Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay, Pyin U Lwin, Irrawaddy River, Bagan, Inle Lake
BEAUTIFUL, BATTERED BURMA
We almost didn't go to Burma. Now called Myanmar, Burma is a legendary land - with its fabled Road to Mandalay, winding Ayeyarwady River, glorious temples of Bagan, magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda and shining Inle Lake. With so much to see - why did we have heated debates about whether or not to go?
Joan argued against going. She sided with Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi - the daughter of the assassinated national hero who helped to forge Burma's independence following WW II. Ma Suu, as she is affectionately known, urges tourists to stay away. She believes in boycotts to protest Myanmar's repressive and corrupt military regime, to cut off the flow of U.S. dollars and to bring the government to its knees. Lou, on the contrary, believes that it's harmful to isolate a country from the rest of the world. He argues that this forces the population into poverty by cutting off foreign investment and trade. He believes being connected with the West helps inform the Burmese people, raise their aspirations and promote democracy. Further, Western travelers can keep the rest of the world aware of the situation, so that human rights abuses are harder to conceal. Both positions have merit, so our decision to visit was a difficult one. Obviously, Lou won the debate.
The generals have run Myanmar (Burma) since 1962 when General Ne Win took control. He and his collaborators drove out Chinese, Indian and Muslim minorities, waged war against Karen, Shan, Kachin and numerous other hill tribes in the mountainous eastern and northern areas, and systematically violated numerous UN and Amnesty International declarations and Geneva convention accords relating to human rights. The government has repressed free speech via control of the press, denial of access to the Internet and the prohibition of peaceful political assembly. There have been decades of arbitrary arrests and torture of political activists opposed to the junta, conscription of civilians to serve as porters and human mine sweepers, forced relocation of 500,000 residents and slave labor on public projects. The latter practice has diminished in the past five years.
When the generals took over, they nationalized most of the economy from large timber and oil companies down to small retail firms, and gave them to the military elite. Over the next three decades, due to the generals' ineptitude and corruption, the economy went way south. In the 1990s, however, privatization and crony capitalism have induced modest growth. Not surprisingly, the distribution of income is quite skewed. While the generals live in mansions and drive new Japanese SUVs, their subjects have the second lowest income in Asia. Twice the government has arbitrarily demonetized large banknotes. Just imagine that you live in a country where you are afraid to put your money in the bank. You sleep on a mattress stuffed with your meager savings in the form of $20 and $50 bills. Awakening in the morning, you find that those denominations have been declared "non-money," and you slept on now-worthless paper. Your savings are gone! No wonder US dollars are vastly preferred to local currency.
There were student political protests at several universities in 1974, 1988 and 1996. The government brutally crushed the demonstrations and closed the schools. Today, it is difficult to get a university education. Students are shifted from cities to rural campuses, courses are often cancelled and content is strictly monitored. Surprisingly, in 1990 the government allowed a general election, and Aung San Suu Kyi's party won over 80 per cent of the contested seats, but the government refused to allow the democratically elected parliament to assemble.
"THE PEOPLE'S DESIRE"
The Myanmar government's repressive, paranoid attitude is reflected in a large sign in the center of Yangon (the capital city, formerly called Rangoon), which carries this stern message:
- Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.
- Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation.
- Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State.
- Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.
The Burmese people are both fearful and contemptuous of the military regime. They shared their feelings with us only in private and after taking precautions not to be overheard. Taxi drivers, students, monks and others complained to us - sometimes bitterly, always resignedly. Their government has not allowed them to travel outside the country for jobs or to visit relations. One young monk revealed that he risked his life crossing the heavily forested border in an illegal one-month visit to Thailand last year. Due to censorship, people have not been able to communicate privately by mail with relatives and friends inside or outside of the country. Two individuals asked us to circumvent the government censors for them by hand-delivering mail out of and into the country. We found that we could not access our own e-mail account from anywhere in Burma. Access to the Internet is illegal, because the regime does not want its people to connect with each other in anti-government groups. One highly-educated taxi driver did not even know that Aung San Suu Kye was under house arrest again, because he was without access to outside information.
Holding the country together is perhaps the one legitimate reason for some degree of military control. The Karen, Shan, and other tribes have, with diminishing effectiveness, continued to resist domination by the Bamar-controlled government. In any event, this is no excuse for the regime's war atrocities, the trampling of civilian human rights and the other corruptive and repressive practices. The civil war, which has been going on for half a century, is complicated by the fact that some of the hill-tribes, as well as Chinese, are heavily engaged in opium and heroin production. Indeed, in recent years, more than half of the heroin shipped into the US has come from the mountains of Burma. A further complication is that the U.S. has in the past provided defoliants for use by the Burmese military to destroy opium fields, but some military units have used them only to eliminate competitors of their own opium production!
Burma was the last of the 15 countries we visited in 2000. By the time we flew into the Yangon airport, Joan was momentarily so disoriented she had to look at the sign on the terminal building to see what country we were in!
We came up against the police state as soon as we arrived at Yangon airport. The Myanmar government requires tourists to buy $200 in FECs (Foreign Exchange Currency), in order to get its hands on hard currency. Lou asked if we could buy $200 worth as a couple, rather than a total of $400. We didn't want to give the government any more dollars than necessary. The young woman at the counter said we had to buy $400 in FECs. Lou asked again. She then said we could buy only $200 worth, but could Lou "make her a gift?" He gritted his teeth and handed her $2. She pushed the money back and wrote $10 on a piece of paper. Lou said loudly, "I HATE this!" to Joan, who was hissing at him to "COOL IT!" The woman said to Lou, "Sir, you no be angry with me. The requirement is you buy $400 FEC." Lou finally slammed down a $10 bill and stomped through the gate into Myanmar. This wasn't our only direct confrontation with corrupt officialdom. A few days later, our taxi driver had to pay "tea money" to a policeman who waved us over to the side of the road. The bribe allowed our taxi to proceed down the public road. Fortunately, the vast majority of our experiences in Burma were good ones.
Most of the population is ethnically Bamar, from which the British colonizers coined the name Burma. In the capital city of Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) we enjoyed the Bamar restaurant ATK: Aung Thuka, where we pointed to what we wanted from a long row of pots of various curries. Dinner for two, including rice, condiments and a large bottle of Myanmar beer, was $3.00. There's also a strong Chinese influence in Burmese food. We ate lunch twice at the noodle shop at 999 Khauk Swai, a Shan-style place where 2 steaming bowls of delicious soup and a tall local beer cost only $2. We enjoyed an excellent duck dinner at PK: Palai Kywe - a "splurge" of $5 for two, including beer. As long as you eat local style, food is cheap in Burma.
Yangon's magnificent temples were a major focus of our visit. By most accounts, the best is the multi-spired complex of golden peaks known as Shwedagon Paya (pagoda.) Lonely Planet describes it as "a temple complex of Technicolored glitter." Lou was entranced by the huge gleaming pagoda with its hordes of chatting, statue-washing, money-offering worshippers. He thought the smoking incense, twinkling lights, lighted niches and life-sized Buddhas created a mystical aura. Joan, preferring the more austere side of Buddhism, found Shwedagon Paya to look something like a "spiritual Disneyland."
From Yangon, we flew north to Mandalay. The man entering the plane ahead of us carried a box labeled HUMAN EYES - DO NOT FREEZE. We had to ask. It turned out that he was an employee of Orbis, a Western-financed non-profit organization that teaches eye surgery to local physicians in developing countries. We saw the gleaming $40 million Orbis hospital plane parked at the airport. This is the best kind of charity: rather than give someone a fish, teach him how to fish.
THE ROAD TO MANDALAY
Lou tried to do his usual stellar job of bargaining for a taxi from the Mandalay airport into town. He failed utterly. The 6 or 8 drivers were firmly cartelized, and the set price was $8 - high by Burmese standards. We were outraged until a friendly electronic engineer (who works at the airport and hopped a free ride home in our taxi) explained that 1) rationed government gas is very expensive, and 2) this brand-new, poorly located airport is OVER AN HOUR from the city! We drove through miles and miles of vacant land, and finally decided that a big general must own all the land in the area and forced the location of the airport here. The engineer confirmed this.
One morning we sauntered down 83rd Street in Mandalay and stumbled upon an open-air market in a wide alley. The only Westerners in sight, we drew all eyes. The vendors and shoppers alike turned to gawk at us as we threaded our way past piles of splayed dried fish and baskets of red chilies. When Lou attempted to say hello in Burmese to a woman vendor (min-galla-ba - "It's a blessing"), she and the whole alleyway erupted in delighted laughter. It took her several tries to teach him to say it acceptably. From here, we wandered down a narrow lane of dwellings and small workshops making items such as guitars and thong sandals. We passed women drinking tea, squabbling children and even a man out in the yard next to his house with his longhi (traditional tube-skirt) hiked up, busily washing his genitals.
THE MOUSTACHE BROTHERS
Our most memorable experience in Burma occurred in Mandalay. Having read about it in the Lonely Planet guidebook, we went in search of the Moustache Brothers Pwe Troupe on 39th St. (between 80th and 81st Streets.) This group is internationally famous for its political humor - which has landed two of its members in jail. They're lucky to be alive, as torture and starvation of political prisoners is common.
U Par Par Lay and his brother Lu Maw (along with a cousin who is also in prison) comprise the Moustache Brothers - a traditional "pwe" troupe of comedians and dancers. On Burmese independence day in 1996, the troupe accepted Aung San Suu Kyi's invitation to perform at a gathering of 2000 people outside of her home. Lu Maw's elder brother advised him to stay at home in case anything went wrong - which it did. U Par Par Lay and the cousin were arrested for telling a joke on the generals and sentenced to seven years in prison, including two months of hard labor in iron shackles. The generals don't seem to have a sense of humor.
We met Lu Maw, in the garage-sized "theater" in the front of the small house where the two brothers' families live, sell handmade puppets and carry on an engaging traditional dance revue mixed with political satire. The night we attended the revue, which was both polished and poignant. The entire audience consisted of nine of us Western backpacker travelers. (Here he is with his wife, one of the accomplished dancers.)
PYIN U LWIN
Our next destination was the former British colonial town of Pyin U Lwin, up in the cool mountains three hours from Mandalay. We paid a premium price (500 kyat, or $1.25 each) to ride in the front seat of a pick-up truck/taxi. We could have ridden on the wooden benches in back for only 300 kyat, but we knew it would become crammed with an unbelievable number of people and bundles as we drove along.
Our driver was silent, except for humming and spitting betel nut juice out the window. He stopped at someone's home for black market gas, and again at a roadside stand for a bunch of yellow ginger blossoms to hang on his mirror to appease the local nats (spirits.) We stopped halfway to get radiator water, and everyone piled out to use the squat toilets out back and fill up on greasy snacks.
In the town of Pyin U Lwin, we hired a charming, miniature horse-drawn stagecoach for one dollar to take us to the Candacraig. This turreted, two-story hotel was once the chummery (bachelors' quarters) for employees of the British Bombay Burmah Trading Co. We clippity-clopped up to the 1906 structure, alighted from our Cinderella coach, swept into the large entrance hall in our dusty travel clothes and climbed the shabby red carpet up the grand stairway to our turret room. We were the only ones staying in the seven-room hotel, and enjoyed playing lord and lady of the manor.
After returning briefly to Mandalay, we caught the 6 A.M. ferry down the mighty Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River to Bagan. The ten-hour trip cost $16 each, and was a wonderful way to float leisurely past pagodas and rice paddies. The early hours were especially magical, when we glided past ghostly white temples and stupas lining the riverbanks in the silvery mist.
To avoid flooding, villages are set back out of sight along the river. From time to time, the ferry would move over to what looked like an empty sand dune. As we came closer, we could see a flag flying to indicate a ferry stop and a few food shacks. A long wooden plank would be stretched from ferry to shore, and heavily-laden villagers would teeter off the boat to be met by relatives with handcarts or water buffalo-drawn wagons.
We didn't spend much time in our assigned inside seats, but enjoyed watching the passing scene from the upper deck. We met a retired career diplomat from the U.S. State Department, who filled us in on the deadlocked presidential election back home. So strange to hear about the voting fiasco while floating through this ancient world!
Old Bagan was once a thriving tourist area, filled with the usual tacky cafes, hotels and souvenir shops that are the scourge of great historical sites. In 1990, the government gave Bagan's protesting citizens one week to move out to nearby villages. Military regimes are very efficient, if nothing else. Old Bagan is now an archaeological zone, with only four hotels, a museum and a few government offices. We stayed here, surrounded by magnificent crumbling temples dotting the scrubby landscape. The original part of our hotel was built in 1922, and its first visitor was the Prince of Wales.
Bagan is spectacular - easily the most impressive sight in all of Burma. An area of 25 miles square contains the remains of some 5,000 zedis (stupas) and pahtos (hollow temples or shrines.) Though some are merely piles of brick rubble, many have been so sensitively restored that they astound the romantic imagination. Ananda Pahto is the most revered of the Bagan temples. One of the largest of these pahtos, it is about 160 feet square at the base, rising to 160 feet high at its zti (jeweled umbrella.) These zedis and pahtos were constructed between 1050 and 1300 CE - Bagan's golden era - before the Mongols of Kubla Khan stormed in from the north. Centuries of pillaging, earthquakes and monsoons have taken their toll. Even so, the remaining structures must be counted among the wonders of the world. Each evening, we hired a horse-drawn cart, and drove out to watch the sky turn red then fade to pink behind the temples, until at last only black spires showed against the pale evening sky. Then we trotted home under a glimmering moon.
We flew to Inle Lake for a few days of R&R before returning to Yangon and Bangkok for our flight back to the U.S. A friend had insisted that we stay at the Golden Island Cottages, a cluster of traditional bamboo and thatch houses standing on stilts in the water near the lake's edge. We enjoyed this place - lounging on our balcony, sipping tea and chatting while the sunset painted pale pink streaks across the lake. (Our cottage was second from the left in the photo below.) To reach our hotel, we took a one-hour flight from Bagan to Heho; the taxi from Heho to Nyaungshwe took another hour and the boat ride from Nyaungshwe to the hotel took a third hour. When we got off the plane in Heho, we asked around at the baggage claim until we found a young couple going to our hotel, and shared the cost of the taxi ($12) and the boat ($11) with them.
The only way in or out of the Golden Island Cottages is by boat, available for $4-5 for 1/2-day whenever we wanted to explore the nearby villages, temples and floating gardens. On one lake journey, we saw a long turf "island" being poled along by several men stripped to their underpants. The Intha farmers build artificial plots on top of floating vegetation, tow them into place and tend their crops by poling their boats down the watery rows between them. From the balcony of our cottage, we watched boatmen standing in their long wooden boats, one leg wrapped around the paddle to stroke the boat along.
As we boated back to catch our plane, we passed a young boy standing atop a water buffalo to tend his swimming herd of these shiny black creatures.. This scene is indelibly etched in our memories.
Myanmar was the final country we visited last year, and - frankly - we messed up in the planning stages. Actually, we didn't plan at all. Being seasoned travelers by now, we nonchalantly grabbed $500 in cash, our visas and plane tickets, and flew from Bangkok to Yangon. Oops.
There are no ATMs in Myanmar, our usual way of obtaining money on the road. U.S. dollars, FEC and the local currency (kyat) can be used just about anywhere, but we wanted to minimize our use of FECs to avoid further bloating the generals' wallets. We blew that idea, however, because we didn't take nearly enough U.S. currency to cover food, lodging, boat rides and domestic air tickets. Credit cards and traveler's checks are only good at a government bank in Yangon, where we were able to get a Visa advance and cash travelers checks for an additional $700 - but only in FECs. Yuck! Because carrying cash is relatively safe in a police state, we should have filled our money belts with $1000(US) in $1, $5, and $20 bills for our 16-day trip.
So much for good intentions... And so our ten months in Asia came to an end.
We flew back to California to plan our 2001 trip: MIDDLE EAST & GREECE
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOKS: South-East Asia on a Shoestring; Myanmar (both by Lonely Planet)
BACKGROUND READING: Burmese Days by George Orwell; Among Insurgents: Walking Through Burma by Shelby Tucker, Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi
FILM: The Killing Fields; The Burmese Harp
YANGON: Mayfair Inn on 38th St. $16/double with bath, a/c and breakfast (insipid toast, a banana and Lipton tea.) The English-speaking manager is very friendly. Well-located, only a block or two from the four-star Strand Hotel, one of the famous old hotels of Asia. We also stayed at another good budget hotel in Yangon: May Shan Guest House, $16/double with bath and breakfast. 115 Sule Paya Rd. 951 252 986
MANDALAY: Silver Swan Hotel ($22 double with bath, air-conditioning, censored television.) Bland, but comfortable. 02-32178; Fax: 02-36567; 568 83rd St. Moustache Brothers Pwe Troupe: 39th St. between 80th and 81st. Performances nightly at 8 p.m. $1.50 donation.
PYIN U LWIN: Candacraig Hotel (now officially called Thiri Myaing Hotel) $36/double with bath and breakfast. (Smaller rooms are $24-30) www.myanmar.travelmall.com/travelmall/hotel/Maymyo+(Pyin+Oo+Lwin)/Thiri+Myaing
OLD BAGAN: Bagan Thande Hotel in the Old Bagan Archaeological Zone, $24/double, including lavish buffet breakfast on patio overlooking the Ayeyarwady River. Ph: (062) 95 70144; Fax: (062) 95 70143 www.exploremyanmar.com/oldbaganthande.htm
INLE LAKE: Golden Island Cottages in Taunggyi. $45/double; thatched cottages on stilts, each with private balcony and bathroom; includes breakfast. This was a splurge for us but well worth it. To reach this hotel, fly to Heho and catch a taxi to Nyaunghwe. Hire a boat (one-way) for the one-hour ride down the lake to Golden Island Cottages. (Don't confuse with Golden Island Cottages II, a less interesting nearby mega-hotel.) Ph: (95) 81-2313 asia-hotelguide.com/hotels/mmigol.htm
Joan and Lou Rose firstname.lastname@example.org