Day 66: What you do in Yangon when you can't get a hotel
By the time we arrived at the Sule Pagoda, there wasn't a car on the road. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
IT'S strange being alone on your birthday, turning 31. There are people who don't like celebrating their birthdays; for them, I assume being a stranger in a strange town is an ideal situation. However, I like celebrating my birthday. I like celebrating it not just on the day, but several days leading up to it and several days after it has past.
For the last four years, I've gone to work at the Phuket Gazette on my birthday. At the end of the day, I'd be called up to the management side of the Phuket Gazette office and the team would present the founder of the Gazette, John Magee, and me a pair of Swensen's ice cream cakes sweating in the air conditioning of our high-ceiling office.
John, the infamous Thai-tycoon and fugitive Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra and I all share the same birthay: July 26 – though there is a bit of an age difference.
Today is the first day I don't celebrate with John or with my team at the Gazette, which, whether or not they know it, were my family in Thailand.
With the drone back in my possession, an activity dictated by the dice (Who am I to make too many choices on my birthday?), it's time to roll again. I'm excited about the prospects of eating at a North Korean restaurant called Pyongang in Yangon. However, the dice discard it as a lunch option, instead opting for House of Memories.
The taxi from the hostel goes too far, so I'm forced to loop back around by foot to a small turn off in a what appears to be a banking district in Yangoon. The area is covered with large, low buildings with grassy yards behind high fences marred by either razor wire or shards of broken glass cemented in place. There is the head office for Kasikorn Bank (my Thai bank) across the street, further down is an official Rolex showroom and repair shop.
The side road is broken and uneven. On one side is the Japanese restaurant Zushi, marked by a simple yet modern black and white sign. On the other side, a little further up, is the House of Memories. The two-story colonial building was recently re-painted without having had any previous layers of paint removed, leaving the exterior wood panels, as well as the interior looking waxy and unappealing. The attention to detail you might expect for a restored national heritage site seems to be lacking. Then again, as can be ascertained by the sound of an electric saw and a hammer somewhere on the premise, they are still in the middle of renovations.
The house was the family home of the late Wunna Kyaw Htin Dina Nath, Chairman of the Indian Independence Army for Burma. It housed the first office of late National Hero General Aung San. If that name feels slightly familiar in the mouth, it should – his youngest daughter Aung San Suu Kyi. After decades of persecution and house arrest from the military government, Aung San Suu Kyi is now attempting to guide Myanmar through its troubled water in order to secure peace and prosperity for the nation before it becomes further crippled by the economical imperialism of China and the many western nations now eyeing the country's potential.
It's the mix of history and excellent food that put the House of Memories on the face of the die today. Though I arrive too late for the lunch rush and far too early for the dinner boom. In fact, I'm alone, except for a handful of sleepy-eyed staff in stiff white dress shirts.
The downstairs area is a bit disheveled from the renovations, so I take a window seat upstairs that overlooks the dumpy parking lot.
If you don't work in a restaurant, it's rare to hear the silence of the building. But here, on my birthday, I'm surrounded by the silence: there is no light jazz cover up, no other patrons taping their forks into their plates as they softly converse.
It's just me, a few silent waiters, and the occasional banging of a hammer or electrical buzz of a saw.
The tables are all set with white table clothes, folded linens, heavy silverware and single magnolias in black vases.
The die doesn't hold back. We start with a house cocktail, which I slowly sip, listening to the ice in the glass, while waiting for the rest of my order: coconut rice, fried spinach with potatoes and pickled tea leaf and ginger salad – a Burmese classic. For dessert, with my coffee, the die orders shwe kyi, a mildly sweet cake square made with course semolina, which is traditionally presented for feasts and special celebrations.
Being 31 means I can enjoy a fancy meal at The House of Memories all by myself. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The food is served family style – large plates to be shared. With whom I am to share, I wonder as I look around the empty room.
It's as if I've thrown myself a surprise party and failed to tell any of my friends when and where it is.
“Surprise,” I say out loud, my voice sounding a bit hollow and forced, despite the pleasurable dining experience.
All the dishes are fresh and light – I've fallen in love with Burmese food in general. However, the coconut rice would take home the prize, if there was a prize to be won: big, warm, soft kernels of the white rice release an aromatic puff of coconut when they hit the pallet, slightly sweet, slightly suggestive, but still a canvas that any chief could work with.
I pay the fairly expensive tab and start walking back toward my hostel, Scott @ 31. Though I've made no effort to make the kind of connection at the hostel I could lean on for a birthday night out, I have wrangled a Tinder meet up with a Burmese-American girl living in Buffalo. She's going out with a couple of her friends to 7th Joint Bar and Grill this evening and doesn't mind me tagging along.
I arrive at 7th Joint, after having walked right past it. In fact, my taxi driver dropped me off right in front of it, next to a pile of sand and construction supplies covering the sidewalk. Down the side of the building, there are two bouncers and some poor lighting. The driver even pointed at it, but I didn't believe him and wandered a few blocks away to where Google thought the bar was, which was – of course – wrong. After about fifteen minutes of wandering around, which would end up being the main activity of the night, I return to exactly where I was dropped off.
Thick, halved bamboo stalks are glued to one side of the packed rasta bar. The rest is the place is covered in a smattering of black-light pain glowing florescent yellow, green and orange in the dark establishment. On a stage, about 10cm off the ground, is a three piece band wailing out some American classic rock, with plenty 90s tunes carrying the crowd along.
It's a tall crowd, mostly young expats and tourists, drinks in their hands.
Walking in, I scan the place. It occurs to me that I don't even know the girl's name, age or even what she looks like. Now, of course, all this information is on Tinder, but I don't think about checking. Instead, I slowly walk through the crowd – the self-described man in red shorts. There semi-second floor in the small, tall warehouse like building. I slide past a handful of people drunkenly bouncing to Weezer.
She's not up stairs, or at least I don't see here. Back downstairs, I lean up against the wet bar and order a Jim Bean and coke. She's supposed to be here, but then again maybe they've bailed, or she simply saw me and bounced – not that I'm an ugly guy, but you never know.
A young woman comes bouncing up to me. There is a moment of hesitation before she wraps me up in a big hug, as promised.
The message I got earlier read: Is it okay if I jump on you and give you a big hug?
I'm a huger by nature, even when it's not my birthday, so it's easy to imagine that a big hug after nearly a month of no hugs was going to be welcome – and no, “hug” is not a euphemism.
“Isaac?” she asks. She's been drinking for awhile already and its given her a buoyant, fun confidence. Interlocking her fingers with mine she drags me back to her table.
Yuya, my Tinder date, is a broad shouldered young woman in a loose fitting dark dress that works well with her body. Between here dazzling eyes that seem to shift colors like shards of moonstone mixed with precious gems is a flat Mongolian nose on a round face. I wouldn't bat an eye if she told me she grew up playing third base on her high school softball team.
At the tall table, surrounded by stools, half of which are occupied by a few of her friends, I'm introduced to Niva, Michelle, one guy whose name I don't catch and a well-dressed Austrian with his hair well-gelled. Because I' the kind of guy who shows up the cinema wearing a bow tie, I understand being over dressed, but Florian's blazer seems ridiculous in a rasta bar. I half expected him to start performing magic, which, of course, would justify the jacket – at least in my eyes.
I'm instantly taken by Michelle, a classically beautiful young woman from Hong Kong. There is something intrinsically captivating about a dancer's posture and grace. Despite being out for the night, she has her hair done up in a bun and only a light brushing of makeup, a dramatic contrast to her friend Niva.
Niva, black hair a teased out nest on top of her head, is scanning the crowd with sultry eyes behind thick framed hipster glasses. In a short pair of shorts that raise the question of at what point does the soft skin of a thigh become ass, she is oozing sex. A lynx on the hunt.
Florian is in the midst of buying all the girls drinks. He is out on the town to pull, and doesn't seem to fussed with who it is, as long as they have a heartbeat and are willing.
I pop on a stool and do my best to chat up Michelle, while not ignoring Yu Ya, who is fun in her own right. The group fades in and out of the crowd, a couple of them disappearing for long stretches to either the tiny dance floor, the bathroom or who knows where only to reappear. Florain is skirting around the edges, hands testing the waters as they caress Yu Ya, Niva and most other females in his vicinity.
Given the price of the drinks, I do my best to nurse my Jim and Coke.
Yu Ya drags me onto the dance floor for a bit, pressing against me as we dance to Macklemore's Thrift Shop.
At some point, Niva disappears with Florian and Michelle slips away without saying goodbye..
“It's your birthday too!” I say. Three Americans, helping out at a local NGO, just landed at our table.
The woman, also born on July 26, is turning 32.
“Birthday shots!” I say, dragging her over to the bar.
With a glass of wine in her hand and the prospects of work in the morning looming over her, she's hesitant, but enough booze bullying and I'm able to get her to take a B-52 with me.
“My treat,” I say.
The two other Americans, the ones who dragged her out against her will – as any decent friends would have done – buy another round of shots. However, this one she flatly refuses.
Back at the bar for another drink, an Austrian guy I know from the hostel rocks up.
“I've just got to ask. Are you gay?” he asks within the first few minutes of chatting.
“Hahahaha, no. But I get that all the time. Clearly, I give that vibe.”
“Not that it would matter,” he confirms.
Yu Ya wanders off a bit frustrated with me, as I launch into an in-depth discussion of Austrian politics with the guy.
I do my best not draw parallels between the developing xenophobic environment, which were seeing across Europe, and Austria's role in WWII. It's a scary time in Europe. Less scary than the real possibility of Trump ruling America, but still scary.
Everything and everybody I'm meeting flows in and out of the crowd.
The Americans vote to hit the dance floor, so three of the four of us wade into the crowd, the guy stays back with his beer.
My birthday buddy and I dance together for a bit, keeping a reasonable distance, but still having fun.
“I really appreciate you taking care of her and being nice about it,” the American man says, with a firm, sincere handshake. He's clearly in guard-dog mode, which I think many of young American men snap into on a night out. Like sheepdogs, some of us seem to naturally start keeping track of the women in our group, trying to ensure everyone gets where they want to go safely. It's a habit I was first aware I had when I was clubbing in Accra, Ghana.
“You could have been a lot more aggressive,” he says. Clearly he thinks I had further intentions for the evening with his friend. Though the reality is that my intentions were to get down with a birthday buddy on the dance floor and leave it at that. It's a strange situation being a straight guy who isn't constantly trying to have sex – it throws people.
After hug bug huddling hug with the Americans, they head out into the night.
I wander back to where I last saw Ya Yu to drag her out on the dance floor.
Though I'm being mildly ignored to prove a point, I hang on the edge of the group of people she's befriended. Eventually, she breaks free and we squeeze in a few more dances before the lights start to come up.
I was ready to leave about an hour ago, but didn't want to ditch Ya Yu. So, seeing the band packing up and the last volunteer singer from the crowd slide off the stool in front of the microphone is a relief.
“Where is Niva?” I ask.
“She went home with Florian,” Yu Ya explains.
“Yeah, he was so handsy with everyone.”
“I guess if you knock on enough doors.”
“You really liked Michelle,” Yu Ya says.
“No,” I say in a knee-jerk lie.
“That's the difference [between Forian and me], I flirt with everyone, but expect to take no one home,” I say, giving a bit more bend to the truth than breaking it.
Outside, the city has grown quiet, though it's only a dash past midnight. The air is cool, but pleasant. It must have recently rained.
“Okay, I'll walk you there,” I tell Yu Ya.
Yu Ya is supposed to be crashing at the Royal Star Guesthouse with Michelle and Niva. The hotel is approximately between the rasta bar and my hostel.
With her go-fuck-yourself New York City attitude and some Bronx swagger that I can't help but find hilarious and endearing, I'd never guessed that Yu Ya was raised with the proverbial silver spoon. We're talking drivers, nannies and so on. However, through admirable conscious effort none of that has distanced her from reality. She's funny, down to earth and completely aware of where she has come from and what the reality of life is for the rest of us.
“Michelle's not checking the message,” Yu Ya says. “What if she's asleep and doesn't answer?”
“We'll jump off that bridge when we get there. At this point, we might as well just get there and see what happens.”
We start walking fingers interlocked; me on a nice buzz. I can't remember the last time I held hands like this, at least for this long. There's something wonderfully elementary about just holding hands with a girl.
“Guess what sports I play at university,” Yu Ya says.
“Well, you're Asian, so badminton,” I respond – never above a little humorous racism.'
“You douche!” Yu Ya pulls away in a huff that is hard not to laugh about. For a moment she refuses to move.
“Come on,” I say with a laugh. “Okay, what sports?”
“Badminton and volleyball,” she says, which of course kick starts another bought of unwelcome laughter. I love being right.
Our walk continues like this. She says something, I chime in with m own twisted, teasing comment and she storms off. With a laugh, I double back for her – as she's inevitably walking the wrong direction.
Ten steps forward, five steps back is the pace for the evening. What could have been a 20 minute walk turned into a 40 minute walk. Not that it matters one way or another: Michelle isn't checking her messages or answering her phone. It's safe to assume that she's fast asleep.
By the time we arrive at the Royal Star Guesthouse, a generic looking establishment in a street full of generic guesthouses, some with neon lights, all the shops along the street are shuttered for the night.
The door to the guesthouse is locked. There is a bell, but Yu Ya doesn't want to ring it. Admittedly, telling the night man that you're not a guest, but a friend said you could stay in their room, despite the rules, probably isn't going to work.
We sit on concrete stoop out front and wait. What we're waiting for isn't clear.
“I'd let you crash at my place, but it's a dorm room, so that's not really possible. We can try to track down a room somewhere for you,” I say, as we finally get to our feet.
All of Yu Ya's stuff is upstairs though: pajamas, toothbrush, passport and money.
“It's fine. I can float you if necessary,” I say. “I'm sure I'll see you again.”
Hand in hand, we set off along the yellow brick road. Though it's the commercial center of a third world country, there isn't a moment that we don't feel safe walking on the sidewalk, along the empty roads.
I'm sure the older man of Indian decent who is working as a guard at Scott @ 31 Hostel when we arrive at 2am thinks I'm bringing back a prostitute. We explain to the younger guy at the front desk that Yu Ya doesn't have her passport, but if they have an extra bed in a dorm they can put it under my name.
The young guy seems confused. The old guy jumps in with a few sharp words to him in Burmese.
They say they're full, though I doubt they're being honest about it.
“Where do you think we can find a place?” I ask the older man.
He points us to an area that has more hotels past the Sule Pagoda, five minutes away.
We bump into the drunken Austrian staying at my hostel as we exit 31st onto Anawrahta Road.
He gives me a look that seems to say, “Good on you for getting some action tonight.” Though he's misguided, there isn't much I can do to correct him – it was just a look.
Sula Road, four lanes that are heavily congested with buses playing a disharmonious tune with every other driver with a horn at the intersection of Anawrahta Road, is empty. There is a silence, or the kin of silence; the closest thing to it that you can get in a city.
Normally the traffic near the Sule Pagoda is in a deadlock. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Several hundred meters of clear road leaves an unobstructed view of Sula Pagoda. It basks in a warm, golden glow against the darkened city sky. Though it would be consumed in the Shwedagon Pagoda complex, standing alone it is magnificent, towering over the high-rise office buildings around it.
“That's my bank. We don't own the bank, it's the one I use,” Yu Ya says, pointing to a bank across the street from the pagoda.
“Love that you've got to clarify that you don't own the bank. Hard life,” I chime in. Yu Ya nearly storms off again.
“You're such a douche,” she says in a tone that is playful, but sprinkled with sincerity.
“I know. I've never claimed not to be.”
For a moment, we stop, drinking in the beauty of the pagoda. Then, it's back to walking. Crossing the empty road that loops around the golden phallus, I burst into song.
“I can see what's happening. What? And they don't have a clue. Who?” I sing.
Can You Feel The Love Tonight is always my favorite Disney song to lead with whether or not it's appropriate for the situation. We begin our Disney singing marathon.
Unlike me, Yu Ya can actually sing. Her beautiful voice resonates through the desolate city, only quieting when we pass a sleeping security guard, hat pulled down over his face, feet propped up on chair.
Down a side street, maybe 40th street, we walk up the short flight of steps to the lobby of an open hotel. The blurry-eyed staff scramble to sort themselves, adjusting overly formal uniforms.
“It's okay, it's okay,” I say waving one of them back to the chair he was sleeping in.
They won't give us a room since Yu Ya doesn't have her passport. She could try to speak Burmese to them, since she speaks it fluently, but she doesn't. Later, she explains that they tend to treat her worse if she speaks Burmese to them. Admittedly, it would look even more sketchy if I was wandering around trying to find a room at 3am with a local girl.
Back on the street, my eyes are getting heavy and we're both thirsty. Yu Ya ladles out some water from a drinking basin along the roadside – part of the Buddhist tradition in the city. Though tempting, I pass.
Where Yu Ya's energy is coming from, I don't know, but she's reading signs to me, explaining why there is this long string of dried herbs hanging out in front of someone's house and what this symbol means. If I wasn't so tired, I'd be soaking it up. As it is, the information is rain drops rolling off the rain gear wrapped around my mind.
The only thing slowing Yu Ya down is her knee. She's had surgery on it recently – life of an American athlete. We take a break, sitting for awhile. My head in her lap. Eventually, it's time to move on.
Down another street, we are joined by a dozen or so rats. Most of the well-lit streets we've walked down have been alive with a healthy rat population. However, this particular street, as we stand at the mouth of it, is packed with the vermin.
I count seven. Seven rats out in the open at one time and who knows how many more scurrying along in the shadows.
“Let's go to the bridge,” Yu Ya says.
The bridge we're heading for supports the roadway leading to the Yangon Central Train station, beneath it runs Bo Gyoke Road. On the way there, we past a cluster of homeless people, spread out on cardboard boxes below the awning of an old cinema that appears to still run movies during the day. I'm so tired that the boxes and ground look mightily comfortable.
We clamber onto the wide, stone railing along the stairs up to the bridge.
We'll wait for morning here we agree.
Three motorbikes zip below us, one without its headlights on. It doesn't even register how strange of a sighting it is until Yu Ya reminds me that motorcycles and scooters aren't allowed in Yangon – another reason that not dragging the bike into Myanmar turned out to be a good idea.
With Yu Ya behind me, I lay back on the rail, putting my head in her lap. Her fingers comb my hair as she tells me to just go to sleep.
I don't sleep, but it's hard to imagine the night being any better, at least at this moment.
At some point, Yu Ya ends up in front of me. I wrap her in my arms for a second then lean back and enjoy the chill of the early morning. The sky has yet to lighten, but it will soon.
Waving in and out of my conscious mind, my fingers feel the lacy texture of her underwear, just below the elastic band.
“Feeling my underwear?” Yu Ya says, calling me out.
“Yeah, Victory Secret, but they have a Tommy Hilfiger waistband,” she says.
Yu Ya hikes up her skirt on one side bearing all the lovely black lace of her underwear, to show me the waistband.
She's right, it does have that brilliant elastic band that's so great about Tommy Hilfiger undergarments.
Yu Ya lowers her dress back down to her muscular calves.
The loud echoing call of a gong sounds somewhere nearby, accompanied by a rooster in the empty plot below us: a fenced in square with the remnants of a construction idea that never came to fruition.
The gong sounds again in the relative stillness of the city.
Suddenly, a silent procession of monks appear below us. Single file, their dark burgundy figures skate down the empty road. From up here, the monks nearly look like ants, orderly marching along, splitting somewhere below the bridge into two lines destined for two separate alms gathering points. For minutes the monks continue to pour out from below the bridge, dozens, if not a couple hundred of them putting there bare feet down on the road as they must do every morning.
The gong is struck again and the rooster chimes in providing a momentary sound bite for the magical procession.
After the monks disappear, silhouettes of two police officers in custodian helmets appear on the steps above us.
We've overstayed our welcome.
It's nearly 6am as we get back on our feet. Fingers still laced together, we walk back to the Royal Star Guesthouse. Michelle should be waking up soon.
As we arrive, Michelle finally responds to the messages.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“Downstairs. Come get me,” Yu Ya replies.
With Yu Ya's finally able to get up to the room, I give her a huge hug and scuttle off to my own bed. It's been a long night.