Early thoughts on Yangon - and how my views had changed by the time we came back...

 Both this little guy's parents are fruit-sellers, working the streets with their wares in baskets on a bamboo pole. That would be a hard life.

Both this little guy's parents are fruit-sellers, working the streets with their wares in baskets on a bamboo pole. That would be a hard life.

Arriving for the first time in Yangon was a shock. Tired and jet lagged I walked out of our guesthouse the first morning in search of bottled water and it was, well... overwhelming. Chaotic. Dirty. Busy. Poor.

I wondered if one reason for the seeming chaos when you first arrive is that mostly there's no clear delineation between road, and pedestrian and shop life. I hadn't realised before quite how useful pavements, but here the edge of the road and the beginning of the shop/house is unclear.

 Street or shop?

Street or shop?

 Pavement or market?

Pavement or market?

Walking from A to B involves pushing around stalls on the street, avoiding motorbikes weaving in and out - or parked randomly, and stepping around piles of rubbish. There are women on tiny stools with charcoal burners and a wok selling fried things, or with a sack or basket on the ground selling fruit or meat.

 The vegetables in the middle of this market street are strategically placed so that when a vehicle comes along, it passes over the top without damaging them

The vegetables in the middle of this market street are strategically placed so that when a vehicle comes along, it passes over the top without damaging them

For some reason, that first day in Yangon all the street food appeared to be offal or crickets, and while I can eat the latter, I draw the line at the former. As you walked along in your flipflops/jandals, keeping a close eye on where you were treading, the inevitable breaks in the roadside drains released foul smells, the litter was depressing, the mud unavoidable. The houses were crowded and blackened. It was hot and oppressively humid.

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Kids who looked eight and were possibly 12, but anyway should have been in school, were working in tea shops, and skinny, undersized guys peddled heavy sacks around on dilapidated cycle rickshaws. There were lame, mangy, flea-ridden dogs scratching themselves everywhere. We headed down country as soon as we could.

 In some ways, city streets in Cuba and Myanmar are similar in terms of the poverty and the dirt. But in some ways they are very different. While Myanmar trumps Cuba in terms of the wonderful range of food (raw and cooked) available, Fidel Castro in Cuba achieved a socialist ideal the Burmese could only dream of. All kids go to school and healthcare is plentiful and free. Not so in Myanmar, where impoverished village families often send young children to work in the town - anything from tea shops to factories to massage parlours. In June last year, the Burmese government promised to clamp down on child labour, but I suspect nothing much has happened - certainly working kids are highly visible, so who knows what's happening behind the scenes. According to human rights groups, children can work 12 hours a day, seven days a week and may only get back to see their families once a year. 

In some ways, city streets in Cuba and Myanmar are similar in terms of the poverty and the dirt. But in some ways they are very different. While Myanmar trumps Cuba in terms of the wonderful range of food (raw and cooked) available, Fidel Castro in Cuba achieved a socialist ideal the Burmese could only dream of. All kids go to school and healthcare is plentiful and free. Not so in Myanmar, where impoverished village families often send young children to work in the town - anything from tea shops to factories to massage parlours. In June last year, the Burmese government promised to clamp down on child labour, but I suspect nothing much has happened - certainly working kids are highly visible, so who knows what's happening behind the scenes. According to human rights groups, children can work 12 hours a day, seven days a week and may only get back to see their families once a year. 

Of course, by the time we came back a couple of weeks later, everything seemed subtly different. The chaos was still there, but normal, the fear of the street food was gone (and funnily enough it wasn't all offal and crickets), there was even a certain sophistication in some of Yangon's faded edifices. The weather was just slightly cooler and clear. Still, poverty is more noticeable in a big city - the tiny, dark rooms where whole families sleep on the floor, the open drains, the working kids, the blackened crumbling buildings, the dirt and rubbish.

 Putting a whole new meaning on living behind the shop

Putting a whole new meaning on living behind the shop

But, sadly (or perhaps inevitably), after a while the poverty becomes unexceptionable. Instead of being overwhelming, my overriding thought on returning to Yangon was amazement at the resilience and remarkable cheerfulness and friendliness of people living in a way that seems unbearable to a spoilt westerner.

 Two women selling breakfast have an early morning chat

Two women selling breakfast have an early morning chat

 These strange (and relatively unpleasant-tasting) fruits cost less than 50 cents a piece. Even if this woman sold them all (and it's hard to imagine why you would buy one - perhaps they are medicinal?), she was hardly going to be able to feed herself or her family. Yet she was so lovely, so chatty and smiling.

These strange (and relatively unpleasant-tasting) fruits cost less than 50 cents a piece. Even if this woman sold them all (and it's hard to imagine why you would buy one - perhaps they are medicinal?), she was hardly going to be able to feed herself or her family. Yet she was so lovely, so chatty and smiling.

 Look at the flowers in this street seller's hair. Just fabulous

Look at the flowers in this street seller's hair. Just fabulous

 Cycle rickshaw drivers are always skinny and poor, and it must be a shit job, particularly in Myanmar's heat. And feeding his two children on what this guy earns must be a nightmare. But look how smiley he is, showing off his kids.

Cycle rickshaw drivers are always skinny and poor, and it must be a shit job, particularly in Myanmar's heat. And feeding his two children on what this guy earns must be a nightmare. But look how smiley he is, showing off his kids.