Crumbling buildings, stained with ages of soot and mold, sag under the weight of their colonial past and the present’s dictatorial rule.
The Burmese walk the streets with deathly-pallid faces, painted with a powdered sun block to fend off the scorching sun. Their teeth and lips often stained blood red from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant.
I arrived in Myanmar’s capital Yangon on Saturday to explore this misunderstood and demonized country, expecting to feel like I’m in the North Korea of SE Asia. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find the people warm, inquisitive and friendly. I cannot walk down a street without receiving a “hi” or smile.
At times it feels like life here is freer than in China since the Burmese government has less resources to truly constrict its people. With that said though, the government continues to subjugate the minority populations and enslave people in forced labor camps.
Everything I read said photography taking photos is risky – you can’t photograph government or military buildings (I wish I could have photographed the baby-faced soldier guarding a hotel armed with a bazooka), any infrastructure (train stations, bridges, etc.) and who knows what else.
Huge swaths of the country remain off limits to foreigners and even parts Yangon (Rangoon of old), the reason I was afraid I’d run into trouble during yesterday’s morning jog.
I stepped onto the betel-spit stained street, busses and taxis belching fumes into the morning’s chilly air. No motorbikes ply Yangon’s bumpy roads since a government ban went into effect a few years ago.
I headed south, then onto Strand Road, full of forlorn buildings, which parallels the murky Yangon River and hidden from view by the port’s towering, chalky white perimeter wall.
Past the bustling ferry jetty with vendors hawking fruit, razors, and vegetables. Crowds of loiterers crouched, drinking tea or eating breakfasts of noodles or rice.
Further down, men and women stood in lines, awaiting admission to the port and begin their workday.
I ran until the port ended and low-slung government buildings crouched behind barbed wire fences.
Nearby a line of parked gasoline tankers, some vehicles from the 60s or 70s with chunky front grills, waited outside a fuel depot.
People crooked their necks, scowled, smiled, laughed, pointed as I ran by. But fear curdled my gut: would I end up where I shouldn’t be?
I always carry a passport photocopy when running just in case of injury – but here in Myanmar it was my insurance card Uncle Sam’s got my back should something bad happen.
I kept running along the river, patches of shadows cooled the blazing sun until a man waved his hand in warning to turn around – up ahead was a barbed wire gate with soldiers patrolling.
I backtracked, ran down a dusty street, past a few police posts, ignoring them (and they ignored me) and found the bridge I’d earlier missed.
You’ve seen Boston or Tampa’s iconic suspension bridges, the ones that look like tipped modernist harps. Yangon has it’s own, the Pazundaung Mahabandoola Bridge, except it’s squatter and painted camouflage green. I bolted across, past 2 military garrisons surrounded by sand bags and barbed wire, over the Pazundaung Canal’s churning current into Dawbon, a suburb of Yangon.
Saffron robed monks walked down the street collecting alms and offering blessings.
I continued on the busy road with pickup trucks full of passengers crammed onto their beds and hanging off the back, to the Thaketa Bridge and back into Yangon. As I ran, I hopped around on the sidewalk, as if playing four square, to avoid the cracks and gaping holes.
The streets were dusty, red earth blew through the air. At times I pulled my shirt over my nose to avoid the grit and scrum of Yangon life. Past the police station, a red-bricked colonial-era building with dark windows and surrounded by two barbed and electrified fences.
Past Sule Paya, a 2000 year golden temple in the middle of a clogged traffic circle whose name means “the stupa where a Sacred Hair Relic is enshrined” and that might house one of Buddha’s hairs.
Past streets buzzing with vendors selling watches, tools. sweets. Past men wearing plaid lungees (a male dress), women in colorful hijabs.
Overhead the colonnaded buildings stood stoically, a silent witness to the travails that have befallen this country: war, oppression, dictatorship, poverty.
Maybe after Hillary Clinton’s visit here last month, things will change and life will improve. Maybe the fear I felt exploring the city’s streets, that the Burmese must feel and at times roils in protest (that the government violently suppresses) will ebb, leaving behind a people, a country, a nation ready for a better future.
Check out the map of the run below (and don’t forget to click satellite view).
And don't forget to pre-book your authentic Thai massage for April!
$30/ 30min, $50/1hr, $75/1.5hrs