Published: January 25th 2009January 25th 2009 Myanmar is not, as Cosmo Kramer mistakenly asserts, an American discount pharmacy.
A fisherman (or rather, boy) on Inle Lake.
It is, of course, the country which is always referred to (parenthetically) as (Burma). It's coming on twenty years now since the military junta changed the name, so why does the world persist in sticking to the old label? This 'Myanmar or Burma' question continued to tax me throughout my fifteen days in the country. Because even the Lonely Planet refers to it as Myanmar (Burma), I resorted to the internet to track down the correct usage. It seems the Burmese generals changed the name for two main reasons: a) to disassociate the nation from its British colonial past, and b) to provide a more inclusive name for the country, 'Burma' being closely linked to the dominant ethnic group, the Bamar. The controversy over the terminology also hinges on two main issues: a) the name Myanmar is actually a Burmese word, so the linkage to the Bamar group continues, and b) the name change was proposed by a shadowy, repressive clique of unelected military dictators, so by recognising it, one is tacitly recognising the undemocratic government. This appears to be the main problem that people have with the new
A Burmese girl wearing thanaka, a cream produced from the bark of a tree, used as make-up and sunscreen by women and kids.
name, and it is certainly why the UK and the USA still call it Burma, despite 'Myanmar' being the official name in the UN for two decades.
Whatever one's views of the government - hopefully overwhelmingly unsupportive, unless of course you are the Russian or Chinese leadership - it does seem childish to simply refuse to recognise the new name. Nobody still calls Burkina Faso 'Upper Volta', even though a military dictator also changed that country's name. National governments do not simply refuse to refer to the 'People's Republic of China', because the label was proposed by a genocidal communist dictator. 'Myanmar', then, is as valid as Burma, although the latter name is certainly more romantic, and it can
identify you as a friend of Burmese democracy, if you wish to read into it that much. I did try to ask some Burmese guys what they preferred, but they were ethnic Shan so they laughed and said, 'Shan State'. When pressed, they disavowed the new label and plumped for the colonial one. Anyway, to get to the point: I will be using the old name in this blog, for, as J. Peterman said in Seinfeld
- 'You might know
A Padaung tribeswoman, one of the famous 'long-neck' ladies, trotted out for the benefit of the tourists at Inle Lake.
it as Myanmar, but it'll always be Burma to me.'
Second controversial issue: should one visit Burma, considering it is one of the most undemocratic and highly repressed countries in the world? My short answer - yes, yes, yes. My slightly longer answer - yes, but make sure you do so responsibly. The very long answer? Yes, for the Burmese are a beautiful, friendly, welcoming people, who are crying out for more tourists to visit their wonderful nation. Burma has many drawcards for travellers - a fine network of cheap, clean guesthouses; good (but slow) transport connections; heaps of awesome temples; stunning scenery; cheap prices; and pure hospitality. If you are prepared to travel independently, meet the locals, learn some Burmese, be a little patient, and appreciate the history and culture (and problems) of the place, then your visit can be a force for good - money goes into the local economy, you and your hosts learn a little about each other's worlds, and Burma opens up a tiny fraction more. If, however, you come on a dirty great package tour, a large proportion of your money goes straight into the government's coffers, for the package tours, hotels, and
The 130m-high Standing Buddha near Monywa...31 storeys all up.
transport links are pretty much all government-owned. And if, finally, you stay at home - yes, you give nothing to the generals, but you also learn nothing about this extraordinary nation, and you contribute to the boycott which keeps the military regime paranoid, repressive, and in power. I know the issues are more complex than that, but it is generally true that large numbers of aware and responsible tourists provide an extra level of scrutiny of harsh regimes, which often forces them to liberalise if they wish to keep the tourists dollars pouring in.
Now, finally, the country itself. Wow. What a heart-warmingly friendly place. For the hellos, the smiles, the random acts of kindness, the gifts, alone, Burma has to be in my top five countries. Even in Yangon, the noisy, crowded capital, people have time to flash a toothy Burmese grin and say, 'mingalaba' (hello), as you stumble past each other on the pot-holed pavements. In the countryside it is even more welcoming, and even those used to tourist business are uncynically kind. There's not many places where you can wake up the guesthouse owner at 5am after a night bus, and be greeted with a huge
Sunset at Amarapura
A local canoes past the teak bridge as the sun sets at Amarapura
smile and a freshly-brewed pot of tea.
I arrived in Yangon by air, at the current time the only realistic way way for foreigners to enter the country. All visitors need a visa, easily obtained in Bangkok, and a wad of crisp $100 bills, for there are no ATMs, and travellers cheques and credit cards are nigh-on useless.
I was prepared to enter a Soviet-style society of grim officials, grey soulless streets, and glum, downtrodden civilians. I had visions of goose-stepping soldiers, constant ID checks, armed guards outside every building, and locals too scared to converse or interact with visitors. I envisioned a country crippled by boycott, of queues for basic provisions, with no internet access, and with billboards proclaiming nothing but the glory of the ruling junta, of silent, gloomy masses.
How wrong I was. Burma is a vibrant, bustling, and surprisingly free country. Of course, there is political repression - democracy activists fill the jails, nobody can vote or express their opinions - but everyday life is as loud and as real as in any other part of Southeast Asia. The streets are packed with busy locals, markets teem with people and produce, and buses
Monks ambling along the teak bridge.
and rickshaws crowd the chaotic roads.
The repression here is real, no doubt about it. The creepy SLORC may have given way to the sadly misnamed SPDC (State Peace and Development Council, bringing nothing but Violence and Neglect), but Burma is still ruled by an ugly bunch of generals who trample on the dignity and human rights of their compatriots. The Tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) control all aspects of life and the economy, and, with half a million men in uniform, Burma's population is easily kept underfoot. Political rights, as I mentioned, are non-existent - the slightest murmurs are met by widescale repression, for example the Monk's Protest of September 2007. The government also utilises forced labour, especially for large-scale developments in areas that are off limits to tourists. There is some evidence that the junta is guilty of sexual crimes, using women as sex slaves. They have used violence against minority groups, and may have profitted from the drug trade that is prevalent in the Golden Triangle. Soldiers in various uniforms have ruled this gentle land since 1962, and they have destroyed it - raping the land, wrecking the economy (once SE Asia's strongest) and crushing the spirit
A cute little Burmese bub we shared a ute journey with
of its people. Their downfall will come, hopefully very soon, and hopefully without further bloodshed.
Most tourists in this country focus on the Big Four - Yangon, Mandalay, placid Lake Inle, and the temple complex at Bagan. Aside from these highlights, Burma is a country that one should soak up slowly and patiently. A traveller's day in Burma could consist of a lazy wander around a temple and a market, followed by a few cups of green tea at a teahouse, and then a leisurely dinner and Myanmar Beer at a small Shan eatery. Not exactly party central, but during the day you will have met dozens of the sparkling locals, and your day will have been made.
Yangon diverted me and my two travelling companions, Alex and Wendy (a Canadian and a Scot I met on the plane), for a couple of days. That's all the capital needs. A handicraft market and the downtown bustle are about it for the casual visitor, but it is the mighty Shwedagon Pagoda that every tourist comes to see. A magnificent golden temple, 100m high, sitting atop a hill to the city's north, and surrounded by red-robed monks, devout local worshippers,
The sun drops behind the hills next to the Irrawaddy, silhouetting the Bagan templetops.
gawping foreigners, and teams of broomstick-wielding sweepers, cleaning the tiled floors in a military manner. I've seen some amazing Buddhist temples in my time but the Shwedagon is right up there.
From Yangon it was a 16-hour bus ride north to Nyaungshwe, the main town from which to explore peaceful Inle Lake, in Shan State. The lake is about 20km long by 10km wide, and for a glimpse of a slice of rustic Burmese life, it is perfect. For a few bucks, you can hop into a longboat with three or four other tourists, and spend a lovely day on the water, visiting the tiny villages of teak and bamboo houses, all on stilts, often with a canoe tethered to the front step, and maybe a pig or cockerel perched on a straw-covered platform beneath the house. As well as this, there are an array of handicraft workshops churning out silver jewellery, Burmese cigars, local silk, and handmade wood, paper or metal products (for a price quoted in US dollars, of course). Then there are the vast floating gardens of tomatoes, peas, cauliflowers and pumpkins, and the Inle fishermen, with their distinctive style of rowing , using the calf
A vista over the plain from atop one of Bagan's temples.
of one leg as a lever for their oar.
From Inle, we continued north to Mandalay, via the chilly hill town of Kalaw (quite missable unless you wish to do some trekking). Mandalay is Burma's second city, a dusty, hot and noisy commercial hub which was nothing like the Indochinese shangri-la I had always imagined. Despite this, there were some gems to be discovered in this former capital of the Burmese kingdom. Mandalay Hill overlooks the city and the broad, snaking Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, and teams of English-language students congregate there every evening, jostling for a chance to converse with the tourists. Mahamuni Temple is another worthy sight, providing the spectacle of Burmese men queuing up to add tiny sheets of gold leaf to a glimmering Buddha statue, which is now at two tonnes of added gold and counting.
In the surrounding plains, there are three main attractions - the ancient capitals of Inwa, Sagaing, and Amarapura. Burmese kings were a superstitious lot, and it seems they moved their capitals to a new and more auspicious spot about as often as they changed their longyis (and interestingly, just like the junta did a couple of years ago, shifting
Stupas dot the landscape at Bagn.
the entire administration into the jungle at Naypyidaw almost overnight). Inwa is a jumble of old palaces and pagodas surrounded by farmland, and Sagaing provides a jaw-dropping vista of about 500 pagodas built over a couple of hilltops on the west bank of the Irrawaddy. Amarapura's claim to fame is a 1.2km footbridge, constructed from Burma's beloved teak, the longest of its type and taking twenty minutes for the procession of monks and tourists to traverse. For a dollar, you can buy a sad-eyed owl from one of the old women keeping them in cages, and release it into the air, providing a spot of instant karma for yourself, and probably employment for the enterprising locals, who no doubt catch them and sell them back to the old ladies on the bridge.
The most impressive thing I saw in Mandalay, though, was the local comedy troupe known as the Moustache Brothers. It wasn't the comedy - a Marx Brothers-esque combo of slapstick, silly costumes, dancing, puns, and ear-splitting traditional music - nor even the gigantic moustaches, that impressed me. It was the bravery of the three principals, Lu Maw, Lu Zaw, and Par Par Lay. The 'brothers' were blacklisted
A woman on Lake Inle rolling Burmese cigars.
by the junta in 1996, meaning they were forbidden to perform outside their home. Soon enough, Par Par was locked up for telling political jokes - seven years' hard labour for a few anti-government cracks. He has been imprisoned three times now, most recently in 2007 during the Monk's Protest. Still he continues - he even enters the stage (in their front room) wearing false shackles, holding a sign which reads, 'Jailbird'. Par Par is something of a celebrity: he is mentioned by an Amnesty phone operator in About A Boy
, and Hollywood bigwigs have taken up his cause. Watching this smiling, mustachioed man of 60 perform a silly Chinese dance, I wondered at the mentality of the ruling generals - so insecure and paranoid, they have to lock up a clown. Pathetic.
From Mandalay, it was onward to the last of the Big Four, Bagan, via the market city of Monywa, home to a truly massive 130m-high standing Buddha, (actually more a skyscraper of 31 floors in Buddha-shape) and a two hour ferry ride in the glaring Burmese afternoon, across the Irrawaddy. Bagan is truly breath-taking in its scope. Over a period of several hundred years, beginning a
The temple of Bupaya at Bagan, on the banks of the Irrawaddy.
millennium ago, Buddhist rulers built 13,000 religious structures on a 40 square kilometre plain. Today, over 4000 of these stupas and pagodas remain, dotting the flat triangular plain, and skirted by the mighty Irrawaddy. Although there is no single monument to rival the great temple at Angkor, it is simply the vast number of temples that makes Bagan so magnificent. When I drafted this paragraph, sitting in the shade of a golden stupa on the southern plain, I counted 300 pagodas clearly visible in my field of vision - thousands more remained hidden amongst the trees, behind other temples, or in the haze on the horizon.
Some of the payas (temples) are huge - one is 66 metres high, another has the bulk and form of an Aztec pyramid, and many consist of four or five levels, with commanding panoramas of the site. Others are tiny, just a simple stupa twice the height of a person, containing a single Buddha image inside. Many of the temples remain active for worshippers; the white stucco and golden-spired Ananda Paya was the centre of a lively festival during our visit, and barefoot pilgrims can be found at many of the larger structures.
The Mo Bros
Me and two of the Moustache Brothers, Lu Maw and Par Par Lay.
The site is so large that exploring it by foot is out of the question. Most people hire a horse and cart for the day, a relaxing and romantic way to acquaint yourself with a handful of the temples, and take in the rural life of goat herds, ox-carts and farming folk all going about their business around the pagodas. Otherwise you can hire a bicycle, and rattle and shake your way to a quiet temple all of your own, then sit atop it in the shade, reading Orwell's Burmese Days
, or writing some postcards home (cheapest in the world, I reckon, at 4 cents postage). The downside to the whole experience is, of course, the constant barrage of pushy hawkers trying to sell paintings, postcards, books, soft drinks and souvenirs - 'Hello you buy lucky money!' - but then, you get that at every tourist attraction in the developing world.
So, that's about it. As I said earlier, I thoroughly recommend you give Burma a chance. There are complicated political issues to think about when you are deciding whether to come; but, once you are here, the pure joy that many locals display on seeing you, is
The main stupa at Shwedagon Paya, in Yangon. The scaffolding is to repair damage sustained in last year's cyclone.
enough to destroy any lingering doubts. The Burmese people want open-minded tourists here, to enjoy their unique culture, and to open this isolated pariah state up to the outside world. Maybe increased tourism could contribute to the movement to push Senior General Than Shwe and his cronies off the scene...
Tom's Top Six of Burma
1. The Burmese people. Wow. What a warm-hearted, gentle crowd the Burmese are. Just about everybody gives you a smile and a wave, and even the taxi drivers are nice here. It's worth coming just to meet the locals.
2. Inle Lake. For a peek at Burmese rural life, you can't beat a longboat around this picturesque lake. Floating gardens, fishermen with their wicker nets, teak houses on stilts, colourful lakeside markets...perfect.
3. Bagan. Ah, trotting around thousands of ancient temples in a horse-drawn cart, on the banks of the Irrawaddy. Great place.
4. The Moustache Brothers show in Mandalay. Where else can you meet a convicted political prisoner, see photos of Aung San Suu Kyi proudly displayed, and
watch some good old Burmese slapstick?
5. The music. The Burmese are very proud of their indigenous musical culture, and this
A Mandalay artisan carves a wooden Buddha statue at Mahamuni.
is one place where you're hard-pressed hearing any western music...unless its a Burmese cover of Chicago's 'Hard To Say I'm Sorry'. My favourite Burmese group - the hard-rock/power-ballad/soppy-love-song (these guys are versatile) Iron Cross
6. Shwedagon Paya. A very impressive temple, and the highlight of Yangon.
Tom's Bottom Three of Burma
1. The government, of course. Selfish, mean-spirited, arrogant, violent, sadistic, corrupt military men, propped up by the Chinese government, and their own vast armed forces. These bastards do not represent the honest and noble character of the long-suffering people whom they oppress.
2. The food...sad to say, but Burma is not the place to visit for culinary excellence. They do put together a mean breakfast of eggs, toast, and fruit, but otherwise it's gluggy noodle dishes, deep-fried, cold samosas, or something which contains an unidentifiable type of meat. Go to Thailand next door if you want top-notch tucker.
3. The electricity supply. Probably the worst I have seen, anywhere. Every day, without fail, in Yangon or in the smallest country town, the power goes off. Generators rule. (Apparently the government's power never goes off...) Prices in Burma
Bring plenty of US
One of Bagan's 4000+ temples.
dollars! You can easily live on $20 a day, less if you don't do much.
Budget room - $5 per person, always including a massive breakfast
Air-con bus trip - $1 per hour of travel
Sit-down meal - $1- $3
(Large) bottle of beer - $1.50
Cup of tea or Nescafe - $0.20
Bicycle hire - $1 per day
Taxi hire - $15 per day
Entrance fee, Shwedagon - $5 (straight to the government, I'm afraid)
Entrance fee, Bagan - $10 (this too)
Internet use - $0.50 - $1.50 per hour
Visa cost - $20 (more government money)
Souvenir longyi or T-shirt - $3
There are more photos below