I have waited to write this post because I thought a bit of time and space might help me understand my feelings a little better on the matter of leaving Yangon. I have even started writing this post several times, but what sounds right in my head never comes across clearly on the page. The fact remains that my thoughts and feelings about my time in Myanmar continue to be as contradictory and complicated as the place itself.
Any country that insists on driving on the right hand side of the road, using right wheel drive cars, is bound to be a challenging place to live. Nothing is done easily when it can be done in a more complicated, laborious way. It is done that way because it’s always been done that way, and while change is wanted and needed in the country, it seems a distant hope rather than a present possibility. This could be considered charming, and a characteristic of a country that is determined to maintain its unique identity, or it could be an indication of the very long slog Myanmar still has ahead of it as it makes its place in the world.
My personal experiences were very frustrating. I’m sure much of it stemmed from the transition of living and working in the UK to becoming an expat in a developing country. Things weren’t going to be easy, but I felt I had enough travel and professional experience to adapt. Certainly, my impression of the country as I travelled around left me spellbound with the Golden Land. Ancient pagodas; beautiful landscapes; tropical beaches; charming, funny people who didn’t have much but were willing to do anything to help you and who smiled at the drop of a hat.
But Yangon was a different case altogether. The gateway to Myanmar, but a singularly unattractive one. Dirty, dusty and inconsistent are the adjectives I mostly associate with the place. It could, and did, give with one hand and then take away with the other. It has the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is beautiful, it has Scott Market and pretty much everything you need in some way, shape or form, if you are willing to search it out. It does have what you need. Mostly.
Things are hard to find, both in a retail and geographical sense. Sometimes you can find items that you want, if you are prepared to shop around. Often you cannot. Everything is very spaced out across the city, nothing is in easy reach, and sometimes I couldn’t find places I’d visited many times before, even after 9 months of living there. I can read a map. I have navigated my way around many, many cities using a map, my common sense and visual cues. Yet, I found it impossible to navigate Yangon. My map proved useless, with insufficient detail to pinpoint locations. Taxis never took the same route twice due to severe traffic congestion, so my visual cues never took root, plus, apart from Shwedagon, the city lacks memorable landmarks. My common sense was repeatedly thwarted. It frustrated the hell out of me.
I wanted to like Yangon but it never grew on me. Day to day living was often more complicated than it needed to be. Being white meant hugely inflated taxi fares. A visit to the Post Office could take up half your day. A walk up the road could put your life in your hands when dodging traffic, open drains and crowds who appeared to have no spatial awareness whatsoever. Even the simplest task became hard work when faced with rigid rule followers, inefficiency, or insufficient language to communicate successfully.
I was luckier than some. I had school accommodation, a cleaner and a two minute walk to work. However, my accommodation was dark, uncomfortable, and regularly infested with visitors of a less than welcome kind. My job did not live up to its promise and the place seemed to become a microcosm of the frustrations I encountered in Myanmar society. It became clear to me, fairly early on, that I was not going to stay two years as I had hoped.
However, if I hadn’t gone to Myanmar I would never have had the opportunity to do the travelling I have so recently enjoyed. I wouldn’t have had the time or the money. By ending my contract early, I was ideally placed to visit other countries on a shoestring and scratch the eternal itch of Wanderlust. I spent a very happy summer doing just that and arrived at my new destination eager and ready to go. For that I am eternally grateful.
I am also grateful, that on my last, predictably frustrating, exit from Yangon Airport, (I was prevented from taking an empty water bottle in my hand luggage but the multi-tool, lying forgotten at the bottom, was completely missed. The transfer check-in staff in Thailand however, nearly had a fit!) Yangon chose to show me a sight I had always looked for but never seen. As I flew away to Chiang Mai to start my new adventure I could see the whole city spread out beneath me, with golden Shwedagon sitting proudly on its hill, the towers and grid system of Downtown visible to all; all cradled by the broad arm of the river, separating the emerald rice fields of Dalah from its urban neighbour.
It was beautiful!