The ceiling is high and vaulted in oak, as you would expect in the dining room of a Tudor mansion. The building is far taller than it needs to be and there is a balcony around the central concourse that appears to be solely decorative. Pigeon feathers float down from nests in the coves carved out of the wood, and the rounded and rhythmic sounds of the Myanmar language are drawn upwards into the expanse of warm air above the cluster of four check-in desks.
Moving beyond these small administrative boxes and then turning a corner to face the singular bag scanner, that accounts for the entirety of airport security, you become aware of a shift in the sense of space. Moving from lofty and empty, the space becomes suddenly constricted and low, hot and full of impatient passengers. You pass through into a holding bay, the illusion of airy space is entirely forgotten. There is no point in looking for an actual chair, or even a metal bench, as there are already busloads of people who have resigned themselves to the hard scuffed floor. The only floor space free is on the stairs up to the upper lounge.
The reason that creeps in through the sliding doors which are the only way out of this humid human holding pen. There is heavy smog clinging to the ground. The airport personnel navigate through the passengers with both a sense of utter surprise and resignation. This both does and doesn’t normally happen. There is no communication to the hundreds of passengers who are waiting to take to the air. Attentive eyes flick to the plasma TV screen which reveals no update on any flights, cheerily displaying all green go ahead bars of flight numbers although not one craft has left the runway in over five hours. Some passengers have given in to the lull of a half-sleep propping themselves up against bags and what other comforts they might find, such as pillars and corners. Others stand near the sliding doors, in a state of mild agitation, unwilling to accept the futility of impatience. These people are mostly tourists.
We stand, since there would not be room for us to sit. It is the most chaotic airport I have ever experienced. Clearly at capacity, it is a health and safety, security and hygiene nightmare. But at least it isn’t lonely. Here in this crowded hall it is hard to imagine the cold cool expanse of wide concourses and empty travelators in other airports around the world. Amidst so many people it seems fictional to dream up such a sense of emptiness and detachment. No, here in Yangon, the airport feels, really feels, like a hub of human transportation. Bodies in motion, or at least they could be. By virtue of the contrast to the chaos of the departure lounge you can truly get a sense of the miracle of flight. I imagine forward to a few hours time when I am up in the air, away from all of these other passengers who are going to Inle Lake, or Mandalay or somewhere beyond. Down here is a nice contrast to the dry and miserable vacuum awaiting us at 36,000ft.
Meanwhile, I try to find a place to sit down upstairs, and fail. Instead I buy and consume a terrible cup of coffee from a flustered attendant in the upper lounge. It tastes of salt and gasoline. I drink it for lack of other entertainment or occupation. It scalds the roof of my mouth and has a strong acidic burn that begins to agitate the lining of my apprehensive stomach. From this higher vantage I survey the sea of faces, the singular set of sliding doors, and the unchanging plasma screens above them. Outside the windows there is only fog. All that should be solid has melted into the thickness of the air. It is like we are already up in the clouds. This fog is dark; full of particles of dust, red from the dry earth, of black petrol from the exhausts of the ever-expanding fleet of vehicles around the metropolitan centre, mixed with saline water drawn up from the Indian Ocean. Through such a density of weather it is impossible to see any of the small aircraft that are out on the tarmac but I can sense that they are there waiting for us. They must be equally impatient for some fresh air.
It is tiring to be surrounded by so many people, and to be waiting, and to be unsure of what is happening. But it also makes you feel human. Yangon airport is a reminder of the forces that we are able to overcome in flight. Space, weight and time. Here on the ground we are subject to these governing forces. We are confined, and cannot move beyond this area until the fog lifts. We are grounded. We feel one another’s physical bodily heat and shape in the cramped departure hall. Carbon Dioxide condenses on the glass. To is a reminder that we are not often the masters of our own time and are held in holding. Nature holds us under a dank tablecloth and there is no choice but to relent and wait. Fog wields the power here.