Thursday, October 19, 2017

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 teen 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 & righthand-drive cars
on lefthand-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, reposted 9 October 2014. 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?

Starmandala 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.

Starmandala 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.

Starmandala 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?



Starmandala 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 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.


Starmandala 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.

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