San Pya wholesale fish market is a chaotic wet mass of men hauling, heaving colourful plastic coffin-like containers brimming with ocean delicacies, boots squishing fish innards; a humid, messy concrete wasteland over-flowing with discarded grimy plastic wraps and flakes of off-white million-year lasting styrofoam. For those eager to experience the bustle and not afraid of getting scaly fish slime on their shoes (it will take at least a day to remove the smell) it’s worth an early wakeup. The men, in Day-Glo gumboots, capped with shiny gold colonial piths, and stripped down to football shorts and long socks, begin work early, so early many locals are still staggering home with a belly full of BBQ skewers and beer.
The men hurriedly unload the boats that sail in along the hazardously polluted Yangon river, haul the catch contained within bright plastic coffin-like containers and quickly repack it in smaller ice boxes for local distribution. It’s gruelling work done under tough conditions. Each man seems to have a specialist job, from the burly coffin-runners welding steel trolleys, to the young tattooed punks furiously repacking the fish, to wiry icemen, neither young nor muscled, wrapped up in winter jackets, shovelling crushed ice from within the mist created by a rapacious ice cruncher, to the plumb overseers, watching the fish being weighed from their cushioned platforms and conspicuous with a thermo of steaming tea. The morning passes quickly. Soon the darkness cedes to the morning light, and not long after the heat of the midday sun preempts somewhat of a slowdown, unless of course it’s raining, which it constantly is in July and August.
The market itself is labyrinth-like: full of tight, debris laden, concrete alleys encircling a maze of crumbling warehouses where fish descalers and filleters are busy at work. Here you might might small quantities of fresh fish for sale to local restauranteurs and if you look carefully enough, men taking a quick nap on makeshift benches, as rats the size of new born puppies scurry beneath. As bills are settled, workers are paid, notes wrapped tightly in a thin cigar shape gleefully unfurled by the workers. Over to the day crew – its time for some thick warm tea and mont lin ma ya for breakfast!