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Published: March 23rd 2006
As I was waiting at the Bangkok Airport busily stuffing myself with enough KFC, Pepsi, and Oreos to tide me over for nearly three weeks of Burmese cuisine I caught a CNN blurb on ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The government has burned down over 3000 villages and in order to deter the villagers from digging through the rubble of their former homes the junta sets up enough landmines to blow them to smithereens. There are over a million refugees in Thailand alone. That's where I'm going?
I met Senti on the plane to Yangon. Senti is 26, British, and a doctor= ideal travel companion. We will spend the next three weeks in Burma together so she will become a main character in this blog.There were a couple twentysomething solo travelers on the plane and most of them paired up with someone during their time in Burma. Besides the usual perils of solo travel: the meals alone, the higher cost of a single room, and no one there to watch your bag while you use the restroom there is the added fun of xenophobia, although it is more the fear of "what will the government do to me if I'm seen
quite modern looking
with this foreigner?" than a fear of the foreigner itself.
Traveling in Burma is easy as long as you stay on the tourist trail. We heard a story about a tourist that tried to visit Pyinmana, the new capital of Myanmar. When he got there he was denied entry into the city, when he tried to leave no guesthouses along the way would accept a foreign guest. He ended up spending 24++ hours on the top of a pickup trying to get back to civilization. Foreigners are forbidden from many places in the country: don't go too far north or you'll see the opium factories and meth labs, don't go too far east or you'll see ethnic cleansing, don't go too far south or you'll run into the French/British/American owned gas pipeline. Just stick to the beaten path and look at the pretty stupas. So look at the pretty stupas we did.
It was surprisingly satisfying sticking to the Burmese beaten path, there are usually not a whole lot of tourists in Burma and we were there during low season so there were even fewer, by the end of our stay I think we had met half the
getting lost there at night was quite an adventure
tourists in Burma and kept running into familiar faces.
The initial shock of arriving in Burma was a powerful one. Yangon is an absolutely amazing city, huge, chaotic, and diverse. There's a very strange vibe but it does feel removed from such horrors as ethnic cleansing. I was gawking at the 30 year old cars, the buses that use the advised maximum capacity as a starting point, and the men wearing skirts (Burma is the only place I've seen where the majority of men still wear the traditional dress- the longyi) but I had to keep one eye on where I was walking. The sidewalks in Burma look like they were bombed last night and there was a earthquake five minutes ago. Walking down the street is like going for a hike.
Burmese history minute:
Burma is a former British colony and became a province of British India until they won independence in 1948. In 1962 General Ne Win took over in a coup d'etat and things really went downhill. In 1990 free elections were held and Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of national hero Aung San and Nobel Peace Prize winner) of the National League for
Democracy won in a landslide, however the military did not step down and Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest even today. You will see statues of Aung San and places named after him all over the place in Burma, but nobody dares to mention The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. You know U2's song "Walk On"? That's about Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi does not want any tourists to visit Myanmar because tourism funds the regime. Package tourists in Burma are a real problem, but she discourages individual tourists to visit as well. Some people argue that since she is the legitimate winner of the election we should respect her wishes. Some people think she is out of touch- Myanmar was isolated for 10 years and it did nothing to weaken the regime but it did hurt the locals, for many Burmese tourists are the only contact with the outside world as well as a source of income. There are some organizations in the US that argue that none of the money from tourism gets to the people who need it, but I determine that those organizations are run by a bunch of idiot
self-righteous yuppies who think they're doing the poor, oppressed Burmans such a huge favor by drinking Coke instead of Pepsi.
I estimate that during my stay in Burma I contributed less than $100 to the regime's pocketbook through taxes and entrance fees- which is a drop in the bucket compared to what they make selling natural gas to China ($$$$). More isolation is not the answer to Burma's problems. Besides, can you think of a government on this planet that you would feel good about financially supporting? Imagine what would happen to tourism in the US!!! So call me a terrible person for visiting, I had a fantastic time there and I'm very glad I went, I encourage others to visit but please do so responsibly.
Back to the story...
As we were walking around Yangon the reaction we got was very different from other capital (err, ex-capital) cities we visited. We created a stir wherever we went. Burma is in a fascinating location- check it out there up against China and India, and a lot of the people in the city appear Indian. Senti is of Sri Lankin decent so if she wore different clothes she
might be able to blend in, but there she is wearing hiking sandals and a baseball hat and traveling without an older boy to protect her (unthinkable!!!) I think they were quite intimidated by her. I stick out a bit more, sadly. We heard that a couple of days before we arrived Semester at Sea docked at Yangon- seeing 1200 American students and professors swarming around Yangon must have been quite a sight! A few locals asked us if we were from the ship. As it was we walked around for hours and saw very, very few foreigners.
We walked by the Strand Hotel, which is the Oriental or Raffles of Yangon with such prestigious former guests as George Orwell and Mick Jagger. Except here you can spend more than the average local yearly income on one night! Our question is- what the hell was Mick Jagger doing in Yangon? The best explanation was that he was here to sue Iron Cross, which is THE band in Burma and they do strange cover songs. If you ever meet someone from Burma, mention Iron Cross and you will get Burmese cool points.
We spent our first couple days in
with handpainted posters
Yangon just walking around in the heat. April is the hottest month for this region and it does get quite balmy inside when the power goes out (very frequent in Burma) and your fan shuts off so you want to spend as little time as possible in your room during the day. We had our palms read by a fortune teller. I am going to marry a fabulously well-to-do dark skinned foreigner when I'm 27 (sup Nigerian drug lords/Sultans of Brunei?). Senti is going to marry a white dude who's not so fantastically welathy, aww.
In the evening we went to Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest sight in Burma. 40 tons of gold and 80,000 diamonds in the middle of a poverty-stricken city, yeehaw. It was incredibly beautiful. We talked to the monks and after the sun set they showed us the exact spots where you stand to see the light refract different colors from the fist-sized diamond at the very top of the stupa.
The next day we stopped at the post office to send off some postcards. The price they quoted for US and Europe was 30 kyat. We had exchanged our money at 1150 kyat to
Scary Tourist sign
Uhhh no thanks, we're cool.
$1, so 30 kyat is less than 3 cents. "Noooo, we want to send them FAR, to America! And England!" "30 kyat." 3 cents was a far cry from the usual 70-80 cents it costs. Needless to say we were fairly skeptical about our postcards safe arrival, later we heard that most of the mail actually DOES arrive intact! We also learned that in Burma blind people are allowed to mail up to 7kg absolutely free- so all you blind people get over to Burma and start mailing like crazy to bankrupt an evil regime.
We had a very difficult time getting bus tickets, the big New Year/ water festival was coming up so everybody was trying to get home. We had to buy tickets several days in advance. Night buses are never pleasant, but Burmese bus rides are notorious. 14 hours of spectacularly bad roads, cramped seats, constant retching and hocking of loogies is normal, a "bad" bus ride is all of the above plus a 10 hour breakdown in the middle of nowhere. We were usually the only foreigners on the bus but sometimes they played movies in English and we felt like it was just for
They asked for money after we took this picture but we taught them freedom from desire and didn't give them any
us. There is another blog entry from Burma about a bus accident where the driver feel asleep and crashed into the back of a logging truck, several people died. I think we almost died several times, but we were very fortunate during our bus riding.
Yangon is a very cool city and definitely earns the Kate seal of approval.
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