The Myanmar Paradox: Birthdays, Breakdowns, & Brainwork

The time is 6:15 PM. Time is rushing by, unlike the landlock I am currently stuck in. Having been seated in my taxi for nearly an hour and a half already, I can’t help but wonder if I will ever make it to my bus (largely assuming that I am indeed heading accurately to the bus station).

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I had barely spent 18 hours in Yangon, and yet the city had shared so much of its personality with me. If you can imagine the spicy sweet warmth you get in a bowl of a hearty red potato curry, you have experienced a taste of Yangon. The heat permeates all areas of the city, reflecting off the myriad of buildings, picks up with greater pops of heat when least expected, and then warmly lingers. The only match for the intensity of the heat is the warmth exhibited by the locals. In all my travels, I can confidently say that the Burmese are the sweetest without any inkling of pause for other considerations.

15 minutes later and after the decision of the taxi driver, I am now stuck in traffic in a less developed area of town. Understandably, the highways weren’t doing a good job at transportation. Nothing was moving, not even the breeze. So into the neighborhoods we went. Roads became mixtures of dirt and pavement in a half-hearted attempt to get us to the bus station only 20 Google minutes away from the hotel.  Using the term roads is quite misleading. The more accurate term would be lanes, meant for a single lane of compact cars carefully maneuvering around storefronts and makeshift restaurant stalls. But this is Myanmar, and a single strip of road serves all cardinal directions. Scooters, bikes, rickshaws, vendors on wheels, cars, horses, children, children biking with other children onboard, and nomadic dogs all took to the roads in their own intended directions.

For now, the only thing to do was to sit back and watch barefooted-sessions of soccer in a field of sand and weeds, followed up after 10 minutes of creeping along of watching monks string lights from small temples in acrobatic fashion.

Eventually, I made it to the bus station (or mini bus village) feeling mental stimulated and emotional exhausted. Nothing a cup of bus station coffee couldn’t fix, and in all honesty, it was the best cup of coffee in Asia.

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That’s the thing with Myanmar: You need lots of brainwork. The entire country is a collection of all these random assortments, cultures, customs, people, smells. All of it. The country has grown in its own way due to its historical and political background. In some ways, economic scholars would argue squashed to the full effect of modernization. To an anthropologist, it has simply taken the cards it’s been dealt, grabbed the ones that seem to work best for keeping, and managed the ones they can’t yet swap. It’s a country that collects only what it likes from the few fleeting opportunities it has had, embraces them, and then never cares to apologize for them. Proof was in the large front window of the bus bumping along the “mostly” paved road with the Lord’s Prayer inscribed in large block letters for all the occupants to read while staring out at the lights on pavement, obstructed only in times when the Christmas decorations swung into view. There’s a lesson in this scene, one that took a while for me to fully come to terms with: Collect what benefits you while you can, Embrace all you collect, and Manage the rest until you can leave it for something better. This lesson was exactly what I needed as I was finishing up 24 and bouncing along to 25.

Looking back, these first few days were relatively calm. At the time, however, my brain was begging for relief from the onslaught of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. It wouldn’t be until mid-way through my trip that my brain would finally shut up, but only because my heart took over the begging. Gripping the handles of my e-bike as it moved somewhat steadily towards the temple of my choice as cars, trucks, and horse-carts sped by me in (once again) all cardinal directions. To be clear, I don’t drive (ever) and here I was praying I’d make it to my 25th birthday each time a vehicle horn was honked. Which by the way, is always! Passing, saying hello, turning, giving you a ‘thumbs up,’ and musical inclinations were all valid and highly suggested reasons to honk at every single person you pass, despite the amount of road users.

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Internally, I was having a rare panic attack while operating a moving vehicle down roads I had never seen before and you know, I lived to tell the tale.

Understanding Myanmar requires that you understand the locals, who jump on moving buses and ride at top speeds while sitting on the rooftops of trucks. Open-aired vans and piles of men, women, animals, and children are not uncommon sights. In fact, several followed along the same route as the night bus from Yangon to Bagan, hanging on even while they slept. Doing so because a rough ride was better than nothing in the Burmese heat. And isn’t that what I had been doing on my e-bike? Holding on and moving forward because the thought of walking down those dusty lanes alongside the same traffic would be unbearable? Isn’t that what most of us do our whole lives, hold on to the bumpy ride even in moments of panic because to stop or let go just wouldn’t get us where we wanted to go?

Breaking Down Myanmar


Interested in more of Myanmar? Don’t forget to check out information on the Myanmar Travel Guide + Giveaway!

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