Sunday, July 27, 2008

New Years in April

T.S. Elliot must have had the weather in mind when he wrote that "April is the cruelest month". Temperatures in Myanmar soar into the mid-forties. Regular power outages all over the country render not only the air-conditioning useless, but also the overhead fans, and refrigerators. I've spent hours wandering the sunny streets desperately searching for a cold drink, sadly longing for ice-cubes only having to settle for yet another warm glass of imitation Burmese Coca-cola. There is no respite from the heat.

Until the water festival.

The Buddha couldn't have been more merciful in setting up his New Years celebration in the middle of April: a time when we are told to wash away the sins of last year with a bucket of cool water, so we can begin our next year of debauchery cleansed and refreshed. In the past, this meant three days of daintily pouring perfumed water from a small silver bowl on friends and neighbors. Unfortunately, things have gone sadly downhill in modern times. Maybe it's global warming. Today's Buddhist New Year Festival is a ruthless ten day water war waged all over the country, with next year's debauchery getting a formidable head start.

Girl dancers in traditional clothing line up with silver bowls of perfumed water for the opening ceremony in Yangon.

Nu took us to Yangon's New Year's opening ceremony. Along the way, small children and gangs of adorable young street kids asked us respectfully if they could please pour a bit of water on us. The chance to pour water on a white backpacker was an opportunity so exciting and novel it never failed to illicit shrills of enjoyment. We were only too happy to oblige. Behind them, however, their older siblings prepared more formidable instruments of water warfare. Their hungry smiles were laced with menace. They wanted nothing more than to wipe out all traces of last year's sins. However, for now, tradition protected us. They would have to hold their fire until after the opening ceremonies.

During the opening ceremony, a line dance of men and women gracefully poured water on each other.

Without the foggiest clue what was going on, a few police kicked several old ladies out of their plastic toy chairs, and we were ushered to sit in their places. Sweating profusely in our stinky Teva sandals and the same Nepal Trekking shirts we had been wearing for the last six months, we found ourselves in the seat of honour next to Yangon's City Mayor and some of Myanmar's most famous young film talents. In a pathetic and hopeless attempt to look important, we tried to chat with our Burmese-speaking neighbours until the opening ceremony began: a kind of dance and theater show that looked suspiciously like last night's strip-tease.

Burmese film stars looking cool for the water festival.

Among other Burmese celebrities, we ran into Mo Win, a world-famous photographer now living in Yangon. He and his French wife invited us for a ride in the back of their white pickup truck to see the water festival at nearby Inye Lake. Along the way, we picked up a few more Americans and squeezed together in the back. The opening formalities were over, and it wasn't long before we were assaulted by gangs of water throwing, whisky-swilling hooligans dressed up like British punk rockers.

The water fight had begun, and foreigners were not exempt. Indeed, we soon discovered that a clunky old pickup truck full of white-faces was considered a unique find and a primary target deserving special attention. While the morning's cute kids with cups of water were all in good fun, now that their older siblings had taken over it became a dangerous sport. Though previously impossible to find, garbage pales of freezing cold ice water now seemed to be everywhere, their contents pumped out at us with painfully high-pressure fire hoses. As our truck skidded down the windy roads, every turn was manned by adolescents with exotic water guns whipping us with buckets of high velocity ice water of questionable purity.

A pickup truck full of Indian immigrants preparing for an ambush. Ear protection is of paramount importance when attacked with a fire hose.

Mercifully, Mo Win ground his aging white pickup to a halt outside his gorgeous mansion. Soaking wet, freezing cold, and covered in red fire-hose-induced welts, we piled out of the back and ran through his gates to safety. Within minutes, we were in the serenity of his grassy yard, underneath the shade of his giant mango tree, eating its fruit freshly picked and prepared by his servants. Moments later, a couple more of his Burmese employees produced copious amounts of food, cool frothy mugs filled with beer, and a bottle of quality French wine.

"It's safe in here, we can talk." Interestingly, he was referring to a draconian law in Myanmar prohibiting groups of more than five people meeting together for discussion, rather than the ruthless gangs of water throwing Burmese punkers outside.
Mo Win is on his third marriage to a much younger French girl. He has to "upgrade" every few years, in his own words. With a long dark mane of black hair he looks young for his years, and likes nothing more than the sound of his own voice; fortunately for him, he does exude a certain charm. He summarizes life under the regime like this:

"We live our lives, and the government officials live theirs. We don't really mix. My art isn't political and I don't involve myself in politics. If I did, I'd be counting beads." The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, is one of his biggest fans and the NLD once asked him to photograph her. "I told them to stuff it ! Are they crazy !?", he exclaimed, "I'd be counting beads !"

The Burmese have mastered the art of Asian collective resourcefulness. In their close-knit community, everyone knows a friend of a friend to get things done. As a gifted photographer who lived most of his life in France, Mo Win is a bit of a foreigner in his own land. His son once chastised him for being too honest on his tax returns, and demanded he get a local to do it properly. The Americans we picked up study Buddhism and do volunteer aid work. Locals help them to stay in the country for prolonged periods by arranging them business visas through a fake company.

Our gang gearing up for another forray: stuffing our valuables into water-tight ziplock bags and applying another coating of water-proof sunscreen.

Mo Win insisted we finish our drinks and set off once more, determined to show us the water festival at Inye Lake. We crowded back into the pickup truck, our ranks now swelling to include several of Mo Win's Burmese wine-pouring coolies and a couple of bottles of scotch. As the truck rounded each corner, cries of "Happy New Year" were followed by such a relentless barage of water balloons, ice buckets, and fire hoses we'd periodically lose passengers out the back.

Inye Lake turned out to be the main front in Yangon's water battle: a chaotic honking gridlock consisting of bumper-to-bumper pickup trucks carrying a cargo of water guns, hoses, and comatose old men still clutching emptied bottles of Jack Daniels. Through the polluted haze of low-grade Russian diesel exhaust, a motley crew of revelers held hands with green-haired teenagers dressed in studded leather and Union Jacks, dancing in the flooded streets to the rhythm of Burmese covers of Western Hip-hop. A virtual monsoon of water rained down from large wooden structures temporarily constructed to cater to throngs of Burmese kids who had paid good money to dump tanks of ice water and fire riot-pressure water hoses into the chaos below them.

Our rusty old pickup broke-down along the way so I had to jump out of the truck and push. The Yangon sewage system was overwhelmed by the deluge, and I splashed down into a knee deep river of chocolate water carrying past a detritus of mixed filth in its formidable current. With the men out of the truck, the two girls were exposed and abondoned in the back.

If the exotic site of a pickup truck full of white foreigners induced shrieks of enjoyment, cries of laughter, and buckets of ice water, the dream-like scene of two white girls in wet T-shirts dancing on a truck induced instant euphoria in the general vicinity. While two of Mo Win's coolies poured copious quantities of scotch down my throat, I caught a glimpse of an entire block of fire-hoses beaming down on Katlijn as she desperately swam across a pool of rank liquid spilling out of the back of the pickup in muddy cascade of garbage.

Other events that evening were so surreal I'm not sure anymore whether they actually happened or were some water-logged product of my inebriated and over-stimulated brain. I seem to recall a midget Asian rapper busting out a Burmese translation of government censored Eminem lyrics flanked by a troupe of background dancers that included a seven-foot albino giant break-dancing with an afro-wig. It was like a David Lynch film on crack.
Sometime late that night, we finally made it back to our certified non-government operated hotel room for a cold shower and a non-functioning air-conditioner. Maybe it was just an emotional release during a week's time when the junta relaxes its grip and it temporarily becomes socially acceptable to make a complete ass of yourself, or maybe it is just a lot of experience with riot police. Whatever it is, the Burmese really know how to throw a good water fight.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cell phones

We spent our first night in Myanmar at a Burmese strip bar. Our evening began with a pleasant stroll along the tree-lined sidewalks of Yangon's deteriorating colonial metropolis. The bustling sidewalk was full of the exotic medieval. Everyone was trying to sell us something: a juicy betel-nut fix, skewered crickets, spare auto-parts.

A typically busy sidewalk scene in Yangon. Girl's roast meat on an open fire. A boy with a white tank-top and brown traditional Burmese longyi looks for new customers. Poor, wealthy, old, and young come to sit as equals on the tiny red plastic chairs and gossip over a hot cup of bitter green tea.
Quite suddenly, a respectable looking chap, sporting a neatly ironed pair of longyi and a fancy cell-phone, emerged from the chaos and accosted us in miraculously perfect English. He wanted to tell us what was going on in his country and to describe what happened during the riots last September. He explained how we couldn't do this on the street because somebody might be listening in on our conversation; the regime is known to throw English-speaking students like him in jail. Katlijn and I were both excited by our piece of espionage. I thought this sort of unlikely plotline only happened in James Bond films. Feeling like a couple of secret agents, we followed our new friend into one of the city's many holes in the wall.

Inside was perhaps the world's most pathetic strip bar. In place of the rowdy testosterone-charged seediness of a Las Vegas club, the crowd of beer-swelling Burmese men couldn't look less manly squatting down on the tiny, knee-high, red plastic chairs seen throughout Myanmar's tea shops. The smiling face of a Chinese girl peeled off the wall along with the rest of last year's calendar poster. She looked positively lonely pasted against the massive windowless concrete. As in other Asian holes-in-the-wall, the decor was so sparse and pathetic it only accentuated the gloom. On stage, was a line of pretty Burmese girls dancing to the emotionless din of muzak, barely discernible through the crackle of the 70s-era audio technology. Like all strip bars in Myanmar, the dancers remained fully clothed thus emphasizing the "tease" portion of their profession. As we sat on our miniature table, it occurred to me that James Bond wouldn't be caught dead squatting in one of these ridiculous toy chairs in a dodgy place like this.

Beer is a government sponsored joint-venture in Myanmar. As we were trying to direct our money as much as possible to local people, we refrained from ordering a pint of the only redeeming feature in this establishment. Instead, we spent the whole evening talking about Myanmar. He explained how he was a student participating in the riots that were broadcasted around the world last September; the first since "8-8-88". He described a surreal moment when the protesters and the police met on the broad-boulevard surrounding the Shwedagon Pagoda. Both sides faced each other in total silence listening earnestly to a Buddhist monk give an eloquent sermon through an old megaphone. When the sermon stopped, the police began firing into the crowd.

Kippling wrote the following upon seeing the Shwedagon Pagoda: "Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?"

Images of the Shwedagon Pagoda are similar to those found in Nepal and Tibet: ordinary Burmese men and women meditate near the giant stupa, while saffron robed monks walk clockwise around the giant structure. Myanmar and Tibet share both political and cultural parallels.

The Shwedagon Pagoda is surrounded by eight planetary posts corresponding to the eight days of the week in a Buddhist calendar. There are eight days in the ancient Buddhist calendars because Wednesday is divided into two separate days (AM and PM). Each planetary post has a different animal sign. Devotees (and the odd tourist) pour water over their birth sign. According to our best estimates, Andrew was born the same day as Buddha, Wednesday morning, marked by an elephant with tusks.

The dazzling golden Shwedagon Pagoda is undoubtedly Yangon's best known-symbol, but its origin is controversial. According to Buddhist records, it was originally built over 2500 years ago before the historical Buddha died in 486 BC. However, archeologist now believe the current stupa was actually built between the 6th-10th century AD.

We agreed to meet our new friend the next day, but after waiting a long time, he never showed up. Instead, we found our way to a gorgeous green neighborhood full of embassies and mansions that contrasted jarringly with the downtown area. Home to military generals and diplomats, it was clear that not everyone in Myanmar was poor. There were police stationed regularly on the sidewalk to patrol this portion of the city giving it an uneasy totalitarian air. We decided it would be a good idea to register with the French embassy before setting off.

Paper boys preparing the day's propaganda for delivery.
On the way back to our hotel, we passed an aging old crone sitting on the sidewalk shading herself from the intense sun and oppressive April heat with a small umbrella. She carried a dusty old rotary-dial telephone in her lap. It's hard to imagine how she ekes out a living doing this, but in our experience, people like her constitute some of the most reliable pay-phones in the country. We had a telephone number we found on the internet of somebody named "Nu" who gave revealing tours of the city. As Aung San Suu Kyi once said, "approach the Burmese telephone with a prayer," so it was something of a miracle when a kind voice crackled through on the other end. We agreed to meet in half an hour.

A gang of Burmese street-kids. They can speak surprisingly good English- better than many people with the benefit of parents and an education. Amazingly, they don't ask for money but seem genuinely interested in just hanging out with foreign backpackers. Street-wise and friendly, they'll never let a Yangon cabbie rip you off.

Nu turned out to be a kind-hearted little Burmese lady with a working knowledge of English and characteristic bright smile. Like our friend from the tease-club, she wanted to take us to a place where it was "safe" to talk. On the second floor of a sleepy old guesthouse, we conversed a long time about Myanmar and she confirmed most of the things our friend told us the night before. These conversations were new and exotic to us at this time. However, they soon became a regular feature of our travels through Myanmar. Not a day would pass without somebody telling us their story.

She was certain our hotel was operated by the government and suggested we move to another facility. Like most Western visitors to the country, we wanted to cater privately-owned facilities only and minimize money going to the regime.

"Didn't you think it was odd when they were the only hotel allowed to have a taxi waiting for you at the airport ? Why on earth did you decide to go there ?"

I felt a bit sheepish telling her my outdated guidebook recommended it as a decent private hotel. I wondered if James Bond ever used the Lonely Planet.

She went on to tell us that the government has spies everywhere. They could be dressed as monks, taxi drivers, and shop-owners. She warned us to be careful of what we say about her to other people. Some people will tell us the same things she tells us, even slander the regime, and talk about their participation in the riots. Then, they'll report any potentially useful information we provide to the authorities.

"How are we supposed to know who we should and shouldn't talk to ?" We asked.

She explained that as an outsider, we'll never really know for sure, but there is one tell-tale sign: cell-phones. Special permission is required to own a cell-phone in Myanmar. It costs a normal citizen about $2000 to buy one- a fortune by Myanmar standards. Unless they are employed by the government, there is absolutely no way to afford it.

"In Yangon," she finished, "never trust a monk with a cell-phone."

Myanmar was a world away from Thailand. I thought back to our absent friend this morning. We had a lot to learn about this country.

A small plastic chair, a table, an umbrella, and an aging mechanical typewriter make up this old man's office. He has setup his buisness just outside a government office, earning a living by typing out the formidable documentation required for requesting governement cell phones.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Burmese Paradox

Burma is a wealthy country.

It's rich portfolio of resources- oil, natural gas, teak wood, fisheries, minerals, and arable lands- is the envy of the region. Two centuries ago, they were an empire to be awed and feared. Long before Siam changed its name to Thailand, King Ayathuya of Burma marched his considerable army into the Mekong Valley and razed Siam's thriving seaport capital of Ayathuya to the ground. He wrote a triumphant letter to their king exclaiming:

"There is no rival for our glory and our karma; to place you beside us is to compare the great Galon of Vishnu with a swallow; the sun with a firefly; the divine hamadryad of the heavens with an earthworm; Dhataratha, the Mamsa king, with a dung beetle."

Thai monks studying the remains of a Buddhist image in the ruins of Ayathuya. The ancient city, still a source of national pride in Thailand, was destroyed by their powerful neighbors in Burma.

For hundreds of years, Ayathuya was the most prosperous merchant city in the region, accepting traffic and trade from as far away as Portugal. The Burmese entered Thailand and ransacked the city so thoroughly, nearly all official archives were lost and many details of Thailand's history remain vague.

Stupa reflecting in the water. Today, all that remains of Ayathuya are the brooding ruins of its once formidable religious sites.

Broken Buddha images in Ayathuya.

Comparing the two neighbours today, and it is hard to fathom what happened. Thailand's new capital at Bangkok is a booming hive of modernity sprouting towering skyscrapers and high-tech Starbucks-studded mega-malls. Meanwhile, Myanmar's aged ex-capital at Yangon is a dusty grid of crumbling British colonial buildings struggling to maintain their dignity in slow decay. Somehow, in the last century, something went wrong in Myanmar.

Yangon's crumbling city hall.

A woman walks past an outdoor Burmese book market shielding herself from the relentless Myanmar sun.

Sadly uncared for and somehow anachronistic in downtown Yangon, the bright greens, yellows, and turquoise of Britain's influence still radiate a melancholy beauty.

Fortunately for us, it is much easier for a tourist to enter Myanmar than an aid worker. Within days of applying for permission to visit Myanmar, we found a hotel taxi waiting for us at Yangon airport to take us to "The Motherland 2" hotel. We were soon stumbling apprehensively through Yangon's dark and potholed checkerboard of Technicolor colonial buildings- vestiges of British rule when Burma was considered part of its Indian colony. Yangon's rooftops became a jungle of antennas after the military junta recently allowed BBC and National Geographic to reach households. Long isolated from the rest of the world, Yangon's skyline is a powerful testament to a beleaguered colonized people grasping for knowledge and a sense of inclusion into the outside world. There was something of South East Asia in the smiling faces around us. Something of India in the crowded concrete holes in the wall full of tea-drinking beetle-nut spewing coolies. But then there are regional touches all its own: green cheroot cigars hanging from wizened grandmothers, yellow thanakha drying on a baby's face, green uniforms and metal helmets worn by the government's ubiquitous police.

Burmese women are among the world's most beautiful- shown here selling roasted crickets with characteristic smile. The next time Myanmar shows up on the news, watch for the pale yellow paint on the faces of nearly all Burmese women and children. It is a paste derived from tree bark, called thanakha, and is a form of sunscreen. As far as I know, the Burmese are the only people in the region to wear sun block.

Myanmar never really made it on the tourist radar map- odd considering it has vast stretches of white-sand beaches that rival Thailand's, a temple complex more vast and exotic than Angkor Wat, and huge tracks of unspoiled nature which are among the least-visited places on the planet. Nevertheless, these obvious draws are probably not why a small cadre of crusty backpackers visit Myanmar each year- indeed, they probably never even knew about it since traveling to this land is discouraged by self-respecting foreign travel agents. Rather, they come because they shouldn't be here. And this is how visitors feel their first night in Yangon: the exhilaration of witnessing the forbidden as pairs of warm and curious eyes follow them with mixed feelings from the bustling sidewalk market places.

Sidewalk banana store.

What passes for public transportation in Yangon (an old pickup crammed so full of people they are forced to hang out the back) drives past the colonial-era Strand Hotel. This gorgeous hotel was perhaps the most luxurious in the British Empire, catering exclusively to white clientele.

Burmese people weren't allowed inside the Strand Hotel until its independence in 1948. Myanmar has always had an abundance of natural resources, and this wealth can be found in some parts of Yangon and other major cities. The problem is that throughout its recent history, the money has been horded by those in power and never made its way to the general populace.

The people of Myanmar are among the world's most friendly and hospitable, but somehow their government is among the world's most ruthless and oppressive. Britain's rapid withdrawal from its former colonies resulted in many tumultous years in Burma, until a military strong man by the name of General Ne Win seized control in 1962. Since then, he and his military junta have accumulated a long list of human rights abuses and a history of tragic mis-management along their bizarre march towards a Burmese Socialist Utopia.

Just how crazy is General Win ?

He believes that the number "9" is an auspicious figure with magical properties. As his incompetent rule continued to erode the country's former wealth until Burma became one of the ten poorest countries on earth, he devised the following economic policy:

On September 9th (the 9th day of the 9th month), he invalidated all 50 and 100 Kyat notes, replacing them with 90 and 45 kyat notes (9 + 0 = 9, 4 + 5 = 9, and like all numbers with this property, evenly divisible by 9) . It is tempting to attribute this decision to a naive, though well-intentioned, autocratic nut-head infatuated with numerology. However, this interpretation is far too generous. It was later revealed that he changed the currency to add up to 9 only because his astrologer told him he would live to be 90 (there's that number 9 again !) if he did this. Regardless, many people lost their fortunes overnight.

Understandably upset, students all over the country protested on August 8, 1988. This event is called "8-8-88" or "four eights uprising" by the people of Myanmar referring to its date. Ever superstitious, many people in Myanmar believe the number "8" is also thought to have magical powers. The regime reacted with a spree of killings and arrests so terrifying that there wouldn't be another large scale protest for nearly twenty years. In a seemingly miraculous change of face, the junta agreed to open elections in 1992. Not surprisingly, their rival party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won eighty percent of the parliamentary seats. Having exposed themselves, these representatives were promptly arrested and their supporters harassed. The spiritual and political leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest to this day.

The beautiful and eloquent Aung San Suu Kyi has won both the Nobel Peace prize and the hearts of her people. She is one of the most prolific and well-respected modern writers on democracy and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi doesn't want us to visit her country.

"The Lady", as Aung San Suu Kyi is referred to in Myanmar, believes tourism brings both respectability and economic aid to a nefarious regime. She thinks tourists are shuttled in air-conditioned tour buses between the government-approved attraction, don't have an opportunity to interact with local people, and will therefore bring home a distorted and incomplete view of the country. She has also suggested irresponsible mass-tourism will devalue and comodify Myanmar's traditions. In her own words, "to suggest that there's anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their situation is not simply patronising - it's also racist."

Ironically, it is the reclusive military junta that wants us to visit. In their words, "tourism will replace criticism from abroad".

Others argue they are both wrong: tourism will heighten public awareness abroad, bring much-needed money to the people, and provide a meaningful cultural and language exchange.

The People's Desire, as dictated by the military junta, is posted in all of Myanmar's public parks and published daily in the country's propaganda-ridden newspapers.

General Ne Win's military junta remains in power today. His legacy is a country who's formidable wealth of natural resources benefits only a small number of government officials and their Chinese patrons, while much of the rest of the population lives in poverty. Of course, Myanmar's political situation is more complicated than one man and nobody really knows the ultimate reason for the divergent fates of Thailand and Myanmar. Nevertheless, the Burmese people offer their own theory: ever superstitious and mystical, they believe Ne Win was the reincarnation of a Thai prince defeated and executed by the Burmese who swore an oath of vengeance and put a curse on the Burmese nation. General Ne Win died six years ago, having lived to see his 90th birthday.

Ayathuya is home to one of Thailand's most famous images: the head of Buddha wrapped in the roots of a Bodhi tree. The combination of Buddhist imagery and nature is considered particularly auspicious.