No one has the excuse for boredom in Yangon so long as they are able to stroll down the city’s colonial grid-system streets. Delightfully designed by happenstance and history, Yangon feels like a bustling city in the midst of ruins, as many of the buildings built by the British have been left to languish in a purposeful neglect. What results is a real life jungle gym for grown-ups, a world full of texture that seem plucked from an artist’s imagination. Yangon gets the Oscar for Best Art Direction, the Tony for Best Choreography and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry after you take it all in.
First, you have the sidewalks themselves. Like many cities in Southeast Asia, entrepreneurs in Yangon consider sidewalks fair game for setting up shop. Whether it’s a one man, one stool frying operation or a whole tea shop, including rain cover, table and chairs, and coal-burning stoves, the sidewalks are cluttered with commercial enterprises.
There are literally thousands of people trapped under this gutter.
What’s different about Yangon, however, is that the narrow space left around the sidewalk entrepreneurs brims with obstacles that veer closer to treacherous than merely inconvenient. Flooding, raining, and draining is a part of life in a monsoon climate, and dealing with a visible sewage system is commonplace around the region. Yangon’s are right under your feet. A current runs under the sidewalk covered only by small slabs, many of which are broken, or misplaced, tipping and swiveling with your footsteps. Others are completely missing, meaning that a foul step late at night could lead put you on a missing persons list. When it rains, the drains roar, and a small river takes forms just inches away from the sidewalk’s surface.
The solid parts of the sidewalk flanking the drain are not smooth and free. Often, they’re crumbling. It’s common for an industrious street vendor to fix a wobbly table or secure papers with an errant piece of pavement. Every part that remains between the drains, rubble, and street vendors runs red with the spit of betel nut chewers. The newer spots glisten bright and bloody while the old spots fade to a dry maroon indicating they’re safe to step on. Even the seemingly unobstructed stretches of pavement contain their own perils. Twice I slipped and fell on a hidden collection of slippery moss.
This sidewalk looks wholesome and well-groomed, but I tripped and fell and busted my knees twice along this stretch. Also, that white mist is condensation IN MY CAMERA LENS. It was that humid.
Once you’ve successfully navigated the physical obstacles on the ground, you’ve got to master the space above your head in a little dance I like to call the Umbrella Check Shuffle. In the rainy season most everyone, especially vendors, must have a plan to deal with the rain, whether that’s a fancy umbrella, a cardboard box, or book or periodical sacrificed to the monsoon. Some set up large, circular outdoor types while others fashion rain shelters out of tarps and twigs. Sometimes a sidewalk will be full covered from the artful overlap of umbrellas and awnings. Others have torrents pouring between the gaps. The key to staying dry is to find the correct angle to tilt your umbrella to navigate between the series of rain defense structures while accounting for the movement and umbrellas of other side walkers. Generally, this just leads to sort of mosh pit where everyone jostles and shoves their fellow pedestrians via umbrella. As a personal space-loving American, I prefer this to real pushing with hands and shoulders in many other places.
The sidewalks of Yangon are so needy, constantly begging for your attention with their subtle threats to break your ankle, swallow you whole, or have you knock down a series of sidewalk entrepreneurs with a misplaced umbrella. Yet the relationship between sidewalk and walker proves more complex, as the pavement demands a sensory-heightening mindfulness and rewards the intrepid for their bravery.
Yummy fruit smells on a slick, yet miraculously obstacle-free sidewalk.
The first reward is olfactory. Despite sewage running in currents beneath your feet, Yangon smells delicious, with the soft scent of sandalwood and incense seeming to multiply in the humidity. Fresh markets disperse ripe fruit aromas into the air, while somehow, magically, the stench of seafood and waste stays down at sewer level. Street side grills perfume the sidewalks with a smokey charcoal campfire scent, sometimes punctuated with a burst of garlic or curry. Even the durian smells fresher, sweeter, and less like a poisonous gas leak. Once inside, however, the smell will linger on clothing and become stale and damp–it’s only good on the sidewalks, when it’s alive.
Your eyes feast as well. Colors and textures abound, refusing to be muted by the cloudy monsoon skies. Mostly the colors come from the vendors with their bright umbrellas, tables, chairs, and colorful wares, but it doesn’t end there. Green plant life covers pastel buildings and trees spring from cracks in colonial stone. Women and men wear long skirts (longyis) of fabric, sometimes silk, making the pedestrian traffic an undulating wave of color. Hindu temples, mosques, and bright gold payas dot the grid, each providing their own aesthetic take on the supernatural, spiritual, traditional.
Bells on the spinning wheel of a sugar cane press.
Calls for prayer emanate through the streets from mosque speakers, while the Buddhist payas broadcast their own messages. Any venturer knows their proximity to a sugarcane juicer by the bells that spin on the vibrant wheels that grind and squeeze the cane into a fresh juice. City bus employees hang from open bus doors, shouting the route of their particular vehicle. When the power goes out across the city, the generators switch on, their white noised hum filling in the gaps between hawkers shouting the merits of their wares in near-perfect English. Everywhere an obvious foreigner walks, he or she is greeted with a friendly, yet loud “HAL-LO!”
“HAL-LO Lady Gaga!”
“HAL-LO Spice Girl!”
…and people think the Burmese are cut off from the rest of the world. I got not one, but two Lady Gaga references while walking the streets, despite being covered from neck to quick-dry pant clad ankle and thus looking more like a sporty Stephani Germanotta than her pop-star alter ego.
The swirling activity, sensory overload, and interactions with the seriously friendly Yangonese help detract from the suffocating humidity and pollution from hoards of dirty, pre-1989 vehicles. Still, the street can be overwhelming, which is why tea shops and cafés are so important and densely-packed in number and in customers. A quick stop for some sweet, milky tea or a packet of betel nut and lime revives the weary walker in an instant and provides the perfect place to plop down and observe the lively streams of commerce, religion, food, and drink that swarm round the urban ruins.
Hi! I'm Susan, and this is my travel journal. You can read more about me here.
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