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Friday, December 27, 2013

Yangon’s Colonial Charms and other Street Scenes


I'm resting my feet in these remaining few days of 2013. It has gone through miles and miles of pavement and off-road rambling around new cities and towns I visited this travel-blessed year. Among my favorite walks of the year was along the charming colonial buildings of Yangon city in Myanmar. It felt like being transported back in time albeit a few modern structures already erected, the old buildings from yester-decades still fills the streets of the city. It was a different feeling being in a country I deemed impossible to visit a few years ago because of political upheavals going on at that time. I, like the rest of the world is glad that Myanmar finally opened up and let its unique qualities be let known to all of us.

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It was our last day in Myanmar, a trip which had us basking at the seemingly infinite numbers of temples in Bagan to climbing the steps with the monkeys to a hilltop monastery at Mount Popa. We stayed at a hostel called Motherland Inn and we arrived there early in the morning, after checking in we decided to roam the streets of Yangon. While the others opted to hang out in a cafe, Myself, Dong, Ron and Jerome went on a few hours of walking around, seeing and discovering interesting nooks and cranny at every turn.

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It was like being at Escolta and some parts of Old Manila, only at Yangon - the old colonial buildings are more noticeable and stands out because of its larger numbers and almost untouched condition. While some do starts to show signs of withering away from its many years of upended state, the others still projects a solid presence like a soldier proudly standing still that dares real estate developers from replacing it with modern malls and office buildings. Which I do not want to happen. I'm pretty sure the government of Myanmar would never want to commit the same mistakes ours did in allowing the new to replace the old, which in turn is slowly wiping out the last bastion of heritage in our city of Manila.

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One thing about observing the street scenes in many South East Asian countries is you distinguish some similarities and at the same time notice the differences which makes it quite interesting and backs up the notion of "same same, but different". There are always no two places alike and the more you look into it the more you realize the vastness and the alteration among people who goes through the motion of their daily lives.

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The long cluster of old Colonial buildings in Yangon definitely provides delight to travelers visiting the city for the first time. Such as myself who cannot seem to direct my eyes to one spot for long as I get distracted by the other buildings worthy of a look. What was once a hub of the who's who in cosmopolitan Europe as brought upon by the lengthy colonization of the British in the region that includes Myanmar, Yangon - still very much bears the signs of that glorious past. 

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It's just a question of how much it can hold up once developers comes in and decides they might wanna knock out a heritage building like for example the Sofaer Building, whose facade is highlighted by tiles imported from Manchester, UK almost a century ago. These were some of the worries that rattled my head while we're doing the walk. 

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The street scenes were very lively, everyone seems to be up to something, nothing sinister but the drill of rummaging with the daily chores like being on their way to work, plying trades, talking to others which has conversations flying in all directions. Eaves dropping to a foreign language became the norm and even though I don't understand one bit, I came to recognize the kind of talks that were serious, the ones that are mellowed are shared most probably between lovers while the ones with hints of pleading are those from buyers to sellers. 

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We passed through small art galleries, cafes, clothing stores and music stores which plays some current popular songs like PSY's "Gangnam Style", and music from their local artists. Around lunch time, I started to feel the sole of my feet aching a bit, and the hot climate that time at Yangon doesn't help either, still all sorts of inconvenience seems like a small dent as opposed to the joy I was feeling that time discovering and seeing more of Yangon.

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Our stroll from early morning to lunch provided me an interesting and educational walk-through the streets of Yangon. I imagine the time when it was still considered as gung-ho to walk these streets as a foreigner to the time I was there. The changes might have been monumental but the people I believe are still the same; accommodating, friendly and cheerful. I remember locking eyes with the vendors and even though I didn't bought anything they looked back at me with a sincere smile. "same-same" just like at home and something that won't make you feel you're really away.

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I did a bit of research after coming home about the plans of Myanmar in preserving the rich heritage of Yangon. I found out that efforts were underway to declare the vast area of the city as a heritage district. Opening up to the world though, should not come at the expense of ruining a big part of history. Thant Myint-U, the founder of the Heritage Trust perfectly sums it up. "By looking at these buildings, we know who came into our country and what happened. Without them, how can we know our history?"

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