Cut Off From The World… in Myanmar

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Asia » Burma
May 29th 2006
Published: May 29th 2006
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If you read only one of my blogs all the way through...make it this one.

Imagine a country…

Where the Internet is only 5 years old, but is so heavily regulated by the government that
it is almost impossible to contact the outside world

Where citizens have to pay exorbitant fees to open a Cyber Café, after which, the government bans e-mail. (by only having 2 internet companies, both controlled by the military and both going through the same proxy with a list blocking hotmail, msn, yahoo, gmail, etc)*

Where you can go 2 weeks without hearing a cell phone ring. (I heard one once and it sounded so foreign)

Where in some places, horse and buggy are a common form of transportation.

Where international phone calls can be made, but for a price so high, no locals can afford them. When foreigners want to make a call, the hotel has to call the operator, tell them the country and number you want to call and how long you want to talk. Some time later the operator will call back to tell you if your request has been approved or denied.

Where, as a citizen, you are not free to travel freely around your own country. Immigration checkpoints are setup everywhere.

Where the government will cut power whenever they feel like it. This happens at least a few times a day…and sometimes for days at a time.

Where there are huge red signs decorating the landscape, reminding you not to mess with the military junta.

Where discussing politics, especially with a foreigner, can land you in jail for an undisclosed amount of time. (Pho, discussed later, was taken aside and questioned 3 times for being with me…we had to pay a bribe once…even though Pho told them to take him to jail instead)

Where it seems half the population consists of monks and nuns and the other half of ruthless military. (of course this is an exaggeration, but it does seem this way)

Where the latest Hollywood movie to pass the government censors and make it to the theatre is Under Siege. In case you don’t remember this blockbuster, that’s probably because it was one of Steven Seagal’s first movies and came out 15 years ago!

Where the average person makes about $300USD a year.

Where the
Shwedagon PagodaShwedagon PagodaShwedagon Pagoda

People praying at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
people believe that their military has 13 million people in it, in a country with a population of 52 million. (I think the military has around 500,000, which is still huge for a country with no external enemies)

Where an iPod might as well be a time machine by the way people look at you when you explain how it works.

Where men wear longyis (like skirts) instead of pants and chew betlenut (a leaf with chemicals, betelnut, and tobacco) like chewing tobacco and spit red juice everywhere.

Where, if you’re an American, the military police track your every move from the time you enter the country to the time you exit.

Where there is a small civil war going on in some states, yet you hear absolutely nothing about it.

Where the government tells you that the exchange rate between your local currency and the US dollar in 8 to 1. Yet, the people know that is bullshit and they exchange it for it’s real value on the black-market, which is 1200 to 1. The government overvalues its money by almost 1000%

Now, you’ll have to imagine all of this, because unfortunately, most
Shwedagon PagodaShwedagon PagodaShwedagon Pagoda

Monk praying at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
of my pictures, along with my camera, were lost on my last night in Mandalay (where there is no Bay by the way, don’t know what Vegas was thinking). I think I left it at a restaurant, but I really don’t know. So much for practicing the Buddhist philosophy of Mindfulness, but I guess the loss of my cherished pictures will be something to think about while I meditate on impermanence. ;-)
(some of the pictures included in this blog were taken by a German guy I met...I only used ones that were exactly the same as ones I had taken but lost)

So Myanmar, or Burma, or whatever you want to call it. It’s all those things I listed above, and so much more. I can truly say that it is the most interesting country I have ever been to, and if it weren’t for the lack of basic human rights for the citizens, I would say it’s my favorite country so far. Nowhere else in this world, except maybe North Korea, can you feel so far away from anywhere else. The fact that there were no ATMS, no businesses that accept Credit Cards (all international banks pulled out of the country years ago), no cell phones, no internet (the government actually shut down the internet a few days ago, don’t know why), no e-mail, no McDonalds or Starbucks…absolutely no contact or reminder of the outside world. Pretty amazing. It gave me a feeling of absolute freedom with a hint of claustrophobia if that makes sense. They say Laos is the last untouched country in SE Asia…I say Laos has been touched, stepped on, and trampled over compared to Myanmar.

OK, OK…enough rambling…here’s what I actually did in Myanmar (I’m going to call it Myanmar instead of Burma, because that is what it has always been called by the locals anyway).

I flew into Yangon, which is the biggest city in Myanmar, with about 5 million people. It was once the capital, but now the capital has been moved to a bunker in a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Yeah, welcome to Myanmar. I hear this bunker has electricity all the time, satellite TV (which the locals have right now too, but I never did see one that worked all the time), all kinds of imported food, etc. At first I didn’t like Yangon…it reminded me much more of India than anything else in SE Asia. Not just because there are a lot of Indians living there, though that was one of the factors. The others were that people stared at me wherever I went, like they had never seen a foreigner before…which is weird, because plenty of people visit Yangon. They weren’t very friendly, and no one spoke English. The streets signs were convoluted to say the least. Heterosexual men walking around with their arms around each other. And I did not see one other tourist…in fact I didn’t see another tourist for my first 5 days in the country. It’s the low season, but still…it was strange.

Right when I was about to write Yangon off as a big, dirty, unfriendly city…I met a monk. Ma Pin Win Rein. I was walking to the Schedagon Pagoda to see it lit up at night and this monk walked up and asked if he could practice his English with me. I was so happy to have someone to talk to that I jumped at the chance. We toured around the Pagoda together (the most amazing Pagoda I have seen, and I have seen enough to make me cringe at the thought of visiting another any time in the next century) and then he took me back to his monastery. We took a local ‘pascar’, like a small bus packed with monks and other locals like sardines in a tin. His monastery was about 20 minutes outside Yangon. I met the abbot and the rest of the monks, including some novices. We had tea, talked about Buddhism and America…it was an amazing evening and gave me a reason to change my view about Yangon.

My bus to Nyaunshwe left at noon and I was told it would take around 14 hours. 12 horrific hours later we stopped for food at some shack on the side of the road. Nobody on my bus spoke English, like I said, no tourists, and I didn’t know where we were or where I was supposed to get off. I was a little nervous but excited at the same time. This is where I met Pho. I wasn’t going to use his real name, but he said to go ahead, he’s been to jail 3 times already and isn’t scared to go back.
Pho is a construction worker, fisherman,

What I rode in to monastery
father, husband, and part time tour guide. Pho is typical of so many Burmese people. He does what he can to survive and support his family, his local Buddhist community, and the people in the village near him. He wishes the UN and the USA would do more for Myanmar, he wishes the military would hold free elections and hand over power, he wishes he had the money to get his family out of the country, he also wishes he had a nuclear weapon because then he could threaten the military and if that didn’t work, then at least the US would interfere because they are scared of nukes. Pho turns 31 today. His parents drown when their boat went down due to bad weather when he was 9 years old. He raised his younger brother and sister by himself. Most people in Myanmar would be scared to travel with an American; it can get them in trouble. Pho offered to do it for $5USD a day. I hired him. He ran home, packed a bag, said goodbye to his wife and 10-month-old son, and was back before my bus left. I spent the rest of the trip with him.**
Nay Thur Rein MonasteryNay Thur Rein MonasteryNay Thur Rein Monastery

These guys were a lot happier and friendlier than they look :-)

This is getting really long…so let me sum it up for the people who are reading this to decided where to go in Myanmar.
First of all, I have to recommend going this time of year. It’s not too hot like the guidebooks say, and the rain in minimal…and there are no tourists. I saw 10 tourists in 2 weeks!

After I met Pho in Tangoo, we took the bus another 5 hours or so to Kalaw. Not much in Kalaw but it’s a great place to do some trekking. I hiked out to some small Pa-O villages. Great people, really cute kids. I love seeing the kids and women with thanakha on their faces…it’s this make-up/sun block.

After Kalaw we caught a local bus up to the junction, then a pick up truck to Nyaungshwe, which is at the Northern end of Inle Lake.
Inle Lake is pretty amazing. The first night we just did a canoe ride around the canals and watched the sunset from a monastery. But the second day was really cool. Took a motorboat around the whole late. It’s crazy, they have built 9 full villages in the middle of this lake. House, shops, pagodas, schools…everything, built in the middle of the lake.
We tried to find a shared taxi to Bagan from Inle Lake, but once again, no tourists…so we took the bus. Another 12-hour bus ride!

Bagan. We stayed in the cheaper area of Nyaung U. Nothing impressive about this place…but it’s the place to stay if you’re going to visit Bagan. And if you’re in Myanmar, you have to visit Bagan.
Bagan is an area about as big as Manhattan that has over 4000 temples scattered around it. A lot of which are about 1000 years old. None are as impressive as those the Angkor built in Cambodia…but it is still pretty neat to stand on top of a pagoda and see hundreds and hundreds of temples dotting the landscape. Sunset from Scwesandaw Paya is beautiful. The best way to visit the temples is by horse and buggy…you can do it by bicycle as well, but it’s a lot of ground to cover.
We also took a taxi out of Mt. Popa, which I highly recommend. Amazing views from the top and great monkeys everywhere.

From Bagan, we took a boat up the river to Mandalay. I
Inle LakeInle LakeInle Lake

Part of village in the lake. This is the middle of a huge lake.
heard nothing good about Mandalay, and nothing about it really impressed me either. I really wonder where Vegas got the idea for Mandalay Bay. It’s really just a dirty, dusty city with not much to do. The coolest thing about it is it seems to be populated by more monks that people who aren’t in robes. The best thing about Mandalay is the ancient cities surrounding it. Amarapura and the teak bridges were worth seeing.

So that’s about all I had time and money to do in Myanmar. I wish it could’ve been longer. I heard great things about Hsipaw and tried to get out there…but ran out of time. I highly recommend going there with plenty of cash (only thing accepted), plenty of time (use the whole 4 weeks they give you), and plenty of patience (remember that a 12 hour bus ride could take twice that).

The great thing about having Pho around was that I could ask questions about politics and everything else I wanted to know and get straight answers, but the real bonus was he got me around paying the government too much. This is key in visiting Myanmar. Only fly on private
Inle LakeInle LakeInle Lake

Village kids in Inle.
airlines, only travel with companies that are private, stay in private hotels…and don’t ever visit Myanmar as part of a package tour. The fees you can’t get around are your visa, your airport tax, and the fee to enter all the zones…Inle Zone, Mandalay Zone, etc. I think I got away with paying the government less than $40USD for 2 weeks, while I put $450USD into the hands of the Burmese people.

After being to Myanmar, I am completely convinced that a travel boycott is the worst thing possible for the people. I have traveled through Cuba, Tibet, Tanzania, Laos…and I have never, ever seen a country so cut off from the world. We owe it to the people of Myanmar to bring them news of the outside world, and give them hope that one day they might be able to break free of the oppressive, unfair government that now rules their lives.

* on a side note, some have found internet programs such as Your Freedom out of Europe that allows them to circumvent the proxy and get out…the government knows about his but hasn’t found a way to block it yet.

** Pho has been
Inle LakeInle LakeInle Lake

Village people in Inle.
arrested a couple times for speaking out against the government. Once he was locked up for a few months because he was asked what he was doing with 4 foreigners (2 French, 1 German, and a Brit)…he was so sick of answering to the soldiers that he told them he was planning a revolution. The military doesn't like jokes.
He wrote the following and asked me to publish it. I am putting it here exactly like he wrote it. He taught himself English by working around foreigners in a restaurant…but can’t write it so well.

Mr. Bush,

I have a question for you. What are looking for? You want to be in the world have independence. You just care about for the money or what you need. If you care come our public life. How do you know that if you won’t. You can learn from reality or public persons. Please take care of our Myanmar people. We are waiting for your kind regard. If your needing about Myanmar please info to me.

Yours truely,

What he is saying is he wants Bush or somebody from the UN to come and talk to the people
The BusThe BusThe Bus

I spent 14 hours on this bus...short ride ;-)
of Myanmar. The UN was there while I was there, but they just get this tour the military takes them on. They take them to prearranged places where people have been told to act happy or else…it’s not real. Pho wants them to talk to real people, people who aren’t scared to tell the truth. People like him.
Pho just goes to show that the people of Myanmar have not been broken by the military…lost a lot of hope…even hopeless…but not broken.

There is so much more to say about this country...but I think I'll leave it at that and hope this inspires people to visit and experience this place themselves.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25



Getting ready to climb around government sign on pagoda. That's me and and Pho on the left.
Bagan HorsecartBagan Horsecart
Bagan Horsecart

Me and Pho exploring Bagan by horse and buggy
Little Kid BaganLittle Kid Bagan
Little Kid Bagan

Selling postcards. Thanakha makeup that most women and children wear.
Bagan RainbowBagan Rainbow
Bagan Rainbow

Temples line the horizon
Monkeys at Mt. PopaMonkeys at Mt. Popa
Monkeys at Mt. Popa

Really liked these guys until one pissed on me!
Not So WelcomeNot So Welcome
Not So Welcome

Translation: Dear Foreigner and Citizen Alike, Don't F**K with us! Sincerely, The Military

29th May 2006

You had made a right decision to visit Myanmar. Thanks for the details. Indeed a worth read and i will forward it to my friends. We know nothing about this country even though we are part of the south east countries. take care..i like to know more about this man Pho
29th May 2006

You had made a right decision to visit Myanmar. Thanks for the details. Indeed a worth read and i will forward it to my friends. We know nothing about this country even though we are part of the south east countries. take care..i like to know more about this man Pho
30th May 2006

Response to Warren
Wow, it sounds like we visited a completely different place...and I think you took some of what I said wrong. In fact, I wrote a whole paragraph saying that I urge everybody to visit Myanmar. As for seeing cell phones, ipods, and all that...I guess I didn't see them, because I didn't see any toursits...and this is not a negative thing, I actually preferred it to be surrounded by Westerners everywhere else in SE Asia. And I don't think I said anything about the locals not being open to Westener's...I said the government was very careful with Americans visiting. As for being taken by Pho...I assure you this wasn't the case...I have actually spoken to quite a few Burmese in exile who have read this blog who have validated everything I have said. And as for internet...the government cut it off while I was there...the message was "The internet is down, only Myanmar sites available"...and the internet people in 4 different towns verified that they set the proxy to block major e-mail services. Anyway, it sounds like we both very much enjoyed the country...just had a different experience. Thanks for you comments.
1st June 2006

one cell phone ring?!?
I'm still haunted by that MIDI version of the Lambada I heard ringing about every 5 minutes in Burma. I sort of get what you're saying, but what killed me about Burma is that they're wearing longyis... with Kurt Cobain tee shirts. Burma's at a crossroads and things are going to start changing real fast.

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