Myanmar: Behind the Bamboo Curtain

 

The first question friends who know anything about Myanmar (Burma) ask me is:  so whatís it like --  is it really a backward, anti-utopian, basket case country run by loonies enslaving locals?   When put this way, the answer is no. The infrastructure is excellent, better than Laos and most countries that have similar GDPs on paper.  The people are friendly, work hard most of the time, get along with each other very well within their community and get along normally with their local authorities.  The money is in sane denominations, no longer the 15, 35 and 90 Kyat notes imposed by former dictator/numerologist Ne Win.  Life goes on as youíd expect to see anywhere else in the region.  There is indeed fear of the regime and repression, as in other oppressive dictatorships.  I witnessed traffic police harshly treating traffic offenders, and I myself was confronted by an angry soldier who thought I was taking pictures of the bridge we were standing on.   People are very careful about discussion of politics on the street, but they do, and are quite happy to talk about it with strangers, which surprised me.

 

Probably the most serious human rights abuse accusation leveled at the ruling military junta is enslaving youth populations to do hard labour work.  While I have no doubt that this does still occur, especially in the countryside and in tourist-forbidden zones of Myanmar, I did not personally see evidence of this.  It is fashionable to point out that the digging of the moat around Mandalay palace was done by enslaved residents.  But another version this story that Iíve heard is that locals were forced to work one day a month, not unlike obligatory military service in other countries.  So how draconian is the regime, and how much of this is hyperbole?  I donít know.



Burmese script on a monument in Mahabandoola Garden in Yangon, with the Sule Pagoda in the background.


I met more or less free people that could do what they wanted, as long as they obeyed the highly corrupt and self serving authorities, of course.  All Myanmar people insist that their country is rich with resources, the richest in southeast Asia.  It is the regime that has bled off the wealth of the nation, leaving little for the common citizen.  But there are private citizens with quite a bit of money, enough to buy cars and property.  Some of them undoubtedly have military connections.  One way the regime rewards soldiers is to sell them precious gasoline rations at below-cost official prices (180 Kyats/gallon), which they resell on the black market for higher-than-free-market prices (over 2200 Kyats/gallon, or $2.50/gallon).   Many of the wealthy have worked abroad and brought back money to start businesses.  You need money to do this of course.  A work permit for South Korea costs 2.5 million kyats ($27000) in fees and bribes, but 2 or 3 years of income could easily yield a healthy financial return upon return home.

 

The major roads are paved and in excellent condition.  There are street lights along stretches of main highways.  Almost all buses are secondhand Japanese models.  The more modern buses running the fiercely competitive Yangon-Mandalay line are all air conditioned with DVD video systems.  Hotels are in excellent condition, as in fact were most of the buildings, which surprised me greatly.  I couldnít believe they had strong hot water and powerfully flushing toilets, plumbing that England for example could learn from.  A new rail and road bridge between Mawlamyaing and Mottama, which had to be at least 4 km long, was a thing of beauty.   One local told me that all this is just a beautiful faÁade that the government has built to impress visitors (such as those currently attending this year's ASEAN conference hosted in the capital city of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon).  But after over two weeks of poking around the country, including to some slightly out of the way towns, I have come to believe that the infrastructure is in fact pretty good in Myanmar, much better than I expected.  Other travelers I met all agreed.  I can't explain why that is so, but the lack of destruction wrought by civil war, as was the case in Indochina, probably helped.  So whatever the motivations for the government are, these public service projects are helping the people and commerce as a whole.  And commerce does go on.  Markets are as lively as anywhere else in the region, and there is no shortage of goods.  Good food is copious, diverse and affordable to all, unlike in Cuba for example.  

 

I donít want to give you the wrong impression, though.  Daily living standards in Myanmar is very low.  All cooking is done by burning charcoal, purchased for 700 Ky ($0.75) per giant bag.  Natural gas stoves are unheard of, because of course the vast natural gas reserves of the country are being piped into Thailand and fattening the cats of the Myanmar regime.  Most people live hand to mouth from day to day.  This is perhaps best illustrated by profiles of individuals:

 

My trishaw (bicycle rickshaw) driver who delivered me from the Mandalay bus terminal to the city was a cheery chap who spoke good English.  Many people are learning English themselves from a book as a way to tap into the tourist money, which tells you how important a role tourists have come to play in local economies.  The asking price was 1500 kyats ($1.70), which Iím sure included a hefty foreigner premium, but was fair enough if he was going to cycle me and my backpack 10 km.  In fact, the central bus terminal of Yangon is an even more ridiculous 27 km from the city, which is apparently for government corruption reasons.  He told me he was very happy to have a customer that morning.  Some days he has no customers at all.  With the 1500 kyats I paid him, he could feed himself and the owner of the bicycle.  On a lucky day, he might have a second customer in the afternoon.  With those additional 1500 kyats he could feed his parents and put money aside to pay the annual 7000 kyat licensing fee for operating a trishaw.


Kyaiktiyo

The holiest buddhist site in Myanmar is the Kyaiktiyo pagoda, whose hairs of Gautama Buddha contained within mystically hold the Golden Rock balanced on its precarious perch, while worshippers pray and add gold leaf to the base of the rock (inset).


My trishaw driver in Bago who took me around to the major sites in 2 hrs early one morning spoke excellent English.  His 50-odd years made him less robust on the bicycle than the Mandalay trishaw driver.  Clearly educated, I wondered why he was operating trishaws for tourists.  It turned out he was a primary school teacher who had to teach English among other subjects to his students.  He quit 9 years ago because the state paid him 1500 kyats ($1.70) per MONTH, and that was not enough to feed his family.  Apparently salaries have since risen to 9500 kyats ($11) per month, but that is still well below the poverty line.  He once met a Thai primary school teacher who makes $100 month typically, with comparable expenses in Thailand as in Myanmar, and envied that salary, which would have allowed him to live very well indeed in Myanmar.  I handed him the 1500 kyats asking price for the tour and he appeared very happy with it.

 

I met 23 year old H.M on Mandalay Hill, a common place for eager students to intercept English speaking foreigners to practice conversation.  I later met him for tea at the home of U.T.W. an older ruby trader who couldnít find work and is now perfecting his English to hopefully work in tourism one day.  U.T.W. is a de facto mentor of many of the younger eager students of the Mandalay Hill club.  H.M.ís story was a poignant one.  Impoverished from a countryside family, he moved to Mandalay to learn English in order to find a way to make money.  Staying at his auntís home, he bicycles an hour everyday into Mandalay city to attend English classes at a monastery.  15 hours a week of group instruction led by a monk, that costs 1000 kyats ($1.10) per month, cheap even by Myanmar standards.  I attended one of his classes, and students were enthusiastic about speaking English with a visiting native speaker.  Because of the tourist boycott, it is not easy to land an American.  On weekends, he hits Mandalay hill to practice with foreigners.  Though not the most gifted student of English, he is very motivated.  When I invited them to join me in visiting the temple hill of nearby Sagaing, H.M. declined.  I asked why.  Because he couldnít afford the 200 kyat ($0.25) bus fare, which of course I then paid for him.  We discussed his ambitions.  He asked me to send an email off for him, to an Israeli army major that he had befriended some months back.  The Israeli had promised to spring H.M. out of Myanmar.  I asked him how he was going to get out of the country.  He didnít know but he reckoned he could walk into China and then into Thailand, where the Israeli could pay his airfare out to Tel Aviv and help him find a job.  That was his plan, anyway.  I warned H.M. that it wasnít going to be this easy, especially as he would be a purely economic refugee, but H.M. didnít want to hear that.  He was going to do whatever it takes to get out.  I sincerely hope he doesnít meet bitter disillusionment.  Such a nice, sincere, earnest fellow, and probably not an atypical case in Myanmar.

 


Bago Monks


Monk breakfast

Hungry monks from the 2nd largest monastery in Myanmar, line up to parade around the streets of Bago asking for food contributions from townspeople at 6 am, with Shwemawdaw Pagoda in the background.

 

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

 

Among travellers, there is probably more discussion of morality concerning Myanmar than surrounding any other country.  Should one boycott travel there?  Should there be an economic embargo?  The moralizing seems to outweigh the actual body of firsthand information coming out of the country.  If there is one clear reason for going to visit yourself, it's to tell others about what Myanmar is like.  All of Myanmar, its people, its places, its culture, and not just the military junta and its most famous Nobel laureate dissident under house arrest.  Granted, the typical tourist is afforded only a few weeks of observations, but it's a lot more than what the rest of the world knows about Myanmar, which is shockingly little.  Remember that before Burma reopened to tourists in 1993, outsiders had barely even heard about, much less cared about the country.  It was this reopening, economically as well as to tourism, that ignited the current international debate and interest there.  And that's a good thing in every way.

 

Those who understand me well realize how much I despise political correctness and cults of personality. For me it's all about the people, and what's best for them in the long run.  Some of the most experienced and interesting travellers I've met on the road have also share this curious apolitical stance toward such entrenched issues.  Call it moral relativism if you will, but I'm not seeking to create any Darth Vaders or Jesus Christs here.

 

The main reason for calling to boycott tourism in Myanmar is, as far as I can see, because Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party have called for it, in order to deprive the ruling junta of this foreign income source and to ostracize them under the glare of the international eye.   Aung San is the daughter of the martyred father of modern, independent Myanmar, assassinated by rivals shortly before formal liberation from the British empire.  She has since valiantly opposed the military dictatorships and repression that has beset her homeland for the last half century, and I admire her courage and stubbornness.  One has to have both to win that fight.  And she has the people's support as well.  She won the 1990 election that was annulled by the ruling junta.  Those Myanmar citizens I've talked with (behind closed doors of course) see her as their shining hope and inspiration.  And how can one put a price on inspiration?  One man in his 50s, who's seen the whole run of bad times, calls her "My Lady" with a twinkle in his eye, and I knew to whom he was referring.  When I hear Aung San mentioned in public by tourists, the usual reactions you get from locals are either a vociferous downplaying of her out of fear of being drawn into that dangerous discussion ("their spies are everywhere" I heard on many occasions), or else silence with that same twinkle in the eye.  Every great revolution and liberation from tyranny needs its heroes, and Aung San fits the bill impeccably.  How she fares as national leader afterwards of course is a different story, and one that is too far away on the horizon to seriously contemplate now.  I'm not much into idolatry and remarkably similar stories involving Benazhir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Corazon Aquino and Megawati Sukarnoputri do not portend well.  In any case, the coming of such a transition phase is inevitable, necessary, and very welcome.

 

Many other notable anti-government dissidents, who also admire and respect Aung San, do not share her emphatic call for a boycott on tourism.  They view this as an unfair punishment on the impoverished people, who would be denied the opportunity to make a dollar or two from tourists, for an idealistic and thus far phantom goal that has eluded generations of ordinary Myanmar people.  Is she selfish to use her clout to press for a heroic overthrow of the brutal regime, at the expense of the suffering of her people?  Is she the queen born with a silver spoon in her mouth, who has never known what it is like to suffer in abject poverty with no hope or chance to advance one's owns modest desires and needs?  Does she hate the regime so much that she's basing her decisions based on hate rather than love?  Of course, I can't even pretend to have any informed thoughts on these rhetorical questions.  I was just a tourist for 18 days who hasn't even read her writings, but I just like to consider both sides of any debate.  I never did like the concept of political debating, where it seemed that you had to be all white or all black in order to play the game correctly.  It's just not me.

 

Washing machine

A typical washing machine in Myanmar.  This one operating at the Breeze Guesthouse, Mawlamyaing


The real question is: does the tourist money directly help the junta repress its people?  My conclusion is no, backpacker spending is a drop in the bucket, and will affect the people positively overwhelmingly more than negatively.  Package tourists spend a lot more money, and more of their money goes directly to the government, so that involves a different equation, but I don't know the numbers on that.  OK, letís look at the money.  It used to be that travellers arriving in Yangon airport (until recently, the only legal point of entry for tourists) were obliged to exchange US$250, 200, or 100 for Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs), dollar-equivalent notes that had no value outside of Myanmar.  FECs were not reexchangeable for hard currency upon exit from Myanmar, and thus your money stays in the country.  The government then would exchange these FECs for local Kyats at an artificial rate about a hundred times worse for you than the black market rate.  They would thus pocket 99% of your money, unless you knew to seek out the black market.  This FEC system is now abolished, and there is no pressure on visitors to exchange dollars at official rates (which still suck).  It is easy to exchange money on the black market in any town, and this even appears endorsed by the government.  So we've come a long way in a decade.  Today's backpacker sporting the new FIT (Foreign Independent Traveller) visa can spend their money any way they wish.  They can avoid spending the money directly on government companies and institutions if and when they choose.  Some idealists go out of their way to avoid any such spending, and I respect their choice.  I would say I'm a typical backpacker as far as government spending goes.  Let's break it down:

 

$25 Myanmar visa in Bangkok

$10 Bagan entry fee

$5 Shwedagon Pagoda entry fee

$5 Sagaing/Mingun tourist boat and entry fee

$6 Kyaiktiyo golden rock entry fee

$3 Inle Lake entry fee

$3 Shwe U Min cave pagoda entry fee

$10 international airport departure tax

 

So I spent a gross total of $67 directly to the government.  That's of course not taking into account real maintenance costs paid for by the government (such as at Bagan, which is not a world heritage site and does not receive UNESCO funding because the regime will not accept the conditions imposed by the UN for its inscription).  Some travelers spend less money, by not entering certain sights or by evading entry fees (sometimes risking arrest of a private citizen if caught, which I do not approve of).  Some spend more, especially those taking trains, whose inflated tourist prices go directly into government coffers.  Generally, by avoiding trains and not buying gems at government gem shops and not staying at government hotels (which are expensive and suck anyway), that minimizes how much money the government is taking from you.  You're going to be spending $50 minimum and most likely over $60, so that should be your benchmark when making your own moral decision about visiting Myanmar or not.  There is also the issue of indirect spending going to the government, such as on transportation petrol surcharges, and hotel head taxes, but after talking with many owners of hotels, bus companies and restaurants, I've concluded that the indirect contribution to the government is quite small.  For example, the hotel head tax is 10 kyat (about $0.01) per person per night.  Most of the inflated differential foreigner prices, which infuriate some budget travellers to no end, is pocketed by the private interests and not passed on to the government.
 

Many expats living and working in Thailand need to make "border runs" to renew their Thai visa every month or two and almost all of them do so by making daytrips to the Myanmar border at Mae Sot.  With the one day visa fees that they charge, the Myanmar government makes as much on an expat who makes five border runs and doesn't even visit the country or spend anything in it or gain firsthand knowledge of it, as on a backpacker's one month visit.

What do the local people think?  I didn't meet a single one who supported the tourism boycott.  Whether they worked in the tourist industry or not, whatever their political views are (or are not), whether they were from places that benefited from tourists or not.  The absence of British commonwealth citizens and Americans is very noticeable, and the locals notice it too.  Curiously, this makes the demographic population of backpackers in Myanmar resemble the Axis:  Germans, Italians, Japanese, and Vichy French!  (That's a joke.)  There is visibly more money in the neighbourhoods that tourists frequent, and they are bringing in significant amounts of cash to private business interests. 

 

Pindaya market
Market day at Pindaya, a  mountain village in the Shan state better known for its Shwe U Min Pagoda, a cave containing 8000 golden Buddhas.


I estimate that there were maybe a couple hundred backpackers in Myanmar when I was there, which was toward the end of summer peak season.  Everybody goes by the same handful of transport routes and the occupancy rate of foreigners in intercity buses is still very low, even between major sites.   You run into the same tourists repeatedly.  So I'll take a wild stab in the dark and guess that there are maybe 1,000 backpackers a year these days, though this number is definitely on a sharp rise.  Because of the abolition of the FEC system, word of mouth about Myanmar will only build up because it is the next "untouched" nation in Southeast Asia.  I'd say that Myanmar has already inherited this mantle from Laos, and the most touristy parts of Myanmar are already being noticeably spoiled.  (Which is good for the locals don't get me wrong -- I'm just speaking about tourist value.)  So at $60 from each backpacker, the government makes $60,000 a year from all backpackers.  Enough for two of those Toyota Hiace pickups that they somehow stuff 35 passengers into (and onto and hanging onto)? 

 

Considering that the government is one of the biggest opium peddlers in the world, monopolizes one of the richest teak and gem troves in the world, and exports petrol and natural gas to China and Thailand, a schoolchild can do the math and tell me how much backpacker ticket receipts are generating for the junta.  I went through this whole scenario here because I am often confronted by questions about whether it is "OK" to go to Myanmar.  Obviously, this is a personal decision that everyone must make for themselves, but my point is here, your hard cash contribution to the government should not be the dominant reason.  I find it really funny how people who won't visit Myanmar for fear of enriching a repressive government may not entertain the slightest qualm about visiting Cuba, also a country which opens to tourists for the sole purpose of generating cash for the dictatorship (and much more cash per person than Myanmar, I might add), and which represses its people just as brutally, and where overall conditions of life are far worse than in Myanmar.  It's not question of democracy either.  There are plenty of dictatorship states that are popular among backpackers:  Singapore, Vietnam, Nepal at this sad point in their history, Jordan, Morocco, and China to name a few.  I have to conclude that the special case of Myanmar as backpacker pariah stems primarily from the heroine Aung San Suu Kyi and her noble cause and has been romantically magnified by political correctness and righteousness and fuelled by the media.

 

Some western anti-government protesters even insist on calling the nation Burma and not Myanmar, for the sole reason that it was the ruling regime that made the official name change in English in the 1990s.  It's rather petty and has nothing to do with reality.  Burma was the British colonial name, bastardized from Bamar, the name of the dominant ethnicity in the country.  There are however many ethnicities and cultures within the country, and hence it is the Union of Myanmar.  Myanmar is how all Myanmar people call their own country in their own language (or sounds more like "Myanma" actually), so why shouldn't we?  Regardless of who finally instituted the change.  A no brainer for me.  To insist that calling the country under its colonial name is more morally correct is a bit patronizing.  Ironically, it seems to me that many of those who refuse to acknowledge the name Myanmar are British.

 

The current US-led commercial embargo against Myanmar has more serious ramifications than pocket change from backpackers.  I am not an economist and I do not know how this affects the economy and ruling stability of the government.  It is certainly bad for the Myanmar people in the short term.  The question is whether it will have positive long term repercussions.  My view on the current situation is that the embargo is having little effect on the ruling junta's grasp on power.  They have a close and powerful neighbouring ally in China who can furnish Myanmar with anything it needs.  As I mentioned, Myanmar also exports natural gas to Thailand, and not a small amount of it.  Thailand's refusal to participate in isolating the Myanmar regime has led to diplomatic heat from other ASEAN nations.  But this doesn't look to change soon, and even if it does, this is secondary to the Chinese connection.  Myanmar is still selling a lot of gems to Europe, mostly Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and the supply is finding its way into international markets.  And finally there's the opium money, which is rumoured to represent up to half of Myanmar's real gross domestic product.   On a financial level, I don't think the embargo has much hope of working in the current circumstances.  Locals attribute rapidly increasing prices in Myanmar on basic products to the embargo.  I don't know if that's true, since most of these products are manufactured in Thailand and China anyway, but if so, it would be an example of how an embargo can hurt the people without helping them in any real way, short term or long term.

 

You can't compare Myanmar to South Africa.  The embargo had emotional consequences on Pretoria beyond the already strict financial ones (because they had no China to help them).  White South Africa never felt at home in Africa, and didn't view their black neighbours as brothers in their shared destiny.  Rather, they looked toward their white motherland, Europe, for support and nourishment and even identity.  Mother Europe participated in the South African embargo, isolating South Africa as much emotionally as anything else.  They cared too much about being white and British for this not to have taken its toll. It was only a matter of time before a white leader (DeClercq) caved in.  Myanmar doesn't have this identity issue.  They have a proud independent, ancient, and unified history, before and after colonialism.  They are Myanmar, not an offshoot of Britain, and so they cannot be scolded and lectured as pariah children.  Only the intellectual elite in Myanmar might possibly suffer from this sort of psychological isolation.  I don't think anybody else in the country, least of all its regime, gives a hoot about world political opinion of Myanmar.  The people care mostly about surviving from day to day these days, and trying to improve their lives.

 

And you can't compare Myanmar to Iraq.  Oil was the sole source of income for Saddam Hussein's government and with the exception of a bit of oil trickling through a secret pipeline through Jordan and UN scandals, he didn't have many outlets for his product.  As a result, the regime was financially crippled and the military was ill equipped to survive the eventual US invasion.  I'm not making political statements here, just commenting on the relative effectiveness of the embargos. I am disturbed, though, that some people might have been against the Iraqi embargo because it was hurting the people, but at the same time for the Myanmar embargo despite the fact it is ineffective and also hurting the people.

 
Mawlamyaing

The view  from the Kyaikthanlan pagoda on a temple hill in Mawlamyaing, my favourite city in Myanmar, lush and unspoiled.


The Land of Golden Pagodas

 

OK, enough of that stuff!  What's there to see in Myanmar?  Plenty!  The limiting factor is normally the 28 day visa, and not the number of interesting places in the country.  It is not possible to see even all of the first rate sites in Myanmar.  Everybody leaves having missed out on some of the major destinations.  The absolutely unmissable places are Bagan, Inle Lake, and the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.  Thatís what the guidebooks say, and I agree with them.

 

The only rival to Angkor in the world of ruins is Bagan.  Rather than in artistic quality and romantic settings, Bagan overwhelms you with the sheer number of pointy temples within a few square kilometers.  4 million of them by legend, 4 thousand of them according to temple geeks, and undoubtedly not all of those have survived in a preserved state.  Whatís left is still enough to be mind blowing.  And I didnít count them.  In 1996 I wanted to visit one of the worldís spectacular sites, and my final choice came down to Angkor or Bagan.  I chose Angkor with no subsequent regrets, but Bagan wouldnít have been a bad choice either, especially considering how truly special it would have been at that time to have visited Burma.

Bagan

Bagan skyline

Htilominlo
Bagan in the daytime as seen from the Mingalazedi pagoda (top), at sunset from near Shwesandow pagoda (middle) and detail of a door of a minor temple, Hti--lo-min-lo (bottom)


Inle Lake is a more lowkey attraction, which does not strike acutely at your senses, but rather slowly invades them over a day of boating around this veritable real life Waterworld.  The entire economic and social life of the towns and villages on the banks of and floating on Inle lake takes place on the water, especially on its western shore, which is essentially half-marshy land and half-lake.  It is a seamless and intercalated maze of waterways, canals, bridges, foothpaths, boat landings and wooden houses hovering over the lake surface on poles.   There is no need nor facility for accommodating automobiles, and the sound of their absence is palpable.  Public and tourist transport around the lake takes place through motorboats, but the majority of boats plying the lake between the villages and for fishing are still motorless.  The image of villagers poling their way down the canal with one leg coiled around the pole for leverage is the subject of postcards.  It is difficult for me to describe how impressive Inle Lake really is.  The scope and breadth of the lives of thousands of people dependent on the lake is what sets this apart from other floating village-type attractions in the world.  Inle is not spectacular in the usual sense of the word, but no less essential and satisfying to visit.

 

Inle floating market


closeup of Inle floating market

The floating market at Ywama, Inle Lake, is held one day in five, skipping full moon and new moon days when the rotating market takes a break.


The Shwedagon Pagoda is the first major site visited by most tourists upon arrival in Yangon, and it doesnít lose its impact over the course of oneís stay in Myanmar.    From a distance, it looks like a giant golden pagoda piercing the skyline, like thousands of others within the country.  The Shwedagon isnít even the biggest one Ė that title goes to 114m high Shwemawdaw Pagoda in nearby Bago.  But its power is immediately apparent as you walk up the long, long staircase up to the pagoda platform.  For the central pagoda is surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of temples, pagodas, statues, buddhas and stupas.  Big and small, far and near, of all styles, in every direction.  The eyes are bewildered by the profusion of beautiful clutter.  I thought the Buddhist temples in Nepal were overwhelming, but I think Iíll have to bestow upon the Shwedagon my vote as the most spectacular single active religious temple in the world.   (See my Greatest Places Built for Gods list.)

 
Shwedagon

The Shwedagon pagoda grounds at night, less busy and much cooler.  The base of the central stupa is on the right edge of the picture.

ďIf You Hit the Jackpot, Eat ChineseĒ

 

So goes one Burmese proverb, which I fear doesnít give enough credit to Myanmarís own home cuisine, a distinct southeast Asian smorgasbord of dishes combining Indian styles with Chinese, and Thai influences.  Another modern proverb spelling out a commonerís paradise Ė Eat Chinese, marry a Japanese girl, and live in Switzerland Ė only goes to show what kind of cultural heterogenity exists in Myanmar after centuries of building and losing empires.  This confusion certainly extends into Burmese food.  I have to admit, itís one of my favourite cuisines in the area.  The tempering of Thai and Indian spices with Chinese influences, and conversely the spicing up of the dishes in the ethnically Chinese Shan state by Indian and Indochinese influences, creates delightfully pleasant taste combinations.  Food is good and so are the portion sizes.  One of my favourite restaurants was in Baganís base town of Nyaung  U.  Mann Sabai serves up their chicken curry with 11 different small vegetable side dishes, soup,  tea, and all you can eat steamed rice (standard practice in Myanmar).  All for an all inclusive price of 900 Kyats ($1).  Delicious biryani plates sold on city streets sell for about 400 kyats.  So if thereís one thing travellers canít complain about in Myanmar, itís the eats.  On the drink side, local brews Myanmar and Mandalay beers werenít exactly world class, but I became addicted to refreshing Star Cola (100 kyats per bottle) on hot sunny afternoons.



Searching For MíLady

 

On my last day in Myanmar, I had a few hours in Yangon and had to satisfy my curiosity about one thing.  I hopped on the all-purpose city bus #43, which links downtown with the two lakes, the airport, and the highway bus terminal, and costs a mere 20 kyats ($0.02).  I got off at Lake Inya and walked to the intersection of University Avenue Road, where this sign stands:

 People's Desire

 

From the map on my Letís Go guidebook, I located where house #54 should be, the lakeside home of Aung San Suu Kyi and where she is kept under permanent house arrest.  Whether she was actually there or not is a different matter, as all kinds of rumours on her whereabouts fly about.   I walked down the street a hundred meters or so, and saw a traffic road barrier manned by police.  As I came within sight of them, a plainclothed man on the street whistled to signal to someone.  I kept walking toward the barricade, where officials inspected each passing car before allowing them to pass through this busy road.   I spotted a cold drinks shop only a few meters in front of the barricade, so I decided I needed a Star Cola.  I was in fact thirsty.  By the time I arrived and communicated my thirsty ideas to the shopowners, I was surrounded by a motley crew of uniformed and non uniformed men.  None of them said anything but neither were they unpleasant.  Of course I was interrogated about where I was going and innocently stated that I was interested in seeing the University, which was further down the road.  They told me politely that the road was not passable.  When asked why, the unique reply was ďI donít know.Ē  What were those military people doing there?  ďI donít know.Ē   What are you doing here?  ďI donít know.Ē   At that point I realized thatís all I was going to get out of anybody (the shopowners did not appear at ease with this discussion though they were quite friendly to me like most Myanmar people).  So I went on my way and visited a few more tourist sites by bus in Yangon before retiring at the White House hotel for my last night in Myanmar.


Mawlamyaing linecar
A linecar is a typical public transportation vehicle in the former British colonial capital of Mawlamyaing, though pickups are far more common in larger cities and smaller towns.


One of the great pleasures of travelling in Myanmar, completely apart from the country and its people, is meeting fascinating travellers.  This is often the case in places that are off the beaten track, and I made more than my usual share of friends among intrepid travellers there.  One of the most interesting people that I've met anywhere on my trip was a 70-something multicultural Swiss-Australian polyglot sporting a long white beard.  His whole life has been devoted to travelling around the world, and working just enough to sustain that passion.  He still does not bat an eyelash in undertaking uncomfortable 20 hour long bus rides, except in places that make few pit stops.  Bladder control starts to be strained at his age.  Just by being somewhere interesting almost all of the time, he has been present in key moments in world history.  He had to disguise himself upon threat of death in the streets of Tehran during the Islamic revolution.  He just escaped the arrival of Soviet tanks at the outset of their invasion of Afghanistan. He was in Tiananmen Square during the protest leading to the massacre.  It's not every day that I have a chance to discuss world events with someone like that.  We even managed to turn our in-bus viewing of Rambo IV into a discussion of the rituals, games, costumes and culture of Afghanistan, where the film was supposedly set (he did say that the research team did a very good job preparing that film). 

There is so much more I could talk about with respect to Myanmar, but I hope this at least piqued your curiosity about one of the most fascinating and overlooked countries in Asia.  It was one of the most important target countries for me on this trip and it didnít disappoint.  There is plenty enough to see on a second trip one day, but I fear it will already by overrun by tourists by then.  The opening up of the country to foreigners, outside information and international commerce can only pound the wedge deeper into the cracks of what was once one of the most fearsomely closed nations in the world.  When you see private locals bypassing internet restrictions and watching live CNN and BBC world news on their satellite dishes, you get the feeling itís only a matter of time before they integrate into a normal rhythm one day.  Now it certainly wonít be easy Ė take a glance at Beijing Ė but I am an optimist, and I left Myanmar smiling as much as their citizens smiled at me.  


Ayerawaddy monk boy
Boy monk on an Ayerawaddy riverboat heading upstream from Mandalay.