A while ago, I did some work in Yangon, the capital city of Myanmar. I arrived just before the country’s rainy season was due to begin; and I was assured by people living there that this rainy season really was rainy.
Having seen a good bit of rain elsewhere – for instance, the thunderstorms that lash Sri Lanka from time to time, or the drizzle that seems to smother Scotland in wet grey gauze for months at a go – I was somewhat blasé about these warnings. It wasn’t until I was out on Yangon’s streets one Saturday morning and I got caught in an early-rainy-season downpour that suddenly I understood what they meant.
When the rain started pounding down, I was walking along Be Aung Kyaw Road, which runs north from the Yangon River. I took shelter on some steps in the entrance of a shut shop and spent the next two hours there, unable to do anything but watch the deluge in front of me. Within seconds, the paving slabs at the street-side had vanished under inches of water that pulsed and rippled and even frothed as more rain pelted down on it. Across the street, the slightly-dilapidated building-fronts faded to near-invisibility behind a thick dark veil of precipitation. The fronds at the top of the street’s palm trees suffered a terrible pounding and drenching. And it was unrelenting – during the long, long time that it fell, it never seemed to slacken for a moment.
After a while, a bedraggled street dog retreated into that entrance too and parked himself at the other end of it from me, sitting in a solemn pose like that of the hound in the old His Master’s Voice logo. The two of us remained on those shop steps, in mutual silence and immobility, for an hour at least. Finally, a pair of guys came trudging along the street and through the rain, bearing on their backs two big mysterious sacks. At the sight of them, the dog was suddenly off like a shot. I wonder what it was about the men, or about their sacks, that spooked him so.
Later, when the rain eventually did ease a little, I emerged from the shop-entrance and made my way to a junction with Maria Bandoola Road. Peering along this second road, I saw how Sule Pagoda – the neighbourhood’s chief landmark, which stands at the centre of a busy traffic intersection – had taken on the appearance of an island because the four streets radiating from it were flooded. Actually, while the rainwater sluiced down the streets towards it, I thought of another comparison. It was as if the water was draining into the plughole in a giant bath – the pagoda looking like a plug-stopper that wasn’t big enough to block the hole beneath it.
Yangon’s pavements were quite a bit higher than the road-surfaces and for the most part that morning they were higher than the floodwater too. I naively thought that by following the pavements I could make it back to my hotel and not get my feet wet. Of course, as soon as I’d walked along a pavement for the length of a block, I arrived at a junction. And then I had to step down into a lake that’d formed over the mouth of the side-street and wade / run / hop across it. After traversing a few blocks and side-streets like this, my shoes, socks and trouser legs were sodden.
It eventually occurred to me that the easiest place to walk was not along the pavements but along the middle of the roads, between the traffic-lanes. The roads seemed slightly higher in the middle – and as a consequence most of the rainwater had accumulated at their sides, whereas the central strips along the roads were under only a few centimetres of it. Files of people were now using these strips as unlikely pedestrian walkways. They trod between the cars, under their big umbrellas. So I waded out into the middle of the road and joined them.
There was still a problem, though. As traffic ploughed through the floods on my immediate left and right, the wheels constantly threw up water and threatened to douse me in it. Along some roads, the central line between the traffic-lanes was marked by a row of vertical, thigh-high, yellow-painted concrete slabs; and I soon learned that the trick was to take shelter on the far side of one of those slabs whenever a vehicle went by, spraying water.
Despite my best efforts, when I got to my hotel I was soaked from the waist down. The morning’s experience showed me why everyone in Yangon seems to wear sandals or flip-flops. And no doubt the world’s worst business idea would be to open a shoe-factory or sock-factory there.
Incidentally, expect more Yangon-related blog entries over the next few weeks.