Sometimes these entries flow right out and I barely have to think as I type. Ideas mold perfectly over the course of a trip and by the time I’m sitting in front of my keyboard it comes out as simply and easily as a song I’ve played on a piano thousands of times before.
Sometimes that doesn’t happen. At least five times I sat down, opened my laptop and expected everything I wanted to say about my collective time in Yangon to spill out effortlessly. Never happened. I started eliminating distractions (forced myself to stop perusing Instagram) thinking that would help. Nope.
But then I came up with this title and it all became so easy. I don’t really know why. Maybe because I think it sounds like the title of a novel; switch Yangon out for Borneo and it could be the journal entries of a man recklessly trekking his way through forest reserves cataloguing unwesternized tribes of former headhunters and confronting his physical limitations. My experience however wasn’t anything near that bravado of frontierism, but the title is true.
I flew into Yangon at night and after dropping my things off at my hostel went for a walk. It was already past 11pm and the streets were ghostly. The only inhabitants seemed to be rats and cockroaches. At first only a few, and then I was trying to keep track of them by the dozens as they scurried in and out of the massive monsoon drainage ditches.
I walked into downtown Yangon past midnight. Some people were outside taking a late dinner, but otherwise the city still felt deserted. It felt as if I had stepped back into the midnight nothingness of West Africa. I found out a few days later that the curfew-like atmosphere of Yangon was due to the government’s restriction on bars past 11pm, one of several strict regulations in place by the ruling party.
The highlight of my night walk was seeing Sule Pagoda, the central landmark of downtown, bathed in glowing light amidst the midnight darkness. Not only is Sule Pagoda a highly recognized site of importance within Myanmar’s devoutly Buddhist culture, but it also sits in the middle of the busiest roundabout in downtown Yangon.
Towering golden pagodas- Sule included- pop up all over the city, living relics of the single greatest determinant in Myanmar’s history, its strong ties to the Buddhist faith. Myanmar is likely still the most outwardly conservative Buddhist country in Southeast Asia, and it is very common to see groups of Buddhist monks walking down the street asking for alms givings in the morning. These massive pagodas, like Sule, Botataung, or Shwe Dagon exist as beautiful examples of the country’s past and ongoing present.
The next day, June 2nd was Amanda’s birthday. After she finished work training I rendezvoused with her and we spent the night getting to know her new colleagues at a local bar. Everyone became fast friends sharing stories of traveling through the Middle East, Mongolia, or North Korea.
I woke up the next morning with a headache and a hangover that took a few hours of coaxing to ease away. Amanda felt much the same, and what we thought was going to be a day of errands turned into Saturday slothing. By the late afternoon the pangs of productivity were getting to us both so we set out to attack our to-do list. Groceries first, than appliances for both of our phones and computers.
We were walking to an electronic shop to buy an accessory for her laptop when my morning headache returned. I blamed it on dehydration and drank a little water. Within five minutes my headache intensified alarmingly. I was having trouble focusing on a thought and my sight started to blur. Just the simple act of moving my eyes sent sharp jolts of pain deep into my head, and as long as I kept my eyes open I felt a suffocating pressure increase directly behind them. I had no idea what was happening but something had hit me quickly and violently. I told Amanda to go on ahead without me for a bit. I sat in a store and put my head in my hands, massaging my forehead and temples in an attempt to ease the pressure. As I sat in the chair I could feel my strange symptoms increase. My whole body started to ache as if I had just run a marathon without training. Breathing became difficult, like my diaphragm had expanded and was pressing against my lower spine.
Fifteen minutes before I had been perfectly fine. And now the pain was so overwhelming I couldn’t move. Amanda came back to the store where I was resting and I told her I had to get back to her apartment. Something was seriously wrong with my body and I had no clue what it was. As we walked back to more symptoms manifested. The dull pain in my lower back had intensified, making every step an unbearable plod, sending a shock through my spine. We made it in maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, a walk that would normally take five.
I was barely conscious when we did get back. Bouts of alternating fever and shivers with sweating had begun. I was shaking although barely capable of moving, the spasms sending jolts of pain through my bones and joints.
I spent the next three days that way. For all three of them I was awake for maybe a grand total of 24 hours, and when I was, my actions were severely limited. I couldn’t read or focus on anything, couldn’t take a walk… consciousness was just the semi-aware passing of time between sleep. Even standing up sapped my energy and spiked the pain enough to keep me horizontal unless I absolutely needed to. At first Amanda and I both thought it was Malaria, but from our (albeit incomplete) training with Peace Corps, the self-diagnosis didn’t seem right. The symptoms hit me with such instant force, something that doesn’t occur with Malaria, and some of my symptoms were too intense and eccentric to fit Malaria.
After some research we both realized I’d contracted Dengue Fever. Dengue is a tropical disease that lies dormant in the body up to a week after the bite of a carrying mosquito and normally lasts no longer than ten days itself. It has also earned the nickname “Bonecrusher Disease” because of the terrible achiness and pain-upon-contact of seemingly every bone and joint in the body. Every symptom of mine matched the description flawlessly (with the exception of the one that meant certain hospitalization; bleeding), from the blitzkrieg-like manifestation of most of them, to the obscure, jarring pain directly behind my eyes (I would otherwise never tell anyone to self diagnose off of WebMD). In most cases Dengue is worth hospitalization, but neither of us saw the need when medical staff would take the same measures that I was already; plenty of rest and fluids.
And like Dengue is supposed to, it passed. After three days of hell my symptoms lessened. I could walk and read, but still not exert myself for more than fifteen minutes at a time… and by exert myself I mean walking. Slowly. After five more days, I was symptom free and felt like I could run a marathon. Aside from its initial dormancy, everything about Dengue was quick; its onset, its duration, its improvement. It helped that I was hardly ever conscious while I had it. Maybe five to seven hours a day, and even then drinking and using the bathroom with almost no thought before falling out again. My lasting impression of Dengue is the terror of sudden onset, debilitating full body pain, and the relatively merciful brevity of its length.
Once I regained my health I was itching to leave Yangon to escape the sour experience of Dengue as well as see the cities of Mandalay and Bagan. The lust to leave was only increased by the handful of days I spent in Yangon post-Dengue trying to get work done online, only to be hampered by the artificially slowed wifi, itself curtailed by government restrictions on bandwidth use and speed. I couldn’t have been more happy to leave a city that had so far frustrated me.
A week later, after having visited both Mandalay and Bagan, I returned to Yangon. What I never would have expected on my return, was how much I was to fall in love with the city. The two weeks I had spent earlier were a sad shadow compared to the week I had when I returned from upcountry. Those first two weeks in the city were spent in either a bed or chasing wifi to get the loads of work done that I had assigned myself. Fortunately Dengue didn’t beat me down the second time in the city, nor did I relegate myself to sitting at a table for hours with my computer. I gave it up. I did what little work I could, but did not preoccupy myself with the thought. Instead I spent a week wandering and trying everything that I hadn’t. Admittedly my first time in Yangon was limited by health as well as my focus on working, but my third week in the city had twice as much enjoyment and experience as my first two weeks.
I re-rode the circle train looping around Yangon, making sure to do the entire loop, and in doing it getting the chance to see many different neighborhoods leading miles outside of the city. I tried every weird variation of street food, including noodle cake, dried fish, mango jerky, fried crickets, rice jello, deep fried somethings/anything, oily pork balls, and vegetables that looked like brains. Just about everything except pig’s face.
I started riding the public bus through the city*. I sat down with locals in a park and tried to learn some Burmese. I went to the same tea spot enough to be a one-week-regular. I timed my walks and tea time with the monsoon rains so I could enjoy it instead of feeling limited by it.
On my second-to-last day in Yangon, and by extension Myanmar, Amanda and I finally visited what is widely considered to be the single most recognizable tourist attraction in all of Myanmar, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Shwe Dagon is considered the zenith of pagoda architecture in Myanmar, one of the most holy sites in all of Buddhism, and is also the tallest pagoda in the country. The stupa, or main tapering structure of the pagoda is 325ft tall, and sits on a hill that is nearly 100 meters tall itself, making it possible to see the towering golden pagoda from almost anywhere in the city.
Shwe Dagon is a place for which superlatives start to lose all meaning. The stupa tapered just enough with my line of vision to make it nearly impossible to tell how tall it really was, 60ft, 325ft, or 800. Gold is almost constantly reapplied to the exterior of the pagoda so as to make sure that Shwe Dagon never loses its powerful luster, and the very crest of the stupa is decorated with a single 76 karat diamond.
When viewed in low light whether at sunrise or sunset, the pagoda is a sight unlike any other. Lights from the base illuminate the stupa, dancing off its golden exterior and creating an amazing contrast to the deep blue sky above. Although Shwe Dagon is often inundated with visitors, its power is not diffused in any way by the significant number of people; it is still so easy to feel alone and dominated by the gargantuan pagoda and its beatiful complex of marble pathways and dozens of smaller surrounding pagodas. Its spiritual power is in no way diminished by the number of people sharing the moment.
By the time my week was over and my 28-day Myanmar visa ending, I didn’t want to leave at all. When I gave it a fair shot, Yangon was a completely endearing city.
It was still mostly uncorrupted by commercialism and tourism. I could easily haggle for fair prices. People always wanted to say hi and had a genuine curiosity about me and my whereabouts. Most men still wore traditional Longyi’s; like a long skirt/sarong, instead of pants. More than anything, it was lovely to see a city while it still had a lot of unspoilt originality.
Yangon, like many other major cities in developing countries, has its own pace of life. And it’s almost always enjoyed best slowly. Maybe that’s because of the unrelenting tropical humidity, or maybe because of the sensory overload of an exotic location that has 99% of its original charm, but either way it’s best to walk slow and let the senses indulge.
I’m quickly learning that Southeast Asia is no frontier of tourism. This region is very well trodden. White kids with backpacks seem to be on every street corner and the infrastructure supports tourism easily in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. I think it’s taken away a little bit of the zest from those two countries, but Yangon was far different, other backpackers were almost a novelty themselves.
The future of modernization, however, is close. The first signs are already there. Skyscrapers have begun to creep above the treeline and apartment buildings in the upper city. They loom behind construction fences boasting the home country of the project; companies in China, Korea, Japan, and sometimes even near neighbors Thailand or Vietnam. At foreign-catering bars in lower Yangon expats sit at their laptops creating business plans for the development and divvying of the city and its resources, looking for ways to tap into the budding commercial lust of Yangon. More backpackers will slowly trickle in, some from hearing that it is a country of great adventure and still relative freedom of experience from mainstream tourism. And soon enough many more will come because developed industry and stability breeds long- term tourism.
At the moment Yangon remains uniquely itself. For how much longer, no one knows.
*The bus was, by far, the best decision. Far cheaper than taxis, and because I don’t speak or read Burmese I never had any idea where I was going. If it took me the wrong direction, I’d hop off and take a new one! No other single experience gave me a better chance to see Yangon like a local, and entirely 100% free of any foreigners. The buses never stopped for more than ten seconds at a time, even going so far as to make a rolling stop for passengers hopping on and off. Didn’t matter if it was a cute old lady… rolling stop!