Before we set off on this trip, if anyone asked me which country I was most looking forward to visiting, I would answer without hesitation 'Burma'. And now here we were. I was nervous.
The scent of incense wafted into the taxi as we drove from the airport into the centre of Rangoon (a rare moment of olfactory pleasure during our stay here), passing the giant golden meringue of Shwedagon Padoga, Burma's biggest temple, and massive crumbling colonial-era buildings. It all felt pleasingly exotic. Walking round the city streets the next day we were captivated by its visual richness and busy street life.
Rangoon (Yangon if you prefer) was the capital of Burma (Myanmar if you prefer) until very recently, when the government suddenly decided to build an eerie new capital in a dustbowl in the middle of nowhere. It's a sprawling city of about seven million people and still looks and feels like a capital, even if the government has moved its machinery and employees out. If you like crumbling abandoned buildings, and I most certainly do, a pleasing consequence of this exodus is the amount of abandoned government buildings now quietly crumbling in the city, mostly large ornate Victorian specimens.
This type of costly whimsy is typical of the military regime and its mad generals. A highly superstitious bunch, they have also for instance ordered the cancellation of all banknotes with certain serial numbers, on the advice of an astrologer, wiping out many people's savings overnight, and also reconfiguring the currency into unworkable units of nine, on the recommendation of numerologists. Less amusing instances of their delusional caprice include torture and indefinite jail terms for thousands of political prisoners, total censorship, no travel within the country without permission, checkpoints on every street, nightly curfew and police checks of every house, deliberate daily power outages, rejecting election results that didn't go their way and of course putting the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for over twenty years. Much of this has been lifted in the last couple of years, and life in Burma is changing very quickly. I don't know how long it takes to undo decades of repression of thought and expression though.
Most of our time in Rangoon was spent wandering the streets, absorbing the sights - some beautiful, some surreal, some sad. Apart from Shwedagon, there are no particular must-sees, so most visitors leave the city as soon as they land to complete their sightseeing tick-list. We had a week of just walking around, and could have happily carried on longer. Rangoon doesn't look or sound like anywhere else, although it smells just the same as all the southeast Asian cities we've visited, namely a heady blend of drains and rotting garbage with topnotes of dried fish, the prevalence of open sewers here giving added intensity to the general miasma. The architecture in the downtown area is a delightful mishmash of Victorian redbrick and art deco/mid-century modern, dotted with mosques, Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, Chinese temples, synagogues and churches. When you walk around the streets, everything you see is falling apart - buildings, roads, pavements, vehicles. Nothing works properly, everything is old and broken and filthy and in a mess - this applies to Burma in general, but Rangoon in particular. Here's Rangoon's railway ticket office, and a suburban train, for example.
Shwedagon is pretty immense though.
What else? There are bookstalls selling second-hand and hand-produced books and pamphlets everywhere, and people reading everywhere. There are red-robed monks everywhere. There are people crouching on the street selling stuff everywhere: just about anything you can think of, as well as the legions of street snack stands and tea sellers, women equipped with just with a wok and a small charcoal burner or tea urn. (Add a couple of plastic stools and you have a pavement cafe). Shops, workshops and family businesses don't close in the evening, they just revert to being the family home - you walk past a shop selling saucepans by day, and walk past again at night and there are beds and mats out amongst the pots and pans and the family are all sitting eating and watching tv. There's a bit more kindness to animals here than anywhere we've been hitherto - dogs get fed, and there's a nice tradition of hanging little bunches of seeds in trees and on balconies for birds. Western visitors are still a novelty so people are curious but very friendly: children like saying Hello (although Mingalabar! the Burmese greeting is much nicer) and older people in particular stop to talk to us. There are uniquely terrifying buses, rusting rattling hulks driven at ferocious speed, with a conductor hanging out of the door bellowing randomly. When the bus slams to a halt, his job is to haul people on to the bus, usually done with considerable violence such that dislocated arms must be a frequent occurence amongst regular bus users. Hauling is required as the step onto the bus is bizarrely high up, a good couple of feet. He is also responsible for getting alighting passengers off the bus, which when you're sitting on the bus looks just like reluctant parachutists being pushed out of a plane. Our hostel appears to have been designed after Gaudi, M C Escher and Heath-Robinson all did acid together, a bewildering mosaic labyrinth with even more bewildering plumbing.
Despite everything being so shabby and dysfunctional, the city has an appealing faded grandeur and quiet gentility behind all the noise and mess and plastic. A new addition to our list of favourite cities.
A couple of unique experiences made our stay in Rangoon all the more special. The Chinese New Year celebrations reached their finale the day after we arrived, and an old lady in a cafe tipped us off that there would be a big dragon dance display in the street that evening, so we went along - as did hundreds of others people. The acrobatics were breathtaking. Just as exciting was that until last year, public gatherings of any kind were illegal - 2013 was the first year that Burmese people could take to the streets to celebrate the new year, western or Chinese.
The second was an evening spent with a group of young Burmese people, talking about their country and their lives, absolutely a high point of our time in Burma. Much of Burma is closed to foreigners, so that all visitors, including us, all go to the same few places and see much the same things. So this was something completely different and special. The group was six bright, articulate, funny, thoughtful 19-20 year olds who had all been in the same class at college and had recently graduated, and we met them at the home of their English teacher. They cooked an amazing spread of delicious vegetarian dishes, easily the best food we had in Burma, and answered our questions with candour, and with some unexpected responses. Biggest surprise - Aung San Suu Kyi is not universally revered in Burma, as the western media would have us believe. The kids didn't think much of her at all in fact. I won't detail all the reasons here, but leave a comment if you'd like to know more.
Rangoon was a joy, despite the heat, noise, filth and terrible food. The rest of Burma was also hot, noisy and filthy, and the food was even worse. Next: night train to Mandalay - sounds like the romance of exotic travel epitomised, actually the worst train journey we've ever experienced...