A Keyhole into Burma – This ain’t Kansas

My first day in Yangon was draining. Interminable walking in dusty 102 degree heat and humoring enthusiastic English speakers every few minutes can sap the most tolerant of Beckham look-a-likes. By nightfall, I longed for my guesthouse bed and sweet, sweet air-con.

As I made my way to my guesthouse, it became clear that parts of Yangon were suffering from a blackout. Street and traffic lights were out and all buildings were dark. The only light available came from passing cars, candles at food stalls and the occasional generator powered light in front of a shop or home. I was forced to slow my pace so I could cautiously judge whether or not I was about to step in an open ditch or on the tail of a stray animal.

Visibility briefly improved outside an unmarked, walled and barb-wired compound. Strangely, the street lights here were working. I stepped around a huge barrier on the corner of the block and up onto an abnormally pristine sidewalk. I marched along with the whole sidewalk to myself for almost half a block before a woman pleaded for me to step back down into the street. It turned out I was walking past the ministry’s compound and they do not allow people to walk on the sidewalk outside the walls. Yangon’s best maintained sidewalk is off-limits to pedestrians. That’s just so military junta, isn’t it?

A few blocks later I was accosted by a young man with the best English skills I’d heard all day. He invited me for a chat and Chinese tea at his food stall. At one point he went a little overboard extolling how handsome I was. Apparently, Burmese men regularly and honestly lavish other men with compliments about their looks. They’re also unusually same-sex affectionate, putting arms around each other and idly hugging one another.


The young man invited me to attend his English class the following day. The thought of spending a few hours in a room full of Beckham-loving English speakers was not without its appeal, but I’d already committed to a full schedule of touring Yangon’s most gnarly tourist sights with a local guide. The young man was understanding, but asked if I would visit him the following evening for more tea and conversation. I agreed, bid him goodnight, and continued the pitch-black walk to my guesthouse.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.