The Book

Yangon, the End of Strife,
Meeting Aung Aung and Preparing for the Journey


Today it is called "Yangon," which translates as "end of strife," so named by a Burmese king in the eighteenth century. But to many foreigners it still is Rangoon, the great beauty of the East. Over four million people make their home here on the Yangon River, some fifteen miles (twenty-five kilometers) from the sea. On a clear day, the traveler who approaches the city from the air will notice three features that form the character of this city: an abundance of water all around, then green within, and, in the middle, the golden dome of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda.

The flight from Bangkok takes only fifty minutes and arrival at Yangon airport, unimpressive but clean and efficient, involves a somewhat cumbersome bureaucratic entry procedure. After the entry formalities, I emerged to find a young man, some twenty-five years old, clad in a light blue checked longyi, a long-sleeved white shirt, and sporting gold rimmed sun glasses, holding up a sign showing my name. He was Aung Thein Oo, nicknamed Aung Aung, my guide, interpreter, and travel companion for the next three weeks. He had an intelligent-looking, friendly face and an easy smile. My first impression was that we would get along well on this trip. As we drove into the city, I learned that he was university-educated, had a good command of English, was computer literate, and had a desire to use the Internet once it became available in his country. Aung Aung was Burmese, that is, ethnically Burmese. He was unmarried, the oldest of five children, and lived across the river with his father (an elementary schoolteacher), mother (a retired nurse), and three brothers and a sister. He worked for the travel agency in the daytime and studied Italian in the evening.

On the way to the hotel, we drove along shady, curving avenues, and at one point I noticed a sign with an arrow pointing toward the Europa, the Italian-Burmese guest house where I stayed the year before. Shops and offices line the busier roads, but the buildings are seldom higher than two or three stories. The more wealthy people live in two-story houses within walled compounds and behind large metal gates. The shores of Inya Lake, not far away, is where the influential and rich reside in spacious villas hidden from public view by high walls and sometimes protected by soldiers and guards. Our route takes us past the empty campus of Yangon University, by now closed for two years (but it would reopen in mid-2000), and then past the spacious Peoples Park, where, through the tall trees, I catch a glimpse of the towering Shwedagon Pagoda that dominates the skyline of the capital. As we approach the city center, the amount of traffic increases; during rush hours, occasional traffic jams clog busy intersections-over time the number of motor vehicles has increased steadily in Yangon. Still, this city does not know the mad crush of Hong Kong or Bangkok traffic. Yangon's people use bicycles, small motorcycles, one of the many overcrowded public buses, or they just walk.

The hotel I chose is close to a well-known private school, where children get picked up by so many private cars that the traffic around the area comes to a standstill in the afternoons. Alfa Hotel, a small, modern, middle-class hotel, will be my home for a few days. For US $40 a night, my accommodation is a small room, with air-conditioning, on the fifth floor, and it is a room with a view. I can see the magnificent white and gold dome of the Shwedagon Pagoda. When I get up in the morning or when I go to bed at night, I look across the tops of roofs and trees and admire the impressive stupa. From this little hotel it is just a five-minute walk to the bustling Bogyoke Market and a ten-minute walk to the downtown shopping and restaurant area, which borders on Yangon Harbor. This is the old, colonial section of Yangon.

But thirty years of socialist neglect have left their marks, especially on the old center of the city, which shares this fate with other great historical cities in communist countries, such as St. Petersburg, East Berlin, and Havana. They all fell into decay when not even the most urgent repairs and maintenance were performed. I wonder if their ideologues felt threatened by colors or beauty. And when those socialist and fascist regimes produced new architecture and buildings, they turned out to be as intimidating and abominable as the new regimes. On the other hand, I have to admit that the thirty years of neglect have had the odd effect of preserving the old character of the city and sparing it from the ugly building booms that so radically changed Bangkok, Shanghai, and Kuala Lumpur. There is a strange attractiveness in the decayed condition of the old colonial buildings in downtown Yangon. Time almost seems to have stood still here ever since the British left. They had moved the capital from Mandalay to Rangoon, which became their city. Built on a grid system, with wide avenues and tree-lined streets, parks, and lakes, the city's Victorian buildings near the waterfront are especially impressive. Here was the center of their colonial power-the administrative offices, the trading houses, the banks, and, last but not least, the famous Strand Hotel across from the main wharves and warehouses of Rangoon Harbor.

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