Buddhist monks gaze out onto to the tracks, elderly women carry baskets of freshly bargained market items, and everywhere the children are being cheeky as usual. Beside the train, people are walking the tracks or chatting near the road. We make quick stops at different stations, where platforms are occupied by hawkers and homeless families. Some adventurous commuters catch the train moving and contribute to the incredible show
Long awaited was the hug, I receive it just as I exit the Yangon International Airport immigration desk. “Myanmar is a far corner of the world to be meeting an old friend” -I think to myself. For a few seconds, I try to gather when was the last time we saw each other. Too long ago, that’s for sure.
My friend welcomes me into her new city, I welcome her into my adventures. As we slowly make for the exit, I ask something that will prove to be fairly naive. Asia must have biased my views, or perhaps I am taking the obvious shortcut of her having lived around Southeast Asia for a while. “Are you with your scooter?” Only, there are no motorbikes in Yangon. I find out that they are prohibited, and should you desire to know why, you would have to pick from a wide selection of theories. These range from official statements mentioning death tolls on the streets of Yangon, to more exotic ‘legends’ that all have a recurring theme: the abuse of power of paranoid military elites who, you guessed it, are spared the ban. A popular version is that a military official received a threatening (or impolite) gesture from teenagers on a motorbike when his driver stopped at a red light. One thing is sure, the trip will prove to be interesting.
I take a few days to rest and catch up on some work, glimpsing at the Shwedagon Pagoda with impatience. On a first impression, Yangon is a buzzing city of traffic jams, where the ban on motorbikes adds to the good old ‘me-first’ rule of the Asian city streets to make your life a miserable series of frustrating commute. No choice do I have but to suck it up and jump into a taxi for a break at the National Museum of Yangon. I arrive to the grim-looking building and explore some great artefacts of the Burmese culture. The museum has an impressive collection and I discover the different eras of the Burmese empire, as well as the current ethnic groups of Myanmar, as best I can given the confusing organisation of the exhibitions. The visit shows me countless representations of the Buddha and takes me as far back as Prehistory.
A few days and taxi rides later, my friend and I are headed to my most anticipated visit in Yangon: the circular train. The ride, famous for its display of local lifestyle, takes you on a three hour-long loop around the city and its ‘rural’ suburbs, though unfortunately we will only be able to ride half the length on that day. Regardless, I board the old wagon with excitement. We are sharing the train with a diverse crowd, and once again I am amazed by the amount of people wearing the very typical thanaka, made of ground bark and oil. Girls or boys, men or women, plenty are the faces displaying patches of the yellowish-white cosmetic paste. I decide to sit by the doorless entrance of the vehicle, and observe locals hop on and off the train. Buddhist monks gaze out onto to the tracks, elderly women carry baskets of freshly bargained market items, and everywhere the children are being cheeky as usual. Beside the train, people are walking the tracks or chatting near the road. We make quick stops at different stations, where platforms are occupied by hawkers and homeless families. Some adventurous commuters catch the train moving and contribute to the incredible show. We decide to leave the train when the sun shows signs of an escape, and before we venture too far out of the city, but I make a promise to myself: I will return to finish the loop.
The following day, we pay a visit to the most famous monument of Yangon: the Shwedagon Pagoda. I had caught glimpses at the impressive stupa, for it is hard to miss it. The monument sits on a hill in the center of the city, it tickles the sky at ninety-nine metres above ground level, and shines with gold. Shwedagon Zedi Daw is the most sacred of Buddhist sites in Myanmar, and is believed to contain the relics of four Buddhas. It is a place of convergence for the very devout people of Myanmar. Families or friends meet up and walk around the monument. They stop here and there to pray or make offerings, and the crowd seems of little concern.
As intended, I later return to the circular train. Only, this time my luck has turned. The train is fairly more modern and the automatic doors make me the prisoner of a guided-tour group. For a moment, I wonder if I should give up on the circular train or see it all through closed doors. Fortunately, by this point in the travels, I have adopted a motto that will get you out of any situation with hesitation: “cut your losses!” Off I go after a few stations, and the rest of the loop will be my reason for coming back to Myanmar! I wander around the streets for a while, and stumble upon a group of men playing chinlone next to the train tracks. I had learned of the game, typical of the country, and had seen it once before, but never had I had a chance to mingle and learn a little more. As usual, I am quite the distraction when I approah them, though faithful to my experience of Myanmar so far, these men are fairly shy. In my first week in the country, I have had the feeling that the Burmese had a desire to interact, but they were reserved. They have struck me as incredibly humble, and so I decide to exchange a few words and see where it leads me. Before long, I am invited to join the circle and play. The handwoven ball, made of rattan, has to be passed around without touching the ground, using everything but our hands. The game is designed not to be competitive but needless to say, I am the worst player and they all have a great laugh. Soon, they move on to play a different game of chinlone which can be summarize as a no-hand version of volleyball with a chinlone ball. This one is definitely beyond my reach and I am rather invited to join a game of classic volleyball. I play for a while and eventually, I resume my observing of the chinlone games and passing trains. After a few hours, I decide to call it a day and say goodbye to this welcoming and cheerful crowd. The time has come to leave Yangon and I need to get my things in order.