stories of Myanmar 2005
The airline ticket sage - or -the ultimate free market economy.
This story is worth telling:
For once I'm the first customer through the door. The agent's computers are still booting up and I'm already asking them about flights to Sittwe. Lovely and charming they do their best, but its clear I'm too early, so I go and surf the net around the corner.
"Sorry Sir, the flights are all booked out. Today is full moon holiday, you will find that many businesses are closed”.
"Really, nothing I can do ? pay a bit more ? special 1st class ?"
Nothing can be done. Even standby is dicey and if I get a seat it would cost the full published fare of $90 instead of $78.
They try to help me: "Here is the Myanmar Airline office address, you can try there".
Off I trot. Past the US embassy. If they were paranoid before, they went one up from there. Signs of NO PHOTO, NO VIDEO plastered every 5 meters. I have the feeling I'm being monitored just walking by on the other side. A tension exudes from that immaculately kept building and its antenna farm on the roof. All around the same vintage Myanmar Government buildings are in advanced stages of decrepitude, water damage, boarded up windows at ground level and open glassless windows further up. Freshly washed shirts of the public servants hang from the windows. People live here, their whole lives take place in the office. Home away from home.
Its hot, trees and decaying buildings in the lazy heat. I love that atmosphere, its got something I really enjoy, much prefer to the clean skyscrapers of my won world. But then I have a nice cool hotel room to go back to.
"Postcards, one thousant Kyat, everything!", and she lets go of the packet of cards which drop concertinas ground. Two little Indian girls, wiry, thin and alive like quicksilver, look at me. Their faces painted with the Thanaka everyone puts on their cheeks. Smiling I shake my head, I've seen this routine too often.
On second thoughts, their English is perfect: "Hey do you know where the Myanmar Airline office is ?"
Eagerly they point to a building and run ahead to show me. Instantly I have guides. The older taller and darker one takes me to the front, they wait outside. I wander up to the second floor and realize I’m lost. Looking down the long grand stairwell to the front door they are still watching me so I beckon them up. They race up to stand beside me in the deserted building. Then a government official in her 'government official shuffle' comes past. I make a gesture and they ask her in Burmese her for the ticket counter.
Down we go again. It’s a vast hall, old and disused furniture in one corner, the ceiling is 3 times the usual height, the whole building has seen better days.
In the corner is a small group of people.
A helpful guy comes across to ask me what I want.
I know he's after a commission, but I need someone to navigate for me. We zip out around the building and into another large hall, full of people waiting in the semidarkness.
He tells me I need to buy a form for 200Kyat. Then they need my passport, and a photo.
No photo ? no problem, we photocopy from your passport.
" 50 Kyat for photocopy please!". (NB:200Kyat is an hour's wage for many people, a day’s wage for some)
Mr Helpful is now filling out forms for me, writing things down, ushers me to the other counter across the hall and explains that on special days like this, the counter is usually only open between 8:30 and 9:30am. Now being late, a small late fee will be payable. The exact figure disappears in the gush of babble but the figure ‘five’ surfaces occasionally.
The girls meanwhile give me warning looks, they tell me: "Too much money". I'm touched that they would bother to warn me about being ‘screwed’, but then I know what's going on, I'm here to get what I want. Of course that means special ‘admin fees’ are applicable. In my country they charge students $200 for late enrolments, so ok I'll pay late fees.
Forms and things move back and forth, but I'm in good hands, Mr Helpful my attorney, is managing it all for me. Naturally there will be a time of reckoning at the end.
The girls are now shushed away, the Helpfull doesn't trust them. They knew me first (by one minute) and thus have a prior claim on me and are more loyal to me than to him.
As we walk round back to the other hall the girls manage to tell me: "You pay too much". I smile, I know, I'm being 'screwed'. But do I want to take a bus for 12 hours and a ship for 2 days ? Let me try here a bit longer. I'll have to do enough bussing in the next 3 weeks, I'm sure. Flying is a luxury even for me. I’m "Mr Moneybags" in the eyes of the Burmese, but even I can't afford too many flights.
Now the real business starts. Mr Helpful handles everything, asking me for the money, the passport etc.... He carefully writes down the serial number of the $100 bill. I have to pay a total of $90 here, that's only for the ticket of course. Commissions come later. No one is that helpful without a good reason.
A small problem, they don't have $10 change, only $20 or $5 or those dreaded FEC's. (Foreign Exchange Certificates, that travellers hate with a passion, and call monopoly money). FEC's have only just been discontinued. When I inform Mr Helpful of this fact and refuse to accept FEC's he fully understands and does not try to push it.
I pretend to have no change either, because often someone nearby or another room will be able to help, perhaps they don't want to walk round and get it. Lets test this first.
Its clear there really is no $10 change to be found.
Ok, much as I hate to do it I pull out my special stash of $1 dollar bills. (one dollars are very useful to give to people looking for a 'present').
Mr Helpful now writes down the serial number of every single bill. I help him by cycling through the wad as he writes.
Two other Burmese women with wads of dollars and FEC's stand around waiting. They are the agent's runners, holding lists of names. Maybe I'm kicking somebody off a fully booked plane ? Should I withdraw ? how guilty do I want to feel ? The guilt attack lasts 2 seconds, I'm over it. Their problem, if they sell me a ticket I pay and go. Basta.
Ok I get my ticket.
I give Mr Helpfull 1000 Kyat, about one US dollar.
He explains that because the time was after 9:30 and we have to pay a late fee to the officials in the other hall he will need 5000 Kyat. “Ah there it is”, I knew we'd get to this part eventually.
He thinks the 1000Kyat is for him in addition to the 5000 still to come.
Taking back the 1000 I just gave him I count out another 3500. I've run out, or so I tell him.
Through the window, I can see the wiry little girls are shaking their head and mouthing warnings, silently mouthing something to the effect of: "You are being screwed". I know that. That's the deal I entered into.
Just to test him I stay with the "I'm out of money" routine. I show him my pockets. He gets agitated and explains that the money is really not for him, oh no, of course not. Its for the officials in the next hall.
"remember, I promised them for the late fee", he laments. The front door security guard comes round and some other guy in a uniform.
They tell in Burmese, him to stop this game, but eventually national solidarity wins out and they reluctantly agree to hold their tongues and let things proceed.
"Ok", I suggest,"How about I walk round with you and we pay the official in the next room ?"
Now he starts to look worried.
Aha, so he's not keen on sharing I see.
Do I imagine it or is he starting to sweat ? The security guys have also understood and seem to enjoy it.
All right, time to end the charade it would only be power play from now on.
What's another $1 after all ? who cares in the end and it I always knew it was going to cost me. At least here its out in the open.
Anyone looking rich, Burmese or foreigner, all have to pay these individual bargaining charges. This is after all true market economy: You pay what the market asks. The price depends on how desperately you want it and how much of the supply there is. Simple. Its like this all over the world.
Enterprise bargaining in its purest form. The rich pay more, they are in a higher tax bracket. In a country with effectively no income tax, this is the way it works..........so I fish around in my bag and produce some more 500Kyat bills.
Everyone is happy.
Smiles all round.
A happy deal.
In my 'civilized' country they do the same thing in other ways. Surcharges, levies, laws, certificates of compliance, taxes... whatever you call it, it all adds up to the same thing.
Outside the girls wait. They are upset with me for letting myself get ripped off.
"Don't you know you paid too much ?” the older one scolds me like a wife telling her husband off the 100th time.
“Why did you do that ? My brother tells me he can get tickets for foreigners for $35."
I laugh. Here a little street urchin is telling me off for paying too much. I'm touched, or almost, because I know there is another debt to pay, they too need to have be paid for their help.
We walk round the block and chat away. In the doorway of a bookshop I sit down. We’ve been through quite a sage together, that merits asking each other’s names. They are "Gekai, and Curija", 12 and 9 years old. They are lively and chatty with shining eyes and really into their 'work'.
I think: “Photo time!”. I figure we know each other well enough to get some good close up facial shots without embarrassment. As I thought they don't mind, they smile for the camera and quite enjoy it. I ask Gekai to take my photo. She’s never held a camera before but she picks it up fast. Most adults don’t understand and press the shutter the minute I show them how. Gekai waits for me to get into position, then ‘click’!
It occurs to me that these girls would know what is going on all over town. They tell me where the Myanmar Five Start Line (shipping line is). No one else, neither agent not Government Tourist bureau could tell me so far. Not only that, they even find it on the map for me. Being able to read a map is a real skill. I’m impressed.
They show off their French, Japanese, Spanish and Italian and I can make out what they say. English is what they are best in.
Right! I decide to face the question of remuneration for their help.
"How about I buy a set of postcards from each of you ?"
"2500 for the whole set".
Ooooops the price has gone up a little bit…
More back and forth dickering and discussions. This is normal, one has to barter like this. I'm impressed that I've managed it so far, in the old days I would have blown my top long ago and stalked off, sitting in a bus for 12hours and boat for two days instead.
"You didn't understand my English right" she tells me with a serious face.
"I always said 5 cards for 1500Kyat".
I wonder if she realizes she is doing the same thing as Mr Helpful ?
"The money will go to my school, half of it and the other half to me and my family" she explains. She must been through this routine with many foreigners.
I think: ‘Yea sure it will dear, sure’, but I say nothing, just smile.
The push and pull goes on a little longer and I end up paying them something but in the end I hand back the cards. Don't need them, don't want more stuff to carry.
"These girls really know their English" I remark to a passing Burmese man, entering the bookshop.
"and they are good business people too !"
"Oh yes, they are Indian, that's why, its in their......." and he searches for an appropriate word.
"Genes" I venture... but he doesn't know that word.
"Its in their culture..."
"yes that's it".
NB: There is a long and angst ridden history of Burmese VS Indians. Indians were
kicked out of the country in the 1960's. Its the usual story of one suppressed ethnic group becoming too "successful" and using their success and the power of money to push down the people of their host country. Same story in various guises can be seen all over the world, the Jews, the Chinese, the Africans etc. etc...
We walk back, Gekai and Curija are happy and chatter away. Now they suggest I go to the ferry terminal and cross the river.
"have I ever been across the river?", they ask.
Walking along they point to a new multistorey house being constructed. One of the few construction projects I've seen in Yangon. Plenty of half-finished high rises, but no new building at all.
"There used to be a spirit in that house" they tell me.
"there was bomb went off in it". I'm not sure if I heard right. "Really ?" I try to sound disinterested. I'm not a good liar I've been told so many times. It seems this happened a few months ago, though that is unlikely as the building is halfway finished already. Interesting source of intelligence I think. Not a deliberate move but an interesting discovery. Hm....
At the ferry terminal I get the now familiar treatment, the privileged treatment of, "stand aside everyone here comes a Mr Moneybags and he's about to ‘donate’".
Why do I feel like a lamb led to the slaughter again ?
I know it’s a game and decide to go along a bit further.
Oh I see, I'm being taken to the manager of the ferry service, one trip is, I am told, $1USD. Wow how cheap! Privilege tax again, in the West the rich are best at avoiding tax, here there is no such escaping.
For you, Mr Moneybags, its only a dollar (1200Kyat). What's a dollar after all ?
I smile and decide to go another time, not accompanied by overheads in the form of guides and managers of the ferry service.
On the way out check what the locals are paying. They hand over 50 Kyat and are getting change from that. Another time, there is limit to how much Mr Moneybags can stand in one hour.
It occurs to me that I the smallest note I've ever handled was 200Kyat, for most 200 Kyat is a significant amount of money. I've not yet graduated to the 50Kyat or below category. Its almost unthinkable only taking 50 Kyat from a foreigner or a rich Burmese. Here they have a great system of luxury tax, GST, VAT, with inbuilt means testing set within a framework of enterprise bargaining setting. Perfect for the neo-liberal economists.
I've not entertained any serious illusions about Gekai and Curija. I'm more interested to watch how they operate, getting a first hand view of real experts at work, able to see the moves as they unfold.
Fascinating. I imagine this at the corporate level, suit and ties and boardrooms. That's what I'm told it takes these days.
I ask what they usually do during the day. They exchange meaningful looks and tell me they actually go to school, but today is the full moon holiday. I have the feeling they’ve learnt from experience that this is the best thing to say.
Ok time to go and eat.
At the corner, I change my mind, I turn back and decide to follow up the lead about the new building and what happened there.
This is too good to let go unquestioned, its a also a new avenue I'd never thought of before.
When I get back to where the girls first latched onto me, I see them in action on a European couple.
The lady is all taken aback by their cute looks, and excellent English. The young one is still smiling, the older one, Gekai, is smiling for the effect, but when she thinks no one is looking I see her eyes aren't smiling. She drops the smile like a mask. This is work.
Curija is still young enough to be caught up in it all totally. Gekai is her teacher.
"Can I take your picture ?", the lady asks.
"How much to take your picture ?"
I'm horrified and whisper to her that picture are 'free' and not to give them new ideas. I feel a liberty to whisper like this because Gekai had been whispering in Burmese to her understudy whenever they needed to steer me in a certain direction. Little instructional directions in Burmese that the foreigner couldn't understand. I usually got the gist of their whispers.
The lady is all google eyed.
She has herself lined up with the girl and the husband takes a photo.
Then she offers them a pen, its a nice one, with a clip and a fancy design. They smile and take it.
Realizing there are two of them and only one pen, she adds: "you have to share it between the both of you" she tells them.
"Yes we share".
She must have read about giving pens in her guidebook. Burmese kids are supposed to want them.
The couple leaves.
"Here you want the pen ?" they offer it to me with a bored look.
They really don't give a fig for the pen. I take it.
Not a good time to talk about other stuff, we decide to call it quits and I go to have a delicious meal the “Golden city Ghethy restaurant” for $0.80. A good morning’s work.
“You wouldn’t believe…blah blah….” I tell the hotel manager my story when I return. I’m proud of myself for having managed to get a ticket the day before, on a public holiday.
“We have air ticket service here, ask the front desk”, he tells me.
“Yes, I checked, but YOUR price, is much higher than the travel agent, ninety dollars!”.
He smiles at me, “and the travel agent can’t help you, right ?”
I only nod.
“how much did you spend this morning?”.
I laugh with him, he has a good point, “I paid quite a bit more” I admit, “but it was worth the experience”.
“We can do your booking anytime”, he tells me, “no extra commissions, just ninety dollars”, he smiles at me. We both laugh, considering how much extra I had to pay Mr Helpful and the others.
“But I’m leaving tomorrow morning, today is a holiday”, I try to salvage some of my achievement, ”that’s why I went to the airline office direct”. I still feel that this being not my country, I did pretty well.
I’m not really serious, I know my face gives me away, it’s just something to do on a holiday.
He smiles at me,“anytime”, he tells me, “day or night”.
I raise my eyebrows, “what, even the night before ?”.
“Even at 3am in the night. Same price, all included”, he smiles at me, in a matter of fact way. I believe him. The hotel is well run, safe, clean upfront and honest in all their dealings. I’ve stayed here 3 years ago and we remember each other. I trust them.
“Hmmm….”, and as I walk back to my room, just to make doubly sure: “anytime?!”.
I nod to myself and file the information away for future emergencies. A vision flashes past me: I see myself as the ‘Old Hand of Rangoon’ who knows how things work around here and who arranges things for distressed tourists, but especially pretty damsels. In a nonchalant offhanded way, a few whispers and a couple of arrangements and all is fine. ‘Old hand’ rides off into the sunset, “ahhhh, forget it, it was nothing….”. Everyone wants to be a hero. I’ve seen too many movies.
I remember once reading a quote by Charles Lamb: “The greatest pleasure I know is to do a good action by stealth and have it found out by accident.”
Pyay, a young couple hiding behind tree, 2 men hiding watching the couple.
In front of me: Military signs on a guard house. Inside the compound are buildings and 5 tall antenna masts, painted red and white, wires running from one to the other 30 highers up. Satellite dishes pointing in various directions. Only a dog lounges at the entrance, no humans in sight.
On my right a little rise and a narrow footpath. ‘That’s an interesting path’ and I walk up to to get a better view of the Irrawaddy river and the 1.5 km long bridge crossing it below. I’m high up on the banks of the river.
A large tree on my left. Surprised I notice a young man and his girlfriend, sitting very close. I look away and walk on a bit to the edge of the hillock. Another narrow path leads a long way down to a monastery, then the road and then the river.
‘Click’, I’ve finished taking my photo. I’d better leave them to it and walk off away from them. As I get close to a large concrete block, two skinny, wiry Burmese men gesture to me, fingers on their lips they wave their hands and shake their heads.
A small hesitation and stop, look around me and walk back the way I came back to my spot by the edge. Pretending to take another picture, to hide my agitation.
My thoughts run wild:
‘Do I warn the couple about the peeping Tom’s ?
Should I get involved ?
Hey, this is none of your business Heiko !
Yea but they’re spying on them’. I feel upset and a outrage.
‘Will the couple get into trouble ?
Naw… this is Burma, they’re not that uptight about sex here’.
Anyway how would I talk to the boy and girl ? Gesture to the concrete block and make big eyes ? Shout and expose the 2 men ? I’m being observed by 4 people right now. All of them want me out of here.
Heiko, don’t poke your nose in other people’s business. After all it’s not a robbery or a mugging’, and I walk past the couple without looking at them.
The guard house is still empty. Here is a foreigner walking right past a large communications facility. No one is watching. The path takes me on. On my left between the trees is a the ground falls away and a meeting hall floats amongst the trees. It must be a monastery.
Everything is very quiet, its hot but there is another tension in the air.
Continuing on,a beautiful 2 storey house stands on the very highest point. A long driveway leads up to it. Verandas circle the building on all four sides. It looks like a ‘stately home’ of Britain. Old pine trees on three sides it. It is in good condition. But the people who live there, gather firewood from the surrounding undergrowth on a cart crudely made of old car tires. They are not rich people, yet their house is fitting for a Governor.
I end up at the corner, right on the highest outcrop, is a lookout point. Directly in front and below me is the bridge and the river. This bridge is the only link to the Western Rakhine states for hundreds of kilometres.
A young couple sits in on the stone wall, holding hands. A few motorbikes are parked but their owners are nowhere in sight. Lovers lane Burmese style.
The road from the bridge cuts a deep chasm through the embankment on my left. On the other side enormous high voltage towers carry the power to hills and the Western states. It feels eerie, deserted and yet, there are people in hiding everywhere. We don’t greet each other here, this place is different.
I sit on a brick and concrete ruin and let the wind cool me down. Its easy to zone out here. Ants force me to move to another spot.
Teashop in Pyay,
I sit in the teashop in Pyay, Mr Potheí very efficiently looks after me. He has adopted me two days ago, when I, the foreigner, first sat down in his shop and the novelty of it brought 4 young men crowding around my table, looking at me, talking to me, practicing their English.
Now, the staff don’t bother to notice me in any special way, I’m only another customer, I feel like an old hand. This is a good way to be, I sit down and order flat Indian bread and the thick orange tea with a layer of condensed milk at the bottom. Since meeting him 2 days ago, it is always Mr Potheí who looks after my requests. As one of the young runner boys in the shop it gives him status of sorts. He’s not shy or worried about speaking simple English to me. Mentally I see him 30 years on, middle aged, giving orders to his staff in a teashop or restaurant. Even at 10 he has the air of a leader.
A Burmese Fairy Tale. A Burmese woman speaks out
Like many Burmese. I am tired of living in a fairy tale. For years, outsiders portrayed the troubles of my country as a morality play: good against evil, with no shade of grey in between. A simplistic picture, but one the world believes. The response of the west has been equally simplistic: it wages a moral crusade against evil, using such magic wands as sanctions and
But for us, Myanmar is no fairy-tale land with a simple solution to its problems. We were isolated for 26 years under socialism and we continue to lack a modem economy. We are tired of wasting time. If we are to move forward, to modernise, then we need everyone to face facts.
That may sound like pro-government propaganda, but I haven't changed since I joined the democracy movement in August 1988. I have lived most of my life under the 1962-88 socialist regime - another fairy tale, this one of isolation. In 1988 we knew it was time to join the world. Thousands of us took to the streets, and I joined the National League for Democracy (NLD) and worked as an aide to Aung SanSuu Kyi.
I worked closely with Ma Suu. As we all called her, for nearly a year. I campaigned with her until 20 July 1989. when she was put under house arrest and I was sent to Insein Prison in Rangoon, where I spent nearly three years. I have no regrets about going to jail and blame no one for it. It was a price we knew we might have to pay. But my fellow former political prisoners and I are beginning to wonder if our sacrifices have been worthwhile. Almost a decade after it all began, we are concerned that the work we started has been squandered and the momentum wasted.
In my time with Ma Suu, I came to love her deeply. I still do. We had hoped that when she was released from house arrest in 1995 that the country would move forward again. So much was needed - proper housing and food and adequate health care to begin with. That was what the democracy movement was really about - helping people.
Ma Suu could have changed our lives dramatically. With her influence and prestige, she could have asked major aid donors such as the USA and Japan for help. She could have encouraged responsible companies to invest here, creating jobs and helping build a stable economy. She could have struck up a constructive dialogue with the government and laid the groundwork for a sustainable democracy. Instead, she chose the opposite, putting pressure on the government by telling foreign investors to stay away and asking foreign governments to withhold aid. Many of us cautioned her that this was counterproductive. Why couldn't economic development and political improvement grow side by side? People need jobs to put food on the table, which may not sound grand and noble, but it is a basic truth we face every day. Ma Suu's approach has been highly moral and uncompromising, catching the imagination of the outside world. Unfortunately, it has come at a real price for the rest of us. Sanctions have increased tensions with the government and cost jobs. But they haven't accomplished anything positive.
I know that human-rights groups think they are helping us, but they are thinking with their hearts and not their heads. They say foreign investment merely props up the government and doesn't help ordinary people. That's not true. The country survived for almost 30 years without any investment. Moreover, the USA, Japan and others cut off aid in 1988, and the USA imposed sanctions in May 1997. Yet all that has done nothing except send a hollow 'moral message'.
Two westerners - one a prominent academic and the other a diplomat - once suggested to me that if sanctions and boycotts undermined the economy, people would have less to lose and would be willing to start a revolution. They seemed very pleased with this idea - a revolution to watch from the safety of their own country. This naive romanticism angers many of us here in Myanmar. You would deliberately make us poor to force us to fight a revolution? American college students play at being freedom fighters and politicians stand up and proclaim that they are striking a blow for democracy with sanctions. But it is we Burmese who pay the price for these empty heroics. Many of us now wonder: is it for this that we went to jail ? Unfortunately, the Burmese fairy tale is so widely accepted it now seems almost impossible to call for pragmatism. Political correctness has grown so fanatical that any public criticism of the NLD or its leadership is instantly met with accusations of treachery: to simply call for realism is to be labelled pro-military or worse. But when realism becomes a dirty word, progress becomes impossible. So put away the magic wand and think about us as a real, poor country. Myanmar has many problems, largely the result of almost 30 years of isolationism. More isolation won't fix the problems and sanctions push us backward, not forward. We need jobs. We need to modernise. We need to be a part of the world. Don't close the door on us in the name of democracy. Surely fairy tales in the west don't end so badly ?
Ma Thanegi, a pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner, lives in Yangon.
From the Lonely Planet guidebook on “Myanmar, (Burma)”, January 2000, 7th edition, pages 30,31.
Yangon(Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma)
Atmosphere: What makes a beautiful dream different, what makes it beautiful ? Is it the events that take place in the dream ? It’s more than that, - its an indefinable quality that permeates everything that happens in the dream. It soaks all through the dream.
Travelling in Myanmar was like that for me. The people there are human and no worse or better than here, but the atmosphere in that place is of ancient antiquity. Ancient ways of knowing and thinking, of feeling and being. Travelling in Myanmar, I smelt the past, felt the old ways soak through my skin, the influence of old kingdoms that rose and fell there over thousands of years. Tantalizingly just out of reach.
There is an old and ancient knowledge buried in Myanmar.
What draws me to Myanmar is the ‘different-ness’ of it. It is truly a hidden “island”, where the modern ways are only slowly slowly seeping in. No MacDonalds & such, no internet, no mobile phones, no rampant commercialism, not yet. The week has 8 days there. Numerology is important, 35 and 75 Kyat notes were common a few years ago. The whole country switched from driving on the left to driving on the right overnight, because the top man said so. He said so because his fortune teller told him to take the country to the right.... so goes the story anyway.
(NB: actually there are mobile phones but SIM cards cost USD$4000, yes that’s four thousand, phones cost the same as here, income average is ~USD$30/month)
Going to Europe or North America is different from Australia, of course, yet compared to Myanmar, its only a different room in the same house. Myanmar is a different city, - ‘different’ in that indefinable way.... which will not stop me from trying to tell you about it, trying to convey something of that ‘otherness’ that ‘uniqueness’.
Looking back Myanmar has been a place of strong energetic ‘stuff’ for me, even though my actual time there has been short. My first chance to go to Burma was when travelling in SE-Asia just after high school. I passed it by. Then age 40 I bit the bullet and followed a strange urge to go there come what may. When I left for Myanmar I hoped not to return to Australia for a long time, to live in Asia all my life. I’d travelled and worked in Asia and Japan, but that first day in Myanmar, I just wanted to hide in the hotel room and take a taxi back to Bangkok. It was a classic case of culture shock. I was shocked at myself after all the that travel, here I was a dithering wreck almost hiding in the bed. After getting over that, I was hooked. The place was so amazingly different. It was hard to believe it was real, that such unique otherness still existed in this modern world.
There was Bagan the dry desert land with more temples in one place than anywhere in the world with an atmosphere that is almost eerie.
It was in Bagan (and later Mrauk-U) that I felt and saw in actual real life, children playing, people walking, evening cooking smell, scenes of such domestic peace and beauty, they were my 'perfect' idea of peaceful, happy life, like a memory of paradise come alive for just an instant. There was no hurry, no pulling, no discontent, no yammering and so on... etc... it was people just being and doing their thing,... alive and swimming in ancient energies.... rare special moments...
There was Mandalay where the Mahamuni Buddhi lives, one of the great sacred images of Burma. Covered in inches of pure gold leaf, his picture can be seen on many rear view mirrors, family altars, temples. I felt a question asked of me there, and made a promise.
Two years later I was back again and didn’t do what I’d been asked to. Energy lashes can be very painful, very real.
Then there is Mount Poppa, the steep rock peak rising straight out of the ground, a temple on top (of course). This is where the guardian spirits of the whole country live. The center of the traditions of medium ship. Every village has a spirit medium. Centuries of customs are built around it. The statues of the guardian spirits there seemed more alive than any I’d ever seen. I made sure I was on my best behaviour around them.
Then there is Moulmain (Mwalamine) that city of those old songs by the sea. The train that takes you the 250km from Yangon has to go at walking pace. The tracks are so uneven that the carriages bounces from side to side, lifting you off your hard wooden seats, and slamming you down on the next bounce while you are still in mid air. Any faster and it would all jump off the tracks totally. When I finally arrived, 10 hours later after crossing a broad river, its as though time had stood still and I almost saw the British East India company to still operating there. Cars came by every minute or so. At 6am precisely, everyone in the whole hotel clears their throats thoroughly and deeply. The owner gave me an old English book of 1944. It had some simple advice in it that turned me around and is still with me. Did I rally have to go to Moulmain for that ?
The great Shwe-Dagon Pagoda of Yangon is huge, impressive, and most of all it has the full power of the people behind it. Pictures of the Shwe-Dagon, Bagan and Mount Poppa were what called me to Myanmar in the end.
Three times I’d visited Mandalay and refused to go to the Royal Palace. Finally in 2005 I entered and I knew I had been there before. I found out much.
The old old city of Pyay, at the crossroads of river and highways - I’d passed it by many times believing other’s stories that there was ‘nothing much to see there’. “Yea sure !“; don’t believe other’s stories. History, ancient kingdoms and the feeling that of all the cities in Myanmar this one most spoke to me. This one was a dream within a dream. There is nothing I can pinpoint, but there was a lot to feel. I could live there for two years. I’d like to. I’ve offered to the ethers.
I felt safe in that country, safer than in any modern Western country. Nearly everyone I met spoke English. Of course you need to keep your wits about you. The Burmese are a sophisticated people, who had common laws, female/male initiated divorce and equal sharing of property for women when the British Colonists did not even allow their women to vote or own property.
In no other place in the world have I seen such a natural balance between men and women in daily life. Gender seems not to be an issue.
Everyone comes goes to the teahouses and sits and drinks tea on small stools.
Every little hill has a Buddhist stupa on it, monks in dark orange and nuns in pink walk everywhere.
You ONLY hear Burmese language music, Western pop music is translated, even if the melody is from The Beatles or Madonna, the words are Burmese.
Most important but hardest to talk about are the people I met on my first visit in 1999. Some have become friends I’ve visited every time since, they make the visits special.
Sitting in Yangon on the roof garden of my hotel (USD$8/night), the one and only FM radio station in this city of 9million plays music of 90 to 70 years ago before closing down at 10:30pm. One night it took me back to that time of the British Raj, going to fancy balls in Rangoon, officers and ladies. So much has happened since then. What will others look back on in 80 years time ? when I too am long gone and just a memory evoked by the warm evening breeze.
I should point out: satellite dishes abound everywhere. Radio is old technology. No one bothers. Its all propaganda anyway, only Short wave BBC and Voice of America carry any news that Burmese take seriously.
There is so much more... and not enough space to write it all down.
Politics: Mention “Burma” and likely images of the beautiful ‘princess’ Aug San Suu Kyi unjustly imprisoned by a beastly military government spring to mind. In the English speaking world this image is promoted as a clear cut case in which we can safely judge who is ‘wrong’ and who is ‘right’. It is the country who’s government everyone loves to hate. Feel the need to vent some self righteous indignation and want to ‘do your bit’ for justice in the world ? Then just thunder against the ‘evil dictatorship of Burma’. No need to look deeper, everyone will agree with you and nod sagely. Myanmar (Burma) is the ‘bad boy’, the whipping boy of SE Asia against whom we can all let out our rightful indignation.
....Truth and further truth...
Most tourists I met were Europeans, where the political correctness regarding Myanmar is not as strong as in the English speaking world.
Myanmar is only a pale shadow of those ancient times, but it still has much that is lost to the rest of the world. I hope not too many people rush to visit, and that those who do, do so respectfully. It too is changing fast.
Those who are interested to see actual photos of Myanmar in 2005 go to:
http://heikorudolph.com/ and click on the link: “Myanmar Nov2005 pictures”
And in parting: travel in Myanmar can be slow & tough unless you fly a lot. Major roads can be just dirt tracks, a day or two on a bus or a boat is nothing unusual. If you go: take your time, don’t hurry, go slowly. Don’t expect Western comforts, timetables, or customs. Read the Lonely Planet guidebook, or something similar first.
NB: all views expressed are those of the author and not of anyone else.
© 2003 heiko