During my flight into Myanmar my seat neighbour, an NGO worker in Yangon, described the city as a place operating as if it existed fifty years as in the past. Her examples included descriptions of men in longyi skirts and women’s faces smeared with thanaka paste (a 2,000 year old practice used for sun protection). When I heard Dido on the radio in a café the other day I realised she was right.
I can’t describe the city without comparisons to other places, and I think that comes out of a feeling that something is either missing or too over the top in many other regional hotspots. Yangon is the opposite of Hanoi’s state of perpetual tourist harassment and has the feel of Phnom Penh if you could eliminate that dodgy feeling that means always walking away from the curb so no one snatches your bag.
There are touts, sure, but they are so low key and polite. Never in my life have I heard a potential guide say to me “I will show you around this temple for five dollars only, but it’s up to you since it’s your holiday. No Pressure.”
No pressure? Where’s the catch? How come your buddy didn’t prize open my bag while you were distracting me? Everyone is so nice and trustworthy that I’m confused. How messed up is that?
I think I could leave my camera and computer in the middle of the street and the issue wouldn’t be who steels it, but rather who would wait to ensure it would be returned to me. I have never felt so safe in a city before.
There are so many stories of kindness. At my guesthouse (Chan Myaye) a woman narrates her experience of travelling around Myanmar with a smart phone lent to her by Burmese person she’d only just met. They insisted, she says, and returned it two weeks later. No strings. Others tell stories of locals guiding them, taking them to lunch, helping them in any way possible, and I can relate.
Countless strangers approach me while observing food preparation on the streets, and then translate my dietary requirements in detail so that I’m confident I’m eating vegan food. Giggling young women pose for photos with me (no idea), throwing their arms around me like we are sisters. People I pass on the street pat my arm and shoulder as we pass, as if to say hello to an old friend.
“HEY!” they say, abruptly. Okay, sure, hey back at your face. I’m not used to people being so friendly. It’s refreshing.
I’m approached by a boy in Bogyoke Market, Yangon’s super bazaar where you can buy handicrafts, antiques, fabric, fluffy flip flops, and jewellery. He wants to sell me a hand held fan, which I did not want to buy from him much like I did not want to buy one from the other 2,981 people selling fans. Also I was in the middle of eating some noodles (heavy with toasted chickpea flour – delicious) off of a leaf and didn’t have hands for fans nor anything else.
“Smell it,” he says.
“Smell it,” he repeats and fans me. Sandalwood. It’s the same aroma as the thanaka lotion, which he later explains is the scent.
“No thank you,” I reply with a smile.
“You are very beautiful.” This kid looks up at me like he genuinely enjoys my presence and I’m having a hard time keeping my cool (which in this case is any state not involving hysterical laughter or tripping over thin air) so I can move on.
We part ways, only to run into each other again ten minutes later, this time with his older sister in tow. And again. It becomes a game to us, and we laugh each time we bump into each in this massive marketplace.
I’m lured in by a woman selling papaya salad, a dish fresh on my mind after reading this post about a similar dish on the Migrationology blog. The salad turns out to be different (but fantastic), made with a mix of noodles and the unripe fruit, and is served with a bowl of pepper-heavy vegetable and glass noodle soup.
Street eating in Yangon occurs on plastic furniture made for toddlers, so it’s knees to the chest and tuck in the best you can. As if I’m not already awkward enough.
The food is freshly prepared in front of me and presented along with a pair of chopsticks, which I immediately drop. I’m handed a second pair, which I immediately drop. I’m not handed the third set until I show I can make a fist and hold onto them for more than 2 seconds. The salad is spicy with toasted chilli powder and laden with MSG (shut up, haters) and I’m loving it.
La la la crazy lady with her big ass camera taking photos of food.
And suddenly my little friends are there beside me, laughing about running into me outside of the market too. I invite them to sit down and buy them drinks. They try each other’s and offer to let me try too (I did – lemonade is sickly sweet here, perfect to cut that spicy burn).
They talk to me about school and list the words they know in Japanese. He’s ten and she’s eleven, and they are on school holiday. After a Burmese language lesson (I fail terribly, mostly because I’m distracted by the proprietor of the eatery who is pissing herself laughing at me), they move on to discussing thanaka paste.
We say goodbye to the papaya salad lady and the kids run along to grab some thanaka to show me. One on either side, they get to work rubbing it on my cheeks. The girl grabs a gem from a local vendor and smashes it (“every day she tries, hoping it will be a diamond that won’t break”). The vendor is cracking up watching me being covered in lotion by these kids and I am resigned to their attention and affection (and enjoying it). I buy a small pot of the powder and say my final goodbye, but not before a photo.