The sun was already setting when Fang Deng and I arrived at our hotel in Yangon yesterday evening. During the cab ride from the airport, Fang Deng had this look on her face. It was not a pleasant look. It was a look that said, “What the hell is this?” It said, “Please tell me this isn’t where I’m going to be staying for the next few days.” It was a look that said, “Life, I’m not happy with you at the moment.”
The first views of Yangon were not what she was expecting. Our cab pulled up to our hotel and we paid our driver and went to check in. The hotel, tall and grand and modern, was like a building beamed in from somewhere else. It didn’t mesh with the rest of the neighborhood at all. To give a quick visual representation, here’s a picture I took from the hotel window this morning of the apartment complex that faces us:
“This place is just like Nepal,” Fang Deng said. By that, she meant it was, well, ‘developing,’ I guess. Soon after, we were walking the streets, checking the place out. We stumbled onto a street market, stalls selling rice and meat while people sat on small plastic chairs and ate. The scene was hectic. There were people everywhere, most in motion, and cars zoomed down the street honking their horns constantly at pedestrians. It was loud and chaotic and so we bought some street corn and I ate it furiously.
The entire time, we walked in the direction of the Shwedagon Pagoda, whose high reaching tower stood strong in the sky and acted as our North Star. But the closer we got to the temple, the more we began to get swarmed by people trying desperately to sell us stuff. We were the only tourists around at this time and my foreign face drew attention to us like an infant walking by itself through a shopping mall. We could not be left alone. Soon a group of kids were gathered around us, trying to sell us flowers, even attempting to shove their long stems into Fang Deng’s pockets.
“Don’t buy a flower,” Fang Deng’s friend had told her before the trip. “That’s how they mark you. The others see the flower, and they’ll rush over to you.”
And so Fang Deng beat the children off of her. “No! No flowers!” Next came the plastic bags. See, one cannot wear shoes in a temple, and so the kids wanted to help us, right, by selling us plastic bags to put our shoes in before going into the temple. About six of them entrapped us, cutting off our path, waving plastic bags in our faces like they were trying to fan us.
“We’re not going in!” I shouted, attempting to reason with them. Then I saw a plastic bag on the ground and scooped it up. “Look – I already got one! I’ll use this one. Thanks for your help though.”
“Dirty!” a little girl shouted. “Clean bag! Clean bag!”
We just turned around and got out of there. The plastic-bag-children were too much for us to handle after ten hours of flying. We found a restaurant with Chinese characters on the sign and went in. The lady running it was Chinese and Fang Deng talked to her comfortably in Mandarin. She served us fried rice and we ate it enthusiastically.
Our stomachs full, we decided to call it a night. Tomorrow will be better, we decided. Our first night in Yangon was not much of a success, and I think my girlfriend would jump for joy if I told her I’d booked a flight returning to China tomorrow. But we will return to the street of Yangon later, determined to find the enchantment we thus far have missed.
And next time, we’ll have our own plastic bags with us.