Ernie goes to Yangon pt. 1 (Dec 2016)

The warm December air of Myanmar’s dry season filtered in through the open windows, as my taxi navigated the dark roads winding south between the airport and downtown Yangon. As we made our way through the outlying townships into the city proper, taking Pyay Road past the tony neighbourhoods and embassies around Inya Lake, the driver pointed out the window to our left, drawing my gaze towards an immense golden structure in the distance. When we turned the corner onto Ahlon Road to get onto U Wisara Road, I got a better look at the monumental Shwedagon Pagoda, glittering in the inky blackness of Yangon evenings, and I knew I’d made the right decision to come here.

This whole thing started at the beginning of the year, when, with the encouragement and support of Ashley, I applied for a Master of Journalism program at the University of Hong Kong. Seven years of technical writing, project management, and business operations in the local technology sector had worn me down, and I was looking for a fresh start. I turned in my essays and application documents by the end of January, completed an online exam in mid-February (when I was on holiday in Iceland), went in an for an interview in early March, and was accepted in April. The last few months of work were an exercise in patience and maintaining focus, though holidays to Kyoto, Osaka, Bali, and Hanoi helped, and, after spending a month back at home in Toronto in August, I found myself back in school for the first time since 2008.

The first semester flew by in a flurry of papers, articles, video projects, group assignments, digital presentations, and exams, as well as applications for various winter internships based in Hong Kong and abroad. I decided against applying for internships at home, choosing to aim for opportunities in Myanmar, Nepal, and India. The first to respond was Mizzima, an online news organization with a weekly news publication based in Yangon, and, as Myanmar was my first choice, it was an easy decision for me to accept the offer.

The arrangement has been quite flexible – myself and the other four interns aren’t required to go into the office, being assigned stories and events to cover through email and WhatsApp. As a result, we’ve found ourselves with more free time than we might have anticipated. I’ve spent much of my own time wandering the city with my camera, taking literally hundreds of photos, and I’m going to try to fit in most of them as I start my Yangon/Myanmar series.

I stayed at the Space Boutique Hostel in downtown Yangon with the other interns. Located around the corner from the Sule Pagoda, the hostel is clean and cozy, with a free daily breakfast of eggs, toast, and a banana included. Shared rooms are 9 USD, though I shelled out 17 USD for a single room. On my first morning in town, I took in the views from the elevated walkway at the nearby intersection of Anawrahta Road and Sule Pagoda Road, before walking south towards the venerated Sule Pagoda. Said to be more than 2,500 years old, the British rebuilt colonial Rangoon around the famous structure, and it has served as a symbolically significant rallying point for the people of Myanmar throughout the years, including the 1988 8888 Uprising and the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

From the Sule Pagoda, I walked east along Maha Bandula Road, past the faded lavender exterior of Yangon City Hall, through Maha Bandula Park, named after the famed 19th century Burmese general who led a valiant resistance against the invading British, before turning south along Pansodan Street. I have complicated feelings towards colonial architecture and the romanticization of a period of history marked by exploitative and racist policies and practices by the colonizing nations, but there’s something about the aesthetics that really captures my eye. My own recent family history is built on those same colonial dreams, Hong Kong being a city created out of nothing by the British in the mid-19th century. Much of that past has now been bulldozed and replaced by the glass and neon towers reflected in the oily waters of Victoria Harbour, but it lives on in the grand derelict, abandoned, and hastily re-purposed structures along Yangon’s Pansodan Street. I’d find myself walking up and down this street many more times throughout my internship.

At the bottom of Pansodan Street, where it meets with Strand Road along the Yangon River, is the Pansodan Ferry Terminal, where you can take a ferry across the river to the island of Dala. Market stalls and food vendors filled the narrow alleyways between Strand Road and the river, while young men and women called out to tourists from among the crowd and enticed them to sign up for guided tours of the sights and sounds of Dala. I made a mental note to come back and take the ferry on another day, though a bit of online research made clear that the ferry terminal was a popular spot for scamming tourists and unsuspecting travelers.

I turned around headed back to the hostel around mid-day, and for good reason. When I had arrived in Yangon the previous night, my luggage was nowhere to be found, and I had left my contact information with the airport staff in case it turned up on a flight the next morning. Fortunately, I got the call not long after I got back to my room, and I made the long journey back to the airport that afternoon to pick up my things. There were a few things that I had missed, such as my bag of chargers and other electronics, as well as gifts for some of the staff at Mizzima, but what I was most grateful for in the sweltering city was finally having some clean clothes around.

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