Yesterday morning I woke up in Yangon, its streets as fresh in my mind as if I’d been carried there while I slept. The last thing I did before bed was to put away leftovers in our tiffin tin from Myanmar. Is that why I woke up there? Or perhaps it was the overcast heat we had the previous afternoon. These humid, foreboding skies aren’t so typical in Christchurch, but they seemed to hang over Yangon through all the days we spent there. This weather, sinister and impending, makes me jittery. The atmosphere yellowed and biled, like bad tequila.
When I came to sort through the photos though, I found there were patches of blue. Our time in Yangon hadn’t been all flat grey skies, but a mixture of light and dark.
Is memory so fickle, or is it that our snapshots will only ever add up to an incomplete picture? Did I rush to take photos in the moments of clear sky, or were there more sunny times than I had memories of?
In a broad way I remember Myanmar as one of the best parts of our trip. I fell in love with it, really. The pace of life, the food, the energy. The old things still in use. People gathering everywhere to eat and drink together. The lush jungle greens and sticky red dirt roads. It was welcoming and fascinating, and different, and beautiful, and charming, and calm, and human-sized.
We were there during May of 2016, barely a month after Aung Sang Suu Kyi was sworn into office, and the mood was high. Things were getting better, hope was flourishing. (And the crisis of the Rohingya people hadn’t reached its current depths, or breadth of news coverage.)
But thinking analytically, our days in Yangon were some of the darkest for me personally. Through my eyes, Yangon’s streets are painted in malaise. They carry a sense of existing in the subsidence of what once was. And of my sense of self dissipating, of my connection with the world fraying. Things falling apart.
In other words, in Yangon I was depressed. And maybe that’s really why my thoughts brought me there.
State-dependent memory, the phenomenon through which memory retrieval is most efficient when an individual is in the same state of consciousness as they were when the memory was formed.
I have felt a little depressed these last few days, and so found myself wreathed in memories of other times my consciousness has been in this altered state. When I’m in the depths, I can vividly remember all the times I’ve been there before. All the other places I have felt like this, like Yangon.
Part of my brain knows that this happens, which helps. I know that if I’m sad it seems like most of my time has been spent this way, but that when I’m OK the sad spells just seem like small interludes in my real life.
Accepting that my perception is skewed when I’m in this state lets me treat my depression as something to just carry on through as best I can, knowing it will pass over eventually.
So where does that leave my feelings about Yangon? Is my perception of the place irrevocably skewed by my state of mind when I formed my impression of it? Does that mean the parts of it I perceived as hostile, unhappy, or in decline, weren’t? And how much of my state of mind was caused by my environment? I don’t know. I know that grey skies get me down. But also that the skies seem greyer when I’m down.
Objectively, there is a beauty to Yangon. It has the most Colonial era buildings of any South East Asian city, mostly because the near absence of an economy through the long years of the military regime meant nobody could afford to build anything new. Development is beginning to happen now, and between the crumbling Colonial architecture jut blunt boxy shops and advertising hoardings.
I didn’t love Yangon, not like I loved the rest of Myanmar.
It’s hard to say if my state of mind caused this, or if it’s just too much of a metropolis to charm me. Yangon — Myanmar’s biggest city — houses more than 5 million people, though it feels like an overgrown town more than a city. Its population has doubled in the last 15 years, and it feels like it. The sleepy air that pervades most of the country is diluted here, and I missed it.
But in reality, that sleepy air I love is the air of absent development, infrastructure and economic growth. Myanmar had a GDP per capita of less than $1300 in 2016. The figure in Thailand is five times higher. The average income here is about $700 a year, and most people will be earning less than that. I might enjoy the peace and quiet of simple living here as a visitor, but when this is your life I imagine things look a little different.
Myanmar’s economy largely depends on natural resources and agriculture. Inadequate infrastructure, limited “know-how” and administrative constraints have stifled the manufacturing sector.
Poverty levels are at an estimated 26% of the population. Poverty is twice as high in rural areas where 70% of the population lives. The remote border areas, mainly populated by Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups, and areas emerging from conflict are particularly poor.
Access to electricity is limited to only 26 percent of the population and firewood is a major source of energy for the population.
The country is highly vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events, such as the devastating Cyclone Nargis of 2008. This heightens the risks and vulnerabilities for the rural poor, and particularly women and children and other vulnerable groups, a challenge for which local communities are still unprepared.
More things are happening in Yangon than elsewhere in the country. More money changing hands, which should be lifting people out of poverty. If it’s reaching the pockets that need it, that is, not pooling in the coffers of foreign businesses and the corrupt elite. (As a visitor, you can try to contribute by spending your money in small locally owned businesses — tourism transparency has lots of information on how to travel responsibly in Myanmar).
There are corners of Yangon that I did love. The the book market on Pansodan Road, which we browsed, trying to read meaning into the selection. Hoping to understand how people here are thinking, from what they’ve been reading, the way you examine the bookshelves of a new friend.
Yangon is probably the best place to see the direction Myanmar is going in. Capital cities — which Yangon should be but isn’t — lead the march of progress.
The electricity is more reliable here than elsewhere in Myanmar. The internet, while still terrible, is better. And there are cars used as taxis here, not motorbikes or open air remorks and sidecars. Of course this may just be because motorbikes have been banned in Yangon since 2003, probably on the personal whim of a military general who they were somehow inconveniencing. Being in a South East Asian city with almost no motorbikes is odd. Instead there are buses, and more cars than you would expect from a country with so much poverty.
And then there are bicycle taxis, more a remnant of the past than an inkling of the future. These are rare elsewhere, replaced by jumping on the back of a moto.
Globalisation is getting a hold here too, more so than anywhere else in the country. There are mobile phone shops, American-style coffee shops, and a 3D cinema, where we sat in the dark air-conditioned chill watching the new X-Men film. A welcome trip out of my own head.
Mostly that’s not Yangon though. There are still the small outdoor food and drink shops, spreading out onto the street in abundance, like everywhere else in Myanmar. Sweet Indian tea and fried snacks for breakfast. Curry for lunch. Faluda — ice cream, sugared egg, bread and rosewater jelly — as the heat of the day fades. Later, mugs of draft beer drunk perched on plastic stools or deckchairs. Life still happens on pavements and doorsteps here, though street food opportunities are a little diminished since stalls were banned from several major roads in the city last year.
Lines of monks or nuns, almost all children, still wend through the streets gathering offerings from the public, just as in small towns all over Myanmar. Except here it seems they don’t walk their alms route straight from the temple, but are bussed to the central market, where the pickings are richer. Tourism has made its mark here, with souvenir shops outnumbering anything else.
On a Sunday afternoon we promenade through the park by the Shwedagon Pagoda. Families stroll together, along the landscaped paths and the treetop walkway. On the lawn closest to the pagoda couples nestle under trees, in the scant privacy of their umbrellas’ shelter.
We reach the edge of the park, right next to the famous pagoda, and find there’s no way out. All along this edge of the park is a six foot high iron fence, topped with decorative spikes. Is this a deliberate barrier, separating canoodling couples from the almighty? Or just another outbreak in the global epidemic of urban spaces designed by people who never walk anywhere. We can’t summon the energy to walk all the way around in the murky heat. We climb over the fence, wondering if we might be arrested.
The foreigner price for the pagoda is too expensive for us to consider going in. We’ve seen plenty of pagodas in the two weeks we’ve been in the country, and we’ll see plenty more in the weeks to come. So we just sit and observe the flow of devotees for a while, before moving on.
And on and on. Feet padding out miles of nothing in particular, brain nowhere in particular. Out round Kandawgyi Lake, where Yangon’s well-to-do sit eating and drinking in modern waterfront restaurants. These places seem clinical after the chaos of the city centre. I can’t choose somewhere to eat, I feel too tetchy, too disconnected, too lost. We watch the sunset and cab back to town, to simple, quick street food. I want noise and distraction.
And then the nothing of sleep, in the cold white cell of my hostel bunk bed. Hostels, much less hostels with air-conditioning, are not found in most of Myanmar. I don’t love Yangon, but in that moment I do love its air-conditioning. Blessed, unbroken sleep will help me mend.