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Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar (also known as Burma), with more than 7 million citizens, and served as the country’s capital city until 2006.

US sound designer and Cities and Memory contributor Michael McDermott wrote this special guest guide for us – a Yangon city guide for the sounds to listen out for when visiting the city.

Yangon city guide

In February 2018 I had the chance to visit Myanmar (Burma). We had no real plan except to experience this country that’s not a usual destination for tourists. With its history of military coups, the “no-go” zones , and the fact that Myanmar was closed to tourists until very recently, we weren’t sure what to expect. Partly we did not want to support a government that’s sponsoring such violence against its people, but part of us wanted to see (and hear) a country in Southeast Asia that’s rapidly opening up and changing dramatically. We also wanted to support the local people and the growing spirit of openness in the country.

We started our time in Myanmar in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). We felt very welcomed by the people of Yangon and Myanmar in general.

1. Morning crows

We stayed in the old town for a week. This part of the city was a busy area with many small temples, the historical house where the current president Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest for 15 years – and also home to crows. Many, many, many crows. In our flat on the fifth floor we were awoken each morning to a chorus of crows circling, nesting and walking on the roof. There were so many giant crows all over the city, I wondered what they ate to maintain such a high population and such a giant size.

2. Street food and street cafes

One of the things I loved about Yangon was the food. Myanmar’s food is quite different from the food of its neighbours Thailand and India, but somehow a mix of the two cuisines. Often food markets and cafes would serve people on the sidewalk or under a canopy and you would sit at tiny plastic chairs and tables enjoying freshly-made soups, salads, curries and rice dishes. This is a quick recording made at lunch by a roadside cafe.

3. Blocks of shops

Walking around Yangon you can get a feel for the various sections of the city. Often blocks are divided up into sections, for example a block of clothing stores or a block of vegetable stores. This is a quick recording on a block of electronics stores that looked like a maze of wires and all manner of electronics and appliances from the last 60 years.

4. Green spaces – and traffic noise

Yangon has many beautiful public green spaces. We found time to visit many lovely parks, square and areas along the river. Because Yangon is a very crowded city with cars, like many south-east Asian cities, despite moments of visual beauty, we could never escape the constant din of cars and car horns.

5. Temples and pagodas

As a practicing American Buddhist in the Theravada tradition it was a sacred experience for me to see a Buddhist country first hand. As common as churches are in Europe, Thailand and Myanmar have Buddhist temples every few blocks. Also seeing monks and sometimes nuns in orange or maroon robes walking around the cities, interaction with people living their lives was very special and serene. Many of the temples were very small, sometimes just the size of a corner church in Europe or America. However, Yangon is home to some of the world’s largest pagoda temples. One place we visited twice was the Schwedegon Pagoda. It’s a massive golden structure that you can see from all over the city. It’s a beautiful complex of smaller shrines, altars and places where Buddhism pilgrims light candles, ring bells and pay homage. After we took our shoes off and climbed up the stairs and escalators to the top, I took out my binaural headphones and recorded some of the sounds at the top of the pagoda. 

For more information on Michael’s work and specifically his field recording series on Inner and Outer Landscapes, head over here