First impressions of Burma’s largest city
Yangon reminds me a little bit of London, with wide streets and chaotic mish-mash of buildings. Crumbling 1960’s blocks of flats stand next to brand new glass and chrome high rises and colonial hotels and government buildings. Unlike London however, many of these imperialist relics have been left to fall apart with broken windows and plants growing out of the upper windows.
There is new building work going on everywhere, particularly in the northern part of the city between the downtown area and the airport. In recent years investment has been flooding in to Yangon from China, Europe and the USA, which is clear to see in the shiny new shopping centres, office blocks and luxury apartments. But the city retains its culture in its architecture thanks to the hundreds of Buddhist temples scattered around the city. In the same way that London has churches of all sizes and styles in all kinds of strange locations, there are a diverse selection of Buddhist monuments here, from small, simple shrines to the teepee-shaped Shwedagon Pagoda, the cities biggest tourist attraction. But what they all have in common, apart from being functioning places of worship, is that they are very, very shiny. Whether gold leaf or mirror mosaic tiles, they are all incredibly bling and dazzling. Monks are revered and respected in Myanmar, and Buddhist practices play a huge role in daily life, as I would find out in more detail later on.
Yangon’s downtown area is very easy to navigate as it is built on a grid system, with wide boulevards full of open fronted shops and street stalls selling fruit and veg, clothes and anything else you can think of. These are dissected by minor residential streets, quiet and almost villagey with a few chickens scratching around and street sellers pushing carts and calling up to the flats above.
It’s also very quiet, as motorbikes and using the car horn are both banned in the city centre, which makes the traffic seem quite orderly until you try and cross the road and realise everyone’s making up the rules as they go. Public spaces are very clean and incredibly well cared for, like the Mahabandoola garden, whose lawns are watered twice a day. The garden houses the Independence Monument, a white obelisk which my tour group walked past on our orientation city tour on the first full day of the trip, which also happened to be Myanmar Independence Day.
Standing on the monument steps was a woman holding a banner, clearly speaking passionately, being filmed by a TV crew. Our guide, Kyaw, explained that she was protesting for civil liberties, saying that although Myanmar is independent it is still not free. She was calling for certain political prisoners to be released from prison, and Kyaw thought that she herself had been imprisoned following the 1988 protests. Yangon students and monks joined forces to protest for democracy, which led to thousands of arrests and disappearances. It was at this time that Aung San Suu Kyi came to prominence and became a figurehead for democracy campaigners. Now she is treated almost like a saint, referred to as ‘the Lady’ or ‘Madam’ and her face appearing on all kinds of things from tshirts to calendars. I asked Kyaw whether the protester we saw would face any repercussions for her protest, and he said simply that there were almost certainly plain-clothes police in the area, keeping an eye on her.