Ernie goes to Yangon pt. 3 (Dec 2016)

We went in to the Mizzima office the next morning to meet the staff for the first time, though, as it turns out, most of the English-language personnel aren’t even based in Yangon. I don’t think any of us had heard of Mizzima until a couple of months ago, though our knowledge of local news sources and organizations is admittedly lacking. The newspaper was founded in 1998 by a group of Burmese journalists in New Delhi, exiled for their involvement in the 1988 8888 Uprising. Originally operating out of New Delhi, India, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, they moved to Myanmar in 2012 and opened up an office in Yangon, soon after the country began opening up and liberalizing some of its media policies.

Mizzima has worked with the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Studies Centre for several years, providing internship opportunities to students during the winter break – myself and the other four interns being the latest to swing through its doors in the Pazuntaung part of town. We very quickly realized that there wasn’t much for us to do in the office, however, and, after saying our hellos and meeting some of the Burmese-language staff, we grabbed our bags and headed out for the rest of the day.

As we wandered through the side streets behind the office, hoping to find a place to eat, we came across a lively game of sepak takraw in a small park behind the main road. Best described as volleyball played with feet, the sport is massively popular throughout Southeast Asia. There is a variation native to Myanmar called chinlone, but there is no net involved, and the objective is simply to keep the ball in the air with style and creativity. These guys were definitely playing the more competitive sepak takraw, however, their longyis rolled up to their upper thighs, bodies flying and rotating in a violent dance in front of the net, and legs uncorking and whipping with devastating speed at the grubby rattan ball.

Later that day, I made my way over to the Botahtaung Jetty to catch the sunset over the Yangon River. It had been recommended to us by one of our contacts at Mizzima, and it was easily walkable from the hostel. I walked east along Anawrahta Road for about 20 minutes, before turning south on Botahtaung Pagoda Road and taking it all the way down to the water. At the shoreline is a small complex housing the Botahtaung Pagoda, site of one of the oldest pagodas in Myanmar until it was completely destroyed in World War II. Reconstruction began soon after independence, and a new pagoda now stands watch over a wooden pier and the murky waters of the river beyond. I met up with one of the other interns on the rickety wooden structure, joining a small gathering of families and lovers in the fading light of the day. Together we watched as the sun slowly descended behind the treeline on the opposite shore, casting out the last of its warm colours across the sky, until long after it had disappeared.

Inya Lake is a man-made reservoir built by the British in the late 19th century north of the downtown core of Yangon. In the ensuing decades, the neighbourhoods and waterfront properties around the lake have become some of the most sought-after real estate in town – Aung San Suu Kyi being, perhaps, the most famous resident. A paved walkway runs around most of the lake, lined with covered benches facing the water, offering a small respite from the smoke and betel nut fumes a few streets over. A casual meeting with a friend of a friend one day left me closer to the eastern side of the lake, which seemed less crowded and much quieter than the western rim, with its close proximity to the youthful undergrads of Yangon University. I contemplated sticking around to watch the sunset, but there wasn’t much there to see, if I’m being honest, and the day was still quite firmly in the mid-afternoon hours. A few minutes ride in a cab had me back at the hostel soon enough, and I got myself ready to help cover an event later that evening.

Mizzima had sent us a list of events to cover earlier in the week, and we divided up the stories among ourselves so that each of us had something to publish. I’d already covered a small press conference at the Sule Shangri-La Yangon earlier, but I went along with Elsie, one of the other interns, on her story that night to help take photos of the event. The venue was the British Ambassador’s Residence on Alan Pya Pagoda Street, about a 15-minute walk from our hostel. We cut through Bogyoke Aung San Market, walking across the crowded bridge at the back of the market to get to the Bo Yar Nyunt Road neighbourhood. Note: there are a number of excellent restaurants and coffee shops along this street, including The Press Office Cafe, where I’d end up spending a few afternoons reading and writing up articles (and blog posts). From Bo Yar Nyunt Road, we cut across Nawaday Street to get to Alan Pya Pagoda Street, and, finally, the spartan gates of the residence.

Walking through the gates was a journey into another world – before us was a part of Yangon that had previously been hidden from our eyes. The event was to announce the unveiling of an anti-corruption toolkit created specifically for Myanmar, and the gathered crowd was filled with diplomatic staff, foreign businessmen and consultants, NGO workers, and other members of the local expat community. Elsie and I felt a bit under-dressed for the occasion, and we weren’t quite sure what we were supposed to be doing during the cocktail hour. I went around taking a few photos, but there didn’t seem to be much else to do but wait for the speakers to get on with the show. To be honest, though, I didn’t pay much attention to any of the speeches anyway, and, afterwards, when they announced that there would be a time of networking, Elsie caught my eye and we immediately made ourselves scarce.

When we finally emerged from the British Ambassador’s Residence, night had fallen over the city outside, and we retraced our steps back to the intersection of Bo Yar Nyunt Road and Nawaday Road. There, amidst cracked pavement stones and honking taxis, stands the Aung Mingalar Shan Noodle Restaurant, a local institution serving up hot bowls of soup noodles and other snacks from 7:00 in the morning to 9:00 at night. The finger foods at the event, while delicious, didn’t make enough of a dent in my hunger, and, at the end of the day, there’s nothing quite like a simple bowl of noodles and broth to satisfy my Asian appetite.

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