Until recently the capital of Burma, Yangon is everything that Kathmandu is not. Not a bustling tourist hot spot, packed full of street vendors shouting at you and shoving goods in your face or trying to rip you off.
And with wide tree-lined boulevards, lush, tropical vegetation, smooth roads with gleaming, efficient cars, clean footpaths and fresh-air, it is a confounding experience after having Nepal as my home for ten months. This only reinforces for me how truly impoverished Nepal is; so much so that an until recently selfish, brutal military dictatorship can produce a more livable and pleasant city than Nepal can. Yangon has a certain colonial charm, with dilapidated 19th century buildings left by the British, dotting the streets.
It was also a novel experience being one of the few white people to be at any location. And the treatment I received as an ‘other’ is completely different to South Asia. In India and Nepal, there are frequent annoyances from men who leer or people trying to sell you things. Here, I am a curiosity, but not to the degree that I feel uncomfortable. People are friendly but respectful. I am kind of like an albino tiger among tigers.
I spent just half a day in Yangon, but that was sufficient to see what I wanted. I strolled through downtown and Chinatown, eating freshly cooked street food for lunch; delicious deep-fried doughnuts and sweet dumplings stuffed with a lovely peanut mix. People were going about there daily business of grocery shopping until it monsooned heavily. Most of the men and women still wear the traditional sarong like dress, called a longyi.
Finally, I capped off the day at Shwedagon Paya, the totally blinged-out Buddhist temple. The temple is sited on a 10000 year old sacred hill and allegedly contains eight strands of hair of the Buddha. Everything is encrusted in gold and there is many a multicoloured fairy light adorning the Buddhas and detailing.
I am safely in Myanmar, after some heavy turbulence on both legs to Yangon (not particularly comforting, given I was flying Malaysia Airlines). My chosen inflight entertainment was the Luc Besson tearjerker ‘The Lady’, with Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi, and Professor Lupin as her long suffering husband who dies of cancer.
What nationality do people think you are when you are speaking to people who don’t speak your language as their first language?
Other English speakers can mostly pick me as an Australian, but when you don’t have English (or any language) as your native or at least highly fluent tongue, you cannot hear accents unless they are extreme. So people only have looks (and preliminary assessments of your character) to go on.
And no one ever picks me for an Australian. Recently, I have been taken for Dutch and Danish by German and Norwegian nationals respectively.
Through immigration in a flash at Kathmandu International Airport using the diplomatic line because of my official visa, while the plebs wait in endless queues. Sometimes Nepali bureaucracy sucks, and sometimes it doesn’t.