That's Par for Myanmar
Feb 1, 2002
David Rich 1000 Words
T h a t ' s P a r f o r M y a n m a r
The country formerly known as Burma was a basket case, raped and terrorized by a megalomaniac military government though incongruously, Senior General Than Shwe wore a skirt. All non-tourists, male and female, were expected to wear skirts, cloth tubes called longyis; the tourists wore the pants. Without tourists Myanmar would have collapsed.
We entered Myanmar by flying to the capitol, Yangon, formerly Rangoon. On the plane we received a free copy of the Generals' English-language newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, highlighting pictures of the Generals visiting schoolrooms of little Burmese girls, never ever showing the barbed-wire fortress where Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for opposing the Generals, was imprisoned in her home. The New Light's TV schedule vividly illustrated Myanmar's current culture: "Unforgettable Bonfire Dance," "Songs to Uphold National Spirit," "Cute Little Dancers," and "Foreign Income Earning Fishes." The Internet was prohibited and international calls cost six dollars a minute. It was almost impossible to phone Myanmar from outside the country.
The Chinese owner of our Yangon hotel gave me the lowdown on the military government. Criticize the regime and you disappear. The hotel owner paid protection money to the military and fed a dozen soldiers a day. Even if tourists patronized only private establishments, their money went directly to the government, particularly because all tourists must change 200 U.S. dollars for fake money called Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs), which they spend like dollars. Military spies lurked everywhere, masquerading as raggedy bums and sloppy drunks, never in uniform. Uniformed army personnel manned barricades on every other street, the ramparts hung with barbed wire and menaced with guns. The government used slave labor, women and little girls, to build golf courses and roads. Why would anyone consider coming to Myanmar? There were two fabulous reasons and one highly important one as well
The first fabulous reason was Inle Lake. This lake was like no other. It was the Venice of Southeast Asia, thirty miles of lagoons sprinkled with villages, all on stilts, perfectly mirrored reflections worthy of a dozen rolls of film, or compact flashcards for the digitized. Rough-hewn canoes were powered by "leg rowers," precariously perched on narrow sterns, balanced on one foot as they rowed with the other leg wrapped around an oar. The villagers produced cheap cigars, brilliant silk weavings, passable silver, and miles of hydroponic agriculture from vivid tomatoes to colorful carnations.
For seven dollars a day, we hired a long boat powered by fantail motor complete with driver, visiting a morning market where grannies puffed on humongous cheroots, selling produce and necessaries. The goods came by boat or were carried in by scraggy water buffalo tethered next to elegant wooden carts sprinkled among a thousand ancient chedis. Young women with orange and black plaid turbans hawked fish, teak turtles with secret compartments, brass chimes, and Buddhist paraphernalia. After an hour of atmosphere, we reboarded our private yacht for exploration of a dozen villages and local crafts, a monastery where cats jumped through hoops and acres of flowers were mirrored in still waters. Lunch was on the waterfront, because it was all waterfront. After days of hot springs, biking and trekking the adjoining mountains up to hilltop monasteries, we reluctantly tore ourselves away from Inle Lake and hit the road to Mandalay.
Mandalay was Mandalay Hill where temples spread up and down the hill and far below, chocolate torte at Kipling's Café, the Marionette Show, the broad, two-mile-long moat around the fallen down palace in the center of the city, the filthy, throbbing market and especially the Moustache Brothers. The Moustache Brothers satirized the government and almost got away with it. The oldest brother was arrested after an appearance with Aung San Suu Kyi in early 1996 and sentenced to seven years hard labor busting rocks while shackled. He was released in July 2001, a year and a half early after petitions from Hollywood, French, and Italian comedians. He and the other brothers put on a captivating show in rapid-fire English, comedy, dance, and fall-down funny pantomime. An hour-and-a-half show for a private audience cost $5.72. On our way back to the hotel, our pedibike driver said, "When revolution come, I die."
The second I realized tourists were untouchable I pursued my own remedy against the jackal government of Myanmar. This simple fact let me taunt the government at every opportunity and with impunity, except for caustic glares from my wife. When forced to rent an entire river boat because tourists are restricted in Monywa from rubbing shoulders with the locals (you must pay seventy-two cents to charter the entire boat instead of the one and a half cent local fare), I yelled the single phrase that chilled officialdom's blood: "Aung San Suu Kyi." This course was available to all Myanmar tourists. It made otherwise potentially bad experiences positively exhilarating when I saw the locals buck up at my in-the-government's-face taunts. I made them realize the military government was far from invincible. This hope was something they desperately needed, which was the highly important reason tourists should go to Myanmar.
A poster had been sufficient to entice us to Myanmar's premier attraction, Bagan, a ten-square-mile chunk of real estate on the wide Irrawaddy River. Bagan was jammed with 4022 grandiose and lesser temples, pagodas, and chedis. The major few dozen monuments were massive concoctions of gold-tipped pinnacles surrounding a massive and intricately carved central mantle or alternatively, a golden dome, colorful murals inside and climbable views of the other 4021. Most had been built in the ninth century and were remarkably well preserved. Many were extraordinary and all were exquisite. Bagan ranked as one of the Seven Wonders of ancient architecture, a welcome refuge from the hectic bustle of Yangon and Mandalay.
After three days at Bagan, we hastened to Yangon for our flight back to the relative sanity of anywhere else, away from the nasty military government that manifested its presence everywhere in Myanmar. A bare few months later, on May 6, 2002, the Myanmar government caved in to international pressure and perhaps a small amount of personal pressure from me and released Aung San Suu Kyi. They threw her back into the hoosegow in due course.