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Saturday, November 25, 2006


Burmese Haze

The country is ruled by an evil military dictatorship; the democratically elected leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sun Sui Kui, has been under house arrest since overwhelmingly winning the country’s first free elections in 1990; half the country is off limits to tourists because of tribal uprisings, slave labor practices in the gem mining industry (and possibly opium cultivation) and lack of tourist infrastructure. There are several power outages per day, roads are barely paved and the people are devastatingly poor in this resource rich country. To top it off, even in the cool and dry season, which is purportedly best for travel, temperatures regularly shoot above 90 degrees and its so humid that you always think it will start to rain, but never does.

What the hell, you may ask, are we doing here? Honestly, many a day we woke up perplexed by that same question. But from the minute we stepped out our door the lovely people of Myanmar provided a resounding answer in warmth, interest, and genuine good will. We had more interesting discussions with locals in Burma than in any other country. We learned more about the country from talking to the people than we ever would’ve learned from books. And, despite the ridiculous difficulties getting around the country, and the ethical and practical issues of traveling in a country whose government you don’t want to support financially, Burma has been our favorite country we’ve visited.

You cannot walk two minutes down the street without a “Hello! Where you come from?” And unlike in most other countries, they are not striking up a conversation to make money from you, they are genuinely interested in talking to foreigners and learning about life in the outside world. That is, until the subject of the government comes up, and they become visibly uncomfortable. A Californian monk studying in Burma that we met on the road told us that 1 in 10 Burmese are Military Intelligence, thus you must be very careful with what you say to the locals, in order for them to avoid the ubiquitous jail term.

One of the reasons why we decided to go to Myanmar was because of the fascinating experience we had while traveling in Cuba several years ago. We found that the warm Cuban people, incredibly eager to talk to foreigners while living under an isolated harsh Cuban government, provided a unique experience. And sure enough, there were many fascinating similarities. The Burmese economy is just about as functional as the Cuban economy. To start off, their currency is a joke. Its called the kyat (pronounced chat) and their largest bill, the 1000 chat note, is worth less than 3 quarters! The smallest note we saw in circulation, a 20 chatter, is worth a penny and a half. The black market is the source for many goods, and luxury items, including Coke, which is smuggled from Thailand, costs more than it does in the U.S. The government rations gasoline to such a limited degree that almost everyone buys it on the black market for prices more expensive than back in LA! This despite the fact that the country is rich in off-shore oil resources – but the government has sold its oil rights to China. And the old-fashioned barter system is alive and well. We had to take a taxi for the 7 hour / 60 km (yes you read that right – the roads are that bad) ride between Inle Lake and the main highway to the capital. Rather than pay for it, we gave the driver our old 4 megapixel backup digital camera as payment.

We vividly remember eating in Cuba as an adventure unto itself, as the corruption and black market prevented there from being any normal amount of food available, and the only palatable meals were bought and consumed in 'black market restaurants' found in peoples homes. Likewise, eating in Burma was a challenge. Their cuisine is a blend of Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian, but rather than being a tasty fusion, it is more like a stinky wet mutt. We actively sought out non Burmese food, and ate pizza twice, thai, korean, indian and anything else we could get our forks on that was not burmese. For two big eaters, we have to say that this is the first cuisine to be banished from our culinary island.

Cuba has a famously musical populace, and we were surprised to find the same in Burma. There were always people hanging out playing guitar, and their music videos always showed the musicians rather than lame cheesy shots of tribal people skipping in the countryside like the rest of Asia. Nonetheless, when we had a chance to learn a bit about Burmese musical appreciation, the comparison became weak. The American band Scorpion is the most popular band, and punk and heavy metal are the most popular genres. A jam session between Jon and some locals found little common ground, and he had to learn some Scorpion and impress them with Hotel California (the king of songs in Asia, 7 years ago and still running).

George Orwell's 1930s book 'Burmese Days' depicts the last decade of British rule over Myanmar. Women walked the market with their face painted yellow with Thanaka - a makeup / sunblock made from crushed tree bark. The men wore longyis, traditional burmese skirts, tied differently depending on their tribe, their status, and whether there is a festival. Villagers lived in thatched huts, had no power or refrigeration, farmed or fished for a living, bought fresh produce from chaotic markets stuffed with exotic, sometimes malodorous items, and had one singular desire - to provide for their families. Over 70 years later and not much has changed. Severe isolation has allowed this country to barely hobble forward while its neighbors Thailand, China, India and even poverty stricken Bangladesh have relatively lapped it many a time in the proverbial developmental track field.

We traveled to the country’s “big 4” tourist sites, Yangon (the capital), Bagan (hundreds of ancient temples), Inle Lake and Mandalay. The country is blessed with incredible natural beauty – from snow capped mountains to rainforest jungles to striking Buddhist temples. Despite the unfortunate cuisine, the delicious tropical fruit alone is enough of a reason to visit!

But it was the people we met that made the strongest impression. Some of the highlights included:

The university student studying Myanmar law who yearns to study international law, but is forbidden to by the government. Her goal is to meet a foreigner who will sponsor her study abroad, and then to leave Myanmar for good. She is the only one in her family who can afford to go to university, as her mother earns less than $30 a month as a school teacher and supports four children. We exchanged emails and we promised to send her international law articles.

The doctors, who after explaining how they operate using only local anesthesia, told us that they hoped President Bush would “bring his rockets to Burma”. They believe that is the only way to purge the government from power. One hospital we visited performed routine operations, like appendectomies, without putting the patient fully to sleep. Another doctor in Yangon, after a few queries about the state of health care, anxiously told us that any further questions would have to be directed to the Ministry of Health.

The comedy troupe, the Moustache Brothers, who bravely perform each night for tourists despite each member having served some length of jail term for making jokes about the corrupt military regime. They have been banned from performing in the country, but have creatively worked around the ban by performing only in English for tourists each night in their home.

During our visit, a revolting video was released on YouTube of the leading General’s daughters wedding that features the bride literally dripping in diamonds. It was reported that the newlyweds received over $50 million in gifts, over 10 times what the country pays for its citizens’ health care. We thought this kind of provocation might launch the Burmese people into the streets to protest the governments excess.

But that would never happen. Not in this deeply Buddhist country. Everyone allows religion into their life. Even a friend we met who spent his time DJing and smoking opium in Mandalay had spent two years as a monk and spends a week each year reconnecting. It is a place where foreign buddhists come to practice - we've met monks from New, York, California and Indonesia. And scattered throughout the country are literally hundreds of thousands of stupas and pagodas.

It is difficult to see how the government will fall given the financial support of Asia’s superpowers. U.S. sanctions, like in Cuba, have had little success other than to further isolate the Burmese people and allow China, who reportedly owns 60% of the Burmese economy, to further monopolize the country’s resources. (see New York Times link for great article on this topic)

On our last day we received a slight ray of hope. While roaming around the gold and diamond topped Shwedagon pagoda at sunset, we met a university student who told us of an underground movement of young people that are secretly meeting and exchanging ideas through private meetings and email. The student told us he moved out of his family’s house and has asked them to formally remove him from the governments register as a member of their family. If he is suspected of any subversive activity, he will be thrown in jail, and his family will also be targeted by the government. He was exhilarated when we promised to send him articles on political events in the U.S. and set up an anonymous website for him and his movement.

After two and a half weeks in Burma, it is almost frightening that we found ourselves yearning for the relative sanity of India. For a local food that we can enjoy (even though it will likely make us sick). For a bank with an ATM that accepts foreign cards (but will be surrounded by thousands of beggars). For a transportation network that connects a country in a reasonable fashion (though the roads may be just as bad). After 2 weeks in India (yes, putting our thoughts down on Burma took us that long!), we can safely say that our stress level has dropped a notch. And that is saying a lot - you'll see why when you read our India post!

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