A Little Wonder … Finding the Travel Spark in Yangon, Burma

The boyish voice of a Myanmar rapper crooned from the car radio. My taxi had reached its peak before I was born, and the aging metal jumped and jangled down the road; the car’s groaning audible over the blaring music. The taxi’s modern control panel for the radio flashed a psychedelic rhythmic pattern of colors on the ring around the dial, the flashing lights alternated in rapid fire. In sensory overload, I debated with myself if the near constant bumps and thumps were potholes on the road or the base pumping out of the speakers near my head.

I glanced at the young driver manning our jalopy. I watched as his thumbs tapped the steering wheel in time to the music, never missing a beat even as he stuck his head out the window to give a good-natured yell to the trishaw bicycle blocking our path in the middle of the intersection.

Chinatown in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

As the rapper reached a fever-pitch of excitement, my taxi driver settled back into his seat he glanced over at me, a wide grin splitting his face before he pointed at the radio and shouted over the music.

“YOU LIKE, YES?!”

I figure, I had three options at this point:

  1. Shout back my assent and try for a conversation in hopes he’d lower the volume.
  2. Nod in agreement and give a silent thumbs-up of approval.
  3. Bust a move to the beat…

My closest friends, those few who are privileged enough to have seen me dance to hip-hop music, are reading this and thinking: “Oh god, she didn’t. Please tell me she didn’t start pulsing her arms air in her spasmodic “rap” dance that can only be described as something akin to the Elaine dance from Seinfeld.”

I did.

yangon streets, burma

And my driver rewarded me with a huge, instantaneous and bubbling guffaw. He laughed so hard he had to slow the car to catch his breath. He lowered the music (let’s not lie, probably in the hopes I wouldn’t “feel the moment” again) and began the normal line of questioning:

Where are you from?

How long in Myanmar?

Then his English ran out and we lapsed into a comfortable silence, the music still vibrating in the background as we rounded the corner into probably the prettiest roundabout in the world, Sule Paya.

Sule Paya in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

colonial architecture in Yangon, Burma

My niece Ana and I had visited Sule Paya, a pretty pagoda in downtown Yangon, earlier in the day. Then, the harsh daylight lit the golden stupa and highlighted the rushing rusty cars, the dirty, sun-faded colonial buildings, and the claustrophobic crush of people.

But at night, well, it’s an altogether different experience at night. This taxi ride shuttled me around the city on a late-night solo errand to find a new guesthouse and I for most of the ride I was stressed and worried about Ana, back at the hotel by herself.

As we headed back toward Ana, though, with the hotel now sorted and my concentration centered on the taxi ride back, riding through the Sule Paya roundabout in Yangon wholly captivated my attention. My world slowed, time hiccuped, and the rush of preoccupation swarming my head slowly faded away into the buzz of nighttime in Yangon.

A wash of smells enveloped our car, which had suddenly slowed to a crawl as a carnival of sorts occupied a quarter of the roundabout. The tangy scent of incense tingled in my nose. Warm heat washed over my face from the deep-fried donuts just below my car window. The rich, pungent aroma of grilling meat, human sweat, and fragrant soup broth combined into one army of smells marching toward my open car window.

sule paya at night

The shining gold of Sule Paya at night from an overpass in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

I was hit with a freeze-framed moment of wonder and awe.

For the first time in years I was wholly caught in the moment. Sule Paya glinted gold against the distant black sky. The deep rumble of chanting echoed from the pagoda’s loud speakers, combining with the excited screech of children reaching the apex of the nearby Ferris wheel—pure joy. The dull roar of Myanmar rap in my ear now in harmony with the waves of sound coming from the crushing crowds slowing my taxi.

The world swirled around me faster than my senses could take in and a trickle of laughter bubbled up inside me. Content, I rested my head and hands on my rusty car window and watched the pulse of life fade away as our car jerked free onto the open road beyond. In a snap, fresh, cool night air filled my car.

And I couldn’t help but think: “this. this is why I travel.”

Because some days, the moments just take my breath away.

***

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22 Responses to A Little Wonder … Finding the Travel Spark in Yangon, Burma

  1. Jose April 15, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    This place is really awesome and fantastic Shannon. The colonial buildings are very beautiful and Sule Paya has a great view, especially at night!

  2. Jeff March 25, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

    Amazing! I had the privilege of visiting Myanmar as well, and I not only experienced the moments of spark, but also the sheer overwhelming feeling of having every sense excited by the exotic. Great post!

    • ShannonOD March 27, 2012 at 4:57 am #

      The place truly is indescribable in some ways — so many moments stand out and they overlap into an amazing experience. Happy to hear you had a similarly wonderful time, cheers! :)

  3. Grand Royale London March 2, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    Nice place. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Nate Robert February 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    Damn I love that run down look that Yangon has – beautiful decay!

    • Anonymous February 23, 2012 at 12:54 am #

      I agree! I felt the same way in Cuba—it made the cities really stand out in stark contrast, but I always hate feeling photographers glee over it because the reason behind the decay is often (and yes in this case) the government  :)  Very pretty though, and the British architecture, mixed in with the Asian temples makes it doubly interesting :)

  5. Ivy February 19, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

    Just awesome. I wish everybody experiences one of these “moments” just once, I don’t think there would be non-travelers anymore. 
    Also, you’re clearly the coolest aunt ever.

    • Anonymous February 23, 2012 at 12:55 am #

      Agree–if we could transplant most people into these situations they would fall in love with the wonder in other places in the world! :)

  6. Anonymous February 19, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    Great post! Love the last picture, especially. I really enjoyed Ana’s post on this, too. You should be sainted- not that I mean she’s difficult, clearly she’s a great kid, but for giving her this amazing experience. 

    • Anonymous February 23, 2012 at 12:56 am #

      Thank you Erik! I also loved Ana’s, she really got into the descriptive language on the post, and I think the fact that she really enjoyed Burma shined through :)

  7. Julie February 18, 2012 at 1:39 am #

    Its really a beautiful place to visit.You have done a good job by sharing your experiences with us.Its really a great experiences.Some interesting thoughts on the subject. Looking forward to see what else you post in the future.

    • Anonymous February 23, 2012 at 1:05 am #

      Thanks Julie! The country was beautiful and I was met with smiles and friendliness at every step of the way :)

      • Claire February 28, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

        Agreed-Myanmar is one of the most beautiful people cities-most  Burmese seem to be genuinely happy to see you there!

  8. Kateadams82 February 17, 2012 at 11:10 am #

    what an exotic place to visit! loved you experiences! Im currently in Malayasia  and i must say i know how it feels like to go through these kinds of situation lol! since im here i am planning to arrange vacations rentals in some places  like china ,  thailand , etc just to have the feeling of living there.  thanks for the good writting, we need more of that on the internet!

    • Anonymous February 23, 2012 at 1:11 am #

      Thanks Kate! It’s really a neat place and if you can take the full 28 days you get on your visa, then it’s worth settling in and trying to get to know the city! :)

  9. Mike Stankavich February 16, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    Thanks for sharing your experience! I am REALLY hoping that I can make it to Myanmar within the next year or so (currently living in Penang).

    • Anonymous February 23, 2012 at 1:06 am #

      Hi Mike! It was a really wonderful place to travel, and I think there will be a whole lot of changes over the next year, so if you can get there soon, I’d make it a priority!! :)

      • Mike Stankavich February 25, 2012 at 5:33 am #

        Thanks Shannon I already have it at the top of my must-visit list for this year.

  10. Audrey February 15, 2012 at 10:54 pm #

    I started laughing imagining the scene of you dancing in the taxi, not so much because of your dance moves but because of the surprised look that must have been on the taxi driver’s face. He probably went home and told everyone about you :) 

    And thank you for sharing the moment of wonder and awe with us. Myanmar was a place of “this is why I travel” moments for us. There is a special energy to the country and its people. Look forward to hearing more about your trip!

    • Anonymous February 23, 2012 at 1:13 am #

      The taxi driver was really surprised and I have no doubt I was the topic of conversation that evening. I think the place has likely changed quite a bit already from what you experienced a few years ago, but there were so many great conversations and welcoming moments from the people! And, Ana and I used your tips throughout :)  Hope you guys are settling well in Mexico!