By Nathaniel Brunt
I fly to Burma’s former capital Yangon in mid-December. It’s the cold season, but the temperature is well above 30C and the air is thick with pollution and moisture. My shirt sticks to my back as I make my way to the airport taxi stand.
I stay in the heart of the city and spend my days wandering its vein-like streets; narrow lanes, divided by crumbling colonial-era buildings; hot, claustrophobic environments overflowing with bodies in constant contact and motion.
In the streets labourers in soiled t-shirts and longyis (traditional Burmese sarongs) carry huge bundles of goods, fighting for space with rundown cars and trucks as their superiors scream at them to keep up their break-neck pace. They take little notice of me, or flash a quick shy smile, as I work around them with my camera, trying to stay out of their way.
In the city’s many overcrowded outdoor markets there is a certain theatrical element, as fishmongers offer buckets of their live goods to women with white smears of thanaka (a traditional white paste used to protect the skin against the sun) on their cheeks. Behind them butchers hack away at huge cuts of bloody meat in the open air. Watching from dark alcoves and alleyway cafes, men sip at thick cups of bitter Burmese tea and smoke cigarettes, shying away from the afternoon heat.
After dark the temperature comes down and I spend my nights above the streets on a patio in one of the city’s open air beer stations. The aroma of frying fish and meat cooking on charcoal barbecues wafts through the air from the street-side stands below. The bar is a strange, seedy retreat from the chaos of the streets. The huge space is largely vacant except for a collection of servers in pressed white shirts and black bow ties and a few small groups of men huddled around bottles of rice whiskey, wreathed in clouds of thick cigarette smoke. Their conversations are virtually inaudible, drowned out by the shrill voices of the dolled-up karaoke divas, who, I’m told, moonlight as prostitutes. They receive little attention from the clientele and the only applause seems to come from the staff.
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