Words and photos by Khor Chiew Chi
Yangon made me feel I was back in Penang 30 years ago! I visited my good friend Cek Li and her family during the recent Chinese New Year holiday week. She and her daughter have moved to follow her husband who is transferred there on a two-year job assignment.
They had barely settled down. A month later I visited. My relationship with Cek Li goes back a long way as we were secondary school mates. A few years later, we found out we are long distance relatives.
We share the same surname and both our fathers are from a small town called Lunas in Kedah. Since then, we call each other “Lau Ching” (an endearment term in the Teochew dialect which we use to refer to close relations).
My Yangon trip was free and easy without an itinerary. I felt the best plan is not to have a plan, just spend time with Cek Li, have fun and take it easy. We explored the city with an open mind to soak in as much as we can for a memorable adventure.
We have the help of an acquaintance a Burmese guy (good looking too!) who can speak in simple Bahasa Malaysia and English to drive us around. He was also our photographer!
Over the next few days, we have the luxury of being chauffeured like “tai-tai” in Yangon 😀
Men in longyi
The day after I arrived in the evening, we went to Myanmar Plaza (big shopping mall) for early lunch, purchased a phone card and changed some local currency (kyats). While walking in the mall, I was amused to see so many Burmese men in longyi (long sarong garment) with slippers, and women wearing the traditional Tanaka on their faces.
Yangon is quite green and well shaded in many parts of the city. Their roundabouts are very well maintained with colourful flowering plants. There are two main lakes – Inya Lake and Kandawgyi Lake. We visited the lush green Kandawgyi park and sipped drinks at one of the lake-side restaurants. Breathtaking scenery!
There are five star hotels, five-star dining restaurants, good grocery supermarkets, and many luxurious motor vehicles such as Alphards, Lexus, BMW, VW, and Mercedes Benz that dot the streets. Myanmar had opened up its market two years ago, and with the influx of imported merchandise, the rich and affluent flaunted their wealth with capitalist purchases. The country remains undeveloped.
The city buses remind me of those days when I would take public buses to school in Penang – Penang Yellow Bus, Hin Bus and Lim Seng Seng Bus company to name a few. No aircon, wind blowing in your face with open window and the bus driver is always racing for time; packed with passengers hanging on rail at the doors during peak hours.
Take a circuit train
Cek Li and I took a train ride on the Yangon circular railroad. The train runs through downtown Yangon, linking the center to the outskirts – it takes about three hours to complete a round trip. Moving at 20km/hour, it moves no faster than a bicycle. We alighted at Station #9 – Lhetan (altogether there are 39 stations). The ride was short about 25 minutes and we have had a brief glimpse of the countryside and experience the life and culture of the outskirts.
Downtown Yangon is a very different interesting sight. Although predominantly Buddhist, Yangon has amazing number of churches. The architecture reminds me of the churches we usually see in Europe.
There are also many colonial buildings – and not well maintained, old, paints peeled off, and obviously, a testament of its British colonial past. There are also new taller buildings in the skyline. It is not hard to imagine how Yangon will look like in 10 years, a modern city!
Don’t avoid the back alley
In Yangon, surprises are everywhere as we walked about. While walking along a back alley, I saw large paper clips dangling and hanging down from almost all apartments in the upper floors. My guess is the clips are meant to hold on to things like newspapers, letters, etc., for the upper-floor residents to pull them up. This reminded me of my late grandparents’ sundry shop where money is kept in a tinned container tied to a string on a pulley.
Walkabout best to know Yangon
I find one of the best ways to experience Yangon to its fullest is just to walk around with no plans. Burmese are generally very friendly and helpful. There’s a variety of delicious food, but you have pick the right ones to go to. The only setback is the language but we are lucky to have a guide.
If you want the feeling of nostalgia, Yangon is the place to visit. Having said that, the city is growing and no longer as “ulu” as most of us think.
I shall return to Yangon but the next time it is to explore the outskirts, and yes with my good friend, Cek Li (our second adventure!)