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Published: February 17th 2016
There are many types of human chaos, but two seem to present themselves more often than others. The order of the day is the glaringly mechanical - planned, systematic, convenient and commercial, predictable, pre-packaged and microwavable, calculatingly manufactured for the optimization of human life; and then there is that lesser known chaos - the organic mass of humanity, flowing in no predictable order - a pattern that, try as you might you may, fails to establish. At times there is something to be said for chaos, and of the two, it has become the second that draws me in for more, pulls me around the next corner - and so it is with Yangon. It is scarcely imaginable that 5-million people make their home in a city where downtown is home to three-story buildings engulfed in vines, peeling paint and the tangled impenetrable mass of electrical wires that thoroughly embody the sense of chaos in the air - Wonderful chaos.
Our friend Rocky promised to pick us up at the airport and in his most hospitable fashion would not take no for an answer, even when it meant arriving at Yangon International at 6 am, which was no problem for
him. "How will we find you when we get there," I asked but he assured us not to worry, he'd watch for us. When we came out of the tunnel, down the escalator and into the single port terminal, he was standing there smiling with his headphones and track suit, along with the 25 or 30 other people who had turned up at the airport that fine morning. He had in fact parked his sisters car right in front of the main entrance, there with a few other civilian vehicles and some taxi drivers - by which I mean fellows of the random sort with a variety of mostly grey cars and sometimes a little sign that says taxi. We had changed our $600 into several bricks of Burmese currency - the Kyat 1,200 to $1.
We were off through Yangon - a much different feel than other South East Asian cities, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City of course, Phnom Penh sure, and even Vientien - which struck me as a bit of a bore to be quite honest. Yangon was vibrant, despite or perhaps especially due to the early morning hours - the air was fresh and
there was lots of concrete and commotion sure, but there was plenty of green overgrowth too, ready to retake the city at a moments notice should we ever let our guard down. We came to a small overpass - you know the type, a road that goes over the top of another - and Rocky informed us that we were at a point of historical significance - this being the first overpass ever built in Yangon, one of two as of 2015. We were on our way to our friend's house, a foreign teacher and good friend from our old days teaching in Nakhon Sawan together - a secret we had to keep close to our vest, as it is actually illegal for all parties involved that we were not sleeping at a registered hotel. We were staying at the nearby Yankin Hotel, so the story went, which sits right near the famous Yankin Center - the first mall in Yangon - a low ceiling, windowless maze of shops with brandless local items and a few poorly attempted knock-offs. Nearby was another large building with a grocery store which I believe was also a hotel - one of the locals
told me it had been owned for years by one of the most notorious, murderous generals in the history of the regime. It is always difficult to get the full story in Myanmar - people love to talk, they want to tell you, but the language is coded and closely guarded, specifics are avoided at all costs - a learned and culturally recognizable trait that speaks more to the history of this land than any textbook, so far as I am concerned.
Our teacher friend had to work, but she took us for a little stroll to the market for breakfast. In Yangon, no faster does the main road become a quiet back alley than the quiet back alley becomes a dirt path surrounded by thick jungle and then around the corner, a bustling local market. I got a beautiful rice noodle dish, served with some hard boiled egg, fresh herbs, chicken powder and soybean flour, to which broth may or may not be added at the discretion of the consumer. After our friend left for work we had a nice little nap before meeting up with Rocky again who wanted to treat us to one of Myanmar's ubiquitous
tea houses. The standard is as follows - you come and order some coffee or tea - if you ask for it sweet it is going to be of the sickening variety so far as the western palate is concerned, though there is also the standard fare on the table which is no more than loose leaves in hot water. Next a combination of plates are brought to the table including samosas, sweet rice cakes, and other fried bits which can either be eaten or left to sit - no charge if you don't eat them as they are simply taken to the next table. When you are ready to order you pucker up your lips and make a loud kissing noise - the type that would get you a slap or at least a dirty look throughout most of the world. It's quite uncomfortable because it is such a foreign idea to us but Rocky assured us it was the way forward - I didn't become fluent in the kissey-sound until my final days in new-Burma, realizing that most of the sound comes from a quick forcing inward of the air through pursed lips. From there come any variety
of oily salads - and for my own taste, the more oily the better - including lahpet thoke
- fermented tea leaves with cabbage, shallots, tomatoes, garlic infused oil, and a selection of deep fried crispy beans, peanuts and the like, served with fresh sliced chilies if you prefer, which I most certainly do. It may be the single best dish I have tasted in Asia, though the variety of salads are endless - ginger, carrot, tomato, noodle.... then of course there are the curries, oily as ever and impossible to pigeon-hole, most closely related to Indian and Nepalese if you must, yet worlds apart. To be eaten with rice or a variety of fried breads. Cigarettes and little Burmese Cigarillos are of course complementary and I felt a bit unfortunate that I didn't smoke - the tea sipping, samosa eating, greasy curry cigar puffing hole in the wall culture really appealed to me in a primal sort of sense. I was drawn to it, I would sit and stare without staring at the tables of elderly gentlemen puffing and sipping away - wishing to no end that they might ask me to join them in their simple dance of life.
For a real sense of Yangon - I recommend the circle train - traffic, unbearable even outside peak hours - chokes the already overwhelmed infrastructure to a near stand-still - no motorbikes are allowed in Yangon strangely enough, but there are all sorts of other vehicles, bicycles and foot traffic on the road that more than make up for it. Moving around the city by foot is also highly recommended, but there are points where side-walks disappear or are completely overtaken and things are quite spread out - it is more difficult to move around by foot than you might think, though it certainly has it's own rich rewards. But anyways the circle train - destination free travel, sure it takes you somewhere, but that is not the point, and if you stay on long enough, of course, you're right back where you started. Instead, it's for the chance to really see - not too slow, not too fast, not too boxed in - the air is open and you can feel free to stand at the open door and hang from the rail as you please - there seems to be a bit of an anything goes type
of vibe on the circle train, not to say that much of anything goes on of course. Most of the passengers are in fact moving from point A to point B and many of the points in between give you keen insight into the way of life in a variety of communities - from the thick of the downtown right out into the countryside. The thing that really got me though were the tracks themselves - at the point where we boarded (Bauk Htwa) we almost felt like we had walked out of the forest - and depending how you define forest I suppose we had - though we were probably only 2-3 km from the Yankin Center as the crow flies. The pictures tell the story a whole lot better than I can but it's kind of it's own little world you see, the train tracks of Bauk Htwa, people coming from this path and that, monks collecting alms and children playing in the dirt - many of the travelers are not actually taking the train itself, rather just having a stroll along the grassy path that the tracks provide. There was a rickety old bridge overlooking the tracks
and I didn't see any indications for or against climbing up and so after doing so carefully I could really take in the whole scene - every now and then a road intersected the tracks and cars came passing through along with bicycles, animals and all the splendid foot traffic. Then from a distance the sound of the rickity old train bouncing and churning along - a giant metal beast with heads and limbs sticking out this way and that, she sure was in no hurry.
As you may recall the way around old colonial Rangoon by foot is also quite a treat, so long as you like a good commotion, especially to see what everything is up to. The beauty of the slowly crumbling and re-purposed colonial infrastructure is magical - it's got plenty of stories to tell but of course you'll have to hear them for yourself. That path is for your steps alone. I saw quite a few women taking samosas, smashing them up in a bowl, mixing them with some fresh herbs and sliced vegetables and pouring hot broth over the top. Would you believe me if I told you that I never had myself
a bowl? We were always planning the next place to eat and I kept thinking next time... eventually, as I came to find, next time is too late. We strolled into the Bogyoke Aung San Market where a foreigner and a make-shift film crew was interviewing local English speakers and tourists about the big to do across the street - Burma's first ever Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant, where lines of people in their Sunday best, up to their necks in security were waiting for a chance to see and be seen having a taste of the Colonel's secret recipe. Also outside the market there was a young kid making small paintings of local scenes from throughout Myanmar - we decided they might make a nice gift for family at home, and found that the young man was charging only $1 per piece - we asked Rocky if we could offer him more, but he shook his head can not. We bought 20 of them and didn't have nearly enough when we finally made it home. We walked away into the market and about 5 minutes later felt a tap on our shoulder - Tara had bought $2 worth of Thanaka
(a Burmese face-paint made from a special ground wood) and had left the bag behind and the painting kid made sure to track us down through the busy market, quite the fellow. The market was bustling, everything was fresh and delicious, cheap and authentic but with the impending sense that the mass tourism was on the way - and who am I to talk, the tourist strolling around? We stopped at a vendor who was selling old currency with various figures from (what appeared to be relatively recent) Burmese history - "who's that I asked," legitimately curious, "Thein Sein?" I added, tongue in cheek, and the man appeared to spit at the ground with a disgusted face, "he doesn't go on money." Woops!... Aung San Suu Kyi - the face of democracy in what had been up until very recently one of the most closed and controlled societies on earth - was all over everything, from signs to t-shirts to hand-bags, and still no one would call her by name. 'The lady,' was the most they would say, conditioned, though to say her name was no longer illegal.
I discussed the issue with some locals over a plate of
Biryani - the coded language, 'the lady,' the cautious optimism for the future, it is both a product of past conditioning and an uncertain future. Here, people remember a time in the not so distant past... like 2011 - where every tea shop, every street corner, every gathering was infiltrated with informants for the regime. If the military caught wind of something you said or were accused of saying they showed up at your home and that was it for you. Over the years language was veiled and veiled again, and even then politics was discussed with utmost caution. But it is not just a legacy of the past - many throughout the country understand that even if true democracy blossoms in Myanmar - it can also be violently extinguished. The possibility that things could return to the way they were seems to be just as possible - if not more so - than the incredible changes that have taken place over the last few years.
Yangon sits at the center of history in many respects - sharing borders not only with Thailand, Laos, Bhutan and Bangladesh but also India and China. It was a corner-stone of the British
Empire and later the launching point for the Japanese as they invaded South East Asia. Soon after their freedom they came under the rule of one of the modern world's most infamous military dictatorships, isolated from the world more-so than perhaps any society not named North Korea. It is one of the most ethnically and linguistically - not to mention geographically - diverse places on the planet, and it's long history continues to cut deep, leaving seemingly insurmountable fissures that are boiling to the surface with the current Rohingya crises which many observers have labeled outright genocide. And still, there they are, the average man and woman - smiling warm and curious as a face from the outside world comes to explore the mystery of their culture. Late at night you can climb up to one of the roof-top bars, the tallest of which is about four-stories and glance out all across the city. Gigantic fruit bats or flying foxes soar overhead and the ethereal glow of the Shwedagon Pagoda lights the night sky. No sky-scrapers here, not yet anyways. All around though are signs and cranes, advertising the development to come - Myanmar is open for business - and
mega-projects are on the horizon, one of which may cause the Shwedagon itself, symbol of Buddhism and indeed the nation itself, to crumble back to the earth from which it came. The human chaos of the first order is on the way, so we might as well soak up all of that good old-fashion chaos while we still can.
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