Exploring Chinatown in Myanmar
By Jude Carvalho
You know the saying “There’s a Chinatown in every major city in the world”? This also applies to Yangon, one of the major hubs in Myanmar. A Chinatown is typically a place with lots of activity, nightlife and street food, and the one in Yangon is no different.
Yangon’s Chinatown isn’t merely a congregational spot for the Chinese diaspora – in fact, the Chinese culture has helped shaped Myanmar’s cuisine – but a thriving spot where locals and tourists alike can come and sample what the country has to offer.
The main draw of Yangon’s Chinatown is 19th Street, which runs between Maha Bandula Road and Anawrahta Road. This place seems to be bustling with activity from dawn to dusk. During daytime, the market scene resembles the host of other local wet markets you’ll be able to find in the area. The vibe is generally more mellow during this time, with many locals getting in their grocery purchases for the day.
Fresh seafood, vegetables, fruits and snacks are laid out for display, with stalls lining either side of the street. Even the middle of the street is not spared sometimes, with vendors setting up shop there, little baskets and chairs in place to peddle their wares.
These makeshift stalls are then tugged aside as cars and jeeps drive through the cramped quarters, then quickly replaced in the vehicles’ wake. It’s a dynamic setting for commerce, but most of the locals who are here at this time aren’t coming for recreation, but to go about their daily errands.
Food stalls at this hour are practical, with steel boxes of food such as curry, vegetables and eggs arranged side by side, ready to be picked and served with white rice. Spinning fans with long strands of leaves help keep flies at bay, and I find myself grateful for the convenience, as I have worked up an appetite negotiating this street.
As the sun sets and twilight takes over, the street seems to put on a different mask. Fewer vehicles seem to pass by at this hour, and so the food stalls begin propping their tables in the middle of the street, turning the area into a free-for-all al fresco dining experience. Smells of barbecued meat and alcohol waft through the air, tempting the new visitor to stop for a snack and a cold one.
These makeshift stalls are well equipped for the weather too, with patio umbrellas instantly providing cover at the first sign of rain. It seems like, while many things here look improvised, they’re actually pretty well thought out to provide the most seamless experience for customers.
The fading brightness of twilight is replaced with neon lights as well as fluorescent tubes hanging between both sides of the street. Besides restaurants, there are a couple of watering holes waiting to serve you. The 19th Street truly comes alive at this hour, and this is when the locals seem to let loose and hang out with their friends to bring their busy day to an end.
On the outskirts of 19th Street, children play games of football and chinlone along the tarmac, right next to the rickshaws that await visitors needing a ride back to their hotel.
Every Chinatown seems to share the same theme, yet remain totally different from each other. This is one such example of a totally foreign variant to me, and I’m no stranger to Chinatowns, being half Chinese myself.
If you find yourself at a loss for places to get food or drinks during your late nights in Yangon, then the 19th Street in Chinatown is where you’ll definitely want to head. Yours truly certainly found himself there quite a number of times during his stay in the city, and while you won’t be leaving with great gifts to bring back to your loved ones, you’ll certainly taste a slice of local culture, at great value for money too.