"Unblinking, rather like a great porcelain idol, U Po Kyin gazed out into the fierce sunlight. He wore one of those vivid Arakanese longyis with green and magenta checks which the Burmese wear on informal occasions. He was chewing betel from a lacquered box on the table, and thinking about his past life."
It's been over 80 years since George Orwell wrote those words in Burmese Days, but in many ways, not much in Myanmar has changed since then. The country is an odd time-capsule wedged between India, Bangladesh, China, and Thailand, marked by its isolation from the rest of the world for half a century of military rule.
About five years ago, the military-backed government, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, declared a victory in the first election in 20 years and began opening the country up to foreign travel and business. In only five years, it seems like much has changed - that hostels exist there in any form at all, for a start - but many of the anachronisms of traditional Burma still persist.
During the three weeks I spent wandering through postcard-perfect scenes of bustling markets, glittering pagodas and faded British hill stations I found it hard to believe I was traveling through a country that has one of the worst records for human-rights abuse in the world. To me, this is the most staggering thing about Burma: that the oppression of an entire nation of some 50 million people can be completely hidden from view.
- Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma
Myanmar isn't known as a hotspot for southeast Asian tourism, due in no small part to the continued unrest in the country - it is effectively still fighting an ongoing civil war. Even the country's name is not without controversy. The same military junta has ruled the country, and suppressed dissent, since 1962 (only 14 years after they were granted independence from the British.) In 1989, they changed the official name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, a year after killing thousands of protesters in a popular uprising. Still today, the government is creating a refugee crisis by killing its Rohingya Muslims in the south and its Shan Chinese in the north.
In talking with our guide who led us on a three-day trek to Inle lake, in the mountains in the middle of Myanmar, it seems apparent that many Burmese are not satisfied with the country's political situation. Even so, that the subject is still too taboo to comment on openly or publicly; our normally talkative guide would deftly change the subject if it came up.
Our trip through Myanmar took us to Inle, one of the most famous destinations in Myanmar, Bagan, a city of temples in the middle of an inland desert, and Yangon, formerly Rangoon, the former capital of Burma before the military moved it to Naypyidaw.
'Mandalay' is one of the few place names in Burma that has not been changed by the Burmese military government. In 1989 the regime renamed streets, towns and cities across Burma. Maymyo, the old British hill station that Orwell visited, became Pyin-Oo-Lwin, and Fraser Street in Rangoon became Anawyatha Lan in Yangon. Most of the old names were Anglicized Burmese names that had been used by the Birtish colonial government and the regime claimed that the changes were a long-overdue move to discard these colonial tags. But there was a deeper-rooted motive. The generals were rewriting history. When a place is renamed, the old name disappears from maps and, eventually, from human memory. If that is possible, then perhaps the memory of past events can also be erased. By renaming cities, towns and streets, the regime seized control of the very space within which people lived; home and business addresses had to be rewritten and relearned. And, when the regime changed the name of the country, maps and encyclopedias all over the world had to be corrected. The country known as Burma was erased and replaced with a new one: Myanmar.
The crucial event which triggered this rewriting of the past was the people's uprising of 1988. At eight minutes past eight in the morning on the eighth day of the eighth month of that year, students launched a countrywide demonstration against almost three decades of poverty and oppression under military rule. Thousands of people flooded into the streets of cities and towns all over Burma shouting, 'Dee-mo-ka-ra-see! Dee-mo-ka-ra-see!' The government response was brutal: that evening, soldiers marched into the streets and strafed the crowds with machine-gun fire. In Rangoon, doctors and nurses, overwhelmed by the wounded, hung a sign outside the general hospital begging the soldiers to stop killing people. The sign was written with the blood of the wounded and dead. When a column of nurses joined the protest in the streets, wearing their white uniforms, they too were shot. Among those who died during the days of chaos that followed were high-school children, teachers and monks. Smoke billowed from crematoriums as the authorities rapidly disposed of their corpses. The uprising did not end until more than 3,000 people had been shot or bludgeoned to death by government soldiers.
- Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma
Of the 9 countries we visited in three - very short - months, Myanmar was by far the most unique. Having survived lost passports, infections, food poisoning, and motorbike accidents, it was easy for us to begin feeling jaded about Asian travel. The well-trod tourist paths of Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, for all their marked differences and cultural idiosyncrasies, began looking undifferentiated the longer we spent traveling. In spite of this feeling, Myanmar reignited the same strong wonder and curiosity we felt when our trip first began.
It's worth noting, the first few weeks felt like they had lasted months. Whenever we commented to new friends on our travel plans - "where are you from? how long are you traveling for? where to next?" - it felt like we had been gone from home for much longer. Suddenly, as we began to fall into a rhythm of travel, as routine will do, time started moving faster and we had suddenly rushed through 9 countries wondering where the time had gone. In a period where our day-to-day lives were so sporadic, yet beginning to feel once again routine, it was great to be thrust again into unfamiliarity when we landed in Myanmar.
Except for the lack of wifi. That was annoying.
Dan and I preceded Sarah by a few days to make the trek from Kalaw, a small town in central Burma, to Inle Lake, a mountainous watershed not too unlike Tahoe back home. The trek, with a few friends from a Yangon hostel, lasted three days that would range from freezing at night to burning by day. We caught a bus from Yangon that arrived in Kalaw around 2am, and spent 2 to 7 warming up in a teahouse as we waited for the sun to rise.
Our guide, Lynn Mran Aung, was originally from the south but had come up to Kalaw like so many others because of the lucrative offers of the tourist high season. He was a rockstar, not just in name but also in that he played lead guitar and vocals in a band, which became apparent by the guitars he kept stashed at each stop on the trek. Over three days, we would share beers with him, visit his favorite sunset spot, and learn about his crush on a close friend who he wanted to be his girlfriend. Even in a country as alien to us as Myanmar, it's startling how many similarities exist in other people's day-to-day lives and our own. From jobs to relationships to aspirations, there is a fundamental sameness that underlies everyone we meet on the road
We slept our first night in Yewpeu Village, home to the De Nu tribe. On the trail, we'd occasionally see other groups of trekkers headed in the same direction, and would all stay in local homes together each night, even in a village of only 27 houses.
Everywhere you would walk, on our trek and through Myanmar, old and young men would sit smoking the local brand of hand-rolled green Burmese cigars. Their teeth would be stained red from the betel - a mixture of chewing tobacco, nuts and leaves - they chew and spit on the ground.
Along the way, we stopped at a local Burmese grade school. We had been instructed to buy and bring some school supplies for the teachers, who looked fairly nonplussed upon our arrival. In the bare classrooms, kids laughed and yelled and ran around, with a few in the background doing their work.
Our second was spent in Khon Hla, home to the Palaung people who live in the Shan State of Burma. As we'd pass through these villages, it became apparent how much these remote mountain villages had started developing an orientation towards tourism in just the 5 short years since the country had opened up. Old women hand-spun scarves to sell to tourists, and homes and monasteries opened up to house and feed trekkers at night.
At the end of our hike lay Inle Lake, where the pivot to a tourism-based economy was stark. A 2-hour boat ride on the lake, from our landing in the west to our hostel in the north, consisted of a tour of cigar-rollers, laquer-box makers, silver smiths, and other vendors whose work revolved around selling to travelers. As we would later learn in Bagan, making laquerware correctly is an involved process that can take 2-3 months for each piece, making it a steep investment for tourist dollars.
Still, in many ways Burma had still not caught up to the pace of southeast Asia. At Inle, our hostel let us know the city was in the process of getting broadband at in a few months, but had yet to lay any cables. Decisions in cities were also still made by councils of village elders, who could force a local or foreign business to shut its doors on a whim.
Around that time a Burmese woman called Aung San Suu Kyi, who lived in Oxford, England, happened to be back in Rangoon nursing her sick mother. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the much-loved Burmese military hero who led negotiations for Burma's independence from Britain and who was assassinated just months before independence came into effect in 1948, when his daughter was two years old. A week after the worst of the violence, Aung San Suu Kyi left her mother's sickbed to stand beneath a giant portrait of her father and speak to the crowd of half a million people who had turned up to see her. 'I could not as my father's daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on,' she said, and she compared the uprising to the country's fight against British colonialism: 'This national crisis could in fact be called the second struggle for national independence.'
The struggle is not yet over. As soon as the military regained control of the country, it began systematically to erase the bloody events of 1988. It renamed itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and announced a new line-up of ruling generals. Soldiers mopped up the streets, repainted public buildings, and forced people to paint their own houses in what was a literal whitewashing of history. In Mandalay and Rangoon, whole neighbourhoods were swept away as people were forcibly relocated from areas where anti-government sentiment had been particularly strong. Demonstration leaders were hunted down, tortured and imprisoned. Some 10,000 people were forced to flee central Burma, taking refuge in jungle areas on the border or in neighbouring countries.
- Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma
Though people drive on the right side of the road - at odds with India to the west and Thailand to the east - steering wheels in Myanmar appear on both sides of car dashboards. As the country opened up, individuals and businesses rushed to neighboring countries to pick up cars, regardless of what side their steering was mounted. The country also switched over its entire driving system from left to right erratically, overnight, under the eccentric General Ne Win. As to why they did this:
there are two commonly held theories, both of which point to the eccentricities of General Ne Win. One theory is that Ne Win’s wife’s astrologer said that the country would be better off driving on the right side of the road. The second is that the General had a dream that the country should switch directions. Either way, the General called the shots and traffic was directed to move sides overnight.
Despite the lane shifts, virtually every vehicle in Myanmar has right hand steering. Many vehicles are very old, and those that are considered modern are second hand imports from Japan. It isn’t just the cars that have to catch up. One can still see old traffic signs in downtown Yangon facing the wrong direction.
Myanmar is also the poorest country we've been to by far, but people seem no less happy in their interactions, whether or not they know tourists are watching them. Old ladies laugh, men play games on the street. It's perfectly normal for guys to walk down the street hand in hand, or with their arms around each other's shoulders, without shame of their close friendships.
Burma is remarkably ethincally diverse. Between Bangladesh and India to the west, Thailand to the east, and China in the north, there is no typical Burmese 'look.' Locals on a street in Yangon can appear as different from each other as on any in San Francisco, tied together only by the longyi's they still favor throughout the country over jeans. (Which, when worn by tourists, make them immediately look like they're trying too hard, for the record.)
When the sun finally rises in the cold morning over Bagan, the temples dotting the landscape peek through the treeline like small mountains. For trekkers through Myanmar, the sunrises and sunsets take on a deeper significance than they do elsewhere.
Bagan was our second stop in the country following Inle, separated by a simple eight-hour bus ride with only one flat tire. More than any other place on our trip, the area retains the magic of an old world, long-gone but somehow still there to explore. Over 10,000 temples have been built over time in an area hardly 40 square miles wide, of which over 2,000 still stand, tended fastidiously by the descendants of the families who built them.
In Burma, tradition holds that constructing pagodas is a way of achieving Nirvana and atoning for past karmic transgressions. As you travel through the country, gold-tipped temples dot the tops of most hills and peaks you see.
Perhaps because of its isolation and cultural heritage, Myanmar seems more religious than much of the rest of southeast Asia, which is no small feat. Monks travel the country as plentifully as tourists. Much of the art sold in Bagan features the famous images of monk children in training, or of a procession of burgundy-clad monks walking under their orange umbrellas.
Travelers get a feeling of reverence, renting e-bikes and motoring through the desert bush to different temples, as they see families painstakingly caretaking their own pagodas or answering calls to prayer. Next year, the government plans to ban climbing on the temples, which was our favorite experience of Bagan. Finding a vacant, hidden temple in the middle of the bush and climbing its passageways to the third or fourth floor, then looking out into a sea of temples, gives a feeling that's hard to describe. Many of the temples don't even have names, just numbers, and tourists can easily get lost exploring them.
In Bagan more than anywhere else, people's schedules are dictated by the sun. The roads are busiest right before sunrise and sunset, as tourists, guides, and locals scramble to find the best perch to watch the first and last rays of the day illuminate the spires rising over the desert. Our best sunset came on a boat cruise, hosted by a boisterous Czech named Petr, where we watched the sun set over the massive Irrawaddy river. The best sunrise was from the massive steps of the Shwesandaw temple, where we watched hot air balloons rise over the morning plains. It's hard not to feel the sense of magic that permeates Bagan when the day starts and ends.
The military -- now called the State Peace and Development Council (SPCD) -- still controls Burma today. The army has more than doubled in size and now has almost half a million soldiers. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the intervening years locked up in her run-down family home in Rangoon. The date of the uprising, 8-8-88, or shiq lay-lone ("four eights"), has become a whispered mantra in Burma, denoting a tragic turning point in the history of the country which can only be remembered secretly behind closed doors. It is as if the events of 1988 never happened. A year after the uprising, a spokesman for the regime summed up what had taken place: 'Truth is true only within a certain period of time', he announced. 'What was truth once may no longer be truth after many months or years.'....
- Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma
Our last stop took us by overnight bus to Yangon - formerly the capital of the country, and still its leading commercial center - which sits on the Yangon River delta to the south and opens into the Andaman Sea.
Yangon shares so many of the characteristics of any other southeast Asian metropolis: busy roads, rickshaws, street food, hectic buildings, and piercing sunlight. Yet it sits apart from them in the faces of its people, some of whom still turn their heads to see white folk. It is not built for western tourists, with well-marked landmarks and sprawling parks, but retains the feel of an industrial city quickly rushing to open to the outside world. A run down the waterfront revealed nothing of the river, which was completely flanked by drydocks and freighters.
Yet there is a small but thriving expat scene here. A night out at a local reggae bar was flush with locals émigrés (or, immigrants) coming out to meet each other. We spoke for a while with three Sri Lankans who had moved here, variably to open a hotel and get into shipping, leaving their families at home in Sri Lanka to pursue opportunity in a foreign commercial city.
One of the two starkest experiences came in the Yangon Hospital, where Sarah checked into her third successive hospital to take a look at the infection on her leg from her scooter accident. The hospital, which was the nicer of the three major hospitals in Yangon and the choice of local expats, still had many interesting practices such as cleaning lines that they would reuse for IV's, much the same way one cleans a keg line. The menu varied from grilled snakehead to fried snakehead. And few of the orderlies, who ran around incommunicado under the French doctor who ran the show, seemed to have much grasp on what the proper course of care was.
The other experience came on the circle train ride around the city. The train, which loops Yangon in 3 hours, affords one an unvarnished look at a city which already doesn't have much in the way of a tourist area. Like many Asian cities, but perhaps to a greater degree, Yangon is rife with poverty. Small raised wood shacks line the railway, occasionally with a corrugated tin roof for the more fortunate. Markets crop up around each stop for locals to sell the fresh fish and food they harvest from the paddies that run alongside the tracks. Towering slums, decrepit and overgrown with weeds, shoot up out of nowhere.
Still, in one of those great contradictions that crop up across Asia, in a country with loss and poverty there is still joy. As our train circled the city, we passed old men flying kites, laughing as they tried to cut each other's lines. Around the country, we would see young men playing a kicking ball game, where they pass a small bamboo ball over a makeshift volleyball net using only their feed and heads. Everywhere we'd travel, we'd be welcomed with warm mingalaba's. And people would exhibit a deep joy and reverence at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, as the sun went down and lit up the forest of gold spires.
Whatever else happens in Myanmar, one thing seems clear - that it will change soon. Only five years of openness has already transformed it from how we hear it once was. Next year, the government plans to ban climbing on the temples of Bagan, as they move slowly towards becoming another major tourist destination. Moreso than anywhere else, with Burma there is a feeling that the time is now.
Nik / 3.1.17