Friday, December 30, 2005

Myanmar: Yangon

December 23rd {notes from journal}

Yangon used to be called Rangoon. Before the ruling military junta took over, Myanmar used to be called Burma. Names change with political will. Perhaps renaming a place is the ultimate symbol of power -- it shows people who's who. In Vietnam, Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City. In India, Calcutta is Kolkata and Bombay is Mumbai.

Yangon is unlike any other city we visited in Myanmar. It's the capital city and until recently, it was the location for Myanmar's central government (and incidentally, its the home of Aung San Suu Kyi). Just this month, the government started relocating to a remote mountainous 'hideaway', a place called Pyinmana, 320 kilometers north of Yangon. No-one knows why -- including the government employees who have been relocated to what has been called a 'backwater' full of poisonous snakes and malaria -- there is no explanation given. Many are leaving their families behind in Yangon, which means added expense. And it's against the law to 'quit' a government job. Permission must be given. There is speculation that the government is moving farther inland due to fears of a US attack (noting the war with Iraq). The other theory is that the chairman, Than Shwe, is simply heeding the advice of astrologers. When we were waiting for so long to get our visas last month, people mentioned, "there must be something going on there," so apparently this was it -- the relocation was announced in November. People must have been busy.

Yangon is a busy place, especially in the evening, with people and cars and motorbikes and bicycles clogging the streets -- sidewalk cafes with tiny tables and low stools clot the sidewalks. With the black-streak-stained buildings, and colonial architecture from the British days, I was reminded a bit of India, England's neighboring colony of bygone days. Compared with the rest of Myanmar, Yangon felt 10 years ahead in terms of development and consumerism, but still decades behind the rest of the world. There are shops selling appliances, electronics and clothes. There are put-together restaurants and, even, fast food places called (creatively) MacBurger. The main attraction for tourists in Yangon is The Shwedagon Pagoda, a giant golden temple visible from many parts of the city. We could see the spire glowing in the afternoon sun from our hotel room, bigger than any building in our field of vision (there are no skyscrapers in Myanmar but Yangon has plenty of monolithic colonial-era buildings about).

Originally, we hadn't planned to visit Yangon. But to get back to Chaing Mai, we had to fly there from Mandalay. There are no return flights from Mandalay to Chiang Mai. By the time we arrived in Yangon, we were running ragged -- ready to do nothing for a few days after several weeks of jam-packed-sight-seeing. We checked ourselves into a 'mid-range' hotel -- the budget options are all concrete boxes without windows according the guidebook. And, despite my embarrassment to admit this, we spent a lot of time laying in bed with a remote control in hand. The hotel had satellite TV and having been on the road for so long, TV is something of a novelty for us -- even if the satellite only returns two watchable stations, at least one of them was HBO!

After weeks of sunshine, the skies were again the color of lead with thick clouds so low, it felt as if a blanket had been pulled over the city. Just as when we arrived in Mandalay several weeks prior. Although gray skies depress me, at least our arrival and departure had symmetry -- like a pair of bookends protecting and supporting everything that happened in between. And like bookends, in contrast to the books they contain, we felt ambivalent about the cities of Mandalay and Yangon but everything in-between? Fabulous.


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