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"

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