that is misinterpreted as involving themselves in your business.
This time everything was much more orderly. The first barricade was immigration with the inspection of the passport and an official stamp. I always wonder what passes through the mind of a customs officer as they scrutinize each person’s passport. In Asia, the search for the visa – I fight the urge to tell them the page number by clenching my teeth – is conducted in an interminable silence, which encourages vivid flights of fancy about what I will do if I am denied entry. But eventually, the official stamp lands on a page with a satisfying thud and my aching jaw is reprieved by a smile as the passport is handed over.
The characteristic reserve of the Burmese had been overcome sufficiently to permit a polite request, from a uniformed customs officer, to step over the way to a little wicket to change money. The politeness does not obscure the fact that this is a modern form of highway robbery – dacoits in neat uniforms operating for the government. One hands over two hundred U.S. dollars and receives foreign equivalent currency commonly referred to by the initials FEC. FEC, Myanmar’s funny money, feels a lot like Monopoly money. It won’t buy you a Burmese Park Lane but is useful for paying for hotel rooms – but that’s about all. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to change into the local currency, kyats, but this must be done discreetly as few nationals are legally permitted to hold FECs.
The Bank of Myanmar teller handed me a slender envelope containing the pre-counted money and a large piece of paper – the official receipt, which must be presented if one wishes to change excess FECs back into dollars on exiting the country. I stuffed all but one FEC into my money belt and headed for the last hurdle, baggage. To my surprise, the officials merely smiled at me as I attempted to register my camera and waved me through.
Then the fun began.
“Stick with me,” I shouted over my shoulder to Malcolm. “Don’t pay any attention to what anyone says.”
We were in the thick of a crowd of touts attempting to round up customers for the trip into downtown Yangon, about 20 miles from Mingaladon airport. I was assailed on several sides.
“Where you go?” several voices belonging to Burmese men looking handsome in dark paseos and pastel shirts enquired.
This is not the opener to a friendly conversation but an ingenious ploy to corral you for one of the taxis waiting outside. It’s fatal to reply. The normally reserved Burmese can be very insistent, motivated by a commission from the taxi driver, who in turn, will get a commission from the owner of the hotel they will insist on taking you to.
“I know where I go,” I said sweetly as I out maneuvered most of them.
Even the respectable looking ladies in traditional costume in the Myanmar tourism booth lost all their reserve; they yelled and waved placards suggesting possible lodging places. The general mayhem gave the airport lobby the ambience of a carnival with children noisily extorting money for candy floss and rides from recalcitrant parents. I steadfastly ploughed through these crowds with Malcolm and several touts at my heels – the quintessential recalcitrant tourist – found a taxi, negotiated the exchange of my one accessible FEC for the ride, and we were soon pulling away from the golden façade of the airport, which looks like it’s been borrowed from the set of ‘The King and I.’ Twenty minutes later Nay Myo was showing me to my room in the Golden Smiles Inn.
My room was at the end of the dim hallway. Traversing the threshold was a border crossing of a different kind. Suddenly I was Gulliver in Brobdingnag; everything in that room was high, the result of the smaller Myanmar over-estimating the size of foreigners who often tower above them. The slight change in temperature as I entered emanated from an air conditioner, groaning quietly in the wall over one of the beds. I knew that even by standing on the bed, I would have a hard time reaching it if I wanted to switch it off. The ceiling, at least 15 feet from the floor, featured a single, naked light bulb. Experience told me that its sad 40-watt capability might shed a small puddle of light on the sisal mat that covered the floor but would preclude any reading in bed. The windows were close to the ceiling, giving the impression of being in a basement and removing any requirement for drapes or blinds. My eyes were drawn skywards to the crumbling façade of the building next door. My modesty would remain intact because if any of the normally reticent Burmese living behind those faded walls raised their eyes for long enough to cast a casual glance in the direction of my room all they would see through the window was the towel rail on the opposite wall, which towered at least two feet above my head. Even entrance into the washroom involved mastering a step that was too high for comfort and would require considerable negotiation during visits at night.
But there were two beds, magnificently swathed in glorious white, clean sheets. As clean sheets are the only condition I refuse to jettison on my peregrinations through Asia, I took the room. Spurning the single one under the air conditioner, I opted for the double bed.
Nay Myo deftly stepped into the washroom, clearly intending that I should follow. I hauled myself up the step and noticed a western-style toilet in less than pristine cleanliness, a washbasin, a showerhead sticking out from the wall, and joy, oh joy, two taps under the showerhead.
“Hot water,” I burst out.
Nay Myo nodded, his thick, black hair bouncing off his forehead, clearly enjoying my happiness.
His work complete, he withdrew to resume his nap. I used my knee to encourage the lower part of the door to close behind him.
Remembering that I hadn’t eaten since leaving Bangkok in the early morning, and it was now mid-afternoon, food became a priority. I buckled on my fanny pack, grabbed my guide book and, locking the door behind me with a swift slam, executed by simultaneously pulling and lifting the doorknob with both hands, headed down the hallway.
Malcolm was already in the lobby, my arrival hardly disturbing him from looking at a book held by a Myanmar woman.
“I’m Miss Mu,” she introduced herself as the owner of the Golden Smiles Inn. I peered over their shoulders as she showed Malcolm pictures of her other hotel, the Golden Rose, which was clearly the up-market alternative to the Golden Smiles Inn. I stared at the photograph of a covered veranda with a table clearly laid for breakfast.
“That looks awfully like the place I stayed in last time,” I said, “But it was called the Asian Rose.”
Miss Mu was delighted. It was indeed the Asian Rose, which she had recently purchased from a friend, and, as befitted the second addition to what was intended to be her golden empire, had renamed the hotel accordingly. She happily announced that we could stay in the old colonial mansion near Kandawagyi Lake for the same price as this backpacker ghetto on Merchant Street. We thanked her profusely and escaped to the streets in search of lunch.
Read the next piece in this series, Wandering in Yangon, here.