Thursday, 3 November 2011

Day 61: Goodbye Burma

It's fair to say that just under three weeks ago, when arriving in Burma, I wasn't sure what to expect. A pariah nation under sanctions for decades, under an illegal military regime with a history of human rights abuses, I had a vision of a Big Brother state with soldiers at every corner, passports being scrutinised, and oppressed people slinking about the streets trying to go unnoticed. Red tape would abound and free enterprise would be locked down into a back street black market with battered wooden tables and chairs that would go flying every time the military police made another raid. Nobody would look each other in the eye. But this is not Burma.

To all superficial appearances for the casual traveller, Burma is a dusty, shabby, bustling country with a very low level of police appearance and a very high level of dogs, motorbikes, street food, "beer stations", and seeming freedom of movement. There's a lot of poverty, but that's not a phenomenon restricted to Burma. The internet is unrestricted. Tourism is pretty noticeable. If I had arrived in Burma knowing nothing of its political state, I would assume it to be just another emerging Asian nation. Which it kind of is. But I have to be very careful with that statement.

Because I have seen - to some degree - exactly what the government would have liked me to see. Starting with the capital Yangon, to the nation's second biggest city, Mandalay, and then the country's main tourist draw, Bagan, I have travelled a classic and obvious route. Only in Monywa, which is a city of 300,000 and only a few hours from Mandalay and thus hardly hidden, did I veer off-track. Am I likely to see what Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN are complaining about? Am I seeing forced labour, torture, sex slavery, and child soldiers? Are the prisons with political prisoners part of the tourist circuit? No, no, and no. I am a tourist, not an investigative journalist, and thus has been my experience. I have seen tourist sights, stayed at local hotels, eaten and drank in crowded restaurants with rickety tables and chairs while watching football on TV. Burma, for the tourist, is surprisingly easy to get around and normal-seeming. But we're hardly seeing the dark side.

It's fair to say I've quite enjoyed Burma. Perhaps not fallen head-over-heels in love with it, for it can be a little exasperating, but it's been a lively and friendly country. I can imagine coming back one day.

Burness and I spent our final day in Yangon. We arrived in the inter-city bus station, miles out of town, at around 9am, a few hours behind schedule as our bus had stopped repeatedly with problems. Although we'd managed some sleep, the stop-start nature of the journey not to mention the inexplicable and infuriating urge by Burmese bus companies to play ghastly loud Burmese pop and folk music throughout the journey meant our rest was not thorough. This latter all-night noise-a-thon is not a Burmese-only phenomenon, I've seen it also in Thailand and Egypt, but it is never less than strip-the-skin-from-my-face annoying. And bewildering. Do the Burmese, Thai and Egyptians adore the sound of generic Casio keyboard-back ballads so much they need them piped through the night at volumes to penetrate the brain like a screwdriver? Fortunately, in this case, the music was turned off between midnight and 6am, else the bus would have had two faceless, bleeding Western corpses to add to its list of troubles.

Arrival in Yangon didn't capture us in the best of mood, therefore, and it only got worse. Burness had booked a great hotel near the Shwedagon for our final night in Burma, and for a little luxury. Alas, upon arrival, it appeared he had erroneously booked it for the day before. Today they were full. We fell back upon our last hotel from our previous visit, but it too was full, as was the next, and only on our fourth attempt did we meet with success. After a rest, we visited the lake that Burness has long wanted to visit - green and manky, as it happens. We were still charged $2 to get in. After paying $0.30 to get into a different section of the lake, we had a beer, looked at the Shwedagon in the fading light, and found it hard within us to feel well disposed towards Yangon.

But just as personal experience can spoil your opinion of a place, it can also raise it. In this case, our evening meal was a startling success. We had been wandering near our hotel for a good half an hour, looking for anywhere that sold food and beer, and finding nowhere that matched up to our hopes. But then, down a small side street, we found just what we'd been looking for. Wooden tables and chairs in a pokey, low-ceilinged bar with a very unassuming facade, it was packed with locals chucking beer, rum and whisky down them. The staff were immediately helpful, and showed us the selection of food - just barbecue skewers and other random titbits - and we felt thoroughly at home in this atmospheric, no-nonsense venue. Best of all, and one of my favourite people I've met in Burma, was the matriarch. In this bar full of men, she stood out as the dominant figure. A big, powerful woman as no-nonsense as the bar she stood in, she roared the name of each platter of food that came out, and had the unquestionable authority over everyone there. Had there been a scuffle - and there wasn't, for who would dare? - she would have given the perpetrators raw hell and flung them out by their ears. But underneath it all, this brassy figure had a kind heart, and took us two foreigners under her wing, kindly giving us first refusal on platters, and gently saying - and she spoke good English - that we were welcome to stay as long as we wished, and that our prices were the same as the Burmese prices. For the two hours were there, she yelled and smile, and she single-handedly resurrected our feelings towards Yangon.



With regard to Mandalay, no matriarch was able to step in to the rescue. Overall, I enjoyed Mandalay, as it had some decent bars and restaurants, and enough sights of interest. But though surely bad luck, the people we met at bars were, well, just a little weird. Our first night back there, returning from Monywa, we went to a nearby bar. Plastic tables and chairs, loads of locals and atmosphere, and really cheap beer, it was ideal. Until we were accosted by two locals. Usually this would be great, but it quickly transpired - upon them forcing us to sit with them - that they were dead drunk and spoke almost no English. Again, usually no problem, but their attempts at banter were definitely more troublesome. I thought my guy was annoying, as he repeatedly wanted me to swap my beer for his rum then seemed offended when I declined, but Burness's drunken partner-in-banter had the sole conversational gambit of repeatedly insisting we visit the Snake Pagoda with them. Over and over again. Whenever we failed to show anything that wasn't delighted enthusiasm, they seemed offended, and would exclaim "We friends!"

We made another friend the next day. His English wasn't bad and he had a weirdly London accent that seemed entirely incongruous with this young Burmese chap, but his banter was just weird. After inviting himself to our table, he poured a beer for us using just one hand and without moving the glass. He was very pleased with himself, but then became quickly irritated that we hadn't been so impressed. This was the same with his English - he spoke good English but every time we didn't understand what he said (and often it wasn't what he said, it was simply what he was talking about) he got agitated, as if we were deliberately meaning to cause him offence. And likewise, when he asked us to guess his age. We guessed a bunch of ages, all around late 20s, with one guess in the early 30s. He didn't like this at all when he finally announced he was 28, which we had all but guessed. "I can tell you haven't travelled a lot," he said, with genuine irritation, to Burness, who had ventured the age of 31. "When you travel more you will learn not to do that." "What are you talking about?" Burness asked, but our friend was a talker, not a listener. He eventually left when we declined to go and watch some Burmese theatre with him.

But these were just isolated incidents, and weren't ever unfriendly, just a bit over-bearing or strange. The majority of people we encountered, whether briefly or not, were friendly. Sometimes they were a little curious about us, and often they simply smiled and said hello as we passed. "Where are you from?" was the most common question we were asked, and "Scotland" always seemed to satisfy them.

So, goodbye Burma, and hello to Cambodia. This is written in Bangkok's main airport, waiting for our flight to Phnom Penh, which we bought just last week upon realising that Thailand had a bit of a flood problem. We've decided to wait until Thailand drains a little - therefore, one of the big ones, Angkor Wat, now awaits.

1 comment:

  1. I'm happy to read your comments on your journey to Myanmar. The nation has come a very long ways since 2011 and I hope you can revisit what seems to be increasingly a reality: a democratic government freely elected by its people. I've been fortunate in the past 5 years to have experienced the almost miraculous transformation.... There are many more wonders here to be investigated and explored!

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