“Where are you from?” is the usual ice-breaker question people here would ask. “I’m from the Phillippines” I replied with a smile as I bite into my toasted slice of bread with a healthy layer of butter and strawberry jam while having breakfast. Young adults here like to engage in a conversation to practice their English. “Where are you going today?” I told him that I’d be leaving tonight for Bagan but this morning I’ll hit the streets of Downtown Yangon first to do some sightseeing.
I felt refreshed after finally having a quality sleep that night on a proper bed. I needed that since I would be in transit in the evening which means sleeping lightly in a bus. Energized, I started my way to the main street, walking towards the stretch of Mahabandoola Road from Motherland Inn 2 all the way to China Quarters where I ate last night after visiting the Shwedagon Paya. The China Quarters was exciting as the streets were transformed into a sprawling hawker area. For a foreigner like me, it would be interesting to see the street activities especially that busy workday morning.
First thing I noticed were the numerous water containers spread a few meters apart on the streets. Typical are the clay pot water jars with plastic plate to cover the top with a single metal cup on each. It may also vary from the regular water jugs from water stations but the concept here that these are communal water containers shared using a communal cup. Immediately, my senses were on alarm thinking about the spread of disease and sickness with a lot of anonymous people freely using those cups and dunking them on the water. But asking locals about it, some had mastered drinking without touching their lips on the cup but still my attempts on trying them out were futile.
But looking beyond the hygienic obsessions I have, these public water stations symbolizes how the community looks after each other as these are personal water offerings from the households to strangers. With Myanmar having dry weather at times, this is a good way to keep people hydrated on the streets.
The transition between the dusty inner suburban streets to the more commercial city center was apparent during my walk. The rush hour saw a lot of people from different walks of life spread across the streets. Common sight is the numerous cylindrical metal food canisters, where you can stack as many levels as you want, being brought along their work. Pigeon feeding seems to be a morning ritual for some and like the Vietnamese, a lot seem to like to take their breakfast on the streets before heading to their destinations. Umbrellas seem to be a regular accessory, whether with male or female and common with monks, to be used against the heat of the sun.
People, despite rushing through their works still finds time to do some quick prayer and offerings on Nat Shrines hanging usually on the large age old trees. Reading newspapers is a regular past time for those who aren’t in a hurry. Technology is catching up in Myanmar with a considerable number of people having mobile phones and numerous MP3/MP4 signage spread across the streets. Phone IDD services are pretty popular at the streets as well costing around 300kyat per minute.
As I near Sule Paya, presence of monks and nuns begging for their morning alms were ubiquitous. The annoying ones were the shady characters at the streets offering to change money which I don’t really recommend. The grand Yangon City Hall stands in authority at the wide open rotunda streets behind Sule Paya.
Sule Paya is one of the big 3 Payas in Yangon along with Shwedagon Paya and Botataung Paya. It’s unusually placed at the centre of the intersection and the business district, just shows how Buddhism is still the heart of the city. It’s worth paying the US2 or 2000 kyat to see the unique octagonal shaped stupa inside and people pausing amidst the busy streets to say a prayer. There are commercial stalls on the ground level with money changers, gadgets stores and fortune tellers.
Past Sule Paya is the Indian and Chinese Quarters. The busy street is teeming with people trying to ride the jam packed buses. Numerous stores line the streets selling just about everything from street foods, to MP3/MP4 players and other gadgets, beverages, household items even software and movie DVDs. At the Indian Quarters, the unique looking Clock Tower from Sri Siva Temple sticks out while Sule Paya can still be seen prominently over the elevated pedestrian way.
The China Quarters isn’t as chaotic in the daytime as I saw the night before but the market nearby is still an interesting visit as well. From thanaka vendors to fresh fruits, fresh catch fish, vegetable, meats or some crispy critters. The Betel nut vendors remind me of the takatak cigarette vendors in Manila. The China Quarters was the end of my walk as it was already mid-day. It was interesting to see the culture from the streets and gave an insight of the day to day street life here in Downtown Yangon. People were pleasantly accommodating and didn’t really mind me taking photos as well.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.