Jemima Neal shares her experiences living in Yangon, Myanmar.
Visitors to Myanmar will often just consider Yangon as a gateway into the country – it certainly isn’t known as a destination in it’s own right. What some would regard as a frenetic, polluted, Asian metropolis, I feel incredibly lucky to have called home for the past 14 months.
Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar (Burma) and was the capital up until 2006, when the military government relocated the capital to the purpose-built city of Naypyitaw. Yangon’s skyline, the dazzling Shwedagon Pagoda, dilapidated colonial buildings and brand new high-rises, help to paint a picture of its dramatic history. Although, on first impressions it’s difficult to ignore the heavy traffic, packs of street dogs and often deeply inadequate infrastructure.
Two years after leaving university I was caught in the same conundrum as many of my friends. Bored in my job, guilty that I wasn’t enjoying my job, anxious about what I should do and desperate to do something more exciting. I’d always wanted to live abroad and having visited Myanmar with a friend two years before, the idea of living there seemed fascinating but highly implausible. I was working as an assistant at a fund management company and my job was starting to make me feel downhearted and claustrophobic. I wanted to work, live and experience a new city, rather than backpack. But finding a job in Yangon seemed like a difficult task. A friend had recently done a month’s TESOL course in order to move to Barcelona and she encouraged me to look into it. Inspired and in a moment of braveness, I left my job where I’d been for two years and signed up to a TESOL course. Whilst on the course I secured a job teaching English at an international school in Yangon and was set to start the following month. Flights booked, visa approved, apartment sorted I was suddenly about to move to Myanmar! When I told friends and family, reactions varied from: ‘What an adventure!’ to ‘Why on Earth would you go there?!’
Although I thought I knew what to expect, navigating daily life in Yangon was considerably more challenging than I had imagined. It hadn’t occurred to me how complacent I’d become about the convenience and plethora of amenities we have in London. Just little things like buying dinner from the supermarket could turn into an hours drive through flooded streets in the heavy monsoon rains, arriving at the international supermarket and leaving with just a packet of crisps! Rent for foreigners is astronomical, so I lived in a fairly basic, old building in downtown Yangon, where power cuts and water shortages were pretty regular occurrences and cockroaches and rats were familiar sights. The intense heat and humidity combined with filthy streets could often be a sensory overload, leaving you feeling frustrated and defeated. Tales among expats and foreigners of extreme food poisoning, dengue fever and street dog attacks were in constant circulation…
However, despite the small frustrations I had the most special and exciting time in Yangon. I was so lucky to be working in the most amazing school where I felt so supported by the kindness of both the international and Myanmar staff. Teaching English to both the Myanmar staff and children at the Primary School was daunting at first but made me realize the appeal of teaching and how dynamic and sociable it is. I was totally enraptured by the colour, pace and chaos of the city. Life is very much on the streets and Buddhist festivals would take over swathes of the city with lights and music throughout the night. Myanmar certainly has a ‘golden triangle’ of tourist destinations but so much of the country remains barely touched by tourists. A lack of decent roads meant a weekend trip to the beach involved 14 hours of bus journeys, but it was always totally worth it. Yangon has a growing and buzzing ex-pat community with new bars and restaurants regularly opening. The pace of life and incredible kindness of the Myanmar people always made me feel incredibly relaxed and a stark contrast to the pressures and expectations everyone feels caught in living in London. I so relish my experience in Yangon and would encourage everyone to visit this most wonderful country!