From the minute I stepped off the plane in the Yangon airport, I experienced the most overwhelming of feelings you can ever hope (or fear) for in travel: pure shock. As I stood there at the edge of the arrivals hall, clutching my immigrations card covered in euphemisms for my job as a writer (I’d been told anything journalism-related wasn’t welcome), I realized that although everyone had told me I had to visit Myanmar, I didn’t really know anything else about it. Immediately I was surprised by the faces around me, so different than in the neighboring countries I had recently traveled through. The signs in front of customs, warning me about the number of film rolls and recording cassettes I was allowed to bring into the country, transported me to a time and ideology that I had never lived in. As I looked out the massive windows towards the street, dark with night, it also dawned on me that I had never even seen a photo of a street in Yangon…I had no idea what to expect.

 

(Travel Writing by Megan Spurrell) The Shock of Yangon, Myanmar

 

With three days to wander the city, we began exploring it as though we were tiptoeing through a land that nobody else had yet heard of (though it is, of course, the ultimate cliche as that is how every traveler to Myanmar feels). The new-ish frontier in Southeast Asia, Myanmar had until recently been very cut off from the outside world, and Yangon wore the results of this on its sleeve. In places like Bagan, tourists outnumber locals, but in Yangon we were rare, warranting double takes nearly everywhere we walked.

 

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Our hostel sat in the middle of downtown, just beside the Sule Pagoda, this central area the perfect tasting menu of everything Yangon had to offer. Circling the pagoda were a variety of religious houses, bringing members of each faith to mingle as they hustled towards various calls to prayer and clanging bells. This diversity, visible also in the faces, traditional hats, and impromptu prayers even whilst walking down the street, was something we had never seen before.

 

(Travel Writing) Downtown Yangon, Myanmar --- The Borderless Project

 

Ancient buildings stood, crumbled, overgrown, and yet somehow still serving their original function, as pristine houses of government rose from between them, seemingly immune to the time that had worn on their neighbors. Decrepit structures were the majority though, mainly apartments, rising up from above small storefronts selling bulk of items such as paper, second-hand workout equipment from the 80s or customizable rubber stamps, items that would be outdated anywhere else in the world but were centerpieces to thriving businesses here.

Every apartment unit had a balcony, all of which were overflowing with hanging laundry, plants, acrobatic cats, and neighbors leaning over their railings and joining the elaborate collage of life. Older folks stood on their concrete lookouts in the heavy heat, pensive, staring down upon the colorful chaos of the road from many stories above. Women swapped wet laundry with items that had dried as they would chat with a neighbor across the way, so high up that the honks and horns and bustle from below were drowned out enough for their conservation to be heard. Signs for businesses stuck out from the sides of the buildings, making me imagine that any item dropped from one of the higher floors would enjoy a pinball effect on its way down.

 

(Travel Writing by Megan Spurrell) Downtown Yangon, Myanmar

 

Life was so intimate here, there was no way you wouldn’t know your neighbors. In this bustling concrete jungle, it seemed that the residents shared a pulse- they certainly share everything else. In and out, the city would breathe on cue, in and out with a steady rhythm. The vibrant colors radiating from every building, sign, storefront, or umbrella of a food vendor below, added to the kaleidoscopic patchwork of a landscape that would otherwise appear overcrowded and dismal.

Unlike in other countries where such neglect of buildings usually meant nothing more than a lack of funds for repairs, here it seemed to be a vestige of the past. Myanmar, in such a rush to change it’s name, bring in the first KFC, and welcome all the tourists, had left its residents sitting on their balconies, smoking a cigarette, and looking down to see what all the commotion was.

 

(Travel Writing by Megan Spurrell) Buildings of Yangon, Myanmar --- The Borderless Project

 

We discovered that the food was unlike anything we’d ever tasted, a facet to Yangon that we hadn’t been prepared to love so much. With flavors from neighbors China, Thailand, and a heavy influence from India, each meal stood out from the next. One minute we were eating Chinese steamed buns with Myanmar noodles, and the next we were sitting on the street sipping green tea as we downed a bowl of curry with samosas on top. Little mohinga soup vendors were scattered over every inch of the city, using plastic-glove-swaddled hands to mix spices, pinches of vegetables and swirl stringy noodles in a light bath of fish broth.

Life moved at once rapidly fast and lazily slow, a flurry of quick food being tossed into plastic bags to go, and men sitting in tea houses smoking and sipping for hours in the middle of a Tuesday. Cars and bicycles zipped from one traffic standstill to the next out in the street, yet whenever you had a cup or bowl in front of you it was as if you were part of a different world that didn’t subscribe to the same schedule.

 

Indian Toeshay Street Food on Anawrahta Rd (#1 What to Do in Yangon, Myanmar: Eat Amazing Street Food) --- The Borderless Project

 

Every ounce of routine here was of a life we knew nothing about, and we drifted through the flurry of sights, sounds, and scents, trying to keep up. Bouncing through the crowded streets, attempting to mentally note everything we saw. The spitting, the stained red teeth, the men playing a game like soccer wearing matching work shirts with name tags, the prayers constantly filling the air, the toilet paper that looked (and felt) like party streamers, the blinding gold of the pagoda, the pops and crackles of deep-fried-everything. Beautiful chaos.

But between all of this, blocks of used books sat, with customers patiently stealing a few pages’ read before buying, as if time had no meaning. The park was full, and children rolled on the shady grass. Street cats lied lazily in patches of sun. The woman selling the privilege of releasing caged birds sat slumped against a tree, snoring.

 

Banana Vendor in Yangon, Myanmar --- The Borderless Project

 


By the afternoon of our first day, having taken all of this in, we plunked ourselves down on little plastic chairs at a street side “tea house”, exhausted from the heat yet addicted to the sensory overload of it all. And by street side, I mean on the side of the street, not next to it, in a well-planned nook between parallel-parked cars. It was nothing more than a folding sun shade, two plastic tables, and a small bar covered in mugs and thermoses.

“Helloooo, where are you from?” A voice from the chair next to us sang out. We turned and saw the man next to us, pausing for a drag from his cigarette, looking over at us with a sly smile. We had been nervous that nobody in Myanmar would speak English, or that perhaps they would be shy to talk to us, but never before had we been treated like this. We were The Beatles, in town for just one night, and nobody, upon hearing our English or seeing our foreign faces, would risk missing the opportunity to strike up a conversation. I won’t lie, Yangon will do wonders for making you feel special.

 

(Travel Writing by Megan Spurrell) Tea House in Yangon, Myanmar -- The Borderless Project

 

The man went on to tell us that he loved Obama, but was disappointed he could never get a visa to the USA. His friends showed up shortly after, eyes lighting up as they approached and saw the exciting new additions to the tea house for the day. We left them to catch up, getting that well of emotions we were starting to every time people spoke with us. Everyone had a story. Everyone had something to add about where we were from (it usually had something to do with loving Obama). Everyone knew someone who was really great at English, were we here long enough? They’d introduce us!

We couldn’t so much as stop to wait for a red light without someone coming up to shake our hands. Little hands waved out of car windows as they drove past, buses even stopped in road for the passengers to crane their necks and smile at us. They just couldn’t believe we were there, and as it was happening, we couldn’t either. This wasn’t another stop along the backpacker trail of Southeast Asia…This was another universe.

 

Locals Hanging Out in Front of City Hall (Yangon, Myanmar) --- The Borderless Project

 

A few more people showed up at the tea house, but the two tables were already taken by us and our new friends. A couple of men, dressed in the Yangon uniform of a button-down and dark plaid loungyi, stood chatting until the owner of a parked car returned. He pulled away, and a clearly choreographed routine unfolded as the tea house owner yanked two plastic tables off the stack next to the bar and threw them down into the now-vacant parking space. Another car turned onto the street, moving slowly as it looked for a space, but the road next to us was now territory of the tea house. The tea was already poured and the cigarettes were lit- with a quick glance between him and the tea house owner, mixing an instant coffee with purpose and holding his ground, the driver of the car kept moving.


We continued drifting through Yangon for just a few days longer, bouncing between the mix of emotions and sights. We had arrived on day one to a world of mysteries, but left on day three having uncovered them- just enough to feel we had a tiny finger hold on it all.

We learned that the blood-red on the ground and staining most local’s teeth was not blood, but juice from the betel leaves they chew, and we learned even more quickly to dodge the rapid side whip of the head that meant someone was about to spit it in our path. With that, we gathered that spitting was very socially acceptable here, yet we failed to take advantage.

 

Locals Playing Chinlone in Yangon, Myanmar --- The Borderless Project

 

We learned that the game they played was chinlone, a game of passing and juggling a small woven ball within a circle. Everyone played, but was so good they had little patience for newcomers. We also learned that the ball hurt – kind of a lot.

We learned the names of our favorite foods (Myanmar pizza, Shan noodles, toeshay), and we learned that the locals have not yet realized that most Westerners can’t take the heat of Asian chilis like they can.

We learned that everyone was excessively kind, and that they were prepared to take us in as their own children should we need so much as help with directions. We learned that when riding the circular train, a commuter line turned tourist activity, you should always seat yourself in the commuter car, for the interactions with such beautiful faces will far outweigh any sights of the city.

 

Circular Train in Yangon, Myanmar --- The Borderless Project

 

We learned that, despite claims that the city lacks a sense of nightlife, we could wander on 19th Street in Chinatown any night of week and find a cross-section of the city within the length of a football field. The mosques would just be letting out, betel leaf vendors would still be rolling up the last packages of the day, and the women selling watermelon (which comes in pink or yellow here) would be patiently waiting out the closing of the restaurants so they wouldn’t miss even a single customer. We also learned that this is when we would get plentiful samples and a little extra thrown into our fruit bags.

It was there, on 19th Street in Chinatown, that we spent our last night here in the wafting smoke of the barbecues, cheap Mandalay drafts of beer to keep us cool as we watched Yangon pass us by. The smells of mobile street food vendors drifted through the tiny alleyway, mixing with the scent of charred meat, bringing us back into the moment. The few tourists to be found in the city congregated here, sitting in little clusters amongst the joyful and boisterous groups of locals, islands of wide-eyed visitors who, like us, couldn’t believe that they were here. It was casual, busy, stimulating to all of our senses, and completed unexpected: just like Yangon.

 

Buildings in Yangon, Myanmar --- The Borderless Project

 


Just before my trip, I had read Pico Iyer’s essay “The Shock of Arrival”, and as I first stood in the airport, moving through immigrations, towards baggage claim, and into the queue to change money, I had that feeling of when someone has pulled the words right out of your mouth. Over the next few days, the feeling only magnified. This subtle moment in the timeline of travel, the shock of arrival, is rarely described in length, though it’s undoubtedly the most formative phase of every trip. Arriving in a foreign land, generating the image in your mind that you’ll refer back to for the rest of your life, creating a canvas of the sights and scents and sounds that become your understanding of x destination…It’s a small blip that can easily be missed, yet it means everything. But in Yangon, a place that offers arrival as a shock to the system of most, it’s near impossible to escape.

As someone who’s been traveling for the past year and a half, the past three months of which have been in Southeast Asia, I have come to believe that it’s those of us who travel often that forget to appreciate the wonderment of arriving in a new place. Partially, perhaps, because we’re sort of used to it. We’re always coming and going. And sometimes, each new destination is not all that different.

I wouldn’t say I’ve reached that point of malaise, I hope I’m not yet jaded, but I’m not as wide-eyed as I used to be. We travel for that shock, that instantaneous change of pace and scenery and language once we hit the new foreign ground, yet over time our senses dull and we adapt. Change becomes the constant, and the shock softens. But it’s nothing to worry about, because as soon as that comfortable feeling comes, the universe conspires to snap you straight out of it- the universe sends you to Yangon- and stronger than the shock of arrival is the shock of the unexpected upon arrival, for it’s far rarer and truer.

Nowhere in my life has anywhere so pleasantly overwhelmed my senses or truly surprised me as Yangon has.

 

Nun in Yangon, Myanmar --- The Borderless Project

 

 

 

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