It’s been seven years since I’ve been in Myanmar, and the most vivid impression I had from the last trip, one that begins just about every conversation where I’m asked my thoughts on the country, has me remembering a bus ride from Yangon to Pathein in the west on a sweltering hot day, a bus without air conditioning and jammed beyond capacity and with seats too small for my long legs. We had pulled over to the side of the road and we sat there for close to two hours, along with several other buses and trucks, all because we were waiting for a military convoy coming out of Pathein. I was told that when the generals or the colonels or whoever finished their tea--and no one had a clue when this might happen--they would then come along the route we were on to get to Yangon. They did not want to be slowed or have to deal with traffic of any sort, even if it was going in the opposite direction.
Lesson No. 1: The military runs the country and does whatever it wants to do and demands respect at all times, and respect obviously does not have the same meaning given the word in the West.
After I had checked into a grubby hotel with a room that hadn’t been painted in thirty years, and had water that only ran cold and a bed made for an old man with advanced osteoporosis, I hit the streets with a camera. For the next two days, and until I left Pathein to return to Yangon, everywhere I went I saw the same large and round and smiling male face staring at me or glancing at me or pretending not too obviously to be watching me. Why it was thought that I needed to be tailed and watched, I had not a clue. And why I wasn’t just questioned, or maybe even interrogated as happened to me in Cuba in 2,000, I have no idea. Paranoia has its own logic, and the nature of that logic I am sure is even a mystery to those who abide by its unwritten rules.
Lesson No. 2: When you rule by force, and are unreasonable at every turn, make damn sure that you keep track of anyone who is an enemy, might be the enemy, or might be spying for the enemy. Don’t take any chances, they can be fatal.
So much for a little history, and now on an early morning flight out of Bangkok with Thai Air I find myself again headed to Yangon, not sure what I will do, not worrying much at all about it, not even having a hotel booked or even in mind—just another one of my Let’s see what I’ll find and I’ll go from the first little adventure to the next one and the next one until I get bored and decide it’s time to head back to Bangkok and then maybe on to Cambodia or Laos, wherever the fancy rubs when waking or into my third beer.
I knew this was going to be a little different, if only because the country had announced to the world that it has just had open elections (open of course never having the same meaning in a country like Myanmar that it has anywhere in the West); and because that other Clinton who still wants to be president had recently made a visit that made everyone take notice; and because that famous lady whose name I can never get right and who got a Nobel Prize for being a vocal dissident got elected to a seat in the lawmaking house in Myanmar; and as a result of the country opening up it was almost a guarantee that backpackers would soon be coming along to see all the stupas and temples and make the obligatory trips to Mandalay and Bagan.
What a surprise then when we got into the airport. I thought I must have been in a country other than the one that goes by the same name that I came to seven years ago. Then, as memory serves—as unreliable as anyone’s--it was little more than the dark ass end of a broken warehouse, with a small waiting area and guys walking about who commanded me to go to a candy counter and buy some thumb-nail sized locks for twenty cents, all with the identical key, to lock my luggage before it got sent to the hold, making me wonder if this was how one avoided a drug bust, that kind where some mischievous asshole with an evil heart decides to put some opium or heroin inside a bag chosen at random. But locked luggage with a twenty cent lock that anyone could open, even with a hair pin?
But now I’m in this new airport that is so different and so unexpected that I can’t think straight, and again I cannot help but wonder if I really did get on the wrong flight. It’s large and spacious and full of light and with immaculately clean marble floors, and there’s even a very special immigration line for diplomats, of which there seems to have been an unusual number on my flight to judge by the length of the line. Though a puzzling lot of diplomats it is, the clot of them looking like little more than well-dressed dark Asians in chinos and short-sleeve shirts and carrying luggage that most certainly does not look as though it contains state secrets or huge amounts of cash, drugs, or precious diamonds that can pass through customs without notice because, well, diplomats as everyone knows have special immunity, even in Myanmar. Well, I’m not sure about this…guess it depends on who you know.
The long drive to the center of the city was slow, so slow that I was having a hard time recovering from the madness that is uniquely Bangkok’s, where it’s not so much the speed of everything that moves that’s unnerving but rather watching motorbike after motorbike weave in and out of and through any imaginable space between cars stopped at a stop light, the most unnerving part when you see a small motorbike with dad with his helmet on and Thai wife without one, and in between the two of them sit one or two small children, as innocent and unaware of all that could go wrong as one can possibly imagine.
But the quiet and slow ride to the center of Yangon was one thing. More striking because it just doesn’t seem possible is that in the half hour or so journey there was not a single motorcycle or anything like it to be seen. The closest relative to a motorbike that my eyes saw were six or eight bicycles, and maybe the number was fewer than this. On asking the young kid with a Sunday morning smile who was driving me into the city what was up, he said that there are no motorbikes in the city. None at all. Cars and trucks and buses and that’s it. And not anything remotely like a rickshaw that defines the very essence of so much road traffic that one sees everywhere in Bangladesh and all over India of course.
It took me a long minute to bring to mind a story or rather several versions of a story that I heard on my last visit that bears on this peculiarity, one that surely makes Yangon a city like no other city of any size in the whole of Asia. One version of the story was that a number of years ago when the ruling military government had its headquarters in Yangon, someone on a motorbike shot and killed or maimed or put a bullet in the ass of either a general or a colonel or a general’s son or a colonel’s first or second cousin, and so this single incident meant that motorbikes would be forever banned from Yangon. A somewhat different version of the story had it that a general or a colonel had gone to a fortune teller and the message was clear: get rid of all motorbikes or someone on one of these speeding two wheelers is going to come by and shoot you. There were other versions I heard on my last trip, four or five in all if memory serves. I suppose it doesn’t matter which version one believes; the simple fact is that the largest city in the country does not allow motorbikes.
As hard to believe, and something that I did not remember, is just how clean the streets are. In fact, so clean that on the trip from the airport I did not see enough garbage anywhere to fill one good ten-gallon garbage bag. It is a contrast so striking with what one sees in Bangladesh and Cambodia and parts of Indonesia and Laos that it makes one wonder if this didn’t come about through a military edict a number of years ago in which it was declared that anyone throwing paper or plastic or any sort of leftover food into the streets or on the sidewalks would find himself facing a military tribunal with the very real possibility of a death sentence in the offing. Much as with the absence of motorcycles or anything that resembles a motorcycle in Yangon, this is something that no student of the third world would expect to see.
As much as any country in Asia, the presence of Buddhism on the landscape smacks one a good one: temples, pagodas, stupas, and whatever else they call variations on architectural homage to Buddha seem to pop up at every third turn in the road and every three or four hundred yards. The Catholic Church in its most rapacious and ostentatious periods in history had nothing on the Buddhist presence in Myanmar; the fascination with Buddha and encircling or encasing or enveloping gold in a thousand twisted and rococo forms is everywhere. Buddhism is a presence that cannot be missed for another reason, and even more so than in Thailand or Cambodia, and possibly even Laos: all the saffron and red and pink-robed monks—young, very young, middle-aged and old and at death’s door. Alone, in twosomes, in groups of four or five or six. Goddamn everywhere, I swear. Hinduism, I am certain, clogs the sewers and less putrid pathways of development in India, this a certainty. All these useless and begging and self-satisfying monks, sometimes seen in broad daylight on the busiest of Yangon streets counting their buckets of kyat, their take from begging, surely will have a similar effect on Myanmar as it opens up and hops on board a development train that just might have a few legitimate trickle down effects.
Some traditions die slowly. There’s certainly a distinctive look on a good many of the women, young and old, poor and anything but poor, with the large tan circles or squares or misshapen circles and squares on both cheeks, sometimes not circles or squares at all but simply a mess that covers both cheeks and rolls right over the bridge of the nose and even up onto and all over the forehead. It’s called thanakan. I’m always taken aback when asking why it’s worn and am told that it’s simply there to keep the sun from darkening the skin, the skin already pretty dark and not likely to get much darker unless you’ve got just the right set of genes. Of course it really strikes a blow at my sense of order when I’m also told that thanakan is worn in the house and on days when one won’t spend five minutes outside; just as well I guess, this way you don’t break with habit, one as ingrained as eating rice and taking the daily shit, and perhaps as important as both of them combined. For all I know, thanakan is attractive to most Burmese men, and women: but to someone with my very western eye for beauty, by no means limited to western women, it’s a real turnoff. Less eye catching perhaps but also something that cannot be ignored by even the often traveled snoop in Myanmar is the waist to ankle wraparound cloths, often of a checked pattern, called longyi. All kinds of men wear them, albeit huge numbers of young and old not now doing so, and certainly not I would imagine those engaged in business with an international flavor. As I’ve suggested, these two hang-on traditions let one know that he’s in Myanmar and not somewhere else in Asia. And that the forces of culture and tradition can be mighty indeed.
Who could miss the umbrellas, big one and nice ones that the women use during the day to keep the sun off their faces and arms? The monks use them too, maybe just as often as the women do, though why I have no idea. Perhaps someone has told them that they need to protect their bald heads, which are not as bald as one might think, most looking like it’s been several days since they used a razor. It could be—the cynic in me says—really about what these guys are up to as soon as they’re anywhere out of public view, or hidden beneath their umbrellas: smoking, drinking, doing drugs, trying to get laid, getting laid. Thinking the same nasty and lascivious thoughts as the rest of us. The umbrella—and why not?—protects them from the censorious gaze of Buddha. Fur sure, all this could be nothing more than projection on my part—what monks are really up to in their daily lives--another measure of my profound dislike for anything that smacks of religion. But I doubt that I’m far off mark; in ten years in Asia I’ve simply had too many locals offer up candid opinions about the less than holy or contemplative life of Buddhist monks. Thomas Merton gave them a reputation they probably don’t and never did deserve.
I didn’t see any graffiti on the many walls facing streets on the long ride in from the airport, and I haven’t seen any in my first few hours on Yangon streets. This is quite a disappointment, for it is always one of the highlights of being anywhere in Indonesia or the Philippines. Graffiti in the best examples I have seen, particularly in Indonesia, are a genuine art form, as good as anything I’ve ever seen by Bisquet, that famous artsy and very trendy New York scribbler who made millions from his art, before doing himself in with an overdose of heroin. But, yes, graffiti: there must be some great examples about in Myanmar, and if not then I must once again conclude that the fearful hand of the military all these many years has had a much greater reach than I’d ever imagined possible.
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