I didn’t really feel the Yangon time warp until I left it. On Tuesday, after seven days in Myanmar and 55 minutes in the air, I landed in Bangkok. That was when this weird kind of reverse culture shock hit–a shock of the familiar, of the bustling, of the, well, the commerce.
At Yangon International Airport, travelers cluster around one shop selling postcards, reproductions of old Burmese currency, and small carved Buddhas. Tasteful woven scarves and carved wooden boxes at a second. Further along you can choose from a few bottles of whiskey or, like I did, spend your last kyat on a can of government-brewed Myanmar Beer. The shops petered out after that.
At Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport–which is closer to Yangon than Washington D.C. is to Boston–you can pause at a crossroads and see shops selling DKNY, Diesel, Fossil, Guess, Casio, Timex, Puma, North Face, Tag Heuer, Etude. There’s a Boots pharmacy, a McDonald’s, and a Burger King. I could have jotted down a bunch more in my notebook, too, but frankly I was a little overwhelmed.
The taxi you get from Yangon International likely didn’t have a meter but might have a hole in the floor, allowing you to watch the road pass by. When it’s stopped in traffic the driver will turn the car off and might have to hold the gearshift in place.
The taxies in Bangkok are new, metered, and lots of them are pink. (Don’t ask, I don’t know.) On the way in from the airport you pass towering billboards for Toyota and Fuji Xerox. For a while you parallel a new elevated light rail. A sprawling city skyline littered with cranes comes into sight. You’re soon being passed and passing Bangkok Mass Transit Authority’s sparkling buses. There are traffic lights.
On the way in from the Yangon airport, you pass an ornate “Welcome to the Golden Land” sign with the outlines of two pagodas. Some green space gives way to rows of roadside teashops with plastic, low-slung tables. A “shortcut” we took on the way back to the airport wound through tight slums and past a state-run furniture manufacturer next to an open-air poultry market where bicycles loaded down with chickens front and back teetered out into traffic.
There are not that many traffic lights.
I should say that, in a lot of ways, I really loved the Yangon time warp. In a city of four million, I was bumping into people I knew by the second day. I already miss the sidewalks lined with food sellers and booksellers and song-lyric-book sellers and vegetable and rice sellers and hand-tool sellers and a guy butchering a goat and another guy painstakingly fixing an umbrella and those card tables with two or three landline phones where you can stop and make a call.
A few hours before I left on Tuesday, I was stopped in traffic in a taxi–the one with the slipping gearshift. A guy walked in between cars selling paperbound copies of Myanmar’s brand new Foreign Investment Law. The law had been tweaked and re-tweaked to be more attractive to multinational companies.
The time warp is closing.