Yangon is a city with two faces.
One has high cheekbones, flawless skin and voluptuous lips coated in pillar box red Dior lipstick. The other is drawn and withered, aged by the sun and splattered in Thanaka bark.
MINI MONKS & MARKETS
There’s a grey metal bridge that goes up and over Bogyoke Aung San Road and if you stand at the centre of that bridge, you stand directly between two buildings that perfectly represent those two faces.
The first is Bogyoke market, housed in an incredible colonial building from 1926. It looks a little bit like a Burmese version of the Grand Budapest Hotel that has been left to ruin in the whirling breeze of pollution that circulates the city.
Walking through amongst the maze of almost two thousand stalls at Bogyoke Market was the perfect place for my first meet and greet with the people of Yangon. it was a jaw-dropping movie moment and after a week of dormancy, all my senses came alive again.
I was blinded by colour and deafened by the sounds of the young monks and nuns, parading through the kaleidoscopic labyrinth in groups of six or seven, shaking their silver alms bowls and singing at the top of their voices.
The mini monks wore saffron and the mini nuns wore bright baby pink gowns with burnt orange sashes. Their shaved heads accentuated the huge smiles on their faces and they sang with joyful excitement.
It was a chorusing cavalcade that would come to be my very most favourite thing about Yangon and I stopped in my tracks to enjoy it every time they passed.
THE SILK ROAD
I wandered upstairs to the textiles area and it took me back to my travels with work, visiting weavers and knitters and dye houses, wandering through market after market looking at lace, velvet, canvas and crepe.
There were stalls dedicated to beads, some to flamboyant trims and others focused on silks in every colour. The magpie within me was drawn to anything with sequins and sparkle.
I followed the sounds of machinery along one of the narrow corridors on the second floor where there were small rooms were full of sewing machines and other contraptions and tools. People were sat on benches working away at their craft and girls stood draped in fabrics seeing what their future frocks would look like. It was what seamstress’s dreams are made of.
Down the steps and around passed the stalls selling jade bangles, rubies and gold, the wicker baskets, the mahogany statues and the trinkets was a little coffee shop and juice bar.
On the pavements outside men gathered to natter while sipping on their coffee or fruit juice and women walked past carrying huge bowls of pots and jars on their head. People sat outside on plastic chairs selling mounds of oranges, watermelons, limes, bananas, apples and every other fruit you can think of.
As I turned the corner, all of a sudden the skies opened up and warm rain drops started to pour down heavily. It was a welcomed wash for a dirty city. I took shelter in a door way with droplets bouncing off my forehead, my eyes wide just watching, listening and feeling everything around me.
Stall sellers quickly put up their canopies, others wheeled their carts under shelter and the men huddled closer together. The mini monks and nuns continued their winding parade and their voices dodged a thousand raindrops to tickle my eardrums.
Everybody was working hard, chatting, smiling, laughing, singing, sweating – it was every part of life in front of me.
When the rain began to cease, I headed back up over the bridge crossing Bogyoke Aung San Road and into Junction City where I was greeted by a smartly dressed security guard who checked my bag and let me through the body scanner.
Christmas decorations were everywhere and the Home Alone soundtrack was playing in the background.
For anybody who knows London’s shopping centres, Junction City is somewhere between Westfield and Selfridges. From the higher end shops like Hugo Boss, Furla and Armani to the pimped up high street brands enjoying their flashy location which gives them a more premium feel than they deserve.
Impeccably dressed shop-bots stood frozen on escalators facing forward with their arms bent at right angles holding onto their oversized bags. Millions of Kyats were being handed over in exchange for frocks and shoes and toys, and an equal amount of I woz ‘ere selfies were being taken.
It felt familiar yet peculiar at the same time, because just outside the walls of that concrete jungle of luxury stood a shanty town filled with street stalls, pavements with potholes and people with no legs or blood-sodden eye patches begging for pennies just to keep them going another day.
But probably the most remarkable thing about the city of two faces was that one pair of eyes was full of life and gleaming with hope and the other had somehow forgotten what life is.