Everyone is flocking to Myanmar. They want to see what there is to see before it crumbles to the ground and is replaced by progress, westernization, and tall gleaming buildings. They better hurry.
Yangon is crumbling beneath your feet. The earth is coming to take back what is hers: the colonial buildings are beginning to hide behind the trees that grow out of their walls four stories up, and the mold that covers their vibrant colors in a patina of black. On ground level, gleaming electronics stores filled with Bravia flat screens and ASUS laptops are built out in glass and tile, clean and modern. One story up, laundry hangs to dry over balcony railings.
It doesn’t matter if the earth takes back the buildings, because life in Asia happens on the street. Sidewalks are packed with stalls and tables – little plastic tables in primary and pastel colors, set with metal teapots and waiting for customers, looking like a child’s tea party is about to take place. As suddenly as evening falls, the tables fill with people eating, drinking, pulling their day to a close, or their night to a warm beginning. In the smaller streets, not just eating, but dressing, cleaning, a street shave and a quick brush of the teeth. The country is turned inside out.
The sidewalk itself, when not covered with business, is also being taken back. The thick cement squares that fit together like blocks are tilting, breaking apart and be careful what lies beneath – the interlocking tiles cover the sewage canal, and you definitely don’t want to fall in. In some places, no sidewalk at all, nothing but the dirt, dust piled high, the earth coming back to claim some territory against the base of a new glass skyscraper. Always, someone fighting back against it, creating a modicum of order with the world’s tiniest broom.
In the temples, the fight is constant, even with no shoes on. One day a week, Sule Paya is doused in water and the dirt is swept down the drain by volunteers. It creates a torrent of grime, and a slick danger zone if you happen to visit at that hour. At Shwedagon, each evening sunset is followed by a ritual of orderly sweeping: rows of women fanning out from the stupa like spokes of a wheel, set in motion by a coach and timed to perfection. Photographed to perfection as well (by tourists, with bigger lenses and more aggression than I). Mandalay Hill….well, just plan on scrubbing your feet well after you make it back down.
Even the money is a battle between the old and the new in Myanmar. Bring your US dollars crisp and clean. Change them for Kyat on the black market only – the black market that is wide open in your hotel – for 980 to the dollar. But one little tear, one nick or mark on your US denomination, and you pay a ‘commission,’ a discount, to receive your mangled mass of moldy, smelly, torn and written on, sometimes taped-together, thousand-kyat notes, so for every hundred dollars you change, you carry away 90 bills, or more. You feel like a baller until you spend them, and pay a commission again, because prices everywhere run 1000 kyat to the dollar. Don’t bother fighting it. Just smile. It’s the price of being here ‘before,’ the price of coming in early, the price of the tourist pioneer.
You aren’t a pioneer, my friend. It isn’t early. Lonely Planet already has a guidebook, one that tells you where to go to get ‘off the beaten tourist path.’ The monks at Ganayon Kyaung eat their daily breakfast with 100 Chinese cameras shuttering through the windows of the dining hall. Everyone not old enough to have learned English before the British left is fighting for the chance. Yangon University, famous for educating the likes of Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, is reopening and the lines of applicants are long, and talented. People who haven’t ever voted talk already about the 2015 election, when they will cast ballots for the embattled Suu Kyi, even while they tell you what they think she could do better. The country is bursting with people looking to grab hold of a decent opportunity.
Don’t think you’re on a solo soulful temple journey. Before you take off your shoes someone will ask to practice their English. “Hallo, Hallo,” they will cry as you walk down the street, persistent and friendly and expecting an answer. Before you can muster a stumbled, “mingalaba,” a pupil will be at your side, too close, and won’t leave. Climb all 45 minutes (or 25, but don’t bother speeding up, you can’t escape) of Mandalay Hill and you won’t be left alone. On the street, it will be constant. In a monastery, it will be the monks.
And how can you not answer? How can’t you smile and sing, “hello!” This is what you wanted, isn’t it? Women with thanaka paste sponged onto their faces running up to your own pasty face with their toddlers, telling them to say, “mingalaba! Hello!” Isn’t this what it means to be ‘first?’ It’s the price you pay to be able to say later, “I was there, when.”
For more pictures of Myanmar, please click here