If you want to see the day-to-day struggle of the Burmese, go to Yangon. For a city this bustling, and that is so full of people, it’s a bit surprising that they are still more or less in the British era. The buildings in downtown Yangon seem old and worn out (with the exception of a few government buildings, banks and courts – which have well maintained British built buildings), the roads are dirty and crowded, and the electricity lines are archaic. Yangon suffers massive power outages – it consumes 5/6th of the total electricity generated in Myanmar – and even then, the supply hardly matches demand. There are massive generators on the streets to help this, but it’s just not enough. It’s the worst during the night when it’s very, very hot, and for some reason the hostels in Yangon (like most of Southeast Asia) have no fans – only air-conditioning – which can’t run on a generator all night long! They are progressing though… I guess when you’ve been suppressed for so long, first by foreigners and then by your own people, it takes time to recover – and they only just opened their borders to tourism a few years back. It can only get better from here; I just hope they don’t sell out to tourism like Thailand did, and still retain some of their Burmese charm.
A funny thing I learnt about the Burmese is that when the British left, and the military junta government took over, they decided they needed change of any kind from the British. Top of that was a change in the side of the road they drive on – just to make sure they’re doing the opposite of what the British do. What they didn’t change however, is the side of the steering wheel in their cars – both old and new. So now they still have right hand drive cars, but they drive on the wrong side of the road. That tells you all you need to know about how the military junta ran the country.
The city centre is marked by the Sule Pagoda, and the area surrounding it is bustling! It’s full of government buildings, offices and betel leaf stains on the road. I don’t know what it is about the Burmese, but they really love chewing the betel leaf (it’s a leaf stuffed with tobacco and some other herbs and leaves you with blood red saliva that you spit constantly, anywhere you feel like spitting). Their red teeth, one local told me, was something Burmese women find attractive in the men. Apparently the ‘red smile’ is a turn on (YUCK).
There’s the famous Shwedagon Pagoda; which is the highlight of the city, and it’s absolutely beautiful around sunset. The history to it is that two merchant brothers met the Buddha, and the Buddha was so pleased with them, that he gave them 8 of his hairs. These hairs are enshrined in the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s of great historical importance to the Buddhists, and the Shwedagon is also likely to be the most famous Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar.
There’s a looping train you can get onto which takes you all around the city including some exteriors) and it’s a great way to see the real Burmese way of living (basic, and to put it crudely, primitive – also, a lot like rural India).
They have a lot of cheap bars and restaurants and some newer, fancier restaurants serving international cuisines at international prices. My only complaint – the food is guaranteed to be oily all over Myanmar. Not a few extra drops oily, but floating in oil kinda oily. I don’t know if it’s because the food stays out a long time in the heat and they use the extra oil to stop the food from spoiling, or if they are fond of the taste, but it’s quite disgusting. I did love the taste of this dish called Shan noodles though – really flavourful noodles topped with relish, chicken and some broth.
All in all, from all the places I visited in Myanmar, Yangon was my least favourite, mainly because of the crazy amount of people everywhere. Yangon is no longer the capital of Myanmar. It used to be the capital under the British rule – under it’s old name, Rangoon – but the military junta government changed that as well. Their current capital is a place called Naypyidaw, where literally no one ever goes. Google it – it’s a ghost city. Yangon is still the de-facto capital city of Myanmar, and definitely worth a visit anyway.