As soon as we get through customs at Yangon International airport, a much less rigourous process than we had anticipated, taxi drivers start fighting for our custom. Young or old, bearded or closely shaven, they look almost identical in my eyes in their smart white shirts and floor length Longhis. The driver we’re assigned is smiley and chatty and helps us to practise the Myanmar words for ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ as we pull away. His car is a death trap. Before long we’re on the main road and the impossibly golden Shwe Dagon Pagoda ascends into view. There’s a park on one side of the wide road and a lake on the other. The sun is burning low in the sky, a bright, dense glow like a giant blood orange, and everything is red, gold and green and glittering so bright it almost hurt to look so, just for a minute, I close my eyes.
With a suddenness that shouldn’t really be possible day becomes night and we come to a stop. We haven’t reached our destination yet, we’ve just arrived at the eternal traffic jam that is Yangon city centre. Everyone drives as though the whole population is blind and the only way to communicate ones intentions, or even prescence, is through a constant blaring of the car horn. The taxi driver talks on, not in the least bit distracted by the chaos around him. He tells us about places to visit in Myanmar; Inle lake; Bagan; Mandalay, yes, I think, but we’re in Yangon.
It takes until we leave the hostel and take to the streets that night for me to realise just by how foreign a country Myanmar is to what I have experienced of the world so far. My friend tells me it reminds him of India, the chaos on the roads, the stray dogs, the people, the way they’re dressed, the way they stare. I’ve never had any desire to visit India. I’m not sure why.
We’re staying just outside the city centre in a narrow street composed of ancient apartment blocks that were once white, sky blue or mint green but now look black as though they’ve been scorched in a terrible fire. Each balcony is lit up, either with lamps or Christmas fairy lights, to show the clutter of each family’s tiny living space. A few old men stand outside breathing in the humid air, chewing their tobacco and watching the activity on the street below.
I’m almost run over three or four times walking down one backstreet. Even on these backstreets the cars dont slow down, not even for a foreigner. Especially not for a foreigner.
It’s strange because everything’s the same and yet completely different. Like watching a soap opera in a different language, you think you get the gist but really you’re completely lost. We were in a capital city but the signifiers were missing; there is no tourist map, no public transport, no coffee shops and no fast food restaurants. We wander the streets for a long time, dodging the traffic, enduring the stares, exhilarated by the feeling of being a very long way from home.