The large bus, covered in branded technology logos like Facebook and Android, slowly climbs the hill. Repeatedly, the driver attempts to downshift and the transmission snarls back. The bus appears to be pretty new but judging from the clatter in the gearbox, seems poorly made. The driver tries again, this time with both hands on the stick—more grinding. The bus is just at the point of losing all forward momentum when the victory comes, and the bus continues its slothful climb up the steep and narrow dirt road.
You are pulling into Yangon, your Burmese swan song. Your initial foray in Yangon, one of Myanmar’s former capitals, had you placed in a filthy apartment located to the north of downtown, convenient to some non-tourist markets and experiences. You have essentially demanded the bus let you off near a train station and are on the circle train to the main station. You will stay nearby.
The train that runs around Myanmar, known as the circle train, has always been an old, wooden ricketbox teetering forward on the tracks, filled with produce and various vendors getting their wares to market. Such is a charming experience for one from modern life.
As the train pulls up to the station, much to your chagrin, you find this one has doors, electronic no less. You climb aboard to find a totally modern scene. No one with piles of produce in the car; no oil stained wood slats to be found. Rather, it is a train that used to run on a line somewhere in Japan. Air-conditioning finds its way out from the vents. One day, you imagine, all the trains will be “upgraded”.
Given the condition of the city, and the quality, or lack thereof, of lodging options, you’d expect hotel rates to be a fifth of what they are. As if you are calling it a night in Tokyo, you find yourself climbing into a small sleep capsule for the overnight. Located directly in the lobby, the lights do not extinguish and the check-ins do not cease. Nevertheless, you disappear into dreams until early the next morning.
The British built up Yangon (also Rangoon) for around 100 years, ending in the mid 1900’s. During that time, many colonial buildings, parks and infrastructure projects were realized. It ran as an efficient and modernized city. After that point, which included brief occupation by the Japanese in World War II, the country gained independence and much of the city went into disrepair over the next 50 years, with some new projects and building being raised towards the end of the 20th century.
So what is Yangon like today? The city is gritty. As you walk the streets without plan, you notice it has a great texture, or patina, coating the buildings. While the Myanmar government has destroyed many of the colonial buildings in exchange for a boost in nationalism and bland high rise apartments, there is a wild mixture of flavours as you survey the city. However, pretty much all but the newest additions are in a state of either disrepair or lack of care. This lends a very interesting feel to the city streets.
One example of a British building still standing, but in total disrepair is the Pegu Club, built in 1882. As you walk north and west from the center, you stumble upon it, hidden behind a gate fronted by a bunch of street sellers and a barber shop. Just a short while ago, access was available to anyone who wandered by. Today, a locked gate and an unofficial-looking attendant watch the premise. Way back in time, the Pegu Club was a regal internationally-renowned gentleman’s club. Today, it wastes away.
You pass by a woman with a mohinga stand. Realizing that this will be your last breakfast meal, you sit down on a plastic stool and order it up. Her stand, and the line it attracts, both give the feel of a good breakfast spot. She scoops the noodles into the bowl, tops it with the requisite ingredients and fish-stock broth and serves you. After finishing your noodles, she tops you off with another bunch alongside a smile.
The heat is slowly rising, the traffic sounds gradually increasing and the soft morning light disappearing. The pigeons, of which there are multitudes, add their own bit to the day’s coming chaos in one of Southeastern Asia’s changing cities. Building cranes line the horizon.
As you pass one of these construction zones, you notice the signs requiring shoes and other safety protocol. Behind the signs are the busy, hard-working construction teams, many of which work barefoot or in sandals while welding and constructing the next new thing.
Will all these new things be better, more charming and interesting than all the historically-rich colonial buildings that were extinguished in their wake? But then again, we all know the answer to that.
Over your time in Myanmar, the one over-riding theme is change, often called “progress”. Everywhere you go, there are signs of “progress” sticking out somewhere. Is “progress” inviting foreign investors to extract raw materials from the country regardless of method? Is “progress” extinguishing old buildings for new? Is “progress” forcing villagers out of their homes to make things more pretty for tourists? Is “progress” getting electricity into villages? Is “progress” chopping down flood-protecting mangrove forests for beachside resorts? Is “progress” getting rid of the quaint open-door trains for air-conditioned Japanese trains? All of these things are ongoing or happened, and all of these things will breed “nicer” and “newer”. Not all of these things are bad necessarily (e.g. electricity, water systems, etc.) and all of these things will invariably abet tourism and further development. The economy will invariably grow.
As you look out the window, past the spinning engines and the wing’s curvature, onto the landscape of Myanmar you continue to wonder—what exactly is progress?
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