I love the city. You forget about the intransigent smell of betel nut until you touch down in Yangon and step out into the neighborhood. It permeates the street life anywhere people are talking, exhaled in fumes as grinning red lips part over red teeth. Ominous spatters on the sidewalk aren’t blood.
Yangon is different from other cities in Asia. Bustling but laid back, it feels like Burmese culture is not so much “preserved” as it is thriving. The longyi is still standard attire. It feels satisfying to glimpse a narrow-hipped man in a classic green longyi doing construction work, or someone in a white button-up, still crisp despite the heat, walking to tea or the office. People still stop in the middle of what is now a busy road to pay respects on their knees to Sule Pagoda. Palm sugar (with coconut!), tea leaf salad, beef in brown sauce, and plenty of veggie dishes. And milk tea morning, noon, and night.
In Yangon, visit Shwedagon Pagoda at night. Golden spires in builded light on every side. I walked circles around, tracing the days of the week. Wednesday in two elephants. A older novice in burgundy robes rests on one of the many ledges, cell phone in hand. A group of young novice boys chat animatedly near a stupa.
The sweaty day fades with the sun, and the mostly-dark streets show the movements of street vendors closing up and heading home. A few rat shapes dart between trash piles, and dogs take up their napping positions along the doorways.
Yangon is a city of change and tradition, and it has a different feel each time I return. I stare out over the low rooftops, waiting for this semester’s gap students to step out into the sense-rich city.