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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.