Bob Percival discovers clean alleyways, woodcarvings, duck eggs, and two very protective small dogs down on 13th Street.
It’s time to clean up Yangon! With the election of the new government, one of the things that has changed is that downtown Yangon is finally coming to terms with its rubbish. Years of neglect have left the laneways full of trash and ravenous rodents.
Today I am again walking with Khin Yadan Htun, an avid lover of all things goth, as well as an expert make-up artist. We start our journey at the bottom block, corner of Strand Road and 13th Street. The rain has finally retreated and a blue incandescent sky lies overhead. The first thing we notice is a plethora of red plastic canvas signs, new to downtown. They proclaim a one year prison sentence or a fine, ranging from10,000-500,000Ks for anyone throwing rubbish out of their rear windows into back alleyways – a strong incentive indeed. I won’t be sorry to see my four-legged friends retreat.
On the corner pavement, facing Strand Road, Shwe La Win is expertly carving a teak panel that will become part of a wardrobe. He works quickly and efficiently, with amazing speed and accuracy, It only takes him 30 minutes to carve the intricate design. He’s been doing it for 21 years, and working at this corner furniture shop, Swe Hinthar Furniture, for 7 years. He gets paid by the piece. We are amazed that we can buy this now beautifully carved panel of teak for only 1600Ks. Shwe La Win can complete four wardrobes a day. The owner, Ah Leong, is only too happy to sell you individual pieces on request.
Just up from Shwe Lan Win, we come across Daw Mya, sitting in the sun outside the salubrious Myanmar Lacquerware Shop, at No.7. She is reweaving the rattan webbing of the shopowner’s personal reading chair. Her work is skillful and precise. Very few people in Myanmar now have this skill of rattan weaving. Daw Mya is 70 years old and lives in Dalah, as do her three sons. For the last month she has had no work. Daw Mya will finish this job in three hours and be paid 300,000Ks. Good money but not often gained. Pop inside the Lacquerware Shop, the lacquerware is of the highest standard and well worth a look. The shop has been open for 25 years, and is now run by two sisters, Khine Khine and Naing Naing. The wares are made in Bagan and the shop supplies top-end hotels and restaurants. Prices range from15,000Ks for a small bowl, to $2800 for a huge lacquerware urn. Take your pick.
Over on the right side of the street at No.18 you will find the fascinating duck egg shop belonging to Ms. Annamal of J.S. Enterprise. She has been running the place for 20 years, only selling eggs wholesale to stores, restaurants, hotel and markets around town. All the duck eggs come from her own farm at Mhawbi, on the outskirts of Yangon. Out there she has 30,000 ducks laying 20,000 eggs a day. Each egg is priced at 125Ks, but sold wholesale in 10 trays of 30 eggs for 37,500Ks. Ms. Annamal is happy to sell you a small lot if you wish.
Further up at No.32, there is 1982 building, and if you look up you will see a top edifice with a sculpted green parrot put there by the original owner of the building. This was the brand logo of a very famous cigar that came from Bago, called Shwe Gal (Golden Brand Parrot). Acroos the road is the Shwe Thazin Rice & Oil Shop. Khine buys some freshly-pressed peanut oil from Magwe for her grandmother, as its her favourite. A viss (1,6kg) costs 4900Ks. High quality rice from Shwebo is also available at 49,000Ks for 50kg bag. Further up the street on the left side is some very colourul street art, and good street food.
On the north-east corner of Mahabandoola Road & 19th Street, in the middle block, you can get some great early-morning noodle salad, kauk swe thoke, for only 500Ks a dish. Here, there is also the award-winning Fruit Juice & Juices Shop, owned by the very friendly Soe Soe Mew, who offers a huge variety of juices made from fresh avocado, dragonfruit, lime, apple, sunkist, banana, passionfruit, watermelon, papaya and of course avocado (1500Ks) – delicious!
At No.68 you will find an example of 1957 modernism with architectural curves in concrete. And up at No.88 we are welcomed into the recently opened Agga Guest House, very popular with backpackers, and good value at $US20 a night. The staff are all young Burmese and incredibly friendly. Across at No.89 there is a funky green two-storey building with a very cool Chevrolet-like 1957 motif, similar to the ‘streamline moderne’ metal badge you see on Hino buses around town. At No.96 there are two small dogs guarding the entrance of the house with a ferocity far outmatching their size.
We cross the Anawratha Road to the upper block. On the corner, a large tree that has somehow managed to survive, displays another red sign. This one notifying that ‘vendors are not allowed to sel or lend or rent this space because it is public property’. A very contentious issue, it’s the vendors that contribute so much to the street life of downtown Yangon. There are plans to push all vendors down to the long stretch of Strand Road. Not quite the same as grabbing a snack from your favourite food satll as you walk along the street.
Despite the sign there is a wonderful Burmese buffet stall right next door, selling tasy mohinga, fried rice, and brewed tea (500Ks). The mohinga without fried gourd is 500Ks, and with, 600Ks. The owner of the stall is Naing, who has been here 10 years. At the moment he is having no trouble with the YCDC council. The upper block of 13th Street stops short at the wall to the Thawyettaw Kyaungttaw monastery complex. Well worth a look if you can find the entrance gate nearby. There is a very simple two-storey building at No.111 with wooden railings on the verandah, and a laundry opposite. Local laundries are quite rare. The real surprise in when you enter the rear laneway at the end of the street. Go and have a look. Enjoy!