Travel: Life on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar

INDEPENDENT since 1948, the architectural legacy of the British Empire hangs over Myanmar’s capital Yangon, finds author Marek Lenarcik

An illuminated Sule pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. Picture: Contributed

As Myat had promised, a guide, Fo, was waiting for me outside the hotel at 9am. He was in his late thirties or early forties and wore a dark, elegant longyi and a spotless white shirt, which made a funny contrast with his blood-red betel-burnt mouth. We walked south toward the 2,000 year old, 45-metre-tall Sule Pagoda, passing on the way an old fire station, a vestige of the time when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was a British colony.

The pagoda was located at the middle of a roundabout. It marked the exact centre of Yangon during the 19th century and huge parts of the 20th. Due to the rapid expansion of the city, which started in the 1980s and spread northward, the downtown core today sits in the south end of the city, on the banks of the Yangon River.

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The temperature reached 38 degrees celsius, making it unpleasantly hot. We stood in the shadow of a large tree – one of many in Yangon, which is sometimes known as “The Garden City of Asia.” Behind was the small and well-maintained Mahabandoola Park. At its middle stood Independence Monument, shaped like a small obelisk and taking up the site where a statue of Queen Victoria once stood until Burma’s independence in 1948. Sule Pagoda and a small mosque were to our left, and an old, British-built Baptist church was to our right. The most impressive sight was the monumental City Hall, so big it defies most tourists’ tries to capture it in one photo.

Sunset at U Bein bridge, Myanmar. Picture: Contributed

We walked east along Mahabandoola Road. People were jumping on and off old, noisy and miserably crowded buses. A street market lined both sides of the road, and vendors hawked everything from aromatic fried samosas to children’s toys and leather belts.

My attention was drawn to a man sitting on a plastic chair in front of a wooden desk that displayed four stationary phones.

“It’s a phone booth... Myanmar style!” Fo said.

Next we stopped in front of a young man preparing packets of betel for sale.

“Taxi? Taxi?” asked a man in a blue longyi.

“No, thank you,” I said and smiled.

“Money change?” asked another, gripping a pile of cash under his sweaty armpit.

“No, thank you,” I said again.

“Money change, money change! 1,000 kyats, one dollar!”

I thanked him again, then stopped responding on his third offer to change money. Eventually he gave up, but that didn’t stop others asking as we walked the street.

“Never change money with these people,” Fo said. “They will offer you a good rate but then rip you off on counting. You can count three, four times and everything appears to be fine. But, by the time you walk away, you’ll be short of at least a few thousand kyats. I am not sure how they do it exactly, but they have their ways, so be careful.”

Pansodan Street is known for two things: possibly the highest concentration of British colonial buildings in one place in Southeast Asia, and traditional street shops selling books in Burmese and English, often at very low prices.

“Some of our English clients love to spend hours at these tiny stalls. I had one couple find three books in English printed in the 19th century. The vendor sold them for a few dollars probably not realising what kind of jewels these books are,” Fo said.

Perhaps the most beautiful colonial building in Myanmar, if not in all Asia, is the Supreme Court. Designed by architect James Ransome, construction of the Court began in 1905 and it was completed in 1911. It is noted for its Queen Anne-style architecture, including a clock tower and redbrick exterior. It’s on the city’s official list of heritage structures. We continued down the road, passing a number of other huge buildings housing the Internal Revenue Department and the Inland Water Transport Company among others.

A small, traditional food market was bustling at the end of the street in front of Pansodan Jetty, where a ferry had just arrived. Hundreds of people with plastic bags in their hands and full bamboo baskets on their heads spilled into the city to buy and sell various wares at local markets. Vendors tried to catch their attention with loud shouts announcing the goods on offer. The place probably hadn’t changed much for a hundred years.

Another set of colonial buildings revealed themselves from here: the magnificent Custom House, the General Post Office, unchanged since it was built, the British and Australian embassies and, perhaps the best of all, The Strand Hotel. The Victorian-style hotel, named after its address at 92 Strand Road, was built in 1896 and opened its doors in 1901. During the colonial period, it was one of the most luxurious hotels in the British Empire, with an exclusively white clientele. Over the years it became one of the most famous hotels in Southeast Asia, attracting guests like Pierre Cardin, Mick Jagger and David Rockefeller, among others.

Just behind the General Post Office we turned into a narrow street. Fo promised to show me how “real people” live in Yangon. The street appeared to be closed to motorised traffic. On both sides were apartment blocks that looked much older than they probably were due to a total lack of maintenance. According to city building codes, apartments blocks were not to be taller than six floors (eight in years past). If they were taller than this, they were required to have lifts, which automatically gave them the status of a condominium. It was clear to me that all of these dirty, monsoon-battered structures were “apartments,” while the wealthier classes lived in elevator-equipped condominiums.

The people were friendly and curious as to why a foreigner was in this neighbourhood located just two minutes’ walk from the colonial grandeur of the city.

The children played jumping games. The street led back to Mahabandoola Road and another food market. The tropical sun set the meat and fish decomposing nearly as fast as people could buy it. Either the shoppers would cook the food for dinner the same day or it would be made into a spicy curry, to be sold to passers-by for another week or so.

“Welcome to the real Yangon,” Fo said.

We took a quick look at the massive Secretariat Building – where on 19 July 1947, General Aung San was assassinated – then retreated to a teashop to get some respite from the sun. The place was spacious but stuffy because it lacked air con. It was cluttered with shabby tables and small plastic chairs. We ordered two kinds of tea, Chinese and Indian, the latter known here as Burmese tea. The green tea was so weak that it was almost as clear as water. The strong taste of the Burmese tea was bearable due to the addition of sweetened condensed milk rather than sugar. We drank the tea, eating naan breads and a few samosas, while observing the local life. It was lunch hour, and the place was crowded mostly with Burmese men who were eating, drinking, chewing betel, playing cards and talking. I soaked up the atmosphere, aware of myself as the outsider in the room.

• This is an edited extract from Burma Lost & Found by Marek Lenarcik, £27.87,