Myanmar - Notes From the Journal


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March 1st 2007
Published: March 14th 2007
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Golden SpiresGolden SpiresGolden Spires

Yangon's most famous landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda. © L. Birch 2007
The following are a series of extracts from our journals, verbal sketches if you like, that attempt to capture our first impressions of Myanmar. To those unfamiliar with this little known country, I should perhaps try and draw a brief introductory picture. Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar is an inward looking country ruled by a military Government that has a well earned reputation for human rights abuses.

For years it has cut itself off from the outside world and its people know very little of what is happening beyond the restrictive confines of their own country. Much is changing but the Government still maintains its iron-fisted rule, with Government ministers seemingly more concerned about amassing personal wealth and power rather than improving conditions for ordinary people or the country as a whole.

Myanmar was once part of the British colonial empire, but its time as a colony was short lived - scarcely lasting more than 70 years. Burma, as it was then known, was briefly considered part of British India until the country regained independence in 1948. Since then, successive governments have done all they could to eradicate any memory of their colonial past. Local names left by the
The Shattered Streets of YangonThe Shattered Streets of YangonThe Shattered Streets of Yangon

A compensation claimant's dream... anywhere else other than Myanmar Perhaps. © L. Birch 2007
British were changed back to Burmese, even the name of the country was changed. Some things however, have remained unchanged. People may now drive on the right but distances are measured in miles. Metric measures have still not replaced imperial feet and inches and the old British-built railway lines still carry trains between Yangon and Mandalay.

By way of explanation, the local unit of currency is the Kyat (there were - at time of writing - roughly 1250 kyat to the US dollar) but dollars can be used for paying for bus or hotel fares. We avoided, where possible, using businesses or services that were government owned.



First Impressions

12th Feb 2007

Myanmar, on arrival, was something of a shock. Yangon - formerly Rangoon - was shattered and filthy. Streets of broken pavements that could easily trip the unwary. Compensation claims are obviously not a concern here (any complaint is likely to be dealt with quite harshly anyway) Men in lunghis, small stalls lining every street that sell second-hand clothes, fried foods, tea, padlocks and lighters, pirate DVDs and music CDs. Streets and pavements flecked with rusty betel stains - crimson smiles and Thali
Blue RoomBlue RoomBlue Room

A Burmese woman watches life on the streets from the balcony of her apartment, Yangon. © L. Birch 2007
shops all conspire to make the place feel as if we had taken a wrong turn and somehow arrived in India.

A cultural melting pot of people and races. Among the indigenous Burmese and tribal people are Chinese, Bangladeshis, turbaned Sikhs, dark skinned Tamils and hawk faced Pakistanis. Unkempt colonial buildings everywhere, falling to bits and never repaired. Bright golden pagodas and scabrous looking buildings with plants sprouting from the masonery. Alleyways filled with reeking piles of garbage - emptied out of apartment windows and left to rot in the street. Bad smells and lots of crows.



Money Matters

Our next big shock is just how expensive it seems to be - for foriegners at least. Prices seem to have doubled since friends Annie and Martin were here a year ago. Comparing notes before parting company with them in Cambodia, costs had seemed inexpensive. Perhaps they were - last year, but the one thing you could rely on in travel was that things change.

With the high demand for Dollars, costs seem significantly higher than in other parts of South East Asia. A dingy room with no windows and a shared bathroom in the
Echoes of EmpireEchoes of EmpireEchoes of Empire

British colonial architecture in downtown Yangon. © L. Birch 2007
capital costs between $10 - $15. A ticket on a local bus to Mandalay costs anything up to $18 and the Bagan boat trip at $25 (up $10 dollars on last year's prices), may now be out of the question.

A quick reassessment of our position sparks fears that our money will not last for the duration of our 28-day permit. Flight dates not moveable or refundable - either have to find someway to stretch our money or shorten our stay and return to Thailand sooner than anticipated. There are no ATMs and it isn't possible to change traveller's cheques in Myanmar - it's strictly cash only and preferably US Dollars. Panic sets in briefly. Our hotel owner tells us that we might be able to change traveller's cheques at one of the top end hotels but visits to three in the downtown area draw a blank. "Too many problems", the receptionist at the Park Royal declares cryptically when we enquire but does not elaborate further. Knowing it's probably hopeless we try a bank. The dilapidated exterior is not encouraging and the teller simply shakes his head when we ask.

We end up bargaining hard with a black
Street EatsStreet EatsStreet Eats

Fast food to go, Yangon-style. © V. Birch 2007
market moneychanger in an effort to try and squeeze every bit of Kyat we can from the currency we've brought with us. Decide that we will have to hole up somewhere - like Bagan perhaps - sit still and eke out our money in order to get through the month.



Politics

It is more difficult to find out much about the current political situation. Locals are very wary of being drawn into discussions of a political nature and gentle probing is either met with silence, a shrug or a change of subject. One woman we meet later is very nervous about answering any questions, looking over her shoulder before telling us in hushed tones that "we must not speak of these things". People have been punished in Myanmar simply for criticising the lack of a reliable supply of electricity.

Of the two newspapers available, one is independant but heavily censored, the other is state owned and appallingly devoid of any real news or opinion - other than that expressed by the government. Lots of pictures of generals in military uniforms - the minister for agriculture or tourism - explaining what a wonderful job they're doing of running the country. Burma of course, is not a democracy so the people have no say in how the country is run.

The principle concerns of the government do not seem to be the welfare of its people or the improvement of the country for their benefit but rather self gain, the amassing of personal wealth and power for those in authority. May be difficult - if not impossible to gain much more of an insight than this. We have been warned to avoid trying to probe too deeply, both for our own benefit and that of the people we talk to. In the past, westerners and Burmese residents have been incarcerated for trying to publicly criticise the government or whip up dissent, so it obviously pays to be a bit discreet.



Foods, Goods and Services

Not much we want to do in Yangon. A trip to the Shwedagon - Yangon and the country's most iconic temple - may have to wait 'til our return from upcountry and be dependant on how much money remains in the coffers. At least the food is good and cheap. A Thali in a busy Indian food shop costs just less than a dollar each. Served up by a smiling young Indian with fearsome betel stained teeth, gums and lips - it consists of rice, curried dips, meat and/or vegetables, dahl soup and delicious chapatis. People are generally good natured and friendly with ready smiles. On the street they are often keen to try out their English but we are aware that, in shops or markets, prices are hiked simply because we are foreigners. The brief pause when we stop to ask how much water or snacks are at a roadside stall is often telltale. On the bus, a man sitting next to me is charged $5 compared to the $15 I pay for the same journey.

UK and US imposed trade embargos mean that there is an absence of the usual franchise goods available in other countries, though I'm not sorry that the MacDonalds / Pepsi culture has not reached Myanmar yet (one of the few countries in the world where it hasn't). It doesn't mean that the Burmese people go without little luxuries though. Coca Cola is brought in from China on the black market and can be purchased in a few high end restaurants - if you don't mind paying $2 or more for a fizzy drink. Cheaper are the local brand alternatives. Star Cola will only set you back a few cents and in place of KFC, there is a local chain of fast food restaurants called TFC (Tokyo Fried Chicken). The waiter service is delightful but hardly fast. Order chicken and fries but be prepared to recieve a diminuitive piece of chicken first.... followed by fries 10 to 15 minutes later.

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