Bye Bye Burma!

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February 13th 2012
Published: February 15th 2012
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Gold stupas wreathed in smog reflect light like diamonds in the dirt, meanwhile heavy foot traffic shifts about the city in swarms as thick as the haze surrounding them. Faces smeared with a tree bark mixture are tribally decorative whilst serving a purpose; protection from the oppressive Burmese-sun. Those faces survey us, white-skinned strangers and at first it feels a little intimidating. A leap of faith and an offered smile reveals the gorgeousness of this city; the smile is returned, exuberant and nodding in approval, the shyness dissolved into genuine curiosity and delight in the encounter. These faces illustrate the meeting of two subcontinents; the crux of Indochina, a spectrum of Asia displaying a multihued variety of skin and diversity of aesthetics unlike any other country we have visited. We are unfamiliar with the voluptuous script surrounding us; spherical letters interspersed with figures like base and treble clefs on music staves. As Kipling (the old crook who stayed in Myanmar only two days) wrote, “It is quite unlike any other land you know about.”

Our stay in Burma began and ended in Yangon, a place where navigation on foot is fraught, especially so in the most hectic part of the day. Passing through the dilapidated streets, you are ever unlikely to obtain a good 100m stretch of empty space, not in your wildest dreams. As a pedestrian each tiny step taken has to be carefully orchestrated between you, the swarming mass and the oncoming traffic. You see a space, you fill it, you wait, and you see a space... Your toes curled all the while, cautious of the local people who have far more practice at this than you and few reservations about stepping on a toe or two to get ahead. But it’s the oncoming cars approaching amid impossibly narrow corridors of road between market stalls hawking artificial flowers and imitation watches that are the real nuisance.

As your confidence grows you learn to look up from the pot holed roads and rickety pavements stained with chewed-up and spit-out “betel” which stains the ground (and) like blood. The hustle and bustle of the daily street scene is staged amidst five storey buildings whose colonial grandeur has irreversibly faded to nothing more than damp, decayed walls connected by a tangled mass of electric wire weighed down by too many fat pigeons.

Though you never thought it possible the streets are busier still at night; those who have been working are heading home or perhaps the men are bound for the tea shop in the same way our grandfathers went straight for the local pub. Under the guise of twilight people really started to stare in curiosity, as though we couldn’t see them in the growing shadows. Most people were outwardly friendly though others were more reluctant. They are not necessarily being rude... but when a smile goes unreciprocated it can’t half make you feel a fool. Having accidentally grazed the arm of a teenage boy on the street during the day he practically balked in disgust!

Given its despondent history in the British Empire, Yangon has stewed over the years and exists now as a fusion of culture. If that isn’t apparent in the subtleties between races then it is visible in the variety of costume. The people here are garbed in hijab, sari, sarong and occasionally just jeans and t-shirt. The men are also saronged, the tubular skirts which are folded and tucked at the waistline are known as “longyi” and are ever popular (even in spite of David Beckham’s early ‘90s adaptation). The one uniform entity between these people of various creeds and colour are their ghostly-painted faces. Across the country of Myanmar women and children smear a thick paste of powdered tree bark known as “thanakha” to protect their skin from the severe sun. It creates an almost tribal appearance that we never tired of looking at, nor photographing.

It was unexpected for us to see the many young nuns, swathed in robes of pink, that were seeking alms on the streets of Yangon, for we had rarely encountered the female equivalent of the monk in all our time in Asia. Often we passed a group of five or so bald-headed young girls in their pre-teens lead by an older, more senior nun. One group we encountered amused us more than the rest, being visibly excited to see us foreigners from a distance then attempting an act of nonchalance and coyness as they passed, although the girl last in the line couldn’t contain herself for long and gave us the most endearing smile as she passed.

Even before we arrived in Myanmar we were surrounded by many monks on the plane. I had recently read a short story by Paul Theroux entitled “The Monks Luggage” which tells about his own encounter with a monk on the train in Mandalay. The story is an account of what little possessions this devotee carried with him, not just to travel with but throughout his life, the list amounting to only a small sum of money, a needle and thread, a razor to maintain the monastic hairstyle and a small bowl and pair of chopsticks. These monks with whom we were travelling on the other hand had much more luggage than Chris and I combined, and I couldn’t help but scrutinise them as they chewed gum nosily in the queue at immigration while they stood in one line but left their oversized suitcase in another just in case that line should move quicker; they seemed to lack the virtue of patience as well as the ability to travel light!

Now, it’s no secret that insular Myanmar is fussy about who it lets through its doors, it’s only relevantly recently that tourist visas have been extended past the original seven days. Waiting at immigration to be officially “in” Myanmar I couldn’t suppress an irrational sense of nervousness relating to letters of petition regarding Aung San Su Kyi, which I had written as an over-enthusiastic law student. Of course, they must have decided that little Amy Foster posed no serious political threat and they allowed my entry. Now that we were actually in Myanmar I was eager to be in a hotel, but during high season that in itself was an all new challenge, and here comes my first piece of advice for anyone visiting Myanmar in the future: book ahead, particularly if you’re on a budget and travelling when tourism is at its peak. My second piece of advice: take no notice of the hotel pricing guide in that Naughty Guidebook, you’ll be lucky to find anywhere for less than $15 per night anywhere in the main four destinations, and don’t expect a private bathroom or hot water for that fare either.

Digs acquired, our next job was cash. Now then, perhaps you are not familiar with the song and dance regarding money exchange in Myanmar... Well, you arrive with clean, new US dollar bills, typically in large denominations but with some small change too. Naughty Guidebook states that US$1= Kyatt 1150 based on “the black-market exchange at the time of writing.” They also inform you not to bother with the banks as they offer a mere 400 kyat per dollar. Walking the streets of Yangon the “black-market” wasn’t hard to find. They find you. The best rate we were offered for our cash was 950. We agreed and the kyat was counted bill for bill. The transaction, sketchy to say the least, was completed. What we failed to notice was an act of Prestige during the encounter; a magic trick that robbed us of $100 somehow and left our budget seriously depleted, what with hotel costs far higher than we anticipated, we were potentially in a lot of trouble as there are no ATMs in Myanmar... So, herein is more advice for you, fellow traveller, should you wish to change money in Yangon (which you will), head for the bus station where you will be directed to more honest fellows stationed behind makeshift stalls. Their rates are lower, but they’re candid and even exchanged some left over Thai Baht and £10 (for terrible rates), which helped us out considerably. Or else, you could try the bank. Later in our trip in Mandalay we saw rates far better than those offered on the black-market elsewhere in the country, once again proving ‘the book’ wrong.

So, our visit to Myanmar started poorly but we were determined not to allow it to affect the rest of our trip. We calculated that we would just about have enough money to get by though we would have to go without some of the creatures comforts that we might have preferred, as in hot water and an occasional cold beer. We took to the streets and took in the sights of the city. Later we stopped for cheap and delicious samosas and massala tea in one of the nondescript tea shops for which the country is so renowned.

An afternoon nap interrupted our gastronomic tour of the city. As soon as we awoke we were out hunting for our next meal. A busy restaurant was serving “toeshay” (or dosai) so that’s what we decided on and we were not left wanting, Chris even ordered twice (surprise, surprise!), though I made a serious faux pas, mistaking a super-hot dried chilly for a green bean. Walking back to the hotel the profuse sweating started and I was stopped in my tracks by a wave of nausea. An older gentleman noticed my obvious discomfort and stopped to ask me, “Do you have trouble? Tell me, how can I help you?” I was so touched by his concern for a stranger that I began to feel immediately better. He told us that he was an old seaman, that was how he learnt English, and his benevolence was genuine. I realised that I had never offered what help I was able to give to a stranger, and that in the future I must endeavour to do so. Though it is tacky to say, perhaps this will stand as the one definite example of how my experience travelling has “changed me for the better”.

We stayed in Yangon for only one night, but we would return. The next day we took the “night bus” (which in Myanmar typically leaves in the afternoon and arrives sometime in the early hours) to Kalaw, and then we travelled onwards to Inle Lake, Mandalay, Bagan and back again to end our trip in Yangon, where it all began...


Before this trip the idea to travel in Myanmar, though appealing, was certainly controversial for obvious reasons. Throughout our travels we have tried as best we can to be thoughtful as travellers and to be careful as to the impact of our presence in developing countries and communities. We haven’t always got it spot on, (re: the choice of guides when trekking in Chiang Mai) but I like to think that we’re doing an OK job of it; certainly just being aware is making us more responsible than a few other travellers we have encountered along the way.

Honestly, it was an easy decision to make that we would go to Myanmar. Mostly because we wanted to travel there. The arguments to support not going were as follows; political heroine Aung San Suu Kyi who has been unlawfully under house arrest for many years asked tourists not to come; we would certainly be putting our money into the pockets of a seriously corrupt government who have been responsible for the slaughter of its people, en-mass and in public, as recently as the 2007 monk demonstrations; thirdly, by travelling here we could be “showing support” for this government, in an alternative to boycotting it.

So, in spite of all this, why did we go? Well, Suu Kyi asked tourists to stay away in 1995 in response to the upcoming “Travel Myanmar 1996” campaign, and after some wider reading it seems to us as though her request has been misunderstood. Additionally, it is widely believed that the boycott is ineffective. Next, although we would not be able to avoid contributing the 20% government tax fixed to hotel payments we could limit the amount funnelled to the regime by staying in the most budget options, going without a private bathroom and hot water etc. Further, we would only travel using private bus companies and not use government run trains or boats, even though we might prefer the experience. Also, by spending money in different restaurants, by renting a bike from one place, buying our bus tickets from another etc, we would be distributing our spends to a variety of family businesses, and although initially only the tourist industry sees the benefit of that money, in time it is be naturally redistributed. (It is also important to note that the mandatory $200 exchange certificates have long been abolished).

Now, the argument that visiting Myanmar shows support for the misdemeanours of its government could be construed oppositely, in that foreign presence encourages an aperture in a previously insular state. Rather than feeling ignored by the world the Burmese want to experience the global support first hand. Further, encounters with foreigners can provide enlightening experiences and even provincially educate local people who do not have access to impartial media other than BBC news, for which of course they must be able to speak or at least understand English and have regular access. This was most clearly demonstrated to us during an absurd encounter with a novice monk in the township of Amarapura, close to Mandalay.

For the people of Myanmar meetings with foreigners are likely to be the closest they ever come to “travelling” or experiencing the world firsthand. Over the course of our stay we heard about a man who, suspected of begging in a unique and creative way, was asking tourists for money of any denomination or value from their home country so that he could add it to his “collection.” This collection included a wide variety of notes from all corners of the world, much further reaching than the travels Chris and I have embarked upon so far. The couple who were retelling us this story were willing to contribute some South Korean Won but naturally, as any experienced traveller would be, were dubious of his intentions. For me, I understood the collector’s ambition to be fuelled by a thirst of knowledge about the world. A trait that is so obvious in many of the people we met these three weeks. At every opportunity we have opened our guidebook (for lack of any better reading material) to indulge monks, children and members of the older generation. Good reading material is hard to come by here; this is immediately apparent just walking around the streets of Yangon where the bookshop is a carpeted street corner of outdated, poor quality paperbacks. These people want to know about the world and as a tourist you can provide a unique and exciting way for them to learn.

The decision to go (or not to go) to Myanmar is pivotal, and as much a part of the story as the temples of Bagan or the monks of Mandalay. It is for this reason that I chose to include our decision making in our blog, and not to justify our decision to those who might disagree with the trip.

Lastly, did we feel we were watched or spied upon? No! After reading “Naughty Guidebook” just before our flight I felt a little anxious as the idea of being stalked about the streets. It seems as though they are guilty of scaremongering (among a plethora of other sins). There are simply too many tourists in Myanmar for the police to take a personal interest. It’s as simple as that.

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