YANGON: THE FASCINATION OF AN OLD DOWNTOWN
CRISTINA MARIA CHIOREN
The old downtown of Yangon is the place to soak up the authentic atmosphere of the city with its long, narrow and perpendicular streets loosing yourself in the constant buzz, deliberate chaos, various smells, a multitude of colours, strange noises and a mixture of architecture.
The old downtown I describe here is not made up only of the big boulevards like the Pansodan road or the Strand avenue, and for me experiencing the area does not mean to circle the Independence square or to walk from the Bogyoke market to the Sule pagoda.
My 'downtown' is made up of the long, narrow perpendicular and numerically numbered streets with a well organised structure that is easy to remember, reminiscent of the old colonial past, which unfolds to the south of Bogyoke market until the Strand road.
It is not enough to just take a brief glance of downtown if you call yourself a temporary inhabitant of the city. Even as a tourist, it would not qualify as sufficient, especially when you have more than one day set aside to visit the city. You have enough time. The downtown wakes up early and goes to sleep, at least on some streets, quite late. Soak in the atmosphere for at least half a day. The impressions, believe me, will be strong and will stay with you forever.
I strolled through these streets numerous times for long hours. With each new walk I discovered another eye-catching building, a different shop, an interesting craft on display on the sidewalk, or a local curiosity. I met all kinds of people. These daily encounters of people and things pleasantly surprised or suddenly saddened me but I learned to appreciate each of them as events which I only live and see once. Every day is different and special in downtown Yangon.
In the early morning, when traffic is absent, if you find yourself on a street from the lower block you can see all the way to the upper block. The buildings seem connected by the thick network of wires which supply the households with electricity. Birds are flying low, attracted by the street market below. Around this time of the year the visibility is blurry. We are in the middle of the dry season and the hot air is full of dust and exhaust.
Sometimes I would take a look in between two rows of buildings. People store things or dry clothes in the available space, on and in between garbage. You wonder whether the tenants are throwing the garbage directly from their window? A few young men store huge bottles of water for distribution in the area. You wonder whether any rats' excrements remain on the bottles no matter how much you clean them before use?
One day I witnessed a fight between a fat rat and a lady. The animal seemed dizzy, maybe from the heat, and did not manage to escape the hits from the expertly handled broomstick.
The smells follow you all the time and for the most part they are not pleasant. An advice for the sensitive visitor is to bring a perfumed scarf and keep it handy when passing, for example, open sewers which are usually covered by slabs of concrete which serve as a the sidewalk for pedestrians. However due to the often unstable and loose slabs, pedestrians usually prefer to walk on the street. The road thus becomes the crowded place where you squeeze in between cars, tea shops, trishaws, dogs and all kind of objects stored randomly and waiting to be transported.
Some of the downtown's buildings serve as warehouses for the multitude of goods shipped in the port of Yangon. Like in old times, the Chinese and Indian locals are the merchants of the city with shops opened on the ground floor of virtually every house. You will be surprised by the vast array of wares that are sold from fabrics to plastic toys, from sailing ropes to gold jewelleries offered by the Chinese merchants, from tons of glassware to all kinds of tools on display on improvised tables on the streets.
The colours of these streets are vibrant because of the many markets which sell fruits, vegetables and flowers in skilful arrangements, tea shops with trays of food that makes your mouth water, colourful longyis worn by local ladies, and if you remember to look up, the long string of clothes put out to dry hanging from most windows.
But, truth be told, it so happens that the tourist will most of the time forget to look up being also distracted by the candid smiles of the locals and the calls they shout to catch your attention to the wares they are selling.
This is unfortunate because they miss out on the beautiful old colonial buildings which are made out of wood or bricks, building materials which show the passage of time. Some were built at the beginning of the 20th century by the British settlers or the Indian merchants. In some streets, like the 18th street, lower part, you can witness an entire row of wooden houses with panels stretching from the floor to the ceiling which protect the interior from the sun. What a strange feeling if you arrive early enough to be almost alone in the middle of these structures that are waiting to be admired on both sides of the street! It is like going back in time or being part of a movie which is set in the old colonial times with houses of wealthy Indian traders selling timber, their lodgings close enough to their teak warehouses located on the Yangon river waiting for the ships to trade the precious wood in countries far away from Burma.
For me the heart of the downtown is represented by the locals. The people try to get along day by day, determined and with a positive attitude. They always have a smile ready for you. Still they work hard, rush along, sell and buy groceries, repair things you would never think exist anymore, cook on charcoal cook stoves, sip tea at the tea shops, read the newspaper, gaze around bored or curious, and take a nap in the shadow.
I am fascinated by the number of locals that read the newspapers. Everywhere, every time. I tend to forget I am in a country which recently opened itself to democracy and this is a feature of the transition. There are dozens of different newspapers and these are sold at every corner. People are thirsty for information especially now when the nomination of Myanmar's new President is so imminent. One taxi driver told me recently that they (the NLD supporters) are quiet, they read and listen to the news, but do not express themselves loudly. They need to be silent, not to bother anybody to allow the political negotiations to proceed smoothly. So they continue reading, especially the "Democracy" newspaper. I like it when I see people reading on the streets. I keep a wide collection of photographs on this topic.
People seem optimistic and the least fortunate take it in a positive way.
I am aware that the city is developing in a way which is very characteristic for SouthEast Asia. I refer to the many stories about Myanmar's fast economic development that receive a lot of coverage in today's local and international media. If some would argue that you are already coming too late to witness a city frozen in time I would argue that now is actually the best time to experience the fast change while also learning about the unique traditions which are still preserved by the communities.
The mobile phone market has confirmed its huge popularity and affordability for all the social classes of the population. Everybody is connected and everybody checks his smart phone every few seconds. The other day I noticed a tourist, an old lady, watching two little children playing on a couple of mobile phones. She looked amazed, probably she would have expected to find them playing hide and seek around their parents' teashop in downtown but she was indeed a year or so too late for that already.
People start to dress smartly or to develop their own fashion style. Boys have funky hairstyles. Young people are eager to learn and try everything new.
Relatively new housing projects, a kitsch of tiles and glass with an array of ornaments, squeeze in between old buildings. These are still modest and date back to a few years ago. However new ones are popping up like mushrooms after the rain in this new economic boom. I was taken aback by the way these huge apartment buildings change the landscape of downtown. It is still sad to notice children working on construction sites. During my walks, I also realised how many children are left playing alone on the streets and thus are not attending school. I will not mention the many ones helping to serve customers in tea shops.
A walk in downtown Yangon will take you emotionally through the whole range of feelings one can experience. For me this neighbourhood remains my favourite part of the city, a place full of colours and contrasts, where I love to wander, to discover and to interact with the kind locals. The community embraces everybody. They even have patience with me and my camera. Hello! Mingalabar! I hear often, Where are you from? I am asked sometimes. I smile. I feel like in a big family when in downtown.
Cristina Maria Chiorean has lived in Yangon since June 2014. She is an amateur photographer and owner of the blog Myanmar Life and Colours http://myanmarlifeandcolours.blogspot.com/. She wrote a book about her first year in the country called Blended Feelings: My First Year in Myanmar.