The Many Faces of Burma
My first accomplishment in Burma was to knowingly break the law. Our decrepit Air Mandalay plane bounced uncertainly onto the runway in Rangoon and its 40 or so disembarking passengers blinked into the hot afternoon sun. I was feeling uneasy. My decision to come here was based on a number of conversations with people who reckoned that it was the highlight of their trip. Infected by their enthusiasm, I bought the guidebook and conducted very basic research. Now I was here. I was unprepared and I was not feeling good about it.
I was also not particularly enthusiastic about attempting to defraud a military government either. Upon arrival, each tourist must hand over $200 U.S. and receive FECs (Finance Exchange Certificates) in exchange. These certificates look like Monopoly money and can be used instead of dollars while in Burma. They can also be exchanged into the local currency, the kyat (pronounced chat). Obviously, the $200 is desperately needed foreign currency that goes straight into the paws of a very unpleasant, and apparently broke, junta. I was told by many people who had been here that it is possible to pay off the staff at the airport with $10 to forego this unpleasant transaction. I nonchalantly accepted their advice but I wasn’t feeling so confident about it now.
The air of silence that prevailed within the airport did little to relax me. A large hanger-style space, it was completely devoid of people except for the passengers from our plane and approximately 10 officials who were standing about with no apparent purpose. Drab, beige walls managed to dull the intense sunlight streaming in the full-length windows overlooking the runway. The normal signifiers of airports – intercom announcements, wall-to-wall advertising, clean-cut individuals welcoming you and asking you to mind your step – were conspicuously absent. Even the sole luggage belt was not working. Although the official airport to the capital of a country that is home to 57 million people, this place definitely did not see much action.
We all lined up at a desk although there was no sign to indicate why exactly we were doing this. People moved from this desk to an equally anonymous one behind it. I peered anxiously at the queue before me to detect any signs of “under-the-counter” transactions. None were forthcoming.
My palms were sweaty as I nervously flexed my passport with a $10 note folded neatly inside for the pay-off. I passed the first desk without incident, the $10 not even noticed as my colourful visa was stamped. I then moved onto the other desk, and now I could see a sign written in Biro on an A4 sheet stuck to the window stating simply, “FEC.”
Here we go. A short tidy man approached me.
“Please sir, you must exchange $200 dollars for FECs.”
I cursed myself for not having a prepared answer for this obvious opener. So I quickly resorted to a rejoinder that usually works for me – the answer of a dumb blonde.
“REALLY? What are FECs?”
“Official government currency, sir.”
“I see. No thanks. I’ll change my dollars into kyats in town.” I attempted to move off.
A hand gently rested on my shoulder. “No sir. You must change here. It is law.”
“Oh. Eh. Is there any way that I can keep my dollars?” At this stage, I threw him a look that is often described in novels of a certain type as searching, pregnant or meaningful.
The man looked around him, but not in a particularly surreptitious fashion. “Would you like to make a present, sir?”
“A present? Ah, a PRESENT. Yes, yes, of course. I would like to make you present.” With the shock of it all, even rudimentary grammar was abandoning me.
“If you want to exchange $100 for FEC, sir, you give me a $5 present. If you wish to receive no FEC, you give me $10.”
My ability to look nonchalant was fading rapidly but we quickly agreed on the latter option. The girl behind the counter took my dollar-laden passport without batting an eyelid and promptly returned it empty.
“Please sign here, sir.”
A large ledger-type book with scrawled names was presented to me. Oh shit. Does this mean that I am making it official that I broke the law as soon as I entered the country? I looked at the other names, very few of which looked like genuine signatures. I took the pen in my hand and tried to commit any old scrawl to paper. But in my state of excitement, I produced a carbon-copy of the signature on the back of my credit card. Fantastic. I doubt I will be hired for the next installment of The Bourne Identity.
I quickly picked up my bag and studiously walked at a pace – not too fast, not too slow – toward the exit, before the army descended from the roof on ropes and banished me to a life of using my bare teeth to extract rubies from rock. Before I knew it, I was in a taxi with the other three tourists on the flight, going into the city of Rangoon and on to five weeks of adventure.
The incident at the airport was the first of many collisions between appearance and reality during my stay in Burma. Like any country, Burma encompasses many contradictions. Its distinction of being run by an oppressive military regime means, however, that these contradictions are glaringly obvious. Visitors may glide through a country like Thailand and never be aware of the appalling social inequality or corruption in the country. To mistake Burma for a country of equality, democratic voice and high standard of living, you would have to be deaf, dumb and blind.
Even the very name of the country is laced with tension. Officially, it is known as Myanmar. The country was called The Union of Myanmar long before British colonisation in the 19th century, when it was changed to The Union of Burma. Burma is an Anglicisation of Bamar, an ethnic group within the country. After the military government came to power in 1962, it was decided that Myanmar was better as it refers to the country as a whole rather than one particular group of people within it. Given the ethnic tensions present in the country, this is understandable. The U.N. uses Myanmar as the country’s official designation as do other organisations such as Amnesty International. Likewise, various town names have been changed under the new regime – Rangoon becomes Yangon, Bhamo becomes Banmaw and Pyin U Lwin is returned to Maymyo.
The pro-democracy movement resents the change and unofficially calls the country Burma. But only unofficially. To say Burma in public means you do not recognise the government’s rulings and that could get you seven years hard labour. No trial. No questions. If I enter a conversation with a local who calls it Burma, then this is a code that he or she is pro-democracy and is anxious to talk about the state of the country. My sentiments lie squarely with the pro-democracy movement, so I will be referring to the country as Burma from here on. It may seem strange that a democracy movement would choose a colonial name for its country. Then again, we don’t have to deal with a regime that systematically tortures its population and uses them for slave labour.
My first impression of Burma as we bounced along the road into town was of awesome beauty. Large tree-lined boulevards propped up a dazzling sky disturbed only by the gold spire of the Shwedagon Paya. This is the largest and most important Buddhist shrine in Myanmar, and a contender for one of the Wonders of the World, in my view. Sitting on a hill 58 meters above sea level, it shoots upward like a bolt of liquid gold against a canvas of ultramarine blue. It boasts of 13,153 plates of pure gold measuring 30cm each, and that’s only the spire. The lower levels are all decked in gold leaf. The flag at the top of the monument is plated in gold and silver and is home to 1,100 diamonds totalling 278 carats. They are surrounded by 1,383 other precious stones. There is more wealth on this pagoda than there is in the entire Burmese national reserve, if they even have one.
There are no high rise buildings to compete with it. The only thing to disrupt its tranquillity is the excessive honking of car horns and the uneven road surface. Honking in Burma is loud and frequent to the point that it ceases to be a warning and is actually a conversation with the vehicles going in both directions. Although initially jarring, after a while it just blends into the tapestry of everyday life and even assumes a certain logic of its own.
It’s funny how quickly you can become acclimatised to a country. As I look back on my photographs, everything seems fitting, natural, in its own preordained place. Yet, on my arrival into downtown Rangoon, at times I thought I was on a different planet, and at other times I was sure I had jumped back 100 years in time.
My travelling companions from the flight were Heidi, a pretty 25-year-old German who specialises in restoring Renaissance art. She has the dubious honour of having worked in the Water Works Department of Limerick Urban Council. She got this auspicious job because her town is twinned to our great western capital. My BTF (Best Travelling Friend – term coined by Madeleine McCarthy in her bestseller, Blow your Budget Gracefully: Foreign Adventures with a Credit Card, Visa Press) Neil “carnage” Le Sage was also joining me for a short stay before he headed back to work in Kathmandu. The last member of the team was Ronan, a former chef at Adare House. Such was his fantastically in-depth knowledge of Burmese politics he could write a doctorate on the subject. He had a rather quirky habit of calling waiters “my good man” and smoked a cigarette every two minutes. It is funny to think that since I started travelling I have met exactly four Irish people, and that one of them should be sitting next to me on a plane going to Burma, of all places.
The first thing that struck all of us was the noted lack of white people. Yes, we were in a foreign country and everyone we saw was absolutely not western. Not a brand name, builder’s tan or clutched Lonely Planet in sight. Whereas you can replace “Thailand” with “destination of many tourists,” Burma is, for the most part, deliciously free of pale faces and, therefore, appears extremely exotic. Conversely, we appear very strange to the locals. I have often encountered babies who looked at me startled from their mother’s arms, raising a hand half in salute, half to stall an oncoming alien. At one stage a guy shouted out at me from a bicycle, “Hey you! What are you?”
It became glaringly obvious within the first hour that Burmese men wear skirts. Not some men, but all men, all the time. Not until I reached the very north last week did I see trousers, or “slacks” as they were trendily labelled in the shops. The longyi (pronounced “lonjee”) is the favoured apparel of all males of all ages in Burma. A type of sarong, it is a continuous piece of material that is gathered in the middle and tied into various knots, depending on your social status. Frequently you will see men tying and untying their longyi walking down the street, squatting like ladies when taking a pee at the side of the road, or tying it into a nappy-like shape in order to play football.
If the men look untarnished by western sartorial taste, then the women look positively tribal. Walking to a recommended restaurant on our first day, every woman that passed wore markings on their faces – a yellow paste that was scraped on, or painted in squares on the cheeks, forehead, even down the bridge of the nose. The effect of seeing this initially should not be underestimated. If these women produced totems from their bags on the street and started to dance around them, I would not have been surprised.
Nearly all women wear this paste and young men and children frequently daub it on as well. It is called thanaka. It is ground from the wood of a small tree and a little water using a heavy grinding stone called a thanaka kyauk pyin, which resembles a pestle and mortar. Burmese women believe that thanaka makes them more beautiful because it makes them paler. It helps control oil content in the skin and acts as a sun block. Many younger women use modern cosmetics and thanaka at the same time.
Everything I experienced in the first couple of days was an assault on the senses. Our first meal was in The New Delhi Restaurant. Unsurprisingly the food was Indian. But not as I knew it. The restaurant was clad in white bathroom tiles with a pale green border, a colour scheme that looked sickly under the naked phosphorescent lights and a style of décor that would become very familiar to me over the next couple of weeks.
An army of teenage waiters – I’m talking 10 for maybe 15 tables – delivered plates, jugs and big sloshing buckets of curry to simple wooden tables and always appeared busy. The kitchen you really don’t want to know about, suffice to say that the walls were a palimpsest of years of cooking grease. On ordering a curry, you received the traditional Indian thali – a large tin plate with four small impressions and one large one. The large one is for the rice, the other four are filled with vegetable options. A side dish of dhal and your curry of choice (fish, beef, mutton or pork) is also served. You get refills of all constituents of your meal except for the meat curry, which means you could eat yourself into next week deliciously if you desired – all for approximately 60 cents.
Burma is a culinary orgasm and a cheap one at that. It borders India, Thailand and China and it takes flavours from all, particularly India. Chinese food is everywhere but not native to Burma; rather, Chinese restaurants are part of the rash of Chinese businesses to be found all over the country. A bizarre quirk in the Burmese diet is a passion for tea and cakes – a piece of sponge is quite likely to be scoffed after a snack of samosas and bhajis in tea shops scattered all over every town. This throwback to the colonial days can also be seen in the ridiculously sweet milk tea, made invariably with condensed milk for that extra sugary wallop.
The teashop is a natural community meeting point – conspicuously more for men – where tea drinkers squat at low tables on stools that are more likely to be found in Ireland in a junior infants’ classroom.
It was dark when we left our meal at the New Delhi Restaurant. I had a strange feeling walking down the streets that there was something amiss. When I nearly collided with a passing bicycle, it dawned on me there was absolutely no street lighting. The only light came from cars, shops, stalls and the candlelit tea shops that are set up on the pavement every evening. Light fell only on the verges of the streets and the spots thrown by moving automobiiles.
The busy street was constantly in and out of darkness as if moving on and off stage. Lampless bicycles carried riders around as if they had been mystically bled of all colour. Faces peered up from candlelit tables like posed characters from a National Geographic shoot. Of course, the darkness makes sense of the delirious honking of car horns. If you don’t honk, the chances are you will take out a whole football team of pedestrians and cyclists before you reach your destination.
On our way back to the hotel, we were lucky to catch a concert by a big jazz band in the central square in town and near the beautifully lit Sula Paya pagoda. The 20-piece band wore white suits and featured a bass player, who sported a handlebar moustache that looked like a dead stoat attached to his upper lip. Such moustaches are seen as masculine and many former kings of Burma boasted one. I can think of many adjectives for such a fashion, but masculine is not one of them.
The band played a laid-back jazzy caberet while glittery women sang Burmese songs in an inexpressive manner. Although there were many young people, I think they would probably have preferred to be listening to their Burmese Jennifer Lopez covers. No western music is officially allowed in the country so it is all translated into Burmese. I even heard the Corrs’ “Forgiven Not Forgotten” during one particularly arduous train journey. It sounds better in Burmese.
Our sojourn in Rangoon lasted only three days. We had heard from other travellers that travelling in Burma was intense – you have to allow adequate provision for getting to and from places. We planned to go to Mandalay, due north from Rangoon and the second largest city in Burma. Unfortunately, we made a disastrous choice in our bus company. Not only were we charged double the going rate (a staggering” $7.00 for a purported 12-hour trip), but we also picked a company who was going for some sort of record in en route breakdowns. Usually the 695km trip to Mandalay takes between 12 and 16 hours – ours took a hysterical 23.
The first 15 hours were not too bad. Neil and I scoffed a full litre of Mandalay rum which we bought for a dollar to make up for the too-small and not particularly comfortable seats. We also partook in a rather lengthy game where we had to imitate all of the characters on the Muppet Show, much to the rest of the bus’s amusement (we were the only foreigners). But for the last eight hours, I resorted to a childlike are-we-there-yet mantra. Having gotten on the bus at five on a Tuesday evening, we arrived in Mandalay on Wednesday at four in the afternoon – a whole day wasted bouncing along unsealed roads.
Such was my shock from the journey that my ankles swelled up, making my legs look like tree trunks. Then Neil got the crushing news in Mandalay that he had to get a plane to Kathmandu on the Saturday from – guess where – Rangoon. This meant making the return trip practically the next day. We arrived at our hotel in Mandalay deflated and exhausted.
I got to my room and immediately flaked out on the bed, staring half deliriously at the wobbly fan attached to the ceiling. Throughout my (over)stay in Thailand, I encountered people who had “done” the 15-hour bus journey, the ultimate initiation right of the real traveller. I realised that I had just had my initiation ceremony and then some. While it might make good copy in the future, right at that moment I did not appreciate the experience. It was slowly beginning to dawn on me what the other travellers had meant by travel in Burma being “intense”. Intense my arse. It’s bloody torture.
Next thing I knew, I was woken by some very strange chanting crackling through a tinny sound system. It was four in the morning, pitch dark and time for prayers at the pagoda next door. If I had gone outside, I would have seen over one hundred monks filing into the temple grounds to pray and eat their first of two meals of the day. Instead, I buried my head under the pillow asking myself – where the hell am I? – until I fell back into dreamless sleep.