Thursday, October 9, 2014

Snapshots of 21st Century Burma (repost)

After days of rain, some sunshine to dry the wash

Teatime in Yangon
I first visited Burma in 1984 with my 13-year-old daughter in tow. Those days tourists were only issued a 7-day visa but we ended up staying 8 days because our Burma Airways flight to Kathmandu was delayed 24 hours and the airline put us up an extra night in the Strand Hotel, a colonial relic with musty charm.

Burma in the 1980s was pretty much a timewarp reality – everywhere you looked you would find buses and jeeps from World War Two still plying the mostly untarred roads outside the urban areas. Coca-Cola was mercifully unavailable – except, perhaps, at the swankiest establishments.

No PlayStation... glass marbles on the sidewalk
Gleaming in the afternoon sun
No more World War Two buses...

Food and transport were cheap – if you knew the ropes. The official exchange rate for US dollars was about 7 times below the blackmarket rates – and every tourist arrived with a carton of State Express 555 cigarettes and a liter bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky. There was such a demand for imported tobacco and alcohol, a streetwise backpacker could just about pay for a week’s stay if he knew where to get the best deals.

A thriving local movie industry... but Korean imports are a big hit with young Myanmar
Kid at the entrance of Shwedagon
Indeed, Burma was a prison economy (cigarettes and whisky serve as legal tender in every jailhouse anywhere in the world) – and most Burmese were prisoners of their own inept government, unless they were from the elite families. For one thing, their relative poverty made travel outside Burma an impossible dream for most working class folks.

Notwithstanding their anal-retentive bureaucracy, the Burmese struck me as the friendliest, most likeable, and most sincere folk I’ve met anywhere in Asia (the Balinese come a pretty close second). Indeed, my daughter was so charmed by the young Burmese who flocked around her (believing she was a teenaged movie star from Hong Kong) she subsequently became a species of patron saint to Burmese refugees in Malaysia.

My second visit to Burma (now officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar) was in August 2011. This time it was an even shorter stay, even though tourists are now issued 28-day visas, so I didn’t venture beyond a few streets in Rangoon (now Yangon). The trip was inspired by my young friend Arakah from Singapore, who was offered a 3-month contract to teach dance and drama in an international school. I figured it would be nice to drop in on her - and at the same time catch a quick glimpse of what Rangoon had become in 27 years.

Lots of vintage Mazdas; and right-hand-
drive cars on left-hand-drive roads
The new Yangon international airport looks like any modern air terminal and I noticed well-lit highways where none existed. Lots more neon signs everywhere, even highrise buildings sprouting across the Yangon skyline, almost eclipsing the illuminated golden dome of the landmark Shwedagon pagoda.

I was told that a few years ago the Myanmar ruling junta decided to double the salaries of all civil servants. The idea was to encourage the expansion of a new middle class – but the cost of living has also spiraled upwards, so I don’t know if life has improved at all for those on the lower rungs of the economic order. I got a lousy deal changing ringgits to kyats – they prefer Singapore dollars, and who can blame them?

The Korean influence has become visible – and young Burmese appear to copy their fashions from popular Korean movies. I’m sure China exerts a fair amount of economic influence, too, though I didn’t bump into any Chinese tourists. In fact, I recently read a report about 3,900 kilometers (more than 2,400 miles) of pipeline the Chinese are building to pump natural gas all the way to Yunnan. An estimated 30,000 people will be displaced by the pipeline. Saruman rules in Myanmar too.

Burmese kebab on the go
Administrative hub of Yangon
Yangon in 2011 is no longer a cheap place to eat – despite the proliferation of street vendors hawking local delights like cold noodles and deep-fried pastries. A simple thosai meal today costs the equivalent of USD2 – and if you go for western fast foods, double that.

Roadside dining: routine for the locals, an adventure for tourists
Walking past the Modern English Center...
I was informed that owning and operating a cellphone was a luxury in Myanmar. Nevertheless I saw cellphones and accessories on sale everywhere. Computer shops and internet cafes abound, too, but the Myanmar government uses Chinese firewall technology to block access to various sites – especially Blogger, just because some Burmese activist created a ruckus back in 1992 with an anti-establishment blog.

Tuning in on the world
Thinking cap
Facebook, however, is accessible and fairly popular amongst the younger generation. English is less often understood in the streets of Yangon in 2011 than in 1984 – except among the elderly and the offspring of the prosperous elite. Those old enough to remember the days when Burma was under British colonial rule would be now in their 60s at least (Burma became independent in 1948 when the British left India).

And those with political connections would want to ensure that their children have access to a wider range of experience – thus the importance of mastering an international language. Everybody else under the military junta was encouraged to grow up culturally more insular, more nationalistic – and therefore easier to control.

Pretty much the same pattern you will find in any former colony – whether in Indonesia, Ghana, or Malaya - except in Singapore where available land is so limited the citizens have little option but to fully embrace cultural cosmopolitanism and, for better or worse, globalization.

Was she a widow?
Burmese love to read... but business isn't too brisk for this sidewalk outlet
Yangon River
On the waterfront...
Wandering along the Yangon riverfront we got into a conversation with Raj, who said he was born a year before Burmese independence and worked most of his life as a linotypesetter for an English-language daily. Now he was earning US$80 a month as a driver for a restaurant owner. Like almost everyone I had a chance to chat with, Raj was yearning for better times: the return of Aung San Suu Kyi to political power and full civilian government was what the majority were dreaming of and silently praying for. While I was in Myanmar there were rumors of Aung San Suu Kyi holding secret talks with a faction of the military junta about ways and means to effect a peaceful transition.

Under the military junta the ordinary citizen felt powerless and completely at the mercy of petty bureaucrats – little Napoleons who abused their authority with impunity. The cab driver who delivered me to the airport on my way home was visibly nervous when dropping me off because some policeman or security guard was barking orders at everybody and totally throwing his weight around. In a country like Myanmar under the military junta, natural-born bullies can don a uniform and have a good time intimidating the meek.

The restaurant downstairs served really good tea and chop suey
Moh Moh San helps out
in her parents' restaurant
It’s fascinating that such gentle, gracious people can be transformed into big bullies as soon as they are issued a uniform and some official rank. The contrast between the romantic and warlike aspects of the Burmese psyche reminded me of what I noticed about the Cambodians.

As in Cambodia, Burma’s history began to be documented only in the 9th or 10th century CE. Prior to that it’s pretty much conjecture, although the Mon people are believed to have migrated to the Irrawaddy Delta during the Holocene period (about 12,000 years ago). We read about ambitious warlords unifying the country, subjugating the bewildering variety of remote tribes in the highlands, and threatening to invade Siam, a rival ancient kingdom.

Collapsible stall
I didn’t have the opportunity to venture beyond Yangon this time around – but I did spend a few days in Pagan back in 1984. It was then a dusty frontier town surrounded by a vast and desolate expanse of desert from which sprouted thousands of exquisite chandis and stupas dating back at least a thousand years.

Clearly, some demon king - having defeated all his earthly enemies and recently converted to the Buddha’s teachings - had wanted to prove his religious fervor and stake his claim on Nirvana by cutting down entire tracts of lush forest to build a monument to his spiritual ambitions.

Never mind if in the process he only succeeded in ruining the ecosystem and impoverishing his entire kingdom.

Shwedagon pagoda at dusk...
Shelter from the drizzle...
Ornate roof trimmings at Shwedagon
Such a simplistic and materialistic approach to expressing one’s religious zeal is aptly symbolized by the glittering splendor of the Shwedagon pagoda whose prominent dome is lustrous with a mind-boggling quantity of gold plates – not to mention the “5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies” that adorn its crown. The original 27-foot structure was built in 588 BCE, making Shwedagon the oldest pagoda not only in Burma but in the entire world. It was rebuilt and extended between the 6th and the 10th centuries – and again between the 14th and 18th centuries when it attained its present height of 368 feet (including its spire).

View of Shwedagon pagoda... 5,000 kyats admission for foreigners
Barefoot pilgrimage
Unearthly splendor amidst the squalor
Gold donated by generations of Burmese

A few hundred yards from the Shwedagon, on the fringes of a half-abandoned recreational park, I stumbled upon some of the most squalid homes I have ever encountered in my life. I believe more than half of Myanmar’s 58.8 million population have lived at this level of poverty since time immemorial.

And yet, the visitor to Yangon cannot walk more than 10 minutes without encountering some magnificent edifice of worship – be it a pagoda, a temple, a church, or a mosque.

It appears that whatever the average Myanmarese may lack in worldly wealth, they more than make up for it in terms of faith.

[First posted 2 October 2011. Text & photos by Antares] 


Monyet King said...

Great photos, Antares. makes me want to go there now.

The only time I set foot in Burma was several years when I crossed the Thai - Burma border near Chiangrai. Spent 1 hour in Burma before hopping back to Thailand.

Have a good day.

Crankster said...

This is Malaysia in 5 years time, just not as beautiful because our cultural heritage has been wiped out.

backStreetGluttons said...

We sure reminise this rare ancient travel photo log
feel-alike from the long lost pages of our favorite Life Magazine circa 1950s!

Its true, classic Anglo Chinese oldies like you hv real substance & form, quite unlike today's quickfix Americano facebook generation or even the routinely commercial lonely planet.

neither "Dr" Rais Yatim, absurd rismuddin nor losted Mr pinky cool together with nearly all those fakes in Parliament r fit to even kiss your toes

Thatisthequestion said...

Should they developed and get all sorts of pandora's box misery or should they stay where are and live a charm life for the lenses like yours?

Antares said...

@Thatisthequestion - Thanks for your provocative comment. First of all, each individual fulfills his or her destiny in a unique way - and the same goes for a nation. The "Pandora's Box of misery" you refer to is what the "developed" nations are experiencing - mainly because of some basic errors in how decision-makers view reality and how they interpret the scriptures (or scripts) handed down to them. Judaeo-Christian cultures, in particular, believe Man to be a special creation, destined to hold dominion over Nature; hence the ecocidal, cancerous spread of concrete, steel and glass structures that pass for megalopolises and the insane virtual reality money games people play in such cities that lead to a few becoming godlike in their wealth, and the majority enslaved by perpetual debt. That is a deformity, not development. So we would not wish such a dreadful fate upon the Burmese - but they themselves will no doubt wish it upon themselves if given half the chance! Look at the Chinese - the ones who have accumulated massive wealth since the death of Maoism are now the world's most driven consumers. Must development ALWAYS cost us our freedom and integrity, must it inevitably poison the land, the rivers and oceans? Of course not! The simple truth is: development must be viewed as physical, mental and spiritual. On the physical level, development must be optimal (not maximal), i.e., your physical body reaches optimum size - and then stops growing or you will be obese. On the mental and spiritual levels, there is no limit to development - and none of it has to be destructive of the natural environment or sociocultural values and traditions. In other words, by applying a bit of wisdom to our intelligence, we can enjoy the best of all possible worlds.

Antares said...

@Monyet King - AirAsia flies daily to Yangon, costs a bit more than Bali, and you have to fork out RM90 for a 28-day visa, but at least the immigration officials smile a lot more these days.

@Crankster - Perhaps a parallel universe Malaysia where ketuanan Melayu and UMNO eternally rule - but let's apply our will power to co-creating a much jollier scenario for ourselves!

@backStreetGluttons - You are so sweet, but why would Rais, Mr Cool and his keris-fondling cousin wish to kiss my toes? I'll bet they'd rather go for my ass ;-)

Gerald Wee Eng Kian said...

Visited the place in 2006, was exactly as you have described. I did get the impression I was walking into a theme park instead of a temple: the god of Money rules the house.

With that said, Myanmar is the place where many of the Buddhist esoteric disciplines survived after being almost eradicated in its birth nation. There was an ex-captain turned monk who shared that the gate to heaven is already within, just be conscious and aware of it.

Antares said...

@Gerald - Well said, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks mate. I have always been intrigued by Myanmar and their Theravadan Buddhist monks and nuns are highly venerated. Hopefully my heroine ASSK will be given the chance to revamp the country.

baDboyzs said...

apart fr yr overpowering mystical persona, weird colorful mythical faraway places, cartoons & what nots with the occasional deadly thrusts against filthy UMNO agents, you also hv some remarkably authentic cultural relics/travelogs/secrets stashed away.

Why are they all hidden away in magickriver?

al persona, weird colorful mythical faraway places, cartoons & what nots with the occasional deadly thrusts against filthy UMNO agents, you also hv some remarkably authentic cultural relics/travelogs/secrets stashed away.

Why are they all hidden away in magickriver?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Antares,
i have just one question for you Sir.
What camera did you used to shoot all those wonderful pix?



Antares said...

@baDboyzs - Hmmm, sounds like a compliment, so I shall take your comment as such - but why do you say it's all "hidden away in magickriver"... when this blog is accessible to anyone in the world with internet access (except, alas, to the Burmese who aren't allowed to visit Blogger? :-)

@Galing - I'm pleased you like the photos - but perhaps you're praising the camera more than the photographer? I'm pretty sure I can take competent pics no matter what camera I happen to be using... but in this case I was using a low-end Panasonic Lumix with a non-extendable Leica lens. It's not the camera of my dreams, but was affordable at less than RM700!

Anonymous said...

Here is something to chew on...

Fresh protests in Bolivia road row

dukuhead said...

nice pictures and a lively account of Burma today. I've always thought of the Burmese in romantic terms, having read Orwell's Burmese Days (one of my all-time favourite books) and the exploits of the Tiger Balm King Aw Boon Haw who came over to malaya from burma and amassed a huge fortune selling his tiger balm ointment (and some more, as the rumours will have it). It's sad that the Burmese continue to shoulder the yoke of oppression from their own people so many years after colonisation ended. But hey, at least they still have facebook. Maybe one day, not too long from now, the Burmese will finally recover their freedom and live peacefully in a truly democratic Burma. Sounds better than Myanmar, doesn't it? Burma.

Julian Chin said...

Love it!
So, where will you be visiting next?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Antares,
My question was to confirm what i has all along has in mind. Well, you have proven the old adage that its the person behind the lens that matters. Anyway, without doubt you do take good pics irrespective of the camera.


Antares said...

@Julian Chin - Thanks for dropping by. I have no plans for travel, really. I've turned into a homebody in recent years and the thought of applying for visas, boarding flights, etc, makes me weary.

@Galing - You're very kind, my friend, and because you seem to appreciate my humble efforts at photography, here's a link to a few portraits I uploaded years ago on Flickr - taken on a prototype Sony digital camera on loan from!

pimalai resort & spa koh lanta said...

Beautiful country. I always wanted to travel to Burma and visit those golden pagodas. How wonderful it would be if I will have the time to see all those wonders. I enjoyed looking at those photos.

Anonymous said...

Thursday, January 20, 2011Pro-UMNO MCA Is Anti Buddhist !
Contributed by Anak Mami

Ven. Phra Piya Thammo,
Rumah Pangsa
Blk A-7-9- Jln Padang Tembak,
11400 Pulau Pinang,

Dear Devotees,

Before I commence of my letter-writing toward. All of you, I would like to inform all of you that I am not satisfy with the lawyer, Dato YIP KUM FOOK due to his bad inspirit impressions because he sent an inspector to come to our Buddhist Temple to arrest me without any good reason, moreover, the lawyer, YIP KUM FOOK is not satisfy with Chief monk.

When the Chief monk had me to go to his Temple already and he went away and left me alone to take care until Chief monk come back to the Temple first and he also told me not to leave the Temple if any committees or the chairman want to chase me out, you don’t leave the Temple at all understand? Then I said, alright? To the chief monk! On the second Day, YIP KUM FOOK came to our Temple and talk to me. He tired to make some inquiry from me and he asked me, where I come from? I told him that I came from Penang.

Then, I told to the lawyer (YIP KUM FOOK, MCA Man) that the chief monk came to Penang and fetch me and invited me to accompany him to go to his temple in K.L. I am not aware that YIP KUM FOOK is not in a good terms with the chief monk, chief monk already in this way, YIP KUM FOOK try to create trouble with me unnecessary. That is why, the lawyer want to chase me out of the Temple. Then I asked the lawyer, why you want to chase me out of the temple? Moreover, the Temple is not belonging to you, UNDERSATAND? Then, I asked him, who are you? I don’t know you at all, you have no right to chase me or control me at all, UNDERSTAND? You are just like a layman only. Do you know the regulations that any the chairman or committee cannot control the monks and the Nuns at all, also UNDERSTAND?

I scolded him like that. Then the lawyer (YIP KUM FOOK) is not satisfy with me and he told me that he will called the police to come to the Temple and arrest me. I told him to go ahead and called the police to come and arrest me. I won’t run away, I said to him like that. I have done nothing wrong toward you, why you want to arrest me? He said, he doesn’t like me to stay here. I asked him, why? Again. After this he got very angry with me, then he phoned up to the police and the police came to the Temple and told me to leave the Temple.

I told to the inspector of the again, 1 am sorry, I won’t leave the Temple because the chief monk had instructed me not to leave the Temple without his consent, UNDERSTAND? Then the inspector told me to leave, again. I told him I cannot leave the Temple because the Chief Monk hasn’t come back yet. This time, the inspector got very angry with me and he took out his handcuff and try to threaten me, then I immediately show off my hands for him to lock me up but he scare, then again, the inspector told me leave the Temple again but I still don’t want to leave the Temple.

Then I phoned up to the chief monk again and I told him that the inspector insisted want to arrest me, you better come back to settle the case for me. After this incident, Chief Monk came back to the Temple and take me to go to another temple and stay their. That’s all about this incidents! Last of all, I would like to inform all of you, that no committees or the chairman can control all the monks and Nuns at all also UNDERSTAND? “They are higher than the King,” also! So how can the laymen, the committees and the chairman to control them: – EVEN THE KING ALSO RESPECTED THE MONKS AND NUNS. Why the chairman doesn’t respect the monks and nuns? They will carry the sins later on, UNDERSTAND?

Yours in Dhamma

Ven. Phra Piya Thammo
Penang, Malaysia

Anonymous said...

佛教之地,都是要善伩修守戒律, 但令人痛心的是 Samnak Sambodhi Buddhist Association No: 19 Jalan 38 Taman Desa Jaya 52100 Kepong Selangor, Malaysia.三宝寺却不以身作則。他们允许缅甸外劳庆祝佳日,隨心所意,在当地杀鱼.鸡. 猪.羊及飲酒做乐,醉身萝死耒污垢佛教神聖之地.至今 已引起居民的反感。

針对以上的题,身为佛教伩徒,也是前任理事会成员,我依佛陀的教育,据理力争。但孤掌难呜,却被一手遮天,以商业利益为重的马华公会,鹅嘜区会主席叶金福(Yip Kum Fook,MCA Man), 把我排除在外,其用意, 一目了然,想完全控(Yip Kum Fook,Politic Man)制甲洞帝沙再也,三宝寺耒达到私利賺钱.现在, 他应用外耒和尚主持三宝寺,其目的,也更清楚,因为外耒者不知内幕,不能久留,无杈过向。

回顾10年前之事,由本地吉兰丹和尚仼壇主兼顾问之時, 此种现象,是不曾发生的,为何到了叶金福(Yip Kum Fook, MCA Man)的領导乏下,却帶耒如此違反佛教的文化?难怪,前仼壇主 也一声不言就远离了,必有其苦衷。

为了佛教的遵严,我不忍看它沦落为醉身耒萝死之地, 让人耻笑,在此, 我只好通过现代的管道,泣声敬请,佛教伩仰者及马耒西亜佛总能加以关注, 并给予该理事会劝导,尽速觧决此事,以免这种污点影响整体的佛教良好形象。

Anonymous said...



在此, 我要誠恳所以書面將实事发生在马耒西亜吉隆坡甲洞帝沙再也 (暹寺) 三宝寺. SAMNAK SAMBODHI BUDDHIST ASSOCIATION NO: 19 JALAN 38 DASA JAYA KEPONG 52100 SELANGOR, MALAYSIA. 的遭遇公告大家, 我很不满意, 马华公会鹅唛區会及三宝寺理事主席那督叶金福律师, 是因為他应用悪毒傲慢的手段帶領一般外人耒挑衅践踏浄土及电招警方人员到甲洞三宝寺的神聖之地亳无理由的要警方人员强硬扣留出家人耒逹到耻辱佛教信仰者


我耒至梹城, 初出道, 暫住甲洞三宝寺俢行, 只因看不过眼叶金福律师的為人, 无礼傲慢不可一视的态度对待壇主, 稍为講他几句而己他却採用如此下流的手段伤害出家人, 的确令人不敢恭维.

一校之長, 其学生如有犯错, 警方人员都必須先见校長去了觧实况, 才可行动, 這是一般常规.但遺憾的是. 他叶金福身为律师却反其道而行, 不依佛理而轻视佛教的精神一味要显示他是马华公会鹅唛區会及甲洞三宝寺理事会的主席, 强求要警方人員扣捕我和尚, 耒逹到其目標, 但还好,基於宗教敏感,連巫裔警方人員也懂得和尊重別人的文化習俗,不敢軽举妄动, 否則后果不敢設想.

我明白, 他马华公会區会主席那督叶金福律师大动肝火, 生氣一位担任該 (暹寺) 甲洞三宝寺將近20年的壇主, 也是自筹建三宝寺最大的功臣, 其因是师父惊觉到一个新耒的叶金福律师满囗仁義道德, 說一套做一套, 排除異己, 而理事会成员多數为其親戚家族当任, 再加上处理 (暹寺) 三宝寺钱財不透明, 除此之处, 他的行动想把佛教的浄土变为政治活動埸所, 公家修道之地, 当作私人財產。

师父看在眼裡, 以大局为重, 而善意的给予劝告, 却引起他马华公会鹅唛區会主席叶金福律师, 闷闷不乐, 坐立不安, 无法无天的反而处处为难, 并不友善的加以迫害壇主离开 (暹寺) 三宝寺

他马华公会鹅唛區会主席叶金福律师, 這种司马昭之心, 伪君子作风, 人人都知--------。你能花言巧語, 蒙蔽誤导群衆一時, 但不能欺骗一世. 佛教的因果肯定報应。

最后我也顺此祝願他醒觉, 諸悪莫作, 衆善奉行。




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