Chapter 9: Yangon, Pt I
Christmas in Myanmar. "Have you been to the third tree on the east-most corner of Lake Mwandishi?"
What one expects when landing at an airport in South East Asia -- or for that matter, a developing country anywhere in the world -- is madness. Pure madness. A throng of taxi drivers will clamor in a bid for your attention, like a frenzied Wall Street trading floor. A stream of cars will weave through the terminal, disgorging passengers at full speed. To exit the terminal requires picking your way to the street through of an array of stalls offering everything from an arresting waft of the local fare to SIM cards from unknown carriers to offers to exchange currency at rate that only sounds fair while the local money still seems like a collection of meaningless pieces of paper. It is always an order of magnitude hotter and stickier than wherever you came from. This is what one might reasonably expect when stepping off the plane in Myanmar. But no such madness exists at Yangon International airport.
The Yangon airport is something much closer to a buddhist monastery situated in some rural outpost like Montana or Kansas. Instead of madness, there is tranquility. A couple guys in sarongs will approach you and gently inquire if you'd be interested in commissioning a taxi. When you shake your head, they shrug their shoulders mildly and wander off. There are hardly any cars in the terminal. And unlike the other capitals of South East Asia, there are no motorbikes. Instead, when you step outside there is only a helpful taxi attendant and a docile queue of cabs. After the passenger drop-off lane, there are five further lanes, like at LAX, though unlike LAX only one of these lanes at any time is likely to have a vehicle in it. The most intrusive noise is the birds.
When I stepped out of the terminal, I turned to my right to survey the open road in front of me. It stretched out into a dusk of palm trees lining the smoothly paved highway. I had planned to take the bus into the city, and since there weren't that many vehicles around I didn't have a hard time tracking down the right one. Stepping aboard, I presented the driver with a wad of cash. The written Myanmar language uses a different set of numerals than the standard Arabic ones, so I wasn't sure what I was looking at when it came to picking out the appropriate bill. It probably wouldn't have mattered even if I did, as I didn't know what the bus fare was. The driver shuffled through my available currency and selected a choice note. He beckoned me to go sit down. I took the seat nearest to the door. Then a few minutes later when the next passenger arrived, he negotiated with her to hand her fare over to me. In my serene naiveté, I had evidently paid twice the going rate. The driver had contrived a way to make me whole.
After waiting for the bus to be mostly full, we set off on the road in the direction of the ripe sunset. For most of the way, we sailed straight through toward the city, save for a couple congested intersections. There was an astonishing display of cordiality on the roads. Our driver, for instance, actually appeared to stop for people who waved him down on the side of the road, even if they weren't yet at a legitimate bus stop. I didn't hear him use the horn once. Come it to think of it, I didn't hear any horns save for a couple flagrant violations of traffic decency. The roads felt new, though the bus didn't.
On the way into the city, I sat with my backpack on my lap as the bus began to fill up. I took some time to study the map of the bus route in front of me. It wasn't an especially helpful chart. For one thing, it was mostly occluded by the passengers sitting in front of it. The only information it offered was the names of the stops on this line, which wasn't all that enlightening given that it was all in Myanmar's unique local script. Even among non-western scripts, the Myanmar writing system is particularly engaging to behold. What mostly it appears to have going on is a series of interlocking circles and squiggles, which are periodically marked off by larger boxes. It's got the buoyant aesthetic sensibility of the kind of script a three year old would come up with when she's imitating adult handwriting. All looping circles and entangled boxes, it is positively delightful.
When I exited the bus at my downtown stop, I took a moment to gather my bearings. Then I slung my backpack over my shoulder and made my way down the street. The sidewalks featured the characteristically treacherous cracks of other cities in South East Asia, but with the difference that they were almost totally clean. There was no trash. The only debris was maybe 0.3 cigarette butts per square meter. The city center of Yangon has long, skinny Manhattan blocks. Walking north-south, one needs to take provisions as if undertaking a week long crossing of an expanse of desert. Walking east-west, there's room for maybe one and half store fronts before tumbling into the next intersection. At length, I presented myself at my hostel and checked in. I was officially on the ground in Myanmar.
It was December, about a week until Christmas. My plan was to spend the holidays on my own here in this country. My life in England had been complicated over the last few months. My existence felt heavy. I wanted to feel unencumbered again. I wanted to be out there in the world. I wanted to be somewhere untethered from life's responsibilities. I wanted to have the breathing room to do a little soul searching. Myanmar had been a place I had wanted to come for a long time. The country's borders had opened up over the last half decade, after having been more or less shuttered for the past two generations -- since around the time George Orwell was posted in Burma on colonial duty. Of the ten countries in South East Asia, Myanmar has by far the largest land mass. Yet its tourist numbers are on par with Laos, one of the smallest. There are fewer tourists per capita here than anywhere else in this part of the world. But there's no guarantee that will continue. Perhaps it will develop into a tourist mecca, like Thailand or Vietnam. Perhaps it will close down again and slink back to the shadows. Either way, it's a nation in rapid change, and I wanted to see it while still in its blossoming, spring-time phase.
I also liked the idea of spending Christmas in one of the most devoutly Buddhist countries on the planet. The official religion of Myanmar, which is practiced by the majority of the population, is Theravada Buddhism. It is generally considered to be the most conservative form of the religion. While everyone back home would be cutting down trees, putting up reindeer, and singing songs of joy and peace (or whatever else one is supposed to do during Christmas), I'd be wandering the exotic alleyways of this Christ-bereft stronghold of Buddhist tradition and stumbling upon the hidden mysteries of its grand and ancient pagodas. Sounded great to me.
I had a rough itinerary sketched out. I had my plane tickets in and out of Yangon, the largest city and formerly known as the British colonial headquarters of Rangoon. I had booked most of my hostels in advance for each part of the country. But how I was going to get from place to place or what I was going to do when I got there was all to be determined. Life had felt stiflingly regimented back home. All I had with me now was a backpack. Not the travel-savvy, larger-than-the-girl-lugging-it kind of backpack, but my school backpack. It was filled mostly with books on the country. I wanted to get to know this place. Not just to see it, but to really learn about it, to talk to the people who actually lived here, and to read the words of people who have a deep connection with this land. I was ready to immerse myself. I was also ready for some moment-to-moment, take-it-as-it-comes living. This felt like a country built for just that.
On my first morning in country, I set off from my hostel onto the streets. I was in search of nothing in particular. And in this first walkabout that was precisely what I found. The most arresting observation the tourist combing through downtown Yangon makes is one of demography: there are pretty much no white people here. There are many places in the world where this observation would hold. But few of them are cities that feel as developed, as accommodating, as unsullied as Yangon. In a way, it felt like coming to South East Asia for the first time again.
When one first starts coming to this part of the world, what stands out is how fantastically different it is. It is a society based on fundamentally different principles than the West. In many ways, the apotheosis of Western culture is the shopping mall: everything is standardized. Each store offers the same things of the same quality and aesthetic of what that store offers anywhere else in the world. The point of a Starbucks Frappuchino is that you can go to practically any country on earth and order essentially the same drink. A shopping mall is laid out so that nothing is obscured, nothing is going to take you by surprise. The organizing principle of a shopping mall is homogeneity.
If you're anything like me, you grew up in a culture, a city, a society that has increasingly come to resemble a shopping mall. So when you first come to South East Asia, you see that it's possible to have a society for which every impulse goes in the opposite direction. In many ways it is the antithesis of a shopping mall: nothing is standardized. Everything is unique. There are gapping, inexplicable holes in the infrastructure -- spots where something should exist but nothing does. Surprises abound. You take an action and there is little guarantee of what the subsequent reaction will be. It is completely and totally beguiling.
But then after a little more time in this area, you start to see the spoilage. It is the infiltration of shopping mall culture into this otherwise gloriously haphazard vision of society. It is McDonalds and Burger King and KFC and Starbucks. It is the government's prioritization of the needs of tourists over the needs of locals. It is the overwhelming presence of white people. And once you've identified these spoilages, it's tough to recapture that initial sensibility of having uncovered a society of such immensely foreign awesomeness. One of the unfortunate facts of globalization is that so many of the best spots to be a tourist have been all but ruined by the presence of so many tourists. Being in Yangon felt exactly like recapturing that innocent, unspoiled joy of finding oneself in an exotic land of mystery and surprise.
Every square inch of sidewalk in Yangon seems to be taken up with informal vendors. They appear to be organized into patches. For two blocks, it will be fruit vendors. Then the next block will feature grimy power tools. Then comes a swathe of clothes and textiles, followed by a sector proffering refurbished iPhones. Each is pocked with its own food stalls catering to adjacent vendors. At no point does one see anything on offer that would be of interest to anyone other than locals. The supply and demand here is clearly geared toward the indigenous population, and not hoards of foreigners swooping in to pay exorbitant sums for trinkets, goodies, or knick knacks.
Most of the action takes place on the main drags, which run along the short sides of the blocks. The long sides are residential streets. They are quiet, filled mostly with stretches of worn but not dilapidated apartments atop modest restaurants and other small businesses. It is an immediate contrast. The sidewalks on the arterials bustle with vendors and foot traffic while the residential asides snooze.
My first stop was at an ATM. Historically, Myanmar is famous for not having cash machines. This is something you'll hear frequently from people who've been there. It's no longer true. There are ATMs on almost every block. It's easy to get money. The problem, though, is that you have to cart around a lot of currency to have any meaningful amount of dough. Getting a couple hundred dollars worth of Kyat, which would last me for a couple weeks, required a mafioso-style briefcase in which to store all my local currency.
That being said, Myanmar isn't exactly a place where a tourist feels exposed on the street. It is difficult not to feel safe in a city where half the population is walking around in skirts, and the other half are women. The tradition garb for a Myanmartian male is type of sarong, known as a Longyi. It gives the local population a certain way of ambling: at once sort of floppy, sort of shuffling, hands behind the back in leisured confidence. One's sandals make way from under the skirt with each shuffle. Everything is flowy and nonchalant. My initial suspicion was that these people wouldn't commit a petty crime if their life depended on it. This suspicion was increasingly strengthened the longer I staid in country. The women, for their part, are marked by Thanaka. It is de rigueur for women to smear Thanaka on their cheeks before leaving the house in the morning. A canonical symbol of Myanmar culture, it is a cosmetic paste ground from the bark of an indigenous tree. In other words, a mud mask that is appropriate, even lauded, to be worn in public. At first, it's a strange sight -- like when a female character in a movie emerges from her quarters in an avocado mask with cucumbers over her eyes. But one gets used to it, and eventually it comes to hold its own intrigue and attractiveness.
As I made my way through the downtown area, I came upon an especially crowded intersection, where two big arterials criss-crossed. It was the kind of street that is not so much crossed as negotiated. In an interesting little piece of theatre, our numbers built up to a critical pedestrian mass before bursting out into the street, essentially bullying the steady stream of cars into realizing they couldn't possible run this many people over. Cross walks aren't really a thing here. Sure, there are some zebra crossing patterns painting onto the street. But they do not contribute to reality in any meaningful way.
At length I found myself close to the center of the downtown area at the Bogyoke Aung San Market. I knew I was somewhere of central interest, because it was outfitted in the way that the core of all central business districts are during the holidays: with Christmas decorations. I was a bit taken aback. The most conspicuous display of Christmas spirit was a sign that proudly read "Yangon Christmas Festival" on the street running across the entrance to the market. Other strung up ornaments included white cutouts of Christmas trees and snowflakes, as if coniferous evergreens and fresh snowfall were indigenous to the area. It was more than a week before Christmas, but Yangon was already bubbling over with holiday spirit.
The Bogyoke Aung San market is named for the man who essentially wrested control of Burma from the colonial British. He is the Myanmar nation's George Washington: the military-leader-cum-first-head-of-state, revered as the Father of the Nation. Bogyoke is an affectionate honorific meaning "major general." Aung San founded the country's military, which has been a central fixture in Myanmar's modern history -- though not always in a good way. Nonetheless, he is looked upon with widespread fondness to this day by the people of his nation, as befits an icon such as George Washington. Where his legacy begins to diverge from Ol' George's is that while Washington was afforded the opportunity to lead his young nation in its earliest and most vulnerable years, Aung San was assassinated six months into his reign. It was a plot by one of his political adversaries, whereby his men basically stormed into an important cabinet meeting and murdered the country's top seven political officials. Somewhat inexplicably, the architect of the assassination, U Saw, believed this would leave the country with no choice but to install him as head of state. In these designs U Saw turned out to be slightly over-optimistic and instead of being asked to lead, he was hanged. In the intervening seventy years since its independence, Myanmar has often entertained much criticism for how little democratic progress it has made.
To this point, I think it's worth mentioning that seventy years into America's democracy, the Civil War hadn't even been fought -- meaning that the United States wasn't even yet on the verge of its states uniting in the way we think of them today. And that's without having the Founding Fathers summarily murdered by a political adversary. It takes time to build a functioning democracy -- if that's still a designation you'd like to bestow upon the U.S. -- from the ground up. The main impetus for this democratic building up has been Bogyoke's Nobel Peace Prize winning daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi.
At any rate, the market. It was a great open air complex, like a converted airplane hangar with a white roof and white tile housing a brightly lit matrix of stalls. It's designation in the tourist guides -- a "lively bazaar in a multistory colonial building, with vendors selling antiques, jewelry, art & food" -- could describe the rudiments of almost any big market in the world, such as Ben Thanh Market in Saigon, or the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. But there is one major exception. There were no white people here. I saw two, maybe three, foreigners the entire time. This is an almost unimaginable feature of this sort of market, if you've been to comparable ones throughout the world. Before wandering in here, I had always assumed that surely these sort of structures were built for people just like me -- to give tourists a center of gravity, a point around which to orient themselves in the city. Apparently not.
The consequences of this absence of foreigners is tremendous. No one hassles you. No one approaches you in the aisles and tries to foist their shit upon you. A guy wandering down the aisle asked me something. "No thank you," I mumbled habitually and shook my head. I assumed he had been selling something when he repeated himself. I saw he wasn't carrying anything to sell and realized that he was simply asking me if I needed help finding anything.
One peculiar feature of the market were herds of unattended children wandering among the patrons and vendors. Each child had a shaved head with pink monk robes featuring an orange sash across their body. They roamed from stall to stall, whereupon they would half-heartedly chant some two line incantation. Without looking up from her phone, the store owner would stick a small pile of cash into the children's bucket. There were hundreds of these little troops, all around the city. It was like watching a conspiracy of non-Halloween trick-or-treating in progress. At the time, I imagined that this was some sort of mafia, run by eight year old Buddhist of especially feminine fashion sensibilities. I later learned they were nuns.
I surveyed the wares at the market. I spied some passionfruit and dragonfruit, among my favorites in this part of the world. Other fruits included the usual suspects: jack fruit, pomelo, little mandarins, apples, pomegranates, and grapes. I had hoped to find the crowned prince of all South East Asian fruits, the Mangosteen, but none availed themselves of me. There was a meat market. It featured chickens in close quartered cages, crabs that might at any moment reach out and snag a passerby, a wriggling catfish that threatened a flailing slap across the face, and black bags fidgeting with unidentified detainees. That sort of stuff makes me feel kind of itchy. But for whatever reason, what inspired the most interest from me were the mandarin oranges. I went to a stall and pointed. The lady began to load up a small plastic bag. When after a moment I told her, "Oh, that's plenty, thanks," she took this a cue to keep piling them into the bag. I didn't really have a use for enough oranges to feed a family of seven for the next week, and I tried to communicate this to her by presenting her with my intended budget, 200 kyat. She took offense to this, as she felt this was a dramatic underestimate of the value of the bag full of oranges. Her counter offer was 1000 kyat. I tried further to explicate my position for her. "No, please just give me enough for two hundred." She stared at me. I handed her a thousand Kyat note and walked off with an arm load of mandarin oranges.
Leaving the market, I headed back toward the streets. Without having gotten very far, a store front caught my eye, called J'Donuts. It appeared to be a Burmese version of Dunkin Donuts, a place where surely my money would be better spent than at the orange vendor. Indeed, the pastry case would not have been out of place in a Dunkin or a Tim Horton's, except for the overtly tropical flavors, with fillings such as lychee or choco-coconut. On the wall was a television with what appeared to be a twenty-four hour loop of a commercials in advertisement of J'Donut's products. The commercial was based, evidently, on the twin themes of Christmas and pedophilia. It featured cartoon children in costumes dressed as donuts, provocatively squirting chocolate syrup and festooning one another with sprinkles. These events, it was later revealed, were actually featured in the collective dreams of a small cohort of live action children, alongside the donuts dancing round their heads. Then a series of elves, in some sort of pervert Santa's helper gambit, entered the scene, stage left. I couldn't discern their function in the plot beyond adding a distinct element of seediness. At any rate, all of this was delivered in support of the thesis of J'Donut's cunning marketing slogan: "every day... tasty and fresh." As I sat there, not necessarily savoring but certainly consuming my cloying lychee donut and coffee-flavored sugar milk, an entire Harry Belafonte album -- though not necessarily a Christmasy one -- played all the way through in the background.
Perhaps unsurprisingly when I exited J'Donuts I found myself crossing over into what appeared to be the primary expat community of the city. Every store front was either a coffee shop or a restaurant. It seemed the entire population consisted of pairs of white dudes with Asian chicks. The establishments boasted creatively western names like "Toasted Melt" (sells toasted melts), "Minister Cheese" (sells ice cream), "O'thentic Brasserie" (sells... Irish inflected French cuisine?), and "Pizza Heaven" (sells 'slices of heaven'). With the discovery of this enclave, it occurred to me that I had reached a point of diminishing returns and elected to repair to my hostel to doze off for the rest of the afternoon.
In the evening I headed back to a side street that I had stumbled upon in my earlier wanderings. Only a couple blocks over from my hostel, it was called 19th Street. It turned out to be one of the more prominent culinary attractions in the city. Anthony Bourdain ate here when he filmed in Yangon. It is an entire block (a long-ways one) strewn with the glorious green and red short stools indigenous to South East Asia. I have attained a sort of Pavlovian conditioning where upon sitting down at one of these bad boys, I know I'm about to be served up something streaming and delicious, ideally spicy, and most likely resulting in some abdominal tumult until my body acclimates. The whole street was a series of food stations, each with their own packed seating area. Everywhere looked good. Everywhere looked fresh. Everywhere looked like they'd be willing to deep fry pretty much substance, foodstuff or otherwise, and present it on a stick for my gustatory contemplation. I picked the place with the best available seating. (Yeah, it was full to the point of having a tough go finding a seat.)
I chose a dish for which the English translation was deep fried spicy pork. Because I'm white, the lady double checked about the spicy part -- imploring me to reconsider with a searching confirmation of "spicy?" in conjunction with a raise of the eye brow and the finger-thumb circle with splayed fingers, the universal sign for "Are you sure you can handle this, white boy?" Just try me.
I also ordered a beer. When the lady reappeared with my beverage, she popped the tab, pealed off some label underneath and gave me a look that could only mean "Oh wow, you've just come into some money." She asked me if I'd like to exchange the tab. I said sure. She took the cap and came back a couple minutes later with some cash money and handed it to me. God, I've never felt so favorably disposed to a country before. I mean, getting cash back on your beer -- could it get any better? I settled in with my beer, and eventually my pork, and waded into a collection of writings by Aung San Suu Kyi.
When not so long thereafter I was too tipsy not to get distracted by my surroundings, I put down the book and picked my head up to survey what was going on. I was alone at my table, and as I was enjoying my evening. Apparently, my solitude was noticed by the men at the table sitting next to me. They invited me to sit with them. So I paid my tab with the lady and moved next door, taking the fourth seat among my three new buddies. As is customary in many parts of the world, they made sure I was sufficiently plied with alcohol and cigarettes before we dug into any personal details. We got another round of beers. I accepted a cigarette, even though I don't smoke them. In fact, I can't. As a long-time cigar smoker, I have a hard time actually performing the act of inhaling smoke, as one is supposed to do with cigarette. I just hold the smoke in my mouth briefly, then let it go. The men I was sitting with noticed that I was doing it wrong. They gave me sidelong looks of moderate confusion. Then, apparently, they let the matter go, probably just chalking it up as an American thing.
One of the guys was more comfortable in English than the other two, and he did most of the talking. One of the quiet ones owned a small business. The other two were students, studying something to do with tourism. The gregarious one was especially fascinated with my being American. To him, this was an accomplishment that merited some serious digging into. Attempting to curtail this line of inquiry, I managed to turn the conversation back to Myanmar. They noticed the face of Aung San Suu Kyi on my book. I asked them what they thought of her. Their position was, in essence, decidedly favorable. They felt like she had the country's back. It was the same enthusiasm for a leader that my Indian friends mustered for Narendra Modi when he first took over the country, or the ovation Michelle Obama would receive if she decided to run for president. I asked them what had changed over the last five years, since the country had become more open. Overall, they were a fan of the developments. Over the next five years, they hoped to see a greater separation between the country's military and its government.
As well loved as Aung San Suu Kyi may be, she is often accused of being little more than a puppet of Myanmar's authoritarian and decidedly over-enthusiastic military regime. Instead of independent branches of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, the Myanmar government is much more of a highly interdependent morass of military and political interests. This is at the core of the recent claims that the Myanmar government, led by Suu, is supporting a genocide of the Rohingya people on the Bangladesh border. As much good work as she has done, the country's military is a powerful and often malevolent force. Her relationship to this regime is complicated. On the one hand, they are responsible for many atrocities that the Myanmar government perpetrated against its own citizens during the half-century after independence. They also locked Suu up for more than a decade. In 1990, Myanmar had its first democratic elections, and Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won. Instead of stepping aside to let her take the reins of the country, the military ignored the results and placed Suu under arrest. She was a political prisoner -- placing her in the company of the other architects of non-violent, world-shifting activism in the twentieth century, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela -- for fifteen years. Which, I suppose, is quite a lot to put in the one hand.
But on the other hand, it is, at its heart, still her father's military. For better or worse, it is her family's legacy. And as with all family legacies, it is simultaneously an embarrassment and a treasure. Also, what country isn't proud of their military, if they've got one? Anyway, this is why the country is so volatile. Overall, the current seems to be drifting toward the good. But at any moment the military junta could reassert itself. It is, to say the least, a complicated situation.
Which, at this point in the evening, we made tragically little progress in solving. After pretending to have smoked a handful of cigarettes and having actually consumed enough beers to fill my quadrant of the table, I wasn't necessarily in a cognitive state conducive for nuanced political discourse. I bid my new friends adieu, and with that toppled my way back to the hostel.
I'm not going to lie to you. Life was pretty good in Myanmar. I'd wake up at my leisure and wander downstairs for my first coffee of the day. Each morning I would put in a three hour of shift, with a bit of work, a bit of writing, and a bit of journaling -- a.k.a., three different modes of writing. During this time I'd pound down five or six cups of coffee, since it was free and unlimited in every hostel I staid at. I'd sit in the common area, and take my breakfast when it was ready. People would come and go. Travelers would commune with one another, carrying on the same inane conversations over and over again. "Have you been to the third tree on the east-most corner of Lake Mwandishi? No? Well, you really should. If you don't see that, you haven't really seen the country." I'd put in my headphones and get lost in my own world of curling streams of letters in my notebook or clack away on my keyboard for paragraph upon paragraph. Then I'd spend my afternoons out and about in the city.
On this morning I was greeted with a new development at the hostel. The staff was painting Christmas designs onto the front doors of the hostel. Taking inspiration from the marketing team at J'Donuts, they inscribed a red and green nativity of Santa and his elves. Though there were no children depicted in this scene, I assume the elves would've taken more than a passing interest in them had there been. Even more egregiously, the staff all wore Christmas hats. This is when it started to become clear to me that I had come to the wrong country to escape Christmas festivities. The Christmas Spirit is even more fervent here than it is in the U.S., which has been mostly relegated to the more inclusive greetings of "Happy Holidays." I had successfully escaped the Jesusy aspects of Christmas, but that's not really what the holiday is about is it? It's about festivities, conducting oneself in a spirit of celebration and good will, and, above anything else, a fresh haul of new loot. In other words, capitalism -- which is a language that everyone speaks, regardless of religion. With more than a week until Christmas Day, the intrusions of unbidden and overwhelmingly kitsch holiday spirit would get worse before they got better.
Only slightly daunted by the saccharine visage of Santa and his helpers, I set off back into town. One thing that I'd like to mention, which isn't my favorite topic to broach, but I sincerely think is worth bringing up, is the women of Yangon. They are easily the best looking population of females I've yet to come across in my travels. Now, pretty much every culture likes to say this of their own women. Especially, for some reason, Russians and Eastern Europeans. But they can't all be correct. As a third party judge, I have to give the award to Myanmar, specifically Yangon. I have a theory about this. Actually, two theories. The first has to do with the 136 indigenous ethnic groups of Myanmar. They are distributed geographically across the country, and Yangon, being the primary metropolitan area, is where all of the ones who are inclined to leave their ancestoral village and mate with someone further afield head to. As I'm sure is an uncontroversial point, mating across ethnic boundaries tends to lead to extremely beautiful offspring. While such mixing is subtle, that seems to be happening here. This is a personal theory of mine, and feel free to adopt it as your own or to reject it. The second theory, which is a more commonly held position is that it has to do with Thanaka. It's a blessing of a relatively high caliber to have baked into one's culture a penchant for excellent skin care. It would be as if Californians took a fancy to smearing avocado on their face when they left the house. After years of ardent commitment to skin care, you get a population of people with nice skin. So, like I said, it's a theory, and you're free to make of it what you will.
Another curious and slightly less sexist thing that one begins to notice on the streets of Yangon is that the cars in this country are almost exclusively Japanese. Practically every vehicle is either a Suzuki, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, or, if it's a truck, a Mitsubishi. There isn't a Kia or a Hyundai in sight, let alone a Chevy or an Audi. One reason for this is that Aung San Suu Kyi has always harbored a great deal of admiration for the Japanese, and so there has always been a big-sister, little-sister sort of relationship between the countries. I'm sure there's also a specific economic reason, but I wasn't able to ascertain it throughout further research. At any rate, I'm sure this trend will change as the country continues to avail itself of the world economy.
After starting this particular walkabout with no destination in mind, I oriented myself in the direction of the Zoological Gardens, which were enticingly marked on the map just north of the downtown area. Arriving at its gates, or at least, where on the map it appeared that the gates might be, I strolled through an open entrance. Then I heard someone call out "Hello!" The direct translation of this interjection to English would be something like "Hey!! Just where do you think you're going?" A man came from out of my peripheral vision to usher me toward a ticket booth, preventing me from entering the park illicitly.
Upon entering the grounds, it was not clear whether what I was entering was a traditional zoo or some sort of nature reserve. All I could see was fauna. There didn't appear to be other people. And there didn't appear to be exhibits. A sign read that there were 133 species. It failed to disclose whether they were held in cages or just wandering about. Making one's way through the paths in this zoo was like rolling up into a ghost town in a Western flick. The protagonist surveys the otherwise desolate street, and as a tumble weed rolls through, remarks that it appears everyone else has been run out of town. The first exhibit I came upon was a cage of monkeys. The fence around the animals' enclosure was about as far from sidewalk where I stood as an extended monkey arm. The monkeys, I noticed, could just about stick their entire bodies through the screen save for their area of greatest circumference. There were no witnesses around in case one of them escaped, murdered me, and snuck back in. There were large patches of unfinished construction projects throughout the grounds, and for all I knew any of them could have been filled with the inert bodies of unsuspecting tourists. I backed away slowly and turned to have a look at what else was around.
At length I did start to see other people. Again, I was astounded by the fact that not a single one appeared to be a tourist. I wandered the zoo for almost two hours, and never once saw another westerner. In my uniqueness, this made me an object of interest to the other patrons at the zoo, especially in the presence of some of the more lackluster animals.
Certainly one of the reasons there were few tourists was that the Yangon zoo is not among the world's most spectacular zoological habitats. That said, it was quite relaxing to wander in a park where both the animals and the patrons had such generous proportions of Lebensraum. The potential danger posed by the observation that the fortifications keeping the animals from the humans didn't exactly inspire confidence, gave the excursion an added dimension of excitement not usually expected from a trip to the zoo.
Making my way north again toward another site of interest on the map, I came upon a sprawling park laid out around a shimmeringly gorgeous azure lake. It was dusk now, and the setting sun was the same color as the sound of a bell marking the start of a meditation. The lake was ringed not only by a verdant lapel of grass, but also by a walking path, hovering over the edge of the water like a halo. Everyone I passed was a local. Each of them gave me a pleasant smile and nod. They seemed like they were just happy to see me enjoying myself in their city. I'd been wearing sandals all day, and my legs had the same gradient of dark clay to airy lightness as the sunset. At length, I came to a point where the walkway suddenly stopped. It's not that the loop had ended, but that there was a blockade in front of a ten yard stretch where there were no boards in the boardwalk -- a hole in the infrastructure, if you will -- and I could go no further.
After a brief respite back at the hostel, I repaired in the evening to what appeared to be Yangon's premiere rooftop bar. I had noted they had a jazz band on that night, and I was curious what heights could be attained in this country when it came to the lush life of jazz and cocktails. On top of a hotel in an otherwise residential area, the seating are was exceptionally loungeable, with a corridor of reservable and cushioned alcoves. These mostly appeared to be occupied by European business men, who were out for some shared plates and a bottle or six of wine. They were among colleagues and friends, evidently operating in a celebratory mode. There were also a few groups of mostly upscale Burmese. I snagged a spot at the bar. The roof offered a three-sixty degree view of the city, with the main visual attraction being the Shwedagon Pagoda glowing in the distance like a hovering UFO. Viewed from this vantage, it really becomes clear that Myanmar truly is a kind of dark spot on the map. Situated between the well-lighted civilizations of India, China, and Thailand, the plot of land centered on the Irrawaddy delta is dark when viewed from space, or even just a tall building. Even in the city, most of the land is shaded from urban glow. Between me and the imposing Shwedagon, which is the visual centerpiece of the city, there was nothing but an inscrutable blackness. It is as if showing a laser pointer into a moonless, starless sky. What you see is not so much a view but simply an unlit expanse, like the visual field behind closed eyes.
My first order of business was to obtain a drink. I was delighted to find their menu included barrel-aged negronis. I waved in the direction of the glowing panel of alcoholic goodness that was the bar and flagged down one of the bartenders. Normally, in these situations, I'd give the local flavors a shot and order something closer to an indigenous concoction than a tried classic. But this bar didn't have anything like that on offer. Plus the thought of gin, Campari, and vermouth marinating in oak over the course of a few weeks made me all tingly and excited in a way that's difficult to ignore. My cocktail was served with a flair of teak-wood smoke introduced into a glass enclosure around the drink, which upon lifting the enclosure released a fog, like a special effect at a rock concert. It was a little much for my taste. But it was also served with dehydrated orange slices, and I liked that. I sipped my cocktail, and read from my copy of George Orwell's Burmese Days by the under-light of the counter in front of me. Periodically, I'd looked up to survey the patrons of this illuminated fastness situated in the otherwise steely darkness of the landscape around us. I consumed these elegant $5 negronis with a certain ardent liberalism while smoking the Burmese cigars I'd bought, 10 for 50 cents. Soon the band began to play. Mostly it was from the oeuvre of Antônio Carlos Jobim. For the sake of propriety, I won't disclose the exact number of negronis I managed, nor the number of cigars I sucked down. But it's safe to that it was, in a scientific sense, a large enough sample to achieve statistical significance.
Then the night took a left turn. I saw a couple of guys hanging out by a table next to mine. They were clearly vibing with the music and looked like locals. I approached them. We got to talking. After the first set was over, the jazz singer who had been on stage came to our table, and introduced herself as a friend as the gentlemen I was sitting with. She was from Japan, propelled by the twin dreams of living in Myanmar and being a jazz singer. The two guys were entrepreneurs. I asked them what business they were in. "Import-export," they told me. As anyone familiar with the espionage genre will infer, they were spies. One of them claimed to be especially fond of America, having made several extended trips to Nebraska. If anyone has ever uttered a statement which more directly implicated them in some sort of covert affair of counterintelligence, I have not heard it.
Once the music had wrapped up and the European business men had begun to pack it in out of respect for tomorrow's workday, the two guys asked what I was doing next. "Nothing," I told them. It is at this point that the scene cuts to a drug-addled montage of rave music and altered consciousness, zooming around the city from one neon-lit palace of debauchery to another consuming substances of a dubious and enlivening nature. Or at least as close to that sort of thing as I come in my life.
The first stop on our itinerary was the kind of place that one might imagine America is full of if one had never actually been to America: a nifty establishment called the "Beer Pong Bar." This title rather concisely captures the institution's mission statement. Conceptually, it is a bar which dedicates the major of its real estate to arraying cups of beer across a table and enjoining participants on both sides to sink ping pong balls into one another's cups. Beer pong is one of America's most celebrated cultural exports, like the hamburger or the iPad, much loved the world over. As with all of America' greatest innovations, it provides a highly bastardizable palate on which other nations can construct their own cultural inventions. That is how the hamburger differs from, say, classical French cuisine. If you don't cook French food the way they do it in Paris, you're doing it wrong. But anyone can take the basic canvas of the burger, do whatever the hell they want to it, and find themselves in the presence of a creation that is at once delicious and entirely legitimate. Beer pong has been similarly appropriated to great effect in other milieus. The premise of this establishment was to set up in what was essentially an empty, unlit warehouse, a football field's worth of regulation beer pong tables illuminated by the synthetic LEDs of an air hockey table or a laser tag course. The operation's feng shui was so effective that it had evidently attracted the presence of every adolescent in the province to gather with their friends, perch a Gatorade-sized vat of beer on their table, and engage in bouts of competitive drinking until long after peak performance had been achieved. Being an American, I felt a certain patriotic duty to represent my country well. I did what I could.
Having reached a point of diminishing marginal returns on any activities which depended on the use of fine motor skills, we took off to the next spot. Upon leaving the beer pong bar, I discovered that our entourage had increased in number. Instead of requiring a single taxi, our crew now required a small fleet of vehicles. I had no real idea who any of these people were. But I was friends with all of them.
When I next came to, there was wailing. Or not wailing, but rather singing. Then I immediately ascertained that we were in the plush and intimate confines of a karaoke room. Now, the western and eastern conceptions of karaoke are rather different. In the west, the essential framework for karaoke is to consume enough alcohol to demolish all sense of self-consciousness or social liability in the service of aurally making a fool of oneself in front of a group of total strangers. By contrast, the eastern framework for karaoke is to consume enough alcohol to demolish all sense of self-consciousness or social liability in service of aurally making a fool of oneself in front of a group of one's close friends. Instead of taking place on a stage for any casual observer to judge, it takes place in a private room. It is an infinitely preferable format over the western version. It is, however, still awful. The only way to make karaoke an even slightly palatable activity is to have it catch you completely by surprise. It has to develop organically, on the spur of the moment. It is in this respect like other acts of vulgar semi-public behavior, such as skinny dipping. You don't set a calendar event for your next skinny dipping session. The spirit must take you. At least that's what I imagine to be the case for skinny dipping. No one has ever invited me to go. At any rate, that same conceptual model holds true for karaoke.
Having satisfactorily expressed ourselves in song, we ended the evening with a bite to eat -- whatever the Myanmartian equivalent to greasy three-AM kebab is. I ate my fill, then a good deal more, then I regretfully informed my companions that it was time for me to turn in. Without having taken the time to develop an especially solid game plan, I got up to leave. And I found myself walking in no direction in particular toward nothing much. It was 4:30 in the morning, and there were no cars on the road. I did not have internet on my phone. I knew the name of my hostel. I knew that it was somewhere south of where I was currently at. I didn't know which way south was. At the moment I was beginning to draw conclusions about my predicament based on these observations, a taxi pulled into the adjacent intersection. I flagged the driver down and hopped in.
I told the driver the name of my hostel. Then he embarked on a protracted exposition in a language I didn't speak. I deduced from the fact that he was explaining instead of driving that I had been unsuccessful in describing the port of call at which I hoped to disembark. More words came from my mouth. I can recall them now probably just about as accurately as he could understand them then. I managed to communicate that I was going somewhere toward the city center, as we were pretty far outside of town at this point, and this satisfied him enough to put the car in gear. At length, we pulled over on the side of a desolate road. He rolled down the window and shouted something. A man emerged from the darkness into the din of nearby street lamp. There was a brief exchange, which I imagined was chiefly about where to dump my body. Then the man leaned into the window and asked me where I wanted to go. I gave him the street number closest to my destination, which he relayed to his colleague in what seemed like more verbiage that was strictly necessary. The man disappeared into the shadows, and we set off toward my place of residence and/or the body drop site. When the car came to a stop I recognized the familiar acrylic visage of Santa and his elves. I had made it home. I was alive, albeit somewhat cognitively impaired. Filled with gratitude, beer, Christmas cheer, patriotic pride, and the unassuageable desire to retire, I turned in for the night.
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