Yangon, Myanmar: first impressions
Inside the spotless interior of Yangon’s international airport terminal, I begin to feel a pang of anxiety. Bama is just ahead of me in the queue for immigration. He leans against the counter, listening intently as the officer speaks for a longer time than usual. Is there a problem with our electronic tourist visas?
Later, once I get my passport stamped with barely any questions, Bama tells me exactly what happened at the counter. “She asked me, ‘how much did you pay for the e-visa?’ I said I forgot. Then she said, ’50 dollars?’”
As an Indonesian citizen, Bama is entitled to stay 14 days visa-free, three days short of our trip in Myanmar. But the officer had a surprising suggestion for him: “Next time you come, don’t get a visa. If you overstay three days you pay only nine dollars – three dollars per day. Cheaper for you.”
In all my travels, I have never come across an immigration officer who openly encourages visitors to overstay in their country. Not in Europe, North America or Southeast Asia. I know someone who overstayed in the USA and only got away scot-free because he had a student visa and used his English accent to maximum effect.
The hour-long taxi ride from the airport is a revelation. Bama is astonished at the changes he is seeing since his last visit to Yangon three years ago. The construction sites, snarling traffic, brand new cars with license plates in numerals and Latin script, street signs in English – none of these were present in January 2012. He points out the proliferation of banks and ATMs, even a swanky Mercedes-Benz showroom for the nouveau riche.
Our downtown hotel, Beautyland II, is housed inside a nondescript walk-up on 33rd Street. We are shown to a twin room on the third floor, with a set of enormous windows enclosing the former balcony. It is the perfect place to stand and observe small facets of daily life. Looking down into the street, Bama and I spot the occasional procession of young monks or nuns going from shop to shop, asking for alms. In the apartment directly opposite, a family sits cross-legged on the wooden floor, absorbed by the action unfolding on TV. Renegade plants sprout from the blackened exterior walls; the entire ensemble sports a jumble of satellite dishes, air conditioning units and cables.
From the enclosed balcony, we can see the Sule Shangri-La, once the well-known Traders Hotel. It towers over the tenement buildings of 33rd Street, the neat rows of uniform windows a stark contrast to these decaying structures. With Myanmar’s hotel shortage, I cannot fathom the cost of staying in a place as luxurious as the Shangri-La. The hotel rises above the intersection like an upscale fortress, set back from the pavement and protected behind a moveable metal barrier. Next door, a development by the hotel group is taking shape, promising 15 storeys of prime office space above a luxury mall.
I imagine what it would be like to stand behind the Shangri-La’s aquarium green windows, completely insulated from the heavy traffic thundering up and down the avenue. Outside, we observe the swarm of cars clogging the streets on a Saturday night, and wonder how so many vehicles here have the steering wheel on the right even though Myanmar does not drive on the left. Conductors holler from the open doorways of second-hand Korean and Japanese buses, their former routes still written on the back window.
Men dressed in longyi, the Burmese sarong, spit chewed betel nuts to the gutter, creating a procession of deep red blotches that takes on an almost decorative appeal. We are accosted several times by child beggars who mumble and stretch out an empty palm. One gestures that he needs to be fed; another touches my arm with his small fingers. The physical contact is disconcerting, and it bothers me that one of us can afford the privilege of international travel, while the other lives in abject poverty.
Bama and I search for dinner on Sule Pagoda Road, which leads to a monumental, floodlit stupa coated in gold leaf. There’s a 24-hour convenience store and two cinemas showing the latest Hollywood releases. Several paces away, street vendors roast corn cobs, fry peanut and green chilli pancakes in a sizzling skillet, or wait with heaps of noodles and pots of other ingredients. We would love to try some of these dishes, but neither of us can speak Burmese or read the mysterious script of orderly circles and squiggles. Learning to say “fried noodles with chicken” would be a good place to start. ◊