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Buddha and Billboards

by Ryan Bahry

My first day in Myanmar (Burma), I attended a city orientation of Yangon, the country’s capital and largest urban center.  I was able to walk through parts of Yangon that were home to many of the old British colonial buildings, now dilapidated and decaying.  I viewed many of the important religious sights, including the Sule and Shwedagon pagodas, and the reclining image of Buddha.  I walked through the bustling marketplace, more primitive than those in Vietnam but filled with curious looks and smiles from the Burmese people.  I spent the week based in Yangon, and I was able to experience many aspects of the city, and found that in this particular city more than any that we had visited previously, I was easily able to identify many examples of contrast between the transnational and the vernacular. 

    In Donald Seekins’ article “The State and the City: 1988 and the Transformation of Rangoon,” he discusses the evolution of Yangon in recent years to attain a more transnational identity.  Seekins discusses the events leading up to Yangon’s shift, and describes a city where there are opportunities to eat high priced Chinese food dishes or just a hamburger, enjoy entertainment such as karaoke and disco dancing, and where one can window shop for electronics such as televisions and CD players.  I was fortunate enough to experience this transnational identity of Yangon, and realized that much of what Seekins described in his article was clearly illustrated in Yangon city life.
    One of the most transnational buildings I was able to visit was the Sakura Tower, a business tower that offered a panoramic view of the city from its top floor.  The modern building, complete with a high-end bar and restaurant on the observation deck, was extremely similar to the elegant design and luxurious services of similar buildings I have visited in cities such as Seattle in the United States, or even the Tokyo Tower in Japan.  The view from the Sakura tower also allowed for the observation of several contrasts between the transnational and the vernacular.  Standing at the top of this beautiful, modern tower, one can observe stretches of old, dilapidated buildings as far as the eye can see.  These old buildings, which appear to be old housing units, are a stunning reminder of the reality of life in Yangon, and remain decaying and covered in mold—these structures and housing units are impossible to disguise with the veil of modernization in the form of electronics shops and well-kept green space.  At the same time, one can look down and observe the beautiful, vernacular Sule pagoda in the midst of a traffic circle and surrounded by busy flows of traffic. 

    The vernacular aspects of Burma were present almost everywhere I visited, but the religious influence and local importance placed on Buddhism and monks were unavoidable in the city of Yangon.  One of the most stunning images that I was able to observe was a monk, dressed entirely in traditional robes and garb, standing on an overpass looking out at the traffic and billboards all around him.  It was an interesting illustration of the contrast that exists between the transnational and the vernacular in Yangon.

    More so than any city that I had visited previously, Yangon possessed many examples that clearly illustrated the concepts that we have discussed in our class regarding the transnational and vernacular present.  In this Yangon’s recent history, it is clear that progress has been made to make the city a more transnational space—however, it is impossible to avoid the stunning local influences that remain present throughout the city

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