Yangon, Myanmar (Second Visit)

Buses in Myanmar are unpredictable.  The odds of an incident-free trip are low.  And that’s under normal circumstances – in bad weather, a problem is all but guaranteed.

When I boarded the night bus from Bagan to Yangon the weather was definitely bad.  Strong wind and rain from Typhoon Gigi had battered Bagan the night before, knocking down trees and flooding streets.  A light rain continued to fall throughout the day.  I thought the bus would be canceled, but at 4pm we rolled out towards Yangon.

Aside from a few traffic jams we did fine for the first hour.  At several points along the road we passed groups of workers hauling fallen trees out of the way, and we often came to rivers of muddy water, deep and strong enough to deter small cars but no problem for our bus.  Eventually, though, a long string of red taillights came into view.  A massive tree had fallen across the road in a spot that made it very difficult for large vehicles to drive around.  Our bus stopped, and we thought we might have to turn back.

The sun set.  We sat in the dark bus listening to loud shouts coming from the area around the tree.  Men in longyis and tank tops ran in every direction.  Eventually another bus, the same size as ours, decided to brave the off-road passage around the tree.  It rocked precariously but powered through, pioneering the way for us.  Ten minutes later we were on the other side.  Over the next three or four hours we honked our way through several traffic jams and dodged a couple more close calls, but by midnight the road began to clear.  I fell into a half-sleep, and at 8am, more than 16 hours after leaving Bagan, we arrived in Yangon.  Not nearly as bad a ride as it might have been.

I’d considered staying in Bagan until I had a good sunrise to photograph, but Thadingyut, the Festival of Lights, was ending and I wanted to return to Yangon so I could catch the candle-lighting ceremonies at Shwedagon Paya.  It may have also crossed my mind that my fantasy basketball draft was scheduled for the next morning and the Internet connection in Yangon is much more reliable than the one in Bagan.  I checked into the same hotel I stayed at during my first visit, tested the Internet connection, and headed out to Shwedagon Paya that night.


Monk Meditating by Buddha Statue at Shwedagon Paya


Worshipers at Shwedagon Paya at Sunset


Shwedagon Paya Blue Hour


Worshipers at Shwedagon Paya


Monk Praying at Shwedagon Paya


Closeup of Monk Praying at Shwedagon Paya


Woman Lighting Candles at Shwedagon Paya


Children Chanting at Shwedagon Paya (Video)


Early the next morning I re-tested the Internet connection:  all systems go.  Fifteen minutes before my fantasy basketball draft was scheduled to start I settled into a quiet spot in the hotel lobby and clicked the link.  “Now loading” froze on the screen.  I tried again – same result.  Panic hit.  I tried a different browser.  That froze too.  I tried using the hotel’s computer instead of my own.  It froze every time.  E-mail still worked, and eventually my friend Neil sent me a message saying the auto-draft had used my first four picks to select only guards.  I felt sick to my stomach.

Still shaky from the morning’s trauma, I walked over to the Strand Hotel to look for Khinsapel, the girl I’d hired as an informal tour guide during my first stop in Yangon.  Someone who said he was a friend of Khinsapel’s told me that she was at the hospital with her grandmother but might be back tomorrow.  When I returned the next morning the same friend said Khinsapel was still at the hospital.  “Is Khinsapel’s grandmother OK?” I asked.

He ran his finger from his neck to his stomach and said, “They cut her open.”

Frightening visions of the level of medical care Khinsapel’s grandmother was likely receiving ran through my head.  Safe to say Khinsapel had bigger things to worry about than fantasy basketball drafts.  My flight left Yangon that afternoon so there would be no chance for me to talk to her directly.  I’d planned to give her tuition money for another year of school, but I had no way of knowing if I could trust her friend to deliver it.  I decided to give him some of the money with a message for Khinsapel to use it however she wanted – hospital bills might be a more pressing concern.

On the taxi ride to the airport I stared at Yangon’s crumbling buildings and thought about Khinsapel and her grandmother.  I felt hollow and depressed.  Do they have access to the type of healthcare the grandmother needs?  Can they afford it?  If not, what must that be like?  And how many times every day do people face similar situations in this impoverished, amazing, oppressed country?

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