Friday, April 18, 2014

An Unexpected Journey. There and Back: Downtown Yangon

I picked up a wonderful book at a roadside bookseller here in Yangon today. It's titled Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia by Thant Myint-U. A bit repetitive at times, re-stating points he'd made earlier in the volume. Kinda like this was a collection of stand-alone essays, but all in all, a fascinating read for someone eager to understand more of the history, culture and possible future of this new country he's come to. I burned through half the book this afternoon alone. Noticed at that same bookseller, they carried two other books by this same author. Definitely going to pick those up too when I finish this one (which might yet be tonight).

There was a line from that book I have to share. "Marco Polo, who never went to Burma, but heard about it second hand, described this area as 'a very unfrequented country with great woods abounding in elephants and unicorns and a number of other wild beasts'."

Unicorns? Okay, sure that was written in the 14th Century, but if they were abounding then... where are they hiding the unicorns now?!?

Ain't seen no unicorns.

This morning, I embarked on a journey preceded by a simple concept. It was a suggestion that was given to me by someone when I first arrived in Bangkok about a year ago and was wondering how to begin exploring this strange, vast new city. 'Get on a random bus and just see where it takes you!' someone told me. I never did actually did that there, but the idea stuck with me.

That's what I did this morning.

Mixed feelings on the results. It didn't take me into someplace weird, isolated and unexpected. Big city buses don't do that; they take you where everyone wants to go, in this case, Downtown Yangon.

Way back before I even thought about coming here, I wrote an article for a Thai magazine aimed at English learners about the various ASEAN capitals. Yangon hasn't been the capital of Myanmar for 15 years, but it used to be, and its a heck of a lot more interesting than the new capital. Yangon's downtown specifically is very much wrapped up in Burma's English colonial past. As I learned when the researching the article, the British essentially built Yangon(nee Rangoon)'s downtown area, filling it with wide streets on a grid, monuments to imperialist Victorian architecture and lots of public spaces and parks. So different than the winding, narrow confusing roads of my part of town, streets typical of any Asian city.

Yet, in my 6 weeks here in Yangon, I had yet to visit downtown during the day. Done no sightseeing in that part, the most interesting part, of my new city. Did it today, quite by accident. It's where the random bus took me.

Some production notes on the video.

  • That odd chanting-singing you hear at the start of the video, that's what I hear every morning at 7 AM from the monastery near my home. I'm a morning person, and am usually up by then, but this 15 minutes or so of 'music' is them just saying, 'Good morning, Yangon!'
  • I'm not sure what the somewhat religious looking building I got off the bus to find at 0:46 in the video actually was. Could it have been the one Jewish synagogue here in Myanmar? No, too few points on the star.
  • I was overwhelmed by all the colonial architecture in downtown. Yeah, I knew it was there, but it was something else to see it in the cool light of the morning.
  • 1:33; Forget a supermarket.. We got hypermarkets!
  • The funky looking building at 2:12 is a Hindu temple, located appropriately in the Indian quarter of downtown. Wow. Never seen such a busy house of worship. Hinduism is, no matter what anyone might say, a polytheistic religion with hundreds and hundreds of deities. They all seemingly got little places on this one temple.
  • I've been pining for a pizza since Thingjan started. Just as I was dying of thirst in the increasingly hot morning, I came across a place and went in for something to drink. They had pizza on their menu. It was delicious! Generous with the toppings and on a crust that was not too thick and not too thin.
  • The place I visit starting at 2:45 is Sule Pagoda, a Buddhist shrine hundreds of years old located in the middle of a traffic circle in the heart of downtown.
  • At 3:00, there's a horrified, piercing scream that didn't even register with me at the time I was recording, but when I heard it in the video, I had to include it. No idea who it was.
  • Unlike the temple kitties I'd seen at Wat Phra Keow in Bangkok, the temple kitties at Sule Pagoda were very skittish.
  • That beautiful, big white building at 3:18 is Yangon's City Hall.


  1. This is probably what any outsider visiting the country would see. Much cleaner and spacious than your neighborhood. You look good.

  2. It's a shame you didn't visit the place some years back. Your mother could have sent you a unicorn to help take back their territory.

  3. Howdy from China ~ Ive been enjoying your posts about life in SE Asia, as I worked and travelled in the region myself. Bet there is dome good food in Yangon, and hope all is swell. Scott


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