Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Mostly Unfunny, But Necessary Introduction

Posted on April 26th, 2005

When I hatched last minute plans for a quick jaunt into Myanmar, I innocently resolved to focus my writings solely on Myanmar's tourism elements, ignoring the already well documented problems of poverty, human rights abuses and unchecked, power-drunk, military-run government, whose officials prioritize their living room sets over helping the plight of millions of destitute people. My mentality was why bogart my witty comments and brilliant insights with depressing facts and horrific anecdotes when far more knowledgeable people were doing a much better job of documenting this stuff? Well, having now been to Myanmar myself, having met the people, heard first-hand stories and witnessed poverty the likes of which I have never seen, I would be doing a disservice to them by not at least stating the facts. I will try to tone down my usual raging, irreverent criticism (whoops, please disregard the crack about living room sets) and simply do my best to report on what I witnessed.

Myanmar’s delicate position on the world stage and the conflicting viewpoints of its pro-democracy members on whether tourism hurts or helps the country makes for a lively debate about whether or not one should visit Myanmar while the current regime continues to misbehave. Lonely Planet has a lengthy section entitled “Should You Go to Myanmar?” It lists the pros and cons of travel in the country, undeniably leaning slightly to the side of giving everyone the thumbs up to go, but ultimately they leave one to make the decision of traveling in Myanmar for oneself. The section goes on to detail how one might maximize their visit to Myanmar while surrendering a minimum of their money to the government by avoiding patronizing government owned hotels, tour companies, shops and transportation. I made the decision to go for reasons too numerous to list here, but I’ll say a large deciding factor was that I found a dirt cheap ticket through a reliable, non-Myanmar airline. Done and done.

“Myanmar” is still a relatively fresh moniker for the Country Formerly Known as Burma. At the conclusion of the “independence uprising” in 1988, the government decided to belatedly purge itself of the sullying by it’s former English landlords – while screwing tourists and geography students for decades - by renaming a bunch of the high profile geographic locations including; Rangoon renamed Yangon, Pagan renamed Bagan and Mandalay renamed Loud-Filthy-Craphole (just kidding on the last one, but it seemed like a good fit to me).

Myanmar is made up of mix of indigenous racial groups (Bamar [Burman], Shan, Kayin, Chin, Kayan, Rkhaing, and a smattering of Indians and Chinese). Bamar are easily in majority (65%) and it should b added that the chicks are a cute, mix of these native groups with a dash of some Chinese, Indian and probably some European blood from 500 years ago.

Before I go too much further, I should warn you that the spelling of virtually any Myanmar word or place name that I mention is likely to be wrong or conflicting with other sources. The problem is that Myanmar has it’s very own squiggly alphabet – and number system as well for the record - to go with it’s language and apparently the task of conveying these words into the Roman alphabet is not smooth. For the most part, everything is depicted phonetically, but some people are clearly winging it at the most unsuitable times. Even in what one would hope to be a reliable source, spelling conflicts can be found from paragraph to paragraph, with words sometimes being split up into two or three words on one page and then condensed into one long word on the next. As a tourist these wildly divergent spelling interpretations will bite you in the ass the most when comparing place name between maps and physical street signs. Even the name for the largest, most important temple for a hundred miles in any direction will be unrecognizable in two different sources and hence impossible to locate when, say, you move from your Lonely Planet to a local map. The worst was when I was introduced to a new word through conversation. All I could do was ask the speaker for a spelling (probably not right) or sound it out for myself (definitely not right). So, if you’re thinking you are going to Google any of the Myanmar words you see here for more information, don’t be surprised if you come up with a big fat zero. I hereby exonerate myself from any spelling responsibility in this regard.

After spending three months in Romania, I thought I'd gotten a good taste of what acute poverty looked like, but the situation in Myanmar is on an entirely different scale. Strangely, while people in similar situations in other countries might seem desperate and pitiable, Myanmars appear to take what most would regard as staggering hardship in surprisingly good stride. Many have little or no material possessions, but they somehow manage to be good-natured and casual in their outlook. Although straight out begging isn't even a fraction as bad as your average city in Europe - tatty, strung out, street performers playing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” on the recorder are refreshingly non-existent - there is still a significant army of people using well-worn schemes to milk a little extra money out of tourists and get ahead; Kids selling “homemade” postcards, men posing as tour guides, complete with fake badges and people trying to exchange money or sell/trade anything they can get their hands on. When these approaches don’t work, unfortunately they all fall back on the “Please, I am soooo hungry” line - even the well-dressed, aspiring tour guides will try this - which worked on me the first few times, but I eventually discovered that this is simply a last-ditch ruse to get a handout, as I learned that finding food is one of the very few things that Myanmar people don’t have to worry about.

Life in Myanmar is hard for most. The tiny upper class is composed of some old, pre-World War money still hanging around and of course the well off government and military families and that’s pretty much it. The next step down is a big one; People who cram onto bulging buses, wearing filthy clothes, bathing in public wells or rivers and playing checkers on a board drawn on the sidewalk with a brick shard, with bottle caps for pieces. Some people in Myanmar will testify that many of the hardest cases are people who are simply lazy and don’t work enough, but even for those with resolute desire and ambition to scale the economic ladder, there is a dismally low glass ceiling working against them that can only be reached and exceeded by having good friends in the military and government.

Even with such seeming wide latitude and temptation for Myanmar people to blatantly take advantage of travelers, by and large this does not happen, at least not at a malicious level. While people in similar situations in other countries (Mexico and Morocco come instantly to mind) will go after you, doing anything to get your money with no concern for your satisfaction, welfare or personal safety, the ingrained Buddhist beliefs and peaceful, caring disposition of the Myanmar people has inspired them to want to genuinely take care of you, even while they try to soak you for a cheap t-shirt or dutifully lead you through a pagoda, giving you wrong dates and making up historical facts. Once he has your money, a Moroccan wouldn’t think twice about sending you down a precipitous, spiraling, gravel mountain road on a bike with a cracked frame and no brakes, maybe with a good hard push for good measure, while a Myanmar would take pains to be sure the bike was in perfect working order, seat adjusted, with careful instructions about where to get off and walk for safety and the best photo opportunities. Once you internalize this mentality and let your natural suspicions and defenses down, it’s easy to let yourself be innocently swept up into the Myanmar everyday street flow; strangers wanting to chat (this is a near constant), impoverished people offering you gifts, food or drink and random passersby checking on you to make sure that you are not lost, getting on the wrong bus or passing up a free bathroom opportunity. Yes, there are going to be occasional solicitations for a bit of change from people who accost you or offer their “help,” but by and large these are small, innocuous and forgivable.

Unfortunately, this spirit goes out the window as soon as you enter the immediate vicinity of a tourist sight. In these cases, there were indeed times when the constant barrage of people trying to get money out of me wore down my Buddha-like patience. My tolerance for this battering dwindled as my time in Myanmar wore on, but it is worth mentioning that even in these irksome moments I didn't ever have to concern myself with the possibility of having my pocket picked or my bag snatched during a well-planned distraction. The people harassing me that clearly were not comparatively in desperate straits stirred up my irritation the most, though it should be said that even the “comfortable” Myanmar people are often living in what most people in the west would consider dire squalor.

On the subject of frustration, even more maddening was the heaving crowds in the cities like Yangon and Mandalay. These people are used to being constantly crushed, pushed and manhandled as everyone tries to make space for themselves while they go about their business. Although my old crowd anxieties have dimmed over the years, they were flaming out like the good ol’ days as I waded through the ocean of people on the streets, fighting to get through doors, elbowing to get on and off busses and jockeying through traffic on a bicycle with barreling cars, buses and trucks coming a whisker away from flattening me - though I’m sure a typical Myanmar would view these near misses as plenty of room. As a result of the physical hammering I was taking, the sleep deprivation, the constant hassling, the head-splitting noise levels in Yangon and Mandalay, the sweltering heat and the complete lack of comfort, my patience plummeted to Tasmanian Devil sensitivity by the middle of the trip and I was so high strung that the precious few nights that I had the opportunity to get a full nights sleep, relaxing and shutting down my brain was like trying to stop a nuclear meltdown.

Looking back, it felt a lot like I was metaphorically holding my breath while in Myanmar. Not only because of the fumes, but I was mostly cut off from my precious laptop and email – the equivalent of being blind, deaf and paralyzed as far as I’m concerned - and mounting fear of being incarcerated for off-handedly insulting the government (“OK, so a transvestite, a talking goat and General Shwe walk into a bar…”). After reading and hearing anecdotes about the often soulless, heavy-handed actions of government and law officials (and knowing my occasional quick and nasty temper) I was truly concerned that a frustrated, sarcastic comment might get me into some kind of major trouble, locked away at the whim of some self-important judge and forgotten.

I was asked by a few locals if I could ever live in Myanmar. I answered “no,” saying that the limited and precarious access to the email and Internet would prevent me from carrying on with business matters, conducting needed research and accessing the appropriate porn to get me through the day. I didn’t add that I probably also couldn’t live in Myanmar surrounded by the depressing state of its people (not to mention the constant harassment by touts), the blatantly corrupt government, the casual injustice meted out by the authorities and not being able to get decent cider. Indeed, after enough time in Myanmar, I would undoubtedly land myself in prison for participating in some kind of dissident action or dramatic government coup attempt.

So, let’s get on with it already. Here is the tale of my 10 whirlwind days in Myanmar. As I said, I will trying to check my attitude, but if what I say here is still too critical of the Myanmar government, too bad. And so, General Than Shwe, if you or one of your Internet, dissent-hunting minions are reading this and decide to slap me on the visa blacklist for the rest of eternity, please notify me by email so I can put it in my bio. Cè-zù-tin-ba-deh.

Go to Yangon

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