U Nee didn’t want to say much in the tea shop. You never knew who was listening.
Once on board his rickshaw, he was more comfortable talking about life in Myanmar. “Around nine years ago, a new railway line was built near my village. More soldiers came, and more problems came too. “The solders would come to the village and chose a girl. If the girl didn’t want to go with them, they raped her. “When they came back again all our men had sticks. We fought because we didn’t care what happened to us. People hate the system here but what can they do?”
Stories such as U Nee’s are shocking, but the most disturbing part is that they’re not rare. Myanmar is a beautiful country, with charismatic people, incredible sights, and an inept and callous leadership. While its government is now appearing to soften its hardline stance, there are many who remain deeply cynical about its motives.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is run by a group of generals who lost an election in 1989 but refused to cede power to the National League for Democracy. Today, an astrology-mad general named Than Shwe runs the country and listens more to the stars than his people for advice. Life is tough, with relatively high prices and low wages. Internet access is restricted, there are no mobile phones and communication with the outside world is difficult. In such a country, you’d expect to find a cynical population with little time for others, but its people are gregarious and happy to talk – once they are sure no-one else is eaves-dropping. My trip started in Yangon, capital for little more than a century, and a place of crumbling pavements, decaying buildings, and manic markets.
On its wide, open streets, men wear longyis, the traditional sarong-like apparel, and smoke cheroots, while others chew betel nut and spit the resulting blood-red saliva onto the floor. Impossibly-packed buses pass cyclists (motorbikes are banned here), and armed officers in police boxes sit on street corners, surrounded by a jungle of barbed wire. Women walk by with trays of fruit balanced on their heads and tanakar, white face paint, rubbed on their cheeks.
Scott Market is a vibrant trading area and is also the place to change money. An Indian jeweller offered me 1,230 kyat for one dollar, nearly three times the official rate. Two thick bundles of notes came from behind his till and were shoved into a brown paper bag. The largest note is 1,000 kyat. I met a guide named Tin Tin, an amiable and humble chap who kept apologising for his perfectly-adequate English, who took me to the city’s two main sights. These are Sula Paya, a 2,000-year-old giant golden pagoda in the centre of the city, and Shwedagon Paya, the most sacred site in Burma.
As we entered the lift to go up to Shwedagon Paya, a fat woman with a scowl joined us. “Who is he?” she asked Tin Tin, referring to the foreigner standing by her side. An official tourist guide card was hanging from Tin Tin’s neck, but was the wrong way round, so the woman was instantly suspicious. He explained who I was and we continued the ride in silence.
Shwedagon Paya is bedecked with thousands of gold plates, diamonds, and precious stones, but it’s the things on the periphery are of interest. Giant white Buddhas, old wooden temples, standing golden Buddhas lined up in rows; there were little treats everywhere. Crimson-clad monks wandered past families who had brought their children, and copious amounts of food and drink. The pagoda has been the main feature of Yangon for more than 2,500 years and, according to legend, came about thanks to two Burmese brothers who visited the Buddha and offered him honey and cakes. To reciprocate, the Buddha removed eight hairs from his head. When the brothers returned home they showed their king the hairs, and he promptly built the pagoda to house the gift.
Just outside the city fields of flat countryside stretch out yawningly besides paths that reach out towards the horizon. Somewhere between Yangon and the horizon is Kyiak Hmaw Won Yele is a 90-year-old floating pagoda only accessible by boat. Locals can use a small wooden rowing boat, while foreigners have to take a marginally more plush ferry. One of the smaller boats toppled over recently and, as it doesn’t do to kill off the few tourists you get, the government now insists on the bigger boat for the two-minute trip. On the other side, the pagoda itself is unremarkable, but it does have a pleasant pier. Tin Tin and I sat on the floor, facing a figure of the Buddha.
Tin Tin, confident no-one was listening, was keen to tell me more about living in Myanmar. “There’s no communication here so we do not know what happens. We have to use the BBC or Voice of America to find out things.
“Corruption is everywhere. A government worker gets $25 a month, so he goes out and takes kick-backs. If you work in the passport office you may make $50 extra a day. The black market flourishes because people don’t earn enough, and so the government tolerates it.” “The government has money but they keep it.” A guard walked around the corner and Tin Tin stopped talking. The guard approached, but moved past without casting his glance our way. His targets were a boy and girl sitting nearby. They were too close for the guard’s sensibilities, and he ordered them to move apart.
After leaving Tin Tin in the heart of Yangon, I tried to e-mail some friends. Near my hotel was a block of offices and up a few floors was a small room with computers inside. If you want to find it you have to ask. A Burmese man, short, unshaven and adept at computing, came over. “Hmm, slow today,” he said. His fingers danced over the keyboard, changing my IP address before trying to dial up again. It worked and he found Google France. It didn’t feel particularly heinous, but I had just broken the law. The man explained: “The government has its own server and e-mail software it wants everyone to use. They don’t want Yahoo or MSN.” To help achieve this aim, the generals blocked most outside e-mail accounts from being accessed. “We download some software so we can search for sites using a different server,” the man explained, with the slightest of smiles.
When it comes to newspapers, communication isn’t any better. The Myanmar Times is an English-language paper with as many teeth as a sponge. Its front page story was how business leaders had dismissed a UN report criticising Myanmar for its human rights’ abuse. It didn’t comment on the claims themselves; the point was it was bad for business. Inside pages trumpeted a diatribe against some chap called Dr Lun Swe. The article didn’t explain who Dr Lun Swe was, but it was obvious he ran a magazine and had left the country under a cloud. The column, headlined ‘Tell the Truth’, questioned why he may have fled. “Was it because of political concepts, or was it because he was not on good terms with his wife? Was it because he was not able to ask for money from his wife and it was because he was faced with problems he was unable to solve?” Well, none of the above, according to the pro-freedom group Reporters Without Borders. It said the good doctor’s magazine, and several others, were closed down by the over-zealous government. Over the previous few weeks diplomatic rows with Thailand had prompted the Burmese government to ban any mention of their neighbours, which promptly curtailed the future of one magazine with predominantly Thai advertisers.
At least in places such as Inle Lake the people have the freedom of the countryside. The lake is 22kms long, 10kms wide, and an 18-hour coach ride from Yangon, in the heart of the Shan mountain range. My visit coincided with the last day of a major festival, which involved moving a Buddha image to various points along the river. The icon was transported on a golden barge, and given an escort by monks and 14 other longboats. This mini flotilla had a few dozen men and boys on each boat. Each oarsman was dressed in a white baggy shirt and orange trousers. And all paddled in a style unique to Inle Lake. Standing up, they wrap one leg around a long oar and push back with that leg to propel themselves through the water. It’s a remarkably effective form of rowing and, given the amount of vegetation in the water, a practical one too. The lake is home to 150,000 people who live on or nearby the water and survive using traditional skills such as making paper, laquerware, fishing, or selling textiles.
After Inle Lake I took the road to Mandalay, which is largely a gravel path that twists and meanders any way it pleases. Mandalay itself is full of fairly-priced, fairly clean hotels, and I opted for the Garden Hotel at $5 a night. The city centre is dominated by the enormous Mandalay Fort and its forest-laden grounds, which stretch for about a mile in each direction. Mandalay was Myanmar’s last capital before the British rolled in, and subsequently there is plenty to see, be it payas, people or pwe, the local form of entertainment. Mandalay Hill rewards those who make the 45-minute walk up with magnificent views over the city, or there is Khu Tho Daw Pagoda, billed as the world’s biggest book. The ‘book’ is in the form of 1,729 giant slabs of marble, on which is written the story of the Buddha in Sanskrit.
The other must-see attraction is the Moustache Brothers, a comedy troupe from a run-down part of town which inadvertently achieved international fame. In 1996, two of the group, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, performed at a pro-democracy concert outside the home of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In front of the 2,000-strong audience, they told a joke, which very roughly translated went ‘in the old days you used to call a thief a thief – now you call him a co-operative worker.’ While the crowd laughed, the authorities didn’t see the funny side. After a two-month public, but jury-less trial, they were jailed for seven years. Both had to crush stones for two months and help build roads. They were fed rice and water, and slept on a bamboo mat. Par Par Lay developed dysentery and malaria.
The case made global headlines and in July 2001, with no explanation, they were released. Today, they are black-listed from performing in public, and are only permitted to do shows for foreigners. Their shows take place in a theatre no bigger than a garage. A row of six plastic chairs are lined up along one wall and on the other side of the room is the stage. Lu Maw’s machine-gun delivery is relentless, anti-government, and full of English slang. In such intimate surroundings it’s impossible not to get caught up in the slapstick banter. He grabbed the 50s-style microphone, which was clipped to a 12 volt motorcycle battery, and began. “Now-we-only-perform-for-tourists. You-are-how-you-say-a-sitting-duck-ripped-off-ripe-for-the-plucking-easy-target-no?” Lu Maw fired off.
After the show, I asked my guide U Nee what local people thought of the group. “There is opposition in Mandalay, but that’s not it. Someone else leads things here.” “I don’t suppose they give interviews.” U Nee laughed as way of an answer. Even as we cycled along empty streets, we didn’t speak louder than a whisper. The mere mention of opposition could land U Nee in jail if the wrong person heard.
I wished U Nee well and joined a boat to Bagan, one of the true wonders of South-East Asia. The 150-kilometre route took 12 hours. Arriving at the small town of Nyaung Oo, a horse and cart transported me to my $5-a-night hotel. Bagan is an ancient city of temples and pagodas that cover the entire countryside. An unobstructed view of the thousands of structures at sunrise or sunset is unforgettable. King Anawrahta is the man to thank for such riches, as it was he who began building the temples in the 11th century. Over the next 200 years more and more payas and temples went up until the entire countryside was covered. After that, Bagan’s fortunes waned.
Kublai Khan came in 1287 and destroyed much of the work. Then in 1975 an earthquake struck and razed much of what remained. There has been a vast amount of restoration since then, although it’s irresistible to wonder how Bagan would have appeared in its prime with 13,000 monuments, compared to the 2,000 that remain today. Bagan is a reminder of what a great power Myanmar once was, and also of what it has lost: one of the reasons Bagan is so quiet is that the government kicked everyone out in the 1990s, forcing them to create a New Bagan down the road.
As it stands now, Myanmar is a country without a voice, a country with all the potential but none of the ability. Bitter internal struggles continue and rebel groups wage war against the army in the countryside. A day after I left, a small explosion occurred at a hotel near Sule Pagoda, a sign of the desperation many feel. As U Nee put it: “We have a saying here, when it’s midnight already it doesn’t get any darker.”