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No more war – Yangon

I know, I know I am late with my blog. It didn’t seem appropriate to write about my 8 days in Bangkok waiting for my Myanmar visa and work permit as that mainly consisted of shopping, sightseeing, swimming pools and bike trips – not a great deal to do with poverty reduction. But I left with a visa for 1 year and no need to renew every 70 days which is what most VSO volunteers have to do (good news and bad as the 70 day renewal necessitates to trip to Bangkok with the activities already listed).

My other excuse for a tardy blog is that since arriving I been involved in 3 intensive training sessions in addition to my VSO induction, opening bank account (did you know that I am a MMR millionaire) ‘getting to know everyone socials’ and apartment hunting but more on that later.

So here I am in Myanmar/Burma – either is acceptable here but within the world of NGOs Myanmar is usually used. Interestingly Yangon/Rangoon does not seem to be  an option as apart from the British Embassy it seems that everyone uses Yangon – I have been told that it is because it means ‘No more war’ and it is difficult to argue against that.

So what of Yangon………..

In the countryside people live in dilapidated low rise towns and villages made of mud bricks and bamboo. Bullocks plough the paddy fields, horse carts outnumber cars. In Yangon the former capital but still the most significant city and trading centre with a population of 5 million people (and 133,000 stray dogs), high rises tower over ancient monuments in a city seeing sweeping change. The change brings great contrast. Three years ago a SIM for a mobile phone cost $1000 today it costs $1.5. Public transport is largely limited to a fleet of ancient crammed buses where you can travel the length of the city for 12p, no bikes or motorcycles are allowed so a burgeoning affluent middle class resort to large SUVs which totally clog up the road system making commuting a nightmare – or travel at frightening speed, stopping for no one. Crossing the road is extremely hazardous with 6 lanes of cars and buses that stop for no one – when the traffic is moving it is like crossing the M1. You can have a hot meal for 50p or buy Clarins skincare for double the price you would pay in UK. Yet about 90% of men still wear the longhi – the full length wrap rather than western clothes and many women can still be seen using the white make up/protective covering and most dress traditionally. People are friendly and helpful – especially to western women trying to use the bus system (a very rare sight) and the city feels generally safe with the exception of the traffic, stray dogs that are benign during the day but rule the streets after 10pm, open sewers (especially in the monsoon floods), very uneven pavements and the odd earthquake (last nights was 5.2 which made the chandelier jangle for a while and my neighbours evacuate) oh and a few tropical diseases and poisonous snakes.

‘Downtown’ (the perfect example of British influence being surpassed by American) is a maze of old buildings left over from when Burma was part of the British Indian Raj – being isolated for 50 years has ensured that they have remained intact if somewhat dilapidated, a recent ruling has protected them from demolition in the hope that they can be preserved. Whilst mid and upper town are full of cranes and growing high rise apartment blocks.

The most significant building has to be the Shwedagon Pagoda a gigantic golden stupa rising on the northern fringes of the city – it is so magnificent, significant to the Buddhist community, a potent symbol of national identity and the centre point of the Thingyan or water festival in April that it will have a blog of its own.