The next day, after sitting at a dusty junction for several hours entertaining a small gaggle of ladies by standing up every five minutes trying to get on buses that turn out not to be mine, I finally board and wave them goodbye. Although the road is surprisingly good, it’s a long way, and by the time I rock up on the outskirts of Yangon I’ve pretty much lost the ability to think. After ten minutes of tense negotiation without a common language I’m put in a minibus with all the other people I was just in a bus with, and driven into the city centre.
Further discussions ensue once we near the centre, and a small crowd gathers around the Lonely Planet to figure out where I need to be. My destination, fortunately, turns out to be explicable with reference to pagodas, and thus a suitably respectable middle-aged lady is found to get off the bus with me and point me in the right direction. The city is laid out on a grid pattern, so I soon locate my hotel. Which is closed, it being 5am, so I find a plastic stool with my name on it and have some tea. Until 6am. When I check in. And am shouted at by the owner for booking the wrong date. Bemused, I head to my room to discover that my friend has arrived a day early.
I like leaving capitals until last, but having adapted to the pace of a town like Kalaw, Yangon is a bit of a shock. Cars! Crowded streets! More than one street! Fortunately I am not the only one acclimatising, and the first day passes at a leisurely pace. Equally leisurely is the evening of my birthday, despite our best efforts to find anywhere that’s open past ten. Still, it does put Hanoi nightlife in a positive light.
The city has a bustle and a purpose to it that’s quite different to the northern cities I’ve been in so far, and a lively tea shop culture that reminds me in many ways of Hanoi, only where Hanoi has herby meaty phở noodles and crusty French baguettes, Yangon has crunchy fishy mohinga noodles and slightly squashed-looking packaged cream cakes. It’s much hotter down south, so I’m grateful for the chance to duck into a tea shop at any given hour.
Distracting as the bustle, the cars, the colonial buildings of the Strand Road may be, you have only to look up to remind yourself that you’re in Burma. As elsewhere, Yangon life clearly revolves around its pagodas, foremost among them being the downtown Sule Paya and the towering Shwedagon Paya high on Singuttara hill, whose 100 metre high golden stupa dominates the Western skyline. Legend has it that both are over 2,500 years old, and while that’s probably optimistic, legends don’t have to be true to inspire belief.
Like so many other tourists, we head to Shwedagon to see the sunset, but having no minders to whisk us away we linger for hours. Entering through a quiet, shaded staircase only magnifies the impact on emerging into the light. The central stupa and its myriad smaller temples, shrines and statues burn bright gold in the heat of the day, the tiled floor baking tired feet circling, awestruck. As the sun falls they fade to rusty crimson, before turning greenish gold under the lights. All the while the temple throngs with people: young couples, extended families, pilgrims, visiting monks, photographers, a particularly annoying elderly American tour group in twinset and pearls. We sit and soak up the gentle hum of reverence as darkness falls, confident that my two dollar torch will get us home safe.
From here on September 20th 2011.