Preserve the Aurora Markets of Yangon, Myanmar

  • Posted on: 1 March 2018
  • By: Sander

I walk out into the night of Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) to an outdoor corner restaurant which pops up at dusk and disappears by dawn. The night is dark, scattered with red and orange lights from cars and the few remaining open shops. Tables full of food jut out into the street nearly into traffic while smaller plastic tables and chairs occupy the space between it and the sidewalk. As I approach, two old men wave me to their table. I join them and they offer me coffee and a cigarette. They speak only a few words of English and I speak even less Burmese. Somehow, over coffee, tea and cigarettes, we manage. I gather one owns the corner store and his son is there working it. He gathers that I am a photographer staying in the nearby hotel. Occasionally I smile at the girl working the table. She beams back. I venture a photo of the scene and she ducks out of sight. So we sip and smoke, the two old men and I, and smile together. The mix of curry, smoke and gasoline whisper around the glow of flames and headlights. The grey haired man calls a small boy over to refill the teapot and I switch from coffee to tea. We sip. I notice that I am the only foreigner to be seen. Eventually it is time for the men to go. They pay, insisting despite my protestations on paying for me as well, and I bid them goodnight.

Aurora Market Yangon

Before they are two steps away, a teenage boy at a table with 3 others beckons me over. I smile and join them, bringing my cup of tea and cigarettes with me. The boy who called me over speaks some English but the other three do not. Where am I from? What am I doing here? He translates the questions from the other boys as well and I answer as simply as I can. Language barriers persist but we are all patient. I snap a photo. One of them hides from the camera but the others enjoy it. We smoke and they are impressed with my pack of Dunhills. I start asking how to say things in Burmese. The boy notices me typing the phrases out on my phone and takes over, giving way too many suggestions for me to memorize, but they're written down.

Every night after the relatively few tourists who visit this city disappear into their hotels, makeshift restaurants like this pop up all over the city. The shops exist for the residents rather than for the tourists and represent the microcosm of that neighborhood. Comprised of regulars most of them live within a few blocks and they all know each other. With the sun set the streets have finally cooled down, the work is done for the day and it is time to relax, talk, drink tea, smoke and laugh. The people who run these work hard all night and sleep in the day. One could almost say that there are two cities: Yangon by day and Yangon by night.  These are known by locals as the Aurora markets.

Now, according to an article in The Myanmar Times, the city wants to shut this world down. The article was published November 17th 2016 with implementation as soon as November 24th or 25th. Those who don’t comply face fines or worse. Considering this issue hasn’t had very much coverage and many of the vendors are illiterate, a week between announcement and implementation is unreasonable. Government officials announce that they will create a new night market where vendors can rent space by the year plus daily water and cleaning fees. This market is isolated to the Strand, a street name hailing from British imperialism along the Yangon river. While a prominent tourist location it is fairly distant from the center of the city or trading centers such as the Chinese Markets. It will serve about 1600 out of the estimated 6000 vendors in Yangon. The remainder will have to vacate major roads and move to smaller side streets. Many of these side streets are already crowded with vendors leaving little space for the newcomers.

Yangon Aurora Market

The problem extends beyond the increased expenses it will cause for some and the increased competition it will create for the rest of the vendors. It also destroys the sense of community these spaces provide for those who live nearby. Those who frequent this world will not travel down to Strand in order to have some tea with friends. They may simply not go out at all. This move has the potential to destroy one of the more unique cultural aspects of the city.

I left Yangon, continuing my journey by train through the southern peninsula as far as regulations allow, returning two weeks later. What I discovered shocked me. In that short time the city had indeed implemented and opened the tourist market along the Strand. I walked through it during the day - it closes at 10pm, before the Aurora markets typically open, making it a bit ironic that they call it the night market. I returned to Hotel K where I was staying and asked them for a recommendation of a translator. I called him and although he was a bit surprised that I wanted to hire him during the evening and night we agreed on a price for him to walk and translate with me from 6pm to midnight.

Given the timing it only made sense to start with the Night Market on The Strand. Ignoring his protestations that it was a very long stretch and we should take a cab to the end, I convinced him to walk the length of it with me so we could experience the entire scene. Along the way I would periodically stop when I saw a sufficiently interesting shop. I would buy something - anything - for each of us and through him ask if the owner was around to interview. I got mixed reactions. Many didn’t like the new market. For some the problem was a loss of community - for others it was the increased competition. Some liked it for the cleanliness, electricity and running water, and the response to income varied with some reporting earning more, others less and still others about the same.

Once I had found a good variety of opinions and it was time for the Aurora markets to begin we headed back to the center of the city. Here we found a different experience. First I went to find the market I had endeared myself to in the beginning of this journey. Unfortunately it was nowhere to be found. Since it was on a main intersection, I decided to try some surrounding smaller streets. These were decidedly more crowded than they had been two weeks before, and all the vendors there were unhappy. Whether because of the new invasion of their claimed market spaces or because they were a newcomer who had been forced out of their coveted spot on a main thoroughfare, the primary crackdown from the government. Still I couldn’t find the people I was most familiar with. Eventually I ran across some of the customers I had met. While none of them knew where the market had moved to, some of them had ideas or had heard rumors. We tried all of them to no avail. Finally our night came to a close and I had to admit defeat. I made a final exchange with him where I would edit the English on his facebook page if he would continue to look for them after I left. We both kept our promises and he did eventually make contact, sending a few more details I had asked for. Despite that one thing was clear: their lives had been uprooted by the governments’ well-meant change.

I have searched for the reason the city is doing this but cannot find a good one, either from the city department who has announced this or in any news source. The amount of income generated for the city by this new market likely will not even cover the cost of its’ existence. The vendors are not interrupting other forms of commerce, present no danger and fill a communal niche not provided elsewhere. One guess could be that the city is attempting to make the city more palatable to tourism. This is evidenced by the design’s mirror of the tourist markets in Bangkok. If that is the case I implore Yangon to understand that the uniqueness of this city, the mix of old and new, colonial architecture, cultural history, religion, and modernization all mixed together is the draw for the tourists who come here now - and as you change I would ask you to not walk away from that which makes you attractive today. The only thing I can see it accomplishing is making life more difficult for one of the most vulnerable groups of residents who have few other options than what they do now, while destroying one of the more unique and lesser known aspects of Yangon. For tourists visiting Yangon I highly recommend taking the time to explore whatever remains of the Aurora markets, and for the government I implore you to find a solution more amicable for all of the residents of this chaotic, beautiful and unique city.