October 23, 2012

Beyond Rangoon

So. Rangoon.

In a way it's like every Asian city rolled into one, but poorer. Blistering heat, cracked pavements, foot-high curbs, Stalinist towers linked by thick anarchic tangles of electrical wires, occasional colonial buildings whose stains and tarnish cannot conceal their magnificent bones, dense fields of sidewalk stalls hawking food and every cheaply made article under the sun, ancient automobiles of every description converted into taxis.

(Yesterday I rode in a red Volkswagen van which I think was older than I am to the Savoy Hotel, a converted colonial mansion, where I ate at Kipling's restaurant and drank at the Captain's Bar while watching Tottenham Hotspur play Chelsea. I suppose I should have quaffed gin-and-tonics rather than Dagon beer to make the colonial kabuki play complete. Note to HP Lovecraft fans; Yangon/Rangoon's original name, for some 500 years, was Dagon.)

It's located at the juncture of three rivers, not far at all from the ocean, beneath the hill which is allegedly the most sacred spot on Earth. Said hill is now host to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most colossal temple in all of Myanmar. The main pagoda, and the forest of lesser towers and filigreed halls full of colourful Buddhas that surround it, are indeed quite impressive; I overheard a guide claiming that they were decorated with a full 60 tons of gold; but what I liked most about the place was the vast plaza that surrounded it, and its endless nooks and crannies, and its laid-back feel. People come here to worship, yes, but also just to hang out. I would like churches far more if they were the same.

From the Pagoda you can see Rangoon sprawled out before you like a reeking corpse. That's unflattering, isn't it? But there's no denying: the city smells. A little fresher near its inland lakes, Inya and Kandawgyi (sic?), where the upscale suburbs full of embassies can be found. But even riper near the rivers, where the jetties are strewn with filth and chaos, where hawkers shielded from the awful sun by parasols sell fruits and other foods of every description and some that threaten to defy any at all. The traffic there, both human and industrial, is teeming and constant. (But no motorcycles; they are banned in the city center, as autorickshaws are in downtown Mumbai.) Another pagoda down by the river is all but sealed off by a gigantic wall of shipping containers.

The downtown is divided into occasional wide one-way avenues interspersed with many narrow alleyways thick with life, and commerce, and dogs. The sheer number of feral dogs in Myanmar must be immense. They find places in the shade to hide, during the worst of the day, but in the last hour before dusk they come forth. I saw packs numbering in the dozens in the shadows of the temples of Bagan, and another ranging up the train tracks in central Rangoon this afternoon, beneath the monumental four pagoda-like towers of the central train station, keeping a wary but not fearful distance from the humans doing the same. They are silent and watchful. One could almost get the sense that they are waiting for something.

Not so the human population. What they have been waiting for - freedom - seems at last to be at hand, after fifty years of military tyranny, and the city is erupting with life, action, noise, trade. Department stores and new hotels are under construction all through the downtown. Shirtless labourers pause to stare at flocks of beautiful young women in filigreed cheongsam-like outfits beneath delicately decorated parasols. Elderly taxi drivers regard their new city with some suspicion; they have no longer seen it all. Bald Buddhist monks mingle in the markets, small groups of fresh-faced bespectacled teenagers, or lone burly men in with tattoos beneath their saffron robes. Even during the heat of midday hardly anyone lingers. Everyone seems to have a mission. Except for me.

Not far east of my hotel is the Ministers' Building, once the seat of Burma's government: a gargantuan colonial complex of red brick, occupying an entire huge city block. Seven years ago the government was moved to a purpose-built city midway between Yangon/Rangoon and Mandalay, and today the complex languishes abandoned, its grounds thickly overgrown, rusted strands of barbed wire green with moss dangling from its outer fence. Aung San and his entire cabinet were assassinated in this building, one dark and bloody day fifty years ago, before the military took over.

Now there is talk of converting the entire edifice into another four- or five-star hotel. To an outsider that may seem somehow disrespectful of the past; but then, in Burma, and especially Rangoon, the past is not something that anyone wishes to cherish or celebrate. This is a city giving itself with abandon to the future.

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