Rangoon Dreams

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Where I stayed
The Stand Hotel

Flag of Myanmar  ,
Monday, February 28, 2005

Rangoon. It's a name that refracts facetted smudged images of the former Raj; of Somerset Maugham tipping a brandy at The Stand Hotel; of French doors opened on terraced buildings topped by carved fanned peacocks; chaotic traffic whipping tempests of dust in their chugging wake; of temple chimes, church bells and the calls of the imam. Though the name has changed little else has on the surface.

Yangon is a quirky cosmopolitan city but not along the lines of the other larger Asian capitals whose brash attempts at westernized modernization have pillaged their cities of charm and greenery such as Bangkok and Singapore. Yangon's exotic charm is all its own, bearing both the beauty marks and scars of its varied pasts as well as holding its head high while blotched by the lesions of the present. Yangon is also a city sauntering toward a neon future albeit very slowly and against a stifling breeze. Whatever your first impression of the city the one thing you cannot say about Yangon is that it's meek. It's a tremendous city that demands your full attention and will not go quietly into the night ignored.

My initial impression was that Rangoon [as I will refer to it henceforth] was a less aggressive, kinder, brighter and more sophisticated Calcutta. Three days later I think it a fair comparison. Rangoon is like an elegant, strong-jawed man in frayed dinner jacket with a betelnut-stained smile. Our first day here I certainly respected the city, the second I began to like it and today I can say that I've fallen in love with Rangoon.

At twilight shortly after check-in we opened the windows in our room and with our elbows on the sill we stared out at the bustling city. Across from us crammed local buses and vintage cars sped around the city center's roundabout of the golden stupa of the Sule Pagoda. Beneath us the ubiquitous ad-hoc Burmese teashops huddled next to decaying colonial buildings and men relaxed in their unhired trishaws laughing through their cheroot smoke. Women with wicker trays and baskets atop their heads barked their wares in their singsong voices.

We washed up and ran out into the fray. With a page of a map in our hands we set out in search of a recommended noodle shop. We solicited help, which while forthcoming was not exactly helpful. Cameron pointed out a tall young monk so we approached him. He studied the map asked some other people and then took us hither and yon and back again and finally took us to the stoop of the tiny noodle shop. "Here, this is it - see '999 Noodle Shop'" he gently beamed. We'd have never found it without his help as even the numerals were Burmese. He asked us if we'd be interested in coming to his monastery to help him and his fellow monks practice their English. We of course agreed to come the following morning and I was excited that Cameron would get the opportunity for a great cultural exchange.

After a hideous night's sleep that was fraught with the dripping of the air-conditioning that pooled at the foot of my rock-hard, short bed we opted to find another hotel. We upgraded to a simple generic hotel with all the amenities and for the first time in two months I saw an actual bathtub and fluffy white towels, icy air-conditioning, and the BBC World News. I almost wept with joy and now that I was sharing a room I was still well within my daily hotel budget. After we'd thrown our luggage in the room and I'd wiped the tears away with a pristine hand towel we ran out and found a teashop for breakfast and planned out our day and the following week.

We walked over to the monastery and sat on the wide-planked floors while seven monks whose ages ranged from 18 to 30 crawled out from the woodwork and sat in front of us smiling. The monk we'd met the day before acted as host and gave us two cups of milky tea and large burgundy velvet monk's fans to cool ourselves off. Through an open window several monks from the neighboring monastery gawked and one used a mirror to angle the sun onto my face to get my attention - he got it. We talked with them for over an hour, made plans to return the following day and then the host monk offered to take us at sunset to one of the most famous and largest pagodas in all of Asia, The Shwedegon.

We spent the rest of the day soaking in our neighborhood and ducking into teashops drinking cool Lemon Sparklings to avoid the sticky temperatures that hovered above a heavy 100 degrees. We later showered and met our monk friend in the lobby of our hotel much to the amusement of the hotel clerks and went to the Shwedagon* for several hours.

After a thrilling evening of temple viewing we shared a cab back to a restaurant that the monk had recommended near his monastery. We affirmed plans to meet the following morning and bidding him goodnight picked up our menus. We were sitting at a plastic table on plastic chairs by the side of a busy road next to tree with colored lights when a woman pulled out a chair and plopped herself down. She looked at us and burst into peels of laughter. She was hysterical and I'm pretty sure I heard her body fluids trickle to the sidewalk in her fits and convulsions. She was looking to the table next to us and gesturing and coughing out Burmese and throwing her hands on her head and looking at us bug-eyed. She was astonished and giddy so we asked our waitress what the hell was going on. She said that the laughing woman thought that we were beautiful and she was so excited that we were eating at her restaurant. I thought she was trying to smooth us over but she was serious. The laughing lady then eyed my nails and oohh'd and ahh'd so much it was embarrassing. The entire time it was clear through her gesticulations that she was denigrating herself and praising us. Before our dinner arrived she sat chin in palm and stared admiringly then jumped up as our food approached and started mixing our noodles for us like a mother hen all the while cackling and smiling. She placed the plates down gently on the table then stood behind us and "taught" us how to eat with chopsticks. Cameron and I've been eating with chopsticks for decades but we both feigned ignorance. In lightening speed we showed off our "newly-honed skills" to the ecstatic nodding praise of our doting teacher. For the rest of our dinner she loudly talked on her cell phone at our table and was no doubt alerting the neighbors to the occidental diners slurping down her delicious Shan noodles.

We hailed a trishaw back to our hotel down dark streets passing betelnut stands and sidewalk teashops lit by candlelight and heard the clang of the bells on the sugar cane press as it squeezed out glasses of syrupy juice. We passed a bar with karaoke and florescent lighting pouring out onto the cracked pavement while an old woman above hung her laundry over a veranda thick with decades of creamy turquoise paint.

There is much to see in this city and while some travelers have scoffed at staying in the capital for an entire week I already feel the time slipping away from me. Though it would be simple to see much of Rangoon's major attractions in a few days it would be a shame to miss experiencing the pace of the city and letting it's varied charms unfold before you. Simply being here and soaking it all up is intoxicating and enchanting enough.

*The Shwedagon deserves its own entry and after multiple visits I will write about it. I will say this however: It is the most astounding temple complex I have ever seen in my entire life. It has all lead up to this.
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