Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Departing Myanmar: A Feel-Good Place

The 12-hour ride back down to Yangon was freezing, as the a/c system on our bus seemed to be set to 'meat locker'. Anthony and I employed some old-fashioned American ingenuity and stuffed the provided barf bags into the vents, thus providing some relief. We arrived at the same hotel we had stayed at in the beginning of the trip, where there seemed to some sort of Indonesian mob/prostitution activity going on. We were flying out the next morning, and I wanted to take advantage of my last evening in Myanmar. Thanks to smart budgeting I was flush with cash. Anthony had come down with a nasty bug in Inle, so I took an evening taxi downtown on my own to find something to do.

I was wandering around looking for a noodle shop that had been recommended by a friend when a young-ish Burmese man approached me. He said he wanted to talk with a foreigner. I had turned my bullshit radar, well-calibrated thanks to my experience on Vietnam's tourism trail, off early in the trip since everyone I met seemed to be genuinely kind and helpful.

So I decided to take a walk with him. He led me to a popular local restaurant and we introduced ourselves: his name was Aung Min, and he worked as a security guard at Traders, one of the swankiest hotels in town. He even showed me his ID card to prove these facts. He had a sad personal life: his parents were dead, and he had no siblings. He had spent eight years in the military, fighting in Shan State. This piqued my curiosity, but I wasn't quite sure how far I could push in questions related to that. Things are changing, but the military is still very powerful in Myanmar. Min mentioned this change, saying five years ago there was no development going on, but now things are improving. We moved onto lighter topics as we ate pork with vermicelli noodles: European football and his favorite players; nightclubs and hookers; and girls, who he said "only want money". I offered to pay for his meal and we parted ways.

I walked over to The Strand, the most famous hotel in Yangon, along darkened roads. Street lights really aren't a thing there, with some blocks only lit by one or two lamps. The Strand was beautiful, and after enjoying an expensive cocktail I returned to the hotel, ready for the flight back to Vietnam via Bangkok.

It should be obvious by now that I loved Myanmar. It is a beautiful place, soaked in history and culture. Its best trait though, by a long shot, is the people. Traveling around Southeast Asia, it is easy to become jaded when you are constantly harassed, accosted and berated by people trying to sell you useless shit. This is not to say that everyone in Cambodia or Vietnam is out to rip visitors off, far from it. It just so happens that a number of people you encounter in popular spots like Nha Trang or Siem Reap don't exactly have your best interests in mind. This is why I've become a staunch advocate of getting off the beaten path. Screw Ha Long Bay, go to Ha Giang instead. Anyway, most of Myanmar is still very under-visited. The people are warm, friendly and open. Not once did I get the feeling that anybody was trying to screw me, they were just doing honest work. Interactions that I'm sure would've cost me money in Vietnam were done simply out of kindness over there: for example, when we arrived in Kalaw in the middle of the night, a young man walked up and asked where we were staying. He led us to our motel, woke up the receptionist, wished us a good night and walked off. I sincerely hope that this doesn't change as global tourism sets its sights on Myanmar. Signs of change for the worse are apparent in parts of Bagan, where children try desperately to hawk postcards. Will this spread to the rest of the country? Only time will tell, but for now all I have to say is: "Don't change, people of Myanmar!"

I plan to visit Myanmar again at some point, and I'm even considering looking into the feasibility of working there, now that the press is opening up. For me, that is one of the most alluring aspects of the place: it is a genuine feel-good story, a rarity in these days of slaughter in Egypt, chemical weapons in Syria, radiation leakage in Japan, and Miley Cyrus on stage in the U.S. Of course, huge problems remain for Myanmar. You can't undo 50 years of repression and state-sponsored violence overnight. Large swathes of the country remain firmly off-limits, and there is surely stuff going on that isn't even reported internationally. Ethnic tensions are a huge problem (look up the Rohingya Muslims for an example), and grinding poverty afflicts much of the population. The economy is picking up speed, but it is starting from an extremely low baseline. Then there is the question of whether the government will decide to backtrack at some point. As Anthony Bourdain said in the Myanmar episode of his new CNN show, "You can put the toothpaste back in the bottle." All of this aside, however, the future looks bright. People aren't afraid to speak their mind. The images of Aung San Suu Kyi plastered all over the place serve as testament to the aspirations of a people finally being freed from decades of darkness. Frankly, this is one of the most fascinating stories on the planet.


On a final footnote: if all of this has piqued your interest in Myanmar, I highly recommend reading up on the country. I read three books during my time there, and they served as a good set: The River of Lost Footsteps is a good general history, from the time of Bagan's peak to a few years ago. The Glass Palace is a fascinating historical novel that stretches from the day the British seized Mandalay to post-World War II Myanmar. Finally, Finding George Orwell in Burma is a political travelogue that follows Orwell's footsteps when he served as a colonial official and was still named Eric Blair. This book looks into the darker aspects of Myanmar's system of repression, though it was published in 2005, so current events have passed it by. To be fair, things are changing so quickly no book can hope to keep up, but these three (read in that order) will give you a great background on the place.

4 comments:

  1. I suspect you meant to say you cannot put the toothpaste back in the bottle / tube.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nope, I typed it correctly. I.e., the government can still go back on all of the reforms.

      Delete
  2. I suspect that is true but that's really the expression? I'm quite sure the actual quote is 'can't' because it's actually difficult to impossible whereas Vietnam backtracking is quite easy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ok, whatever, anonymous person. It was a direct quote from a TV show, and it makes sense to me, even if the expression does usually use 'can't. Myanmar's government (or the military, more importantly) can easily backtrack, they've done it in the past. Just look up the 1988 uprising or any of the elections prior to 2010.

      Delete