Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Yangon Christmas

There's always a thrill arriving in a country for the first time, no matter how many photographs we may have seen or books we may have read or conversations with other travellers that have coloured-in the simple sketch in our imagination. Driving into Yangon from the airport we get the sense of a provincial town of low-rise buildings, old and new. Only the distance to the centre hints that we're in a city of six million. We're riding in an old Japanese bus - a real museum piece - that's come from one of the budget hotels. There are a dozen of us and it feels like we've suddenly joined a tour group! But the hotel's been recommended to us and we always find it hard to turn down a free ride. The hotel is busy busy, with a big turnround of guests, and there seem to be as many staff as punters. It's all overseen by a woman who is clearly in charge and got everyone well-trained. After the chaos of sorting out rooms for us we are invited to have breakfast and sit down with Sylvie and Eric from France, who are great company.

We end up staying five days in Yangon, happy to walk around the city and adjust to a new place and a new pace. There's a faded charm about the old city centre. Clapped-out crowded buses tear down the dusty streets, the broken pot-holed pavements are alive with bustling food and clothing stalls. There are trees everywhere and tea-shops cluster around huge banyan trees offering welcome shade. We are immediately reminded of India and Sri Lanka. There are paan sellers everywhere and blotches of red spittle cover the ground. Maybe ninety per cent of the men are wearing longyis, and the women also with fitted blouses. Dotted around are old colonial buildings, remnants of the British occupation. Side streets are lined with mildewed concrete appartment blocks, washing is hanging everywhere. Oh and there are plenty of Indians here too in Yangon - descendants of immigrants who turned up with the British to build and run the railway, to trade or to work in the administration. We read that in the 1920's there were more Indians than Burmese in Rangoon, as it was called, and it's not hard to imagine.

lives, or is it dead?

Christmas Day is a low-key affair for us. We have superb biriyani for lunch and then go in search of a decent internet connection to phone home. In an undeveloped country where the internet is restricted by the government and the electricity supply is erratic, we're not too hopeful. Sure enough, our phone calls home are full of empty pauses and swallowed sentences - all very frustrating. In the evening we find a cheerful 'beer station' selling draught stout. Gayle prefers a glass of Shiraz, but they've none in. We join the patrons sitting on toy plastic chairs at toy plastic tables - like furniture borrowed from a kindergarten - spread out across the pavement. There's a nice atmosphere in the cool of the evening, and Christmas turns out to be rather merry after all.

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