First Impressions Of Yangon

Whenever you step outside, the hot, humid air smacks you like you’ve opened the door to Hell’s boiler room; it then continues to press its thumb down on you until the sweat and the exhaustion force you to find an air-conditioned interior again, where you sit and wonder if you can ever feel quite right in this country.

I arrived here on Friday 4th August after a grim and sleepless flight from London via Bangkok. The weekend was spent mostly sleeping – 20 hours on the first night, broken only by a half hour window in which I lay staring at the dawn behind the curtains and wondering if I’d made a mistake in coming here. It’s now Thursday and the jet lag has started to be kinder to me, although I’m still recovering from a general exhaustion I’d inflicted on myself before travelling. I was bedridden for a good week before flying, and likely I needed another week in bed. The inhospitable weather here is probably not going to help.

Since I barely saw daylight over the weekend and work at the school started on Monday morning, I haven’t had a good chance to see much of the city yet. This is partly also because the heat is so intolerable that one isn’t encouraged to venture outside almost at all. I’ve never experienced heat like this before. How on earth did the first British colonisers stand it? I’ve been wondering what the hell they thought they were doing conquering this place since the moment I stepped off the plane. Nevermind how imperial-minded I may have been in the 1850s, I personally would have walked off the boat for sixty seconds and decided that it was better left with the natives. The constant, satanic screaming of the tropical birds ought to have warned them it was a bad idea if nothing else did.

But there are signs that Yangon is the sort of place you ought to get to know over time. Although it’s filthy and, frankly, reeks, with any one street deluging smells ranging from the most beautiful food to the most gut-twisting sewers, there is something faintly remarkable about it. On my first night I was taken to a rooftop bar, and after precisely three drinks someone told me to stand on a particular part of the terrace. I did so, and realised that for a whole half hour I’d failed to notice the utterly enormous Shwedagon Pagoda reaching out of the humid darkness and shining like it was on fire.

At 4am my flatmate and I saw Buddhist monks walking in line to their morning meditation, their bare feet taking the worst of the grime on the narrow backstreet outside our flat. Everywhere you go people are ready to offer a smile no matter how incompetently you speak the language. Cab drivers are constantly fascinated by where you come from, and are forever offering examples of links between their family and England – often at the expense of actually looking at the road. The traffic here is heavy and chaotic and the fumes starve you of both oxygen and a healthy mind, but there’s a certain inarticulate rightness to it.

On first glance, things in the West seem to work. Buildings often look healthy, traffic mostly behaves itself and infrastructure is reliable. The streets are clean and the buses don’t have whole families clinging for dear life to the outside. In the underdeveloped nations of the East there is no such illusion. The streets are filthy and smelly, buildings lie unfinished, beggars publicly waste away with the most hideous ailments and you’re liable to be unable to get down a street without encountering a bus full of chickens or twenty cabdrivers crying out for your attention. Chaos is the norm.

But the thing is that in the West there is a chaos underlying the unity, whereas in the East there is a unity underlying the chaos. Mad, infuriating and incoherent it may be, but it is also somehow sensible. Rather like Alan Watts’s adage that life doesn’t make sense so we ought not to apply sense to it, Myanmar does not make sense, and that’s precisely how it ought to be.

I’m hoping my health improves in the next week before term starts. I don’t think it’s possible to face this country with less than a fully beating heart.

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