Yangon was our introduction to Myanmar. Though it is a decent sized city of over four million and until recently Myanmar’s capital city – until the government relocated elsewhere, much to the populace’s joy – our drive through its darkening streets from the airport to our accommodation told us the city was going to be very different to the in-your-faceness of Bangkok.
It took a short while before we noticed but there was something missing from the roads of Yangon. After three weeks in the Thai capital the constant noise of drivers leaning on their car horns no longer registered in our minds but it was a visual element that was missing.
Actually it was more than visual. A certain proportion of our subconscious brains had for most of the previous month dedicated itself to removing our bodies from the trajectory of on-coming scooters. They came at us down the pavement, from behind, in front and across our paths. It was almost instinctual how we shared our space with them and got out of the way without the need to think too hard about it.
But it was different in Yangon. Yangon doesn’t have any scooters. They are banned. This gives the city a tranquillity out of all proportion to its size – something reinforced at the end of our time in Burma when far smaller Mandalay – which does allow scooters on its roads – seemed so much busier.
Instead the populace moves around Yangon in clapped out buses with broken headlights that thunder slowly and invisibly down pitch black streets, in increasing numbers of cars, or on bicycles. That’s not to say Yangon isn’t a busy city. It is but much of the traffic is on foot loitering around the goods and produce in the city’s markets.
The city also makes use of the trishaw. In The Road to Mandalay – published in 1917 and set just prior to the First World War – Yangon’s population of trishaws are described as archaic and due to be phased out soon but one hundred years later they are still to be pushed aside by the emergence of the internal combustion engine.
In many ways Yangon is still that colonial city but the colonial masters slunk off without anyone really noticing. The British built buildings are still there but most, while still grand and imposing, are degenerating within their spacious grounds behind iron railings. Hidden behind shrubbery and masonry they have retired from public service.
Few are so far gone to be past renovation but they lack a purpose and I doubt most will find one ever again. The colonial administration that ran this country from these structures has long gone and the replacement government has itself left the city to its own devices. Their continued presence gives Yangon an unhurried charm matched by few other cities of a similar size in the region but the current mothballing of these buildings has surely been maintained by a lack of investment for something new and shiny.
Perhaps like the trishaw these buildings will hold out for another hundred years past their use by date but it is difficult to see Burmese-Chinese or Burmese-Western joint ventures overseen from these relics. As Myanmar opens up it is likely commercial evolution will shove aside some of Yangon’s outmoded beauty to the detriment of the future visitor.