Naturally, our first stop on Burma trip was Yangon, my home city. It was pretty exciting to explore the city and on the trip, I observed many things that I didn’t notice or appreciate when I was much younger. I guess being a traveler allowed me to view Yangon from a perspective that I have never seen before – how much influence India, China or Thailand have over Burma and how our history, culture and heritage were shaped throughout the centuries.
Yangon houses the largest number of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia; although most of them are in various stages of decay: overgrown with vegetation or too worn out from decades of neglect and lack of upkeep. This does offers a certain charm to the visitors but at the same time, it is sad to see beautiful buildings in terrible shape.
Among many colonial buildings that we visited, there was this old building at the corner of Pansodan street and Merchant street which was once a gathering place for intellectuals and wealthy businessmen; its floor tiles were made in Manchester and shipped all the way to Yangon. The building is now in a terrible shape; the lack of maintenance and the abuse of its tenants over the years, slowly erode away its glamour till only dim remnants left to stand witness of its past glories.
What surprised me the most was the massive presence of Indian and Chinese population in Yangon, each with their own quarter formed slowly over the years and had grown organically. From Sule Pagoda near the Cityhall, once you crossed over the other side, it is the Indian Quarter followed by China Town at the other end, integrated tightly within the fabric of the city and each interacting the other as if there is no barriers.
When we talk about what are there to see in Yangon, there isn’t much going on given the fact that it was only the capital city for less than 60 years, starting off with the British colonization and far off from the culture and heritage center – the central plains along the Irrawaddy river. While it lacks in historical attractions, it offers a rich and diverse street culture; you can walk around in the colonial quarter, china quarter or india quarter and every few steps or so, you will stumble upon something interesting. If you are talking about street food culture, Bangkok indisputably takes the crown but Yangon does offer a unique bland of China meets India.
I came across this barbershop while walking around and I only realized ‘No Photo’ after taking the picture. I assume that he opens the shop till pretty late seeing the battery cell to power the lamp when it gets dark.
Nothing really go wasted; if your watch or clock is not working, you can repair. If you need money, you can sell it here or buy one if you are keen. The local watch repairman seems pretty absorbed in his works.
As with most Southeast Asian countries, roadside food stalls are the norm; the locals who works nearby pay patronage to various food options such as noodle with soup, salads, rice dishes or even for a nice afternoon tea break. We undoubtedly share a deep love for milky smooth tea with India although I can only speculate whether it is because it is the origin of our culture or this was brought over during the British colonial period. One thing I am certain is we serve really good tea – which is not for the faint hearted, people with diabetes, or those who complains about eating healthy.
While the country is getting modernized at an alarming rate: 10 years ago, a sim card can easily cost 2,000 US$ but now it is less than 2 US$; many of the old ways still persist. People still relies on printed newspapers and journals to keep themselves updated but the younger generations turn to the social media.
Regrettably, this was the end of my expedition to rediscover and reconnect with my birth place. I had a really great time there in Yangon (Of course, the credits go to my awesome travel companion and my over-excited over-worried parents who were convinced that I have no clue about the city).
There were many places on my list but didn’t get any chance to visit, so I can only look forward for my next trip. There is a India spice market in the India quarter, fresh market in China town selling all sort of Chinese food ingredients and snacks, or the wholesale market specialized in selling dried chili, onion and potato.