“Jeremy, you may not sit in the fridge,” Paul’s sister instructed her son.
We were spending the week in Yangon, Myanmar visiting my in-laws. Paul’s sister and her husband taught English locally. Their 2 year old daughter Rebecca had joined her older brother in his attempt to beat the sweltering heat in front of the fridge. It was the dry season, which also meant the hot season. I normally enjoy warm weather, but this was extreme – sit in the fridge extreme, to be exact.
Jeremy complied readily to his mother’s request, and accepted a drink as an alternative means to cool off, but it was clear that he was disappointed to move from his chosen spot. He was five years old (a fact he reminded us of several times a day) and had spent most of his life in Myanmar or neighboring Thailand. Yet throughout the week, he and Rebecca could be found at times sitting or standing in front of the open fridge door. They never remained there long, as some adult usually discovered them quickly and helped them with whatever they were looking for. But I don’t blame them for wanting that refreshing cold air.
Over the week, I got used to the heat, as much as was possible. It was still incredibly unbearable in the midday sun, which we avoided as much as possible. We spent most of our time relaxing around the apartment and playing with the kids. We read to them, played games, and tried our best to move around as little as possible. In the evenings the heat started to fade, and I began to enjoy waking up to cool mornings, which clocked in at a refreshing 83°F/30°C.
A trip down the alleyways outside was quite an experience. Dust drifted past our ankles. Beads of sweet dripped down the small of our backs and brow. The street was narrow and the people and stalls around made the place feel close. Men walked swiftly past in long longyi (lone-gee) and loose flip flops. The streets were lined with carts of fruits and vegetables, or food that was cooked too long ago. Their purveyors hovered over them, listlessly shooing away flies with long brushes. The stalls sold dried goods or car parts, or they housed workers bent over sewing machines or offering haircuts. In one a man couched over some hulking car part with an arc welder. The bright point of light burnt a spot into your vision, and I didn’t envy the man wearing his heavy mask in the heat. We stepped aside as rickshaws rattled past over the mix of rutted gravel and pavement. Further down was a square with a cafe, the clients sitting outside on overturned buckets taking their lunch. The sun beat down overhead, as we sidestepped the raw sewage puddles blocking our path and stifling our breath.
Out on the large roads, crossing each street was a game of Frogger. Vehicles bear down on you with no intention of stopping as you hurry across busy lanes in one direction, pause on the middle line while traffic on both sides zooms past at full speed, then make the final dash to the far side. It’s all part of regular life in Myanmar – there are practically no tourists and no infrastructure for tourism. Twice during the week we saw other westerners in the stores, but overall our pale faces were unique among the city full of locals.
Despite the lack of official tourist destinations or activities, there were a few interesting things to see around the city, such as the Buddhist temple not far from the apartment. It was a massive city of white tiles and real gold decorations, with hundreds of large gold plated Buddha statues sitting or lying under high pagodas. Some of the statues even had fans above them to keep them cool. All visitors checked their shoes at the front, though luckily they were watched over so no “slumdogs” made off with them. We walked barefoot, avoiding the dark tiles that soaked up the rays of the sun, and savoring the cool shade of the pagodas. As we went Paul’s brother in-law explained to us some of the tenants and history of Buddhism, and its establishment in Myanmar. Still, we couldn’t help but be taken in by the sights and sounds that surrounded us. The air was filled with the sound of gongs being rung for good luck by the faithful or by mirthful children. Women and scarlet robed monks avoided physical contact as it could hinder the latter in reaching Nirvana.
We also visited a local park near the man-made Inya Lake. The park consisted of a small restaurant, play area, and garden, situated peacefully along the still lake, stirred neither by wind nor vessel. Signs marked fallen trees that remained as evidence of the 2008 cyclone. It was a pleasant place to spend the hot part of the day, the water and vegetation caused a significant drop in temperature compared to the dusty, barren sidewalks around the rest of the city. We spent the late morning hours admiring the shrubberies and sculptures, or wandering amongst brightly colored dragonflies.
Brilliant colors were also the theme at the large restaurant we visited on a subsequent day. It was shaped like a huge gold temple pagoda and a boat, poised as if floating on another of Yangon’s lakes. The dinner buffet featured a generous and delicious sample of regional cuisine, along with a few foreign imports. Paul enjoyed the local liquor, a clear gin-like spirit, which was a fraction of the price of the imports. The entertainment went on over the noise of dinner. It included traditional instrumental music, Burmese dance, and very talented puppeteers. It went on for hours, starting before we arrived and was still going after most people left for the evening.
Everywhere there were signs of poverty. Cars and buildings suffered the wear and tear of the tropics with little attention to upkeep beyond maintaining basic functionality. Some places looked great inside, like the apartment we stayed in and some fancier stores, but all still suffered the daily afternoon power outages. No electricity meant no elevator and flashlights for the dark trip down the stairwell. Luckily, the power was always back whenever we were coming back up. The water pressure also dropped to nothing since the usual pulsing flow from the tap required electricity from both a main building pump and another in the apartment. Even at the somewhat fancy dinner show the power went out several times during the evening.
We embraced a bit the Burmese culture as much as possible during our short stay. We purchased and wore our own longyi, which helped us follow the sweltering style of dressing modestly. Our hosts introduced us to many delicious local dishes.
Between spending time with family and the vast differences in culture and weather, it was an interesting and enjoyable week.