A Burmese Introduction

I walked out of the terminal and was immediately greeted by a mob of taxi drivers. Everyone offered the same deal – a ride into Yangon would cost $10. I randomly selected a driver out of the group. He expressed his gratification by flashing a wide smile, exposing teeth stained by years of betel nut abuse.

The ride to my accommodations was interesting to say the least. I have been in some harrowing car rides but I never could have imagined this – being driven in a car with no floor. There were holes from decades of rust that exposed the moving asphalt below. I didn’t ask my driver why the speedomoter sat at 0 km/h. The answer was obvious. Adding to all of this, Myanmar has right hand steering… in the right lane of the road. I obsessively checked my seat belts every ten minutes or so to reassure myself that I was in fact strapped in securely.

He dropped me off in front of a small, family-run bed and breakfas situated in what was clearly a very affluent neighborhood. Gated mansions with personal security personnel lined the streets. Young Burmese raced by in their import sedans. Lexus seemed to be the brand of choice. I later learned that this part of town was inhabited by families of the elite – wealthy businessmen, government officials and high ranking officials of the military.

After checking into my room, I decided to introduce myself to the city. I hired a car from the street and was dropped off in the middle of the Bogyoke Aung San area. I was engulfed by the bustle of the street. Burmese men dressed in longyis, a sarong-like cloth, congegrated on street corners chatting about the business of the day, breaking conversation only to spit out betel nut chew onto the street. Women carried out their chores, buying groceries in stalls inside dilapidated, but functional buildings that date back to colonial days. Young children chased each other with thanaka cream proudly painted on their faces and arms. This was the Yangon that I wanted to see.

Yet, I could not help but notice the freshly pressed Samsung advertisements on billboards that loomed over the city boulevards. And, the surprising number of Western brand goods that stocked the shelves of supermarkets. Young men wore their hair in the styles I saw popular in Thailand. Mass tourism has yet to take hold of the country but, the number of retiree-age Europeans and new middle class Chinese stepping off of tour buses was startling to witness.

It’s been only a short time since the lift of much of the economic sanctions and travel restrictions to the country but, I could sense much has already changed.

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