Tuesday, July 25, 2006

To Burma or not to Burma?

Young girls with traces of thanaka on their faces (see description below)

Myanmar/Burma is not your average destination in Southeast Asia. The USA and United Kingdom do not support tourists wishing to visit; the United Nations embargoes trade with the country. Furthermore, the military junta which rules Myanmar under the silly acronym of SPDC (the d stands for democracy but they paid a DC-based messaging firm to come up with their name and it really means dictatorship) despises the West, running a tight fist of control, censorship and propaganda from Tibet to Phuket. Rumors abound about wire-tapped phones and government spies who dress themselves as monks to trick Westerners in to talking about the government, Lonely Planet says not to mention Aung San Suu Kyi unless someone asks you a question first and to never visit her Democratic Party's headquarters unless instant deportation is on your "to do" list. There is no email, no McDonalds, no Diet Coke, telephone calls to the West cost $6 per minute, and electricity is inconsistent. SO, why in the hell did we want to go?

Because Myanmar is the seminal, cultural cross roads of the countries we've visited on Extravagasia and it offered a missing piece in the puzzle of pleasant people that are Subcontinental and Southeast Asian. Because Myanmar has a legendary Buddhist influence that manifests itself in innumerable, un-countable temples that decorate the landscape like glittering gold polka dots, and boasts over 800,000 monks dressed in robes of ruby red...and we couldn't quite fathom that! Because we've heard fables on the backpacker circuit about the genuine magic of Myanmar's people, as well as their plight, and it was a chance to demystify that for real. And because Myanmar gave us the opportunity to experience something radically different with its un-favored trade nation status and belligerent big brother government, the chance to personally glimpse a land that may soon dominate discussions on the UN Security Council once, possibly if, the dust ever settles in the Middle East.~> read more

  Anyway, we couldn't resist, made every effort not to support any government-operated businesses and headed off for adventure and first person learning!

And, for the record, is it Burma or Myanmar? Well, it's both...depending on which side of the political compass you reside upon. Burma descended from the British, who colonized it in the 19th century, and stems from the word Bamar. The Bamar people are the largest ethnic group within the country, and most everyone speaks the Bamar language of "Burmese" but it's an amazingly diverse and tribal land with over 135 (no, that's not a typo) distinct tribes. The dictatorship renamed the country Myanmar, which comes from the pre-colonization name Myanma, and the West, who chooses not to recognize the regime, chooses also not to recognize that name. Hence, abroad you hear it called "Burma" but in country we always said "Myanmar".

Myanmar delivered most all of what we expected, plus a lot of the unexpected. Andy and I are so happy we visited the beautiful "Golden Land" as its temples, people, smiles and potential are truly golden. But it was hard travel to sacred places for certain. Little things, like a visa to enter the country or currency, were stressful. At Chiang Mai Airport, the check-in agent was disconcerted by the fact our visa had a pink carbon paper and NOT the white one, and panic erupted on her side and ours. A Burmese agent of some sort--we don't know if he was with Air Mandalay or the government--was paged and he carefully reviewed our documents for a few moments plus questioned the origin of our visa. We'd applied for it in Hanoi and it seems the Thai embassy usually leaves the white slip in the visitor's passport and keeps the pink one. After careful scrutiny and a lot of topsy-turvy tummy and nervousness on our part, we were cleared and checked in. In Myanmar, the local currency in Kyat but the government prefers to get US Dollars (hello, irony!) and there are no banks, no ATMs, no acceptance of credit cards. Thus, we had to forecast all of the money we might possibly need, get it switched from Thai baht into USD, carry it all on us with care as creases, folds and discoloration are unacceptable, convert some into Kyat for local purchases and spend carefully at all times as not to run out!

Arrival in Mandalay was paradoxical. Lovely because sunlight glinted off golden pagodas on the descent and there wasn't a crowd at the airport...only Myanmar-based airlines can fly in and out, and yet bizarre because most of the airport was dark from a power outage! We cleared Customs under emergency lighting, the odd blue tint adding even more drama to our questioning by officials, and we tried not to think about what the lack of power meant to the control tower since our landing was fine. Much to our disbelief, dismay and discomfort, the power outtages continued to be theme throughout our time in Myanmar. It was evil hot in Mandalay and Bagan, and no power means no fans! We sweltered and sweat, dripped droplets on our barefoot climbs up to temples, soaked through pants (no shorts) at monasteries, and oozed liquid whenever we drank tepid water day or night. Many places have generators, but they can't afford to keep them on all of the time and generators can't power every city street light. Andy and I enjoyed extremely dark walks on the crippled, rippled stone and dust streets around Myanmar at night. Walking by an ornate palace lit only by the moon and stars could have been romantic if only it wasn't so hellaciously hot that the last thing we wanted to do was hold hands! Government electricity lit up Myanmar for no more than 50% of our 15 days in the country, usually in varying shifts of 6 - 12 hours at various times of day and night. There was no rhyme or reason, and you can imagine what this does for industry, refrigeration, medical care and traffic control. Electricity was sporadic in some countries on our trip, but never sporadic to the point of scheduled as in Myanmar! This isn't a village issue either -- this is nationwide! In a country rich with natural resources such as rubies, sapphires, teak, oil, rice and more!!!

However, the unmitigated heat wasn't the only thing that made us sweat in Myanmar. There were occasional moments where we excercised a little more caution and awareness than other points in our trip. A few times we wondered if it was okay to nod in affirmation when a monk asked if we knew of Aung San Suu Kyi or wanted our opinion on various political issues. Was that really a monk in monk's clothing with excellent English, or someone else? Why was that monk asking about George Bush and gun control? Seriously, we had these conversations at temples with monks in merlot-colored cloth who pounced on us as if we were prey to practice their English and the tiniest ounce of paranoia set in that was absent in every other country we visited. Plus, we visited the home of local comedians known as The Moustache Brothers, two of whom were jailed for 7 years for using the government in its material of laughs, for their "cultural show" and when they say the house is being watched...well, you're just not sure if that's the truth or good humor. While biking in traffic, and understanding from the Local Burmese that the cops are crooked, you might say we excercised caution by going slow, smiling and yielding to everything. Our passports also never left our sweaty bodies. As foreigners, it's expected you might need to show identification at any point, so they're now extra crinkled and sticky from being near our slick skin for days on end.

You might read this and think we're insane, paranoid, ridiculous...or even all of the above. I mention these things only as interesting footnotes. The Cold War is over and there are only a few places left in the world that we Americans can travel to without encountering the Golden Arches, and it added an edgy, educational new dimension to our travel. Plus, we sense that because of our journey there we can hopefully make a tiny difference in the plight of Myanmar by demsytifying it for a small amount of others and telling of its beauty and how the people of Myanmar deserve more than isolation and embargoes.

More astonishing than the total lack of McDonalds in Myanmar, however, were the people. Its beautiful, friendly, smiling, beguiling people with facial features that roll the Himalayas, Chinese plateaus and Malay peninsula into a unique physiogonomy that lights up with genuine warmth and friendliness whenever you are near. I can't tell you how many "hellos" we encountered each day from the moment we stepped out of our steamy guesthouse rooms. We felt like celebrities walking down the street as everyone called out "hello" and smiled broadly, and like king and queen in a parade as we rode in the open back of a pick-up truck and passer-bys on foot or vehicle waved enthusiastically at us. A majority of Myanmar's faces are painted with "thanaka", a sandalwood paste that functions as sunscreen and moisturizer, so there's something even more magical about a basic Burmese smile and hello -- it's like a mysterious, tribal mask is coming to life and talking to you! Check out the photos and you'll see this ochre mixture on the women and children's faces. The Burmese seemed genuinely glad to see us and whether young or old, they excitedly practiced their English and wished us a good visit in their country. We quickly learned "min-gah-lah-bah" and "jez-ooo-bay" (hello and thank you) and every time we responded with this, giant smiles, peals of laughter and pleasant stares rewarded our butchered efforts. Speaking with people in Myanmar was infectious and we shared more stories with locals, found common ground with other humans more quickly and delightfully than anywhere else in our travels.

Thus after being up close and personal with people throughout Myanmar, from monks and children to restauranteurs and fisherman, we are angry and sad the government does not support its charming, hardworking, deserving people. The cause of Myanmar and for Myanmar is a lot more personal for us. Life there is not easy. Rangoon and Mandalay are infrastructure wrecks, and many of the outlying areas are truly just villages and tribal enclaves. The Burmese people live simply, many quite close to a primitivity that's unexpected with its prime location and resources, tilling the land, living intimately with a core family unit and practicing their special blend of Buddhism...when they're not conscripted to hard labor by the military junta or punished for speaking out for democracy. All the while, trucks are laden to the point of tipping with teak and zoom racously toward ports for trade with China, and gem stones of rich colors abound in government-approved shops. And the people of Myanmar will see nothing from this commerce and profit; it all goes directly into the coffers of the secretive junta and corrupt officials. Yet their genuine smiles abound and we felt more like foreign exchange students than independent travelers. I'm not sure how they manage to live with joy while so un-supported by their government, but I guess that potent mystery is what made Myanmar so marvelous.

The question that now lingers for us is this: despite the ruling party, should the Golden Arches be allowed by the UN and Western World to reside next to those glittering gold pagodas...should the embargoes be eliminated? Andy and I believe yes...passionately, emphatically and pragmatically. Today most all of the Western (democratic) world chooses to punish the government of Myanmar and goad it into change and evolution by cutting off trade, but China, Japan, Russia and India are profiting on the down-low, plus have communication channels of a sort with SPDC. The black market has all but disappeared since these Superpowers, who are voraciously seeking solutions to their energy needs, have side-stepped the embargoes. Right or wrong, it doesn't matter, realism is important -- the Chinese Yuan is now the currency of choice in Northern Myanmar -- and these country's self-interests are succeeding over any trade restrictions and 'un-favored nation' status. This helps the people of Myanmar in the short term, but we don't think becoming a natural resource pawn and provider for China, India or Russia is an answer with hope and possibility. Getting Myanmar a literal taste of what the world has to offer, especially the Western world, and allowing the people to communicate with the other citizens of the world first-hand seems like the only way to inspire and support them so that some day soon, they're empowered to rise up and fight for the changes they deserve without fears of isolation and setback.


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