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Yangon Calling

A snapshot of Myanmar in between dictatorships.

You don’t expect Yangon to have a punk scene. Though on reflection, slogans like “Anarchy” and “Fascist regime” make more sense in this city than in say, 1970s London. It’s also confusing to see right-hand-drive cars on the wrong side of the road. My guide described it as a “muddled act of rebellion” against colonial masters. And muddled up rebellion appears to be a dominant theme in Myanmar’s past.

The roads are wide and clean except where they are poor and narrow. Magnificent trunks of teak, mahogany and rosewood align the streets, architectural relics of the Raj hide from the developer’s wrecking ball, and empty buildings peel like old photographs. Peering over the rooftops are the stupas, decked in gold, and pointed at the heavens.

The air is warm with smoke and cooking, and fresh with orchids, like those worn in the hair of Myanmar’s tragic matriarch, Aung San Suu Kyi. The air carries anticipation for what true democracy might bring and whether the past will be learned from, or repeated. All my guides are full of gossip. And are grateful that tourists no longer stay away from the once isolated city.

Yangon retreated from popular imagination since the decline of British Rangoon in the 1940s. You go expecting an impoverished, neglected capital, a land stuck in a time of marauding kings, thieving colonials, and savage rulers. And you’re confronted with an amiable city, built by conquerors and bureaucrats. Filled with patches of green and white and gold. Bronzed skins, slow smiles, and faces that reflect the Subcontinent and the Far East. Lakes, parks, pagodas, teahouses, bars, and the strangest museum you may ever visit. And of course, a punk scene.

A documentary titled Yangon Calling, shows the punk movement to be a handful of young bands playing to handfuls of young people. The haircuts and leathers look authentic, the sound less so. But it doesn’t matter that the bands here “play punk as well the Clash speak Burmese,” according to a cheeky expat. At least it is evidence of a new Myanmar, allowed to raise its head after decades of forced conformity.

I retreat to The Strand, once “the finest hostelry east of the Suez”, today renovated to retain its Victorian chandeliers, while offering Wi-Fi and satellite TV. A note on my writing desk reminds me that Somerset Maugham or Rudyard Kipling may have penned a shopping list here. (

I read about a city south of Bengal, west of Siam, once the 2nd richest town in Asia, once bombed by both sides in the Second World War. Owned by Britain, loaned to Japan, before falling into its own hands. The domino that toppled before Vietnam. A country rich in jade, sapphire and oil, whose people remain steadfastly poor. A adventure land for a young George Orwell and a 20th century study in Orwellianism. “City of blood, dreams and gold” says Pablo Neruda. Indeed.

I visit the city’s white elephants - pachyderms so sacred that they are fed, pampered and never put to work, giving birth to that derogatory phrase in English. The albino jumbos look like all elephants look outside of cartoons, unimpressed and tired.

Named in 1755 after the futile hopes of King Alaungpaya, Yangon means ‘end of strife’. Re-christened Rangoon by the British, the city has seen more than its share of strife and has welcomed far too many false dawns.

Contrary to travel advisory, people aren’t shy to talk politics. In my short stay, I’ve experienced as many colourful opinions as I’ve had Burmese curries. On my walks across downtown I exchange chatter with a socialist mending shoes, a liberal peddling pharmaceuticals and a racist serving tea. I am lectured over Mohinga about Rohingya - one is a delicious fish broth filled with fresh herbs, the other a thorny human rights situation still unresolved.

I follow the grid across messy streets filled with glistening fruit, grilled meat, used books, colourful fabrics and inevitable electronics. On some corners they sell blessings, on others boons. A wish come true involves an orange wristband, a quiet chant and 2000 kyats or 2 dollars. My guide tells me I have been ripped off. “Dream come true only cost one dollar.”

The buildings betray their age, their European origins and their neglect. The cobbled streets are kind on the feet, as the tree-lined avenues are on the eye. Some of the mossy buildings contain shrines, some offer scenic views, some even have tenants.

For a country claiming to be homogenously Buddhist, there are more than a few religious buildings that are not. I walk past the stately St Mary’s Cathedral, the old Armenian Church, the Sri Kali Temple, the Mughal Shia Mosque, and the immaculate Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, once temple to thousands of Burmese Jews, today a refuge for the two dozen left.

The Maha Bandula Park with its wonderful foliage and giant obelisk is flanked by the High Court, City Hall and Sule Pagoda - three very different buildings, each more impressive than the other, one made of red-brick, one of white stone, and one of gold.

The sun joins me, and leads me to the city’s enduring attraction, the Schwedagon Pagoda. The rays brings colour to Yangon’s cheeks and cast shimmers on the jewels that adorn the city’s crown.

“The Schwedagon Pagoda rose superb… glistening with its gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul…” waxes Somerset Maugham in his 1930 travelogue. The 99-metre stupa forms a centre around which shrines and shrubs revolve. The compound has room for a park, a pond and a museum. It is said to contain 8 hairs of the Buddha, 7000 diamonds, rubies, topaz and sapphires, “more gold than the bank of England”, and the prayers of a million faithful.

Coy about its age, which legend pegs at 2600 years, and archaeology dates to 1000 AD, the Schwedagon has endured earthquakes, fires, wars, uprisings and sieges. It has weathered two Anglo-Burmese battles and has been a focal point for the independence movement, the 1988 pro-democracy protests and the 2007 saffron revolution.

The assault on the senses is staggering, especially if visiting during the orange of sunset or the cool of dawn. From the giant half-lion, half-griffin that welcomes you in, to the shrines assigned to days of the week, it is a marketplace trading in blessings and covered in gold. Get lost in the shrines, statues, carvings, fables, flowers and in the swirl of your thoughts.

Some dismiss Yangon as a one-wonder wonder. You may add this to the long list of injustices. There are other pagodas like the Sule and the Bototaung that could give Schwedagon a run for its gold. There’s the Kandawagyi Lake with a replica Royal barge and Inya Lake, where The Lady and her nemesis General Ne Win once occupied opposite banks.

You can stroll though People’s Park, or check out the city’s growing arts scene. The Pansodan Gallery showcases contemporary paintings and holds Tuesday night soirees; the River Gallery promotes emerging artists. ( (

Paul Theroux favoured walking aimlessly and observing the women with thanakha makeup and the men in longyi, “like a royal breed, strikingly handsome in this collapsing city, a race of dispossessed princes.”

If the weather turns, a visit to the National Museum with its throne room and royal regalia may be an idea. Though if you enjoy the bizarre, pop into the Drugs Elimination Museum where kitsch and propaganda combine to showcase the former government’s haphazard war on drugs.

And then there’s the food. A cocktail of Indian, Chinese and Thai influences create cuisine that is rich in flavor, without being over zealous with the chili. My first dinner is a delight, spent at Le Planteur (, a stylish home in an elegant garden serving fine European-Indochinese fusion. My next adventure features Mandalay Beer and a barbecued platter at the vibrant 19th Street food market. In between are visits to Padonmar restaurant with its home-cooked favourites ( and Shwe Sa Bwe, where young Burmese of humble background prepare excellent French gourmet under the tutelage of an expat chef.

The hip cafes like Rangoon Tea House and Sharkys, and the classic style Kipling and The Strand Bars are worth experiencing to glimpse how Burma’s past sits with Myanmar’s future.

I spend a night at 50th Street Bar with the city’s newest locals, expats from Asia and Europe who find the pace and exchange rate favourable. I’m introduced to beer named after the country and a whiskey that kicks like a mule. Many claim that Myanmar’s exiles, adventurers and entrepreneurs are returning home and looking to shake things up.

I devise a mini tour for myself in tribute to the nation’s absent patriarch, General Aung Sung, the late father of The Lady, whose assassination in 1947 marked the beginning of the Burmese tragedy. I start at the end, at the old Secretariat, where the great man was gunned down on the fifth floor during a morning meeting.

Grass has grown over what was once headquarters of the city. The building, though decrepit and unused, is still imposing and impressive, a redbrick complex with turrets and towers amidst palm trees and an unkempt garden. Entrance is restricted, but you can wander the perimeter, peep through bars and guess at the deals that went down here over whiskies and bitters.

Bogyoke Aung Sung museum is at the General’s old house and features his letters, clothes, library, medals and classic car, though not much in speculation as to who killed him. An opposition rival U Saw was hung for the murder, but conspiracy theories abound on the internet pointing fingers at British and American interests.

I end at Scott’s market, locally known as the Bogyoke Aung San market after the beloved general. With over 2000 shops selling clothes, jewellery, parasols, handicrafts, lacquer ware, silverware and paintings which range from expressionist to pointillist, you can spend a leisurely afternoon or, as in my case, a frantic hour, shopping for gifts and souvenirs.

My guides didn’t mind sharing stories over cold Myanmar Beer. I was told about the moustache brothers and their controversial comedy shows, and about Abraham Safear the Yangon actor from the original Mission Impossible series. About life in this unplanned westernizing city, where you can photograph monks but not cops. I then confessed that all the pagodas I visited looked alike to me.

“That’s just like Buddhism,” says my friend of three days. “The message is so simple. Impermanence, karma and compassion. But you have to repeat it many times, before you can understand it.”

“It’s like being reborn over again until you get it right,” says the driver. And immediately I see the connection between Samsara and Groundhog Day.

We raise our glasses. For travel is very much the same. You can scratch the surface on your first visit but its is on your many returns that you truly unravel a place. While Yangon’s next dawn may well be a sunrise, the time to visit is now. If only to witness the changing light and the falling shadows. And to listen to a handful of punks, young and old, growling and whispering at a darkness that looks set to pass.

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