Note by the author
This is the second piece I wrote about Yangon after my visit in 2004. You can read the first piece, The Golden Smiles Inn here
Wandering in Yangon
I’d known Malcolm approximately nine hours, having met him as we both emerged from the New Siam Guest House in Bangkok at six o’clock that morning and boarded the minibus bound for the airport. Travel underscores the transitory nature of life and encourages rapid intimacy. Our similar accents, British (mine corrupted by over 30 years of living in Canada), and our similar ages (what’s a decade between people of a certain age), seemingly entitled everyone we had met so far to assume we were a couple. And I suppose we looked reasonably matched as we stepped out into the blazing mid-afternoon heat.
Merchant Street, one block away from the Yangon River, was thronged with people, some merely passing by but most engaged in one form of commerce or another. At the corner to our right, groups of people perched on small stools and huddled over tables no more than six inches off the pavement. Everyone’s attention was riveted on tiny pieces of rather dirty, coloured glass, which I later learned were rubies from Mogok in the north. We had tripped over the gem market that sets up every day under the tree where Merchant and Shwebontha streets intersect. As we turned right on to Shwebontha Street, a pantheon of Hindu deities, dripping with garlands and candle wax, transfixed my eyes. Ganesha and his friends made a colourful, porcelain frieze round the base of the tree and a much more noticeable landmark to find the Golden Smiles than the crooked and cracked happy face that announced Miss Mu’s domain.
Shwebontha Street is wide but no street in Yangon is wide enough to accommodate all the people and their activities. We left the bustling corner with the huddles of gem traders and their customers quietly supervised by Shiva and wandered past a row of sign makers. Small kiosks perched at the edge of the sidewalk; each with a couple of men wielding handsaws and assiduously producing curlicues and letters out of many different coloured plastic sheets.
‘How on earth do they make a living? said more to the air than to Malcolm who was already a few steps ahead of me as I passed at least ten kiosks in a row, making comparison-shopping easy for the buyer but competitive selling difficult for the owners.
My mind was busy toying with street economics when I realized we were walking through a sidewalk cafe. Anyone who thinks the Europeans have perfected the art of eating and drinking outdoors have not experienced the teashops of Yangon. The tiny tables and chairs, even seeming small for kindergarten, were a plastic obstacle course as we slowly navigated our way towards the centre of the city. I followed Malcolm across the road to avoid them.
The street was tree-lined, with cars both ancient and almost modern, competing for the limited shade. Fine Victorian edifices, still splendid beneath the faded pastel paint rose from the cracked and uneven sidewalks, dwarfing the tea drinkers on the miniature furniture. Apart from the stifling heat and the omnipresent blue skies, the architecture bore a striking resemblance to Manchester, grey grime stripped away to reveal Palladian columns and Grecian arches crumbling beneath a layer of pale pink, blue or peach paint. The effect was as if Manchester had suddenly been cleaned up and transported to the Mediterranean with sober-suited businessmen and be-hatted matrons replaced by brown-skinned men and women wrapped in tablecloths taking afternoon tea in very unusual circumstances.
The resemblance was not the result of the tropical heat on my brain. Yangon, in its present form, was laid out under the British in 1885. With imagination limited by the familiar, the colonial rulers created a masterpiece of Victorian architecture in this outpost of the empire, conveniently annexed to India. During the next few days, I continued to stumble across the various refinements that Victorian sensibility imposed on cities. Walking along the road by the river, incongruously called the Strand, the proportion and lines of the old custom house stimulated long lost memories of a walk along the Embankment on a day trip to London in my youth. The Victorian penchant for copper-domed cupolas and turrets is nicely captured in what once must have been a very prosperous commercial district. And Mahabandoola Gardens, close to Sule Pagoda, the official centre of Yangon, burgundy robed monks notwithstanding, has an eerie resemblance to Piccadilly Gardens in central Manchester.
Malcolm, I was to learn, had a penchant for Indian food and an uncanny knack of finding ‘Chitty’ or ‘Chetty’ restaurants. We ate a quick lunch in the New Delhi Restaurant on Mahabandoola Street and then headed off to visit two of Yangon’s landmarks, one Buddhist, Sule Pagoda, and one a vestige of the colonial days, the Strand Hotel.
Sule Pagoda or Paya is slap bang in the middle of the city where Sule Pagoda Road and Mahabandoola Street intersect. It’s actually in the middle of the road, forming an unusual oriental variation on the British roundabout. The roads that lead to it are so straight that its golden dome glints in the sunlight like one of Hore Belisha’s beacons or a traffic light permanently set on amber.
The mix of sacred and profane in Southeast Asian Buddhists temples reflects a pragmatist turn of mind. Round the circumference of the pagoda, opening directly to the streets are a wide array of little business. You can get business cards printed, photographs developed, buy shoes or earrings. The four tiled staircases leading to the shrine are edged with sellers of religious artifacts for the devout. We slipped off our shoes and mounted the steps. As the noise of the street receded behind, slender Myanmar girls and women quietly offered flowers, incense and candles.
“For the Lord Buddha,” they say shyly. For a few kyats, beautifully folded fresh lotus buds passed from their hands to mine.
Burmese pagodas are never what you expect. From a distance the slender white or golden spire suggest a spiritual elegance that is often not delivered by the interior. The most restrained Burmese shrine will have several Buddha statues, clearly a ‘more is better’ philosophy, many layered with dust and cobwebs. In spite of my many visits to pagodas, I never lose the urge to straighten off-balance buddhas or to dust and generally clean up. Buddhas are protected by parasols of Paradise, tinselly umbrellas that often compete for sheer tackiness with golden-leaved bodhi trees and neon halos around the head of the central buddha. Sule Pagoda definitely challenges my ideas about shrines. It has little ambience so I quickly found a Buddha without neon lights, presented my flowers and wandered back down a staircase in search of my sandals.
To be completed: