If Baz Luhrmann and Wes Anderson had a lovechild, Yangon would be its name.
After yesterday’s fairy tale visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, today’s stomp around Downtown Yangon was much more like visiting Banksy’s 2015 pop-up exhibition, Dismaland, than it was Disney.
It’s a pastel-shaded, post-colonial dreamscape that was built for princes and inherited by the poor.
A HISTORY OF HEISTS
History lessons for me covered slutty little Henry the Eighth, the boring Tudors and the totally captivating diary of Anne Frank. Geography lessons talked of nothing more than the eroding coasts, the lush green plateaus and the picturesque mountain ranges of the British Isles.
So with a Brit-centred education and an aversion to watching the news, I’d crossed the border into Myanmar knowing very little at all about the country I was about to enter.
But it doesn’t take much wandering the streets of Yangon to see the colonial footprints we left behind.
There are almost two hundred magnificently grand nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings that show the flourishing metropolis this city once was, and that today remain protected by the state.
They have arc windows, high ceilings, marble pillars, clock towers, palatial porches and double doors. The pavements that lead to them are beautifully engraved with chiselled out flowers and leaves. Everything has that Victorian attention to detail.
Unfortunately, the history of Burma isn’t as pretty as the ornate and colourful walls it hides behind, and the fact that they now look like somebody left the film set of The Great Gatsby to rot and ruin is a perfect visual representation of what really happened.
Trade-hungry Brits invaded Myanmar in 1852 and after months of bloody battles, took over the country for 124 years giving it the new name Burma – named after its main tribe.
Crusaders of The “Great” Isle had trailblazed their way through ruthlessly with manic imperialism and Burma’s story of takeover tragedy had begun. The monarchy was dismantled, religion was separated from state and social conscience began to decay.
The economy grew but the Burmese didn’t reap any of the benefits. Just like a strategic move in chess, the occupation had been a calculated plan with Burma’s geographical location between India and the rest of Asia setting it up as an important gateway for trade.
Britain invested heavily in the country, establishing hospitals, colleges, a university and an infrastructure system on par with London. All of the well-known, world-dominating businesses of the time set up offices, most notably The East India Company.
The British, though few in number, became first class citizens, Indians, Anglo-Burmese and South Asians sat somewhere in the middle and natives went to the back of the queue.
When I set off on my Slow Sightseeing exploration day around the city I had no route mapped out.
I wandered up around Kandawgi Lake, past Shwedagon Pagoda, through the grand tree-lined avenues where the embassies are and then back round to the hustle and bustle of Downtown.
I was much more fascinated by the inner-city dwellings that stood there heartbroken and distressed with broken smiles, dressed in dreamy shades of dusky pink, sky blue, sage green, pale lemon and bright turquoise.
Their colours had been weathered by the smoggy air, moss was growing over their windowsills and foliage was starting to grow from their gutters. They looked like beauty pageant queens from yesteryear who have refused to get off the stage.
You could see that there was life still inside them. Colourful, vibrant, noisy life.
People stood leaning over their balconies watching the world go by, others hung washing out on their lines, birds sung from cages and music played. Women paraded the streets yelling our sales pitches for the goods they were carrying in enormous bowls on their head. The crows squawked, the horns honked and men rolled passed with carts of fruit heckling out to passers-by.
END OF STRIFE
As my feet wandered the streets of Yangon’s China town, thoughts of my narcissistic, world-conquering heritage wandered my mind.
What would this place look like if we had never invaded? Would there still be hospitals and colleges and universities? Would there still be a huge port and international trade? What would the buildings look like? What would have happened to politics, to religion, to the people and to life as they know it?
My ideas and opinions were pushed and pulled in different directions with every new piece of information I accumulated on my quest for an answer but the only conclusion I could reach was acceptance. That was what it was, and this is what it is.
Before the city was in the hands of the ravenous rulers from the West, the King of Myanmar had called it Rangoon, which means end of strife. And that’s where it seems to be now – on a journey towards independence, towards freedom and towards the end of strife.