Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Yangon Again

Posted on May 3rd, 2005

I stockpiled an unfathomable 13 blissful hours of sleep the night I returned to Yangon and the comforts of Motherland Inn II. I never thought I would sleep like that again after the sleep deprivation torment I had put myself through during the previous nine days.

The next morning I shot out of bed with energy levels I had not felt since Bangkok and lingered over Motherland’s wonderfully ample breakfast, carefully preparing my body for a day of wandering in the brain marinating heat. After nine days of Myanmar-during-the-hot-season, I was now a leading authority on physically prepping oneself to endure the heat and non-stop torrent of sweat that comes with stepping a toe outside between the hours of 9:00AM and 10:00PM. The secret is to just chug water like it was, well like it was water, all day long whether you feel thirsty or not. I was going through a minimum of five 1.5 liter bottles of water a day without even thinking about it, though it should be said that I can break sweat chewing gum and perhaps people with more reasonable metabolisms might not need to drown themselves with the same quantities of water. Also, you need to treat yourself to two or three non-caffeine, sugar packed soft drinks per day (I was alternating between orange and lemon sodas; local Myanmar brands as they taste exactly the same as the imported western stuff while being a fraction of the price). This is to keep your blood-sugar levels up and hence your energy and general physical comfort in the green. Again, this should all be done as preventative measures, don’t wait until you feel miserable. If you slack and put these measures off until you feel uncomfortable, you’re doomed and you’ll feel like day-five-in-Ibiza for the rest of the afternoon. Every time you sit down to take a break in the shade, summon a nearby youth and order yourself a cold beverage. I downed an entire 1.5 liter bottle of water with breakfast now and two sugar soaked coffees (while caffeine should be avoided during the rest of the day, it goes without saying that caffeine in the morning is a must) to get myself revving and packed another bottle of water to drink while walking around before lunch.

I took the 30 minute walk to the city center at an easy pace and wandered around Toe’s turf for another 30 minutes before running into him. He was elated to see me (my wild guess of how much to pay him for his guiding services the prior week must have been on the generous side). He took me out for tea and helped me sort out my small-fry money exchange issue (I had found a forgotten US$20 note in my hidden stash, so I didn’t have to sweat breaking the $100 after all) hooking me up with a good rate through a “colleague” despite the small sum. Then he led me around for a while as a favor to pacify my curiosity about the prices of precious stones and jade in Yangon before we parted ways – gold rings embedded with a garden of rubies and emeralds start at US$120, but it’s a given that you will talk them down a bit. Earrings with one large, perfectly matching ruby each start at US$100. Jade Buddha statuettes and pedants, start at US$10, with solid, round bracelets, starting at US$10 to $30, with price depending on the quality of the jade. Toe left me with an impromptu gift, a “Myanmar bottle opener” (a tool born out of basic necessity made simply out of a flat stick of wood with a large-headed, protruding bolt pounded through one end) and a contact name of a friend of his in Vientiane, Laos who would give me a hand while I was in town. It has to be said that Toe was endlessly kind and helpful. Best $12 I ever spent.

Not five minutes after Toe and I separated, the most persist, wannabe tour guide I had run into in all of Myanmar attached himself to me and I simply could not get rid of the bastard. No amount of telling him I didn’t need a guide, that I’d already been guided through all of Yangon once, that I didn’t have any extra money - though I actually did for once - giving him curt, rude answers and finally ignoring him would drive him off. It was absurd. He even followed me into a restaurant and sat with me as I ate lunch, ordering himself a Coke and then having the nerve to look surprised when I refused to pay for it later. He stuck close to me, trying to guide me by force, desperately trying to impart any worthless pieces of information he could as if they were totally unique and interesting facets life in Yangon, going as far as to point out street signs (Him: “Look! 15th Street!”) and watermelon (Me: “Oh! Watermelons! Wow!” – it goes without saying that sarcasm is lost on guys like this). Finally, after a full hour of this ludicrousness, the Master of the Obvious finished with a flourish and demanded money. He insisted that I award him something after he had done such an exemplary job of guiding me through Yangon and pointing out “very good information.” My retort was that I told him 37 times that I didn’t want a guide, that I didn’t have money to spare, that I was already fully aware of the morsels of information that he provided about street signs and watermelon due to the tour I had taken just a week earlier and, oh yeah, I did not want a tour guide! Then he went for the desperation ploy, my number one begging pet peeve in Myanmar, the “But I am sooo hungry” speech. This guy was sharply dressed, carrying an expensive, professional looking tote bag – and I swear I saw a cell phone rolling around inside it earlier when he had to pay for his own Coke – so this farce really chaffed my already tender ass. I hadn’t been so singularly fed up with one person in all of Myanmar, with the notable exception of Mr. China in Inle, and I told him so in no uncertain terms. He apologized and then asked for a little less money. I ditched him, putting myself at through great personal risk by crossing through a red light.

I cooled down from that ugliness by retreating to Motherland to cower in my air conditioned room from the worst of the mid-afternoon heat and take a nap.

That evening, after an ill-fated search for a Burmese massage in Chinatown – something deep inside me told me that it was going to be a wild goose chase - because I hate to ruin a good thing, I dined yet again at the Chinese place adjacent to the Independence Monument. In addition to my decadent dinner (I still had about US$10 in kyat to dispense with), I had a glass of Myanmar Rum mixed with lemon soft drink. It was the only alcohol I’d ingested in Myanmar and it was quite refreshing, so I had a second.

I sought out my man Soe-Win-Naing (if you haven't read it, the link takes you to my first encounter with Soe-Win-Naing) as I weaved back to Motherland. He had a gift for me, a copy of “Beautiful Myanmar” written by native Khin Myo Chit, which his English class was currently reading. Soe-Win-Naing’s tea stall was doing a brisk business that night, so while he raced from table-to-table taking orders I took the opportunity to start reading the book only to find it very well written, entertaining and probably difficult as hell for an intermediate English class to be rooting through. When we finally had a chance to chat I gave him the run down of my entire trip. It turned out that he was originally from the Bagan region and could speak at length about the temples there. Momentarily forgetting that talking politics in Myanmar was taboo, I thoughtlessly mentioned that I had stumbled on the former offices of the National League for Democracy in Bagan and I was surprised to find that Soe-Win-Naing knew a bit about them and their work. Judging from our conversations the previous week, it seemed to me that he might be one of the poor brainwashed schmucks that actually admired the government and had bought into their efforts at a character assassination attempt on Aung San Suu Kyi, saying that she was a trouble maker and the anti-Buddha. Suddenly realizing that I was egging him into an unequivocally bad conversation that could draw the attention of eavesdropping government spies, I quickly changed the subject.

Soe-Win-Naing took a break from work and walked me to Motherland. I desperately wanted to give him something in return for the book and the general kindness and hospitality he’d shown me and I told him so. He suggested a pair of pants or a shirt, but I was traveling with the bare minimum of clothes, having left everything possible back in Bangkok, which were all half-destroyed from being on the road with me for nearly two years and we didn’t appear to be the same size anyway. After hemming and hawing, though I could tell he wasn’t to comfortable with the idea, I gave him all the kyat I could spare (a few thousand) so he could “buy himself something nice.” Of course I felt an ass saying it, even with this relative small fortune, there simply wasn’t all that many nice things to buy. It was horribly impersonal and lazy, but the cash was really the only half decent thing I had to offer.

As I climbed the steps to my room I kicked myself yet again for not having the brains to bring extra stuff into Myanmar to give away and trade. People! Listen to me now! When you go to Myanmar or a similar country with little or no access to western products or material items in general, do yourself and everyone you meet a favor and bring an extra bag of things to give away and trade. Clothes are probably the biggest thing (basic pants and t-shirts will do, but jeans and shirts with western sport teams, colleges, cities or band names written on them would be stellar, even if they’ve been more than a little lovingly used), but as I have mentioned earlier in this journal, in rural areas I have also been beseeched for pens/pencils, shampoo, small flashlights, small fold-up knives, wrist watches and American coins. Additionally I have been told it’s a good idea to bring some lipstick, candy (the non-melting kind!) and considering the recent ban on western music, CDs would probably be a huge hit too. Don’t be a putz like me, bring this stuff, you will definitely regret it if you don’t. Thank you!

Oh! And a pillow! How could I forget that??? Not a full-sized bed pillow, but some kind of small cushion that can accommodate your ass. Perhaps I just have a delicate derriere, but I would have killed for a little extra padding, not only on the buses and that train from hell, but also during breaks from random wandering while sitting on biting wooden benches or concrete. Furniture is often nothing more than sharp-edged, hard wood and that’s if you’re lucky. More often than not, the floor is the only option and when your ass is already bruised, you have no other choice but to just stand, which is a royal bummer if you catch my drift (Thanks Lisa!). Seriously, no matter what kind of hard, indestructible butt you think you have, you will thank me.

With my plane leaving at noon the next day, I slept in, ate every scrap of food offered to me for breakfast and lingered so long that the waiter offered me a third coffee, before packing up, double-checking that I had none of Motherland’s property anywhere on my person, jumping in a cab and heading for the Bangkok Airways flight taking me back to something more closely approximating civilization.

Interview With a Myanmar

Though my trip is done, my story is not. While I was touring Myanmar, as I had secretly hoped, I encountered an educated and socially aware local who was eager to talk politics with me. I’m adding this at the end so as to not give any indication as to where along the way I met this person and for the sake of his personal safety, I will refer to him as “General Than Shwe.” Ha, ha, just kidding General! Seriously folks, I will be referring to this person as “Dave.”

Dave and I arranged to meet at his family’s house at 7:00 in the evening. My intention was to take him out to dinner as a small courtesy for taking the genuine risk of talking to me about Myanmar’s current political state, but Dave and his family are typical infallibly hospitable Myanmars and they weren’t going to let me get away without forcing a drink on me and making sure that my every whim was catered to. As usual at the end of a long day of touring, I was sorry a mess. Filthy, decorated in splotches of dried sweat and probably not smelling too sweet. Dave and his family have only one water source for the entire house, a well out in their tiny street-front courtyard. My off-handed comment and apology about my malodorous condition was met with stunning, immediate action. In seconds, I was at the well, Dave was pumping up water into several buckets, I had a bar of soap in my hand and Dave’s father was trying to force a longyi on me so I could indulge in a full body shower. I politely turned down the longyi as I would be taking a full shower later, but I did strip off my shirt and wash myself from the waist up as well as my dirt-caked feet, which was a huge improvement.

After enjoying a tasty apple soft drink while being persistently fanned by Dave’s mother, I was taken on a tour of their “house,” a one room affair with a loft which was little more than a wood and cement shack. Dave lives with both of his parents, his younger bother, his grandmother and his aunt. His parents and brother sleep in a bed with a mattress as thin as my hand that doubles as the couch, his grandmother and aunt share a smaller bed in the back of the house and Dave sleeps up in the loft on the floor with just a little mat and a couple pillows for comfort.

After plenty of time for chit-chat and being the focus of staring in idle wonderment by the whole family, Dave and I left for dinner, repeatedly reassuring Dave’s mother that she didn’t need to cook up something for us herself. While dinner was very eye-opening, Dave didn’t want to talk straight politics there for fear of being overheard by a government spy. The well circulated rumor among Myanmars is that the government has spies on virtually every street corner, disguised as butchers, trishaw drivers, street sweepers and even beggars. As such, everyone has a healthy fear of being burned by one of these characters and so serious talk can only happen in the more secure locations. Instead Dave passed the time by telling me a few stories from his past, two of which I will re-tell here:

Ten years ago, Dave’s family’s house burned down along with the rest of their block. The family lost everything but the clothes on their backs, including all of their money as they didn’t have enough saved to open a bank account. In any other country there would have been Red Cross officials there for immediate help and follow-up support from various government and social services to help the family to get back on their feet, but this is Myanmar. There was nothing apart from a basic handout of food from the government for the first two weeks. The family moved into a flop house which they shared with many other families that had lost houses in the fire while Dave’s father and a few friends rebuilt their house from materials salvaged for the burnt house and other materials that were picked up from vacant lots and dumps. With their meager savings having been burnt up with the house, they literally had to start over.

A few years ago the family suffered another major setback. Dave’s dad, an enthusiastic drinker, fell asleep at a friend’s house after a determined bender. Unbeknownst to him, a lively round of gambling started up in the next room and after a few hours the police raided the place and arrested everyone, no questions asked. Dave’s father spent two weeks locked up at that police station and then another week at the local prison. Eventually Dave was allowed to see a judge and explained the whole situation which left the judge unmoved. Dave had to return and explain everything again to the same judge (don’t they have court reporters in Myanmar?) and this time offered the judge money – whether this money was to pay a fine or a direct bribe for the judge wasn’t clear - that Dave acquired by selling many of the family’s paltry valuables. The judge was very unimpressed by the relatively small monetary offering, but with the combination of Dave’s father’s ostensible innocence in addition to Dave being an up-and-coming individual in a prominent occupational field caused the judge to have mercy and he generously released Dave’s father (two days later).

The thing that struck me was that while telling me these horrific stories, Dave never stopped smiling. He never betrayed any tones of frustration, sadness, regret or self-pity. He just told these stories as if he were relating the details of how he lost his pack of cigarettes, like these were commonplace, every day facts of life of living in Myanmar (which apparently they are) and there was no use in feeling sorry for oneself. Meanwhile I was in shock, feeling terrible and helpless.

On the subject of the striking number of people in Myanmar who appear to be living on the street, penniless and wretched, Dave wasn’t sympathetic. Dave’s feelings were that while yes, obviously decent paying jobs were scarce, there were without a doubt plenty of ways to make rock-bottom sustainable money and that most beggars were simply victims of being overly lazy. When I commented on how often I was encountering the compassion-seeking “I’m sooo hungry and unhappy” scenario, Dave sighed and told me that this line was only a ploy to pull on the heart strings. According to Dave, Myanmars of every ilk can easily get food no matter their station in life. People, Dave included, often hand out food to the poor on a daily basis, in the same spirit of the alms presented to monks each morning. If a someone down on his or her luck comes up to a person’s home or even their table at a restaurant, unless the person being entreated is themselves in dire straights, the beggar will almost always come away with something. While Myanmars have a crushing list of hardships and challenges that they face in life, Dave asserted that true hunger is not one of them.

Back at the house, Dave and I got into the nitty-gritty. The gist was that no one had any hopes of anything changing or improving while the current leaders were in charge. I brought up the article I had read where the leadership had actually acknowledged their problems and pledged to make efforts to change, but Dave informed me that these empty promises are a routine ploy. The government has become legendary for declaring that changes were coming and then doing nothing.

Dave was surprised and very encouraged to learn that Aung San Suu Kyi, the current head of the National League for Democracy still under house arrest in Yangon and, if you want to believe silly elections, the rightful leader of Myanmar, is well known by the world at large and that her efforts are roundly lauded. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize is a pretty big deal, after all. Like many Myanmar, Dave quietly believes that Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s greatest hope and though his pessimism ran deep, he prayed that she would be released one day and be allowed to resume her work in transforming the country into a democratic state.

Strangely, other than the widespread dread of being busted for discussing politics with a foreigner, Dave reports that there is very little reason to be fearful of the government in the daily life of a typical Myanmar, though it’s safe to say that this sentiment doesn’t extend to the people currently engaged in forced labor or the people who are grabbed, beaten, raped and killed for no other reason other than they happen to live in regions that are known to be hotspots for rebel ethnic groups.

The subject of the government’s obsession with fortifying their military at the expense of virtually every other aspect of the country didn’t get very far. I made the point that Myanmar has no serious civil unrest (ceasefires with rebel groups are tenuous but holding), there are no significant crime/violence problems in Myanmar – I didn't see anyone even raise their voice while I was in Myanmar much less fight, probably because everyone knows that punishments are arbitrary and severe - and other than a trivial border dispute with China, Myanmar has no international disputes that could conceivably require military action. Knowing this, I rhetorically asked why the government couldn’t shift even a little of that cash to help the people? Well, of course the only answer is ‘pure, dang nasty evil.’ Though in all fairness I don't know why my own U.S. is sanctioning Myanmar, when both governments are virtually of the same disposition in so many ways, sporting self-serving, profiteering, election fixing, everyone else be damned mindsets. Whoops! Get that soapbox out of here!

It was getting late by this point and I reluctantly left Dave with some of my questions answered, but a whole host of new ones that didn’t seem to have answers, frustrating me to no end. Furthermore, though they would have probably upset me, I would have liked to hear more first-person anecdotes about life in Myanmar. The upshot was that I’d managed to befriend a wonderful family, who insisted that the next time that I came to Myanmar, I was to stay in their home and Dave would drop everything and act as my tour guide. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that with my current lifestyle and immediate travel goals, in addition to the strong possibility that I will be blacklisted from ever entering Myanmar again once enough Internet search engines pick up this web page, it was very unlikely that I would ever be able to return to Myanmar. Though on second thought, having a group of people with almost nothing generously welcoming someone into their small home who must seem like a tycoon in their eyes is so rousing and heart warming that I might just have to give it a try.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012