|After days of rain, some sunshine to dry the wash|
|Teatime in Yangon|
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|
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.
|Lots of vintage Mazdas; and right-hand-|
drive cars on left-hand-drive roads
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|
|Roadside dining: routine for the locals, an adventure for tourists|
|Walking past the Modern English Center...|
|Tuning in on the world|
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|
|On the waterfront...|
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
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.
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|
|View of Shwedagon pagoda... 5,000 kyats admission for foreigners|
|Unearthly splendor amidst the squalor|
|Gold donated by generations of Burmese|
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]