Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Send Lawyers, Guns & Money: Myanmar 2


Most Myanmar tour guides come with special marks indicating which attractions, transportation, and hotels are controlled by the government, so that responsible tourists can support the communities they are visiting without supporting the gov’t oppressing them. It’s a real issue. My tourist dollars can either be used by families to put food on the table, or by generals to put tanks in the capital.

For example, the moat around Mandalay’s temple was renovated by thousands of Myanmar citizens, summoned to work for no pay, and told to bring their own tools. And this is a moat, mind you. This is the 21st century, and the gov’t is enslaving its population to build something that, at most, will keep the Black Knight at bay.

So during our two week trip to the Land of the Golden Pagodas, Josh and I made sure we spent our money wisely. Not totally because we’re self-righteous; we also were traveling on little more than our $180 monthly salaries. And we wanted to make sure it didn’t go to, say, more Golden Pagodas.


The Swedagon Pagoda in Yangon is the most celebrated temple in all of Myanmar. The temple itself sits atop a hill, and has several levels leading to the Pagoda. Josh and I walked up, in a crowd of locals bringing lotus flowers and incense to pay respects to the Buddha. A woman jumped out in front of us, respectfully asking us to pay the $5 entrance fee for foreigners.

This is how it is all over Asia, actually. But in Thailand, PCVs usually can talk their way out of it with our gov’t official card. It makes sense, in a way, that foreigners should pay more, because they can afford to. But I get upset when I see my Nayok TAO, who owns three houses and a gas pipeline, go to a temple for free when I have to pay. It’s tough traveling the third world in the skin of a rich man, with the wallet of a rice farmer. Oh the challenges of volunteering in a tropical paradise. Pity me.

Josh wanted some close up pictures of the Pagoda, so he paid the fee. I wanted Josh’s pictures of the Pagoda, and had a good view of it from 20 meters away, so I walked around the perimeter.

I was strolling around the outside of the temple, watching people picnic and play on the fields of grass in between scattered shrines. I saw two cats fighting with each other over someone’s leftovers next to the path, and looked up to see a man washing his dishes over a sink outside.

“You travel… around the world… in 80 DAYS!”

“Um… Yeah. Sure.”

Before I knew it, I was sitting down to tea in his house, as he showed me which sections of the tiled floor the other 6 workers slept on. As he poured Chinese tea, he explained he was the temple’s representative to English speakers from other countries. After I told him I lived in Thailand, he went on to tell me how he’d met and welcomed ex-PM Thaksin a few times. “He usually came with a couple military generals,” he said, and laughed.

We chatted for ten minutes or so, and a few security guards came in to meet me. “You really should pay the fee and go see the Pagoda,” he repeated, slightly annoyed. “It’s the heart of Myanmar people. If you do not see it, you do not see Myanmar.” “It’s beautiful,” I countered, as we looked at the Pagoda through his back window. “I’m really looking forward to meeting many Myanmar people.”

With his head lowered, he looked deep into my eyes, searching for something. “I WILL NOT BETRAY THE PAGODA!” He yelled.



“I really don’t understand.”

“Some people, yes, they will allow you enter… for free. BUT I CANNOT BETRAY IT!”

“Thank you for your hospitality,” slowly backing away. “I wish you and your family luck!”


West of Mandalay, in Central Myanmar, lays the ancient city of Bagan. A thriving center of the Burman empire 1000 years ago, the 3000+ temples that pepper the landscape offer a relaxing alternative to the cities of Mandalay and Yangon. Only $10 to enter the city, if you were lucky enough to be born outside of Myanmar.

A decade ago, the government forced farmers off their land, who were told to become artists to serve all the tourists about to flock to Myanmar. At the entrance of each temple, artisans, gov’t licensed to be at that specific temple, lay in wait for tourists.

As you enter the temple, you will no doubt be approached by smiling men, women, and children. “Where are you from? Where are you staying? Oh (while we talking) would you like to see my handicrafts?”

Josh and I had a lot of souvenirs to buy our coworkers, so this was a great system. For a dollar, we could get a tour guide to talk about the temple, a small painting, some pictures, and maybe even some conversation. My strategy was to buy something as quickly as possible, and while Josh haggled over the price with his seller, I would grill all the other artisans about their lives.

Bagan is famous for lacquer-ware, which is bamboo, shaped, then carved, then painted, and finally lacquered until it retains none of the chemical characteristics traditionally found outside nuclear testing facilities. Artisans were throwing them on the ground, burning them with lighters, stepping on them, with no effect. After WWIII, cockroaches will be ruling their empire in cheap, indestructible buildings of lacquer-ware.

Bagan, for us, was where we discovered the incredible hospitality of the people living there, as well as a way to throw a little money their way without the generals collecting.

As we checked into a hotel in Mandalay, Josh picked up a copy of the New Light of Myanmar, the propaganda English-language newspaper released, it must be, for the comedic pleasure of foreigners.

“They’re building a new Pagoda in the new capital,” he told me. “It’s a complete replica of the Swedagon that we saw in Yangon.”

So the country growing at the slowest pace in all of SE Asia, with relatively no infrastructure at all, and a healthcare system that I’m not even sure qualifies as a system is going to build a giant golden pagoda that they already have.

And although we as foreigners aren’t allowed to enter that city, if we were, I sure as hell wouldn’t be paying $5 to see it. Unless, of course, they built it out of lacquer-ware.

"Hello God"

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Send Lawyers, Guns & Money: Myanmar 1

Part 1: A More Perfect Union Chapati

You’d think living in New York for five years would mean I knew how to cross the street. I’ve narrowly escaped getting my ass run over by a trishaw multiple times in the past week. This particular day I started to cross, forgetting that traffic outside of Thailand comes from the left, and heard different horns from bicycles, trishaws, motorcycles, and cars all vying for tiny portions of the one lane I was currently occupying. I was hungry and could have made it, but I wasn’t about to let my obituary read that I was run over by a horse-cart on my way to eat Chapatis in Myanmar.

I hadn’t eaten anything since a bad batch of fried rice sent my stomach into spins more than a day ago. Last night, Josh came back excited that he found cheap food and a guy that spoke Thai to eat with. We sat down on the tiny stools set up in the Mandalay sidewalk across the street from our hotel, waiting for the 20 cent meal that would fill us up with Indian goodness.

There were a lot of people around this crowded Chapati stand in the middle of a sidewalk. We had marked the stand down in our guide we were compiling for PCVs who wanted to visit Myanmar on the cheap. It had no name, but was right in front of the Union Solidarity and Development Association. We spoke to each other many times that day in hushed tones of reverence, awaiting those delicious “Union Solidarity Chapatis”.

Sure enough, Josh’s friend strolled up minutes later, introduced himself as Ngisef, and sat down with us, making sure his traditional longyi didn’t snag on his stool. Ngisef went on to talk about his experience as a migrant worker in Thailand, when he was younger. He wasn’t sure how to use the verb indicating “ing”, but he knew how to say “police”. Thailand has no path to citizenship for foreigners, period. So for Thailand’s growing migrant workforce (80% of which is from Myanmar), police is a good word to know.

Ngisef left Myanmar to work in Thailand for a year because Myanmar is the slowest growing nation in Southeast Asia, and is oppressed by a military junta that forces its farmers to sell its rice at 1/6 of its market value.

Normally, I wouldn’t be interested in traveling in a country ruled by a military junta. Just one of my buttons, I guess. Many travelers protest traveling to Myanmar because the government would profit from tourism. But since I’m technically a government officer in another military junta, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to see Myanmar. Taking a paid vacation from one junta to visit another.

The moat of Mandalay's Palace was restored using slave labor. No, not hundreds of years ago, a little more than a decade ago.

All juntas are not equal, however, and Myanmar sets the standard for just how low you can go. So far Thailand has just provided funny headlines. Myanmar’s are somewhat less comical; “Slavery, Oppression, Corruption, Murder” are not exactly the same as “Thai Soldiers Ordered to Smile”. My Thai coworkers were very concerned about me visiting Myanmar. “There are many soldiers there! It’s a military junta! Be careful.”

Ngisef explained to us that that morning, Military Intelligence had gathered outside our hotel to question a Canadian family who had made the mistake of visiting the National League for Democracy Headquarters in Yangon. In the last election, the NLD won 80% of the seats in Parliament. So naturally, the junta chose to ignore the election, arrest the party leader, and go on as if nothing happened. The NLD headquarters in Yangon is not a tourist destination, and these unlucky Canucks had been tailed all the way to Mandalay.

We asked Ngisef is he was afraid to speak to us about the government. He naturally scanned the surrounding area. In Myanmar, tourists are usually ignored, but the Myanma people who talk with them concerning politics are heavily punished. Josh and I were fairly sure that the military abduction of two PCVs, though, would lead to some minor international incident. “No one here speaks Thai,” he told us. “They have no idea what we’re talking about.” And it’s true, though next door neighbors, Myanmar and Thailand can’t communicate. Maybe a good thing.

Ngisef and a few others in Myanmar asked Josh and me what things were like in Thailand after the coup. “Same as before”, we said. We were out of the country during the planned protests of the coup on Constitution Day, which is an interesting holiday considering the Thai constitution was abolished.

Military juntas, you may not know, are extremely meticulous constitution writers. Despite operating without one, all these juntas are hard at work dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s on the piece of paper that will provide their countries freedom, forever. Myanmar has been working on its constitution since 1992. So… look for that. 15 years of checking punctuation should make that one kick-ass constitution.

This sign, placed facing the US embassy, reads "People's Desire:

1) Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views

2) Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation

3) Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State

4) Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy

Why the Myanmar government prints signs like this, in English, for me to read, is beyond me. First of all, the language is just silly. Let's be honest, it's kind of hard to be intimidated by someone who's talking trash like a Rocky villain.

As we dipped the last bits of our Union Chapatis in bean curry, Ngisef thanked us for letting him practice his Thai, and we thanked him for talking with us. The Union Solidarity and Development Assocation- a damn good place to eat Chapatis in Mandalay.

Later during the trip, Josh sat in bed reading some background info on Myanmar as I listened to Jimmy Buffett on my bed. “Hey Brian,” he said, “According to this, the military junta has its own political party too.”

(Wait for it)

“It’s called the Union Solidarity and Development Association”

At which I sure hope they don’t speak Thai, because I know if they nabbed us, those bastards would make it look like I was run over by a horse cart for sure.