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Cyclone alters Yangon's tree-lined streets

world Updated: May 11, 2008 11:37 IST
Grant McCool
Grant McCool
Reuters
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The shady streets of Yangon, one of Asia's greenest cities, could have been changed forever by Cyclone Nargis, which knocked down many of its 100-year-old trees.

People in Myanmar's biggest city fear the storm's 190 kph (120 mph) winds not only took lives but also ruined livelihoods, dealing a blow to an already fragile tourism industry.

"This was such a beautiful city, but no more," said Kyaw Win, standing by his house next to Kandawgi Lake surveying fallen trees mangled with electricity pylons.

"And after the trees fell, it's so hot."

One week after the cyclone tore through the low-lying Irrawaddy delta and into Yangon, residents and maroon-robed monks are still chopping and sawing tree trunks along the side of roads, with some splayed roots as big as cars.

Huge tree trunks form a natural roadblock in front of the army blockade on the approach to Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's lakeside house, where the pro-democracy leader is detained.

Across the river from the city centre, monks sell chopped logs at two for $1 because they are not receiving the usual donations from locals who are struggling to rebuild their homes.

Yangon's people are not short of firewood.

The storm stripped the former capital of about one third of its biggest trees, but the military government has only just started to send soldiers to help clear up the debris.

Loaded trucks dump branches and logs, destined to be made into charcoal, in an open car park behind the ancient, gold bell-shaped Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred site of Myanmar's Buddhists.

Park strewn with trees

"It's a terrible disaster," said a French tourist, Dominique Mas, whose 26-strong tour group left Yangon the night before the cyclone struck and returned a week later.

"The problem will be the fall of tourism," he added. "People will be afraid to go to a town they think is ruined."

Many tourists have already shunned Myanmar, swayed by boycott campaigns against the military government because of human rights violations over 46 years of army rule.

In the aftermath of cyclone Nargis, Western embassies are advising their citizens to leave because of expected shortages of food, water and petrol.

"Business is very bad," said Ei Mon Oo, a tour operator in one of the city's main hotels. "The tourists aren't coming in, and many of the tour destinations are closed."

The lacquer souvenir stalls and painting shops at one well known tourist destination, the Bogyoke Market, are still boarded up. The 110-year-old zoo has shut its gates because trees cover the lion and tiger enclosures, and the Shwedagon Pagoda only readmitted Buddhists and tourists on Saturday.

Sturdy colonial-era stone buildings stood up well to the storm and the city is starting to get back to normal.

Queues for petrol, which had stretched for several blocks, have dwindled as supplies increased. Houses are receiving mains water, but because of cuts in electricity, many cannot pump it through their taps.

Taxi drivers fear it will be months before tourist numbers return to usual.

"No tourists anymore, just a few journalists," one said.

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