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February 02 Issue

That’s Par for Myanmar

Dave Rich

Military spies lurk everywhere, masquerading as raggedy bums and sloppy drunks, never in uniform.

The country formerly known as Burma is a economic basket case, raped and terrorized by a megalomaniac military government though incongruously, Senior General Than Shwe wears a skirt. All non-tourists, male and female, are expected to wear skirts, cloth tubes called longyis; the tourists wear the pants. Without the tourists the country would collapse.

Why would a tourist consider coming to Myanmar? There are two fabulous reasons and one other as well...
you can loudly yell the one phrase that makes officialdom’s blood run chilly: Aung San Suu Kyi. I recommend this course to all Myanmar tourists.

Photo: The Moustache Brothers

You can enter Myanmar only by flying to the capitol of Yangon, formerly Rangoon. On the plane you receive a free copy of the Generals’ English newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, highlighting pictures of the Generals blessing classes 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, remains imprisoned in her home. The New Light’s TV schedule illustrates Myanmar’s cultural level: "Unforgettable Bonfire Dance", "Songs to Uphold National Spirit", "Cute Little Dancers" and "Foreign Income Earning Fishes". The internet is prohibited and international calls cost $6 a minute; you can’t phone Myanmar from outside the country.

The Chinese owner of your Yangon hotel gives you the lowdown on the military. Criticize the regime and you disappear. The hotel owner pays protection money to the military and must feed a dozen soldiers a day. Even if tourists patronize only private establishments their money goes directly to the government, particularly since all tourists are required to change $200 U.S. for fake money called Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs). Military spies lurk everywhere, masquerading as raggedy bums and sloppy drunks, never in uniform. Uniformed army personnel man barricades on every other street, the ramparts hung with barbed wire and menaced with guns. The government uses slave labor to build golf courses and roads; you’ll see women and little girls building roads. Why would a tourist consider coming to Myanmar? There are two fabulous reasons and one other as well.

The first fabulous reason is Inle Lake. A lake you say. Whoopie doopie. But this lake is like no other. It’s the Venice of SE Asia, 30 miles of lagoons sprinkled with villages, all on stilts, perfectly mirrored reflections worthy of a dozen compact flashcards. Rough hewn canoes are powered by "leg rowers", precariously perched on a narrow stern, balanced on one foot as they row with the other leg wrapped around an oar. The villagers produce cheap cigars, brilliant silk weavings, passable silver and miles of hydroponic agriculture from vivid tomatoes to colorful carnations. For $7 a day you can hire a long boat powered by fantail motor complete with driver, visiting the rotating morning market where grannies puff on humongous cheroots, selling produce and necessaries. The goods come by boat or are toted in by scrungy water buffalo tethered next to elegant wooden carts sprinkled among a thousand ancient chedis. Young women with orange and black plaid turbans hawk fish, teak turtles with secret compartments, brass chimes and Buddhist paraphernalia. After an hour of atmosphere you reboard your private yacht for exploration of a dozen villages and their crafts, a monastery where cats jump through hoops and acres of flowers mirrored in still waters. Lunch is on the waterfront because it’s all waterfront. After days of hot springs, biking and trekking adjoining mountains up to hilltop monasteries you reluctantly tear yourself away from Inle Lake and hit the road to Mandalay.

Mandalay is Mandalay Hill where temples spread up and down the Hill and far below, chocolate torte at Kiplings, 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 satirize the government and almost get 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 last July, a year and a half early after petitions from Hollywood, French and Italian comedians. He and they put on a captivating show in rapid-fire English, comedy, dance and fall-down funny pantomime. An hour and a half show for private audience runs $5.72. On your way back to the hotel your pedi-bike driver says, "When revolution come, I die."

You can pursue your own remedy for the jackal government of Myanmar when you realize tourists are untouchable. This simple fact allows you to taunt the government at all turns, with impunity. At every opportunity, such as when forced to rent an entire river boat because tourists are restricted in Monywa from rubbing shoulders with the locals (so you must pay $.72 to charter the entire boat instead of the local fare of $.015), you can loudly yell the one phrase that makes officialdom’s blood run chilly: Aung San Suu Kyi. I recommend this course to all Myanmar tourists. It makes otherwise potentially bad experiences positively exhilarating as you see the locals buck-up at your in-their-face taunts, realizing their government is far from invincible. This hope is something they desperately need, which is the other reason tourists should go to Myanmar.

A mere poster is sufficient to entice most anyone all the way to Myanmar’s premier attraction, Bagan, a ten square mile chunk of real estate on the wide Irrawaddy River. Bagan is jammed with 4022 grandiose and lesser temples, pagodas and chedis. The major few dozen monuments are massive concoctions of gold-tipped pinnacles surrounding a massive and intricately carved central mantle or golden dome, colorful murals inside and climbable views of the other 4021. Most were built in the 9th century and are remarkably well-preserved. Many are extraordinary and all are exquisite. Bagan ranks 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 you hasten to Yangon for your flight back to the relative sanity of anywhere else, away from the nasty military government that manifests its presence everywhere in Myanmar. Shout it loud now:
Aung San Suu Kyi!

© 2002 Dave Rich

More on Myanmar
Myanmar: War, Animism, Alchemy  
Zia Zaman
'I want to ask him about the war, about what it's like to be the leader of a god's army, to be revered, to be feared, to be able to walk through and around bullets. To be a god himself.'

Cambodian Temples of the Killing Fields
Dave Rich

Welcome to the Terrace of the Elephants, a hundred yards of life-sized elephants
popping out of a solid stone wall ...

Golden Fat On The Irawaddy
Angie Eng
India is infamous for her 4 P's: Poverty, Politics, Poop, and Pus.  Add Pagoda and you have Myanmar, formerly Burma.

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