George Orwell’s critical portrayal of British Imperialism at the begining of the twentieth century seems a long ways off from the Myanmar of today. Nevertheles, the legacy of the British empire has left its toll on Myanmar’s history over the last century.
Always a country I was fascinated with, the decision to come to Myanmar, like many other decisions we make when traveling, was couched in certain moral dilemnas. While the miltary junta that ruled for most of the post-World War II era has finally started to loosen its grip, and the nation is undoubtedly moving closer to becoming a true democracy, there is still a ways to go. Naturally, questions arose over whether or not we should bring our money here so soon, and who would ultimately benefit from our dollars spent? A few years back, I remember Aung San Suu Kyi urging visitors to come to Myanmar, insisting that tourist dollars would help the local economy, eventually working their way into the pockets of everyday people. After much deliberation, we took her advice, and decided to book the trip. From here, we have tried to find hotels, restuarants, etc that would most benefit the local economy. Due to our limited amount of time however, we have chosen to fly from city to city rather than take the train and/or bus; a decision that we are not sure is the most ethical. Additionally, in recent months, another moral dilemna has surfaced; that of the fate of the muslim population in the north, but more on this in a later post.
For those who don’t know, Myanmar, formerly referred to as Burma, was part of the British Empire and considered British India during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We started the trip in Yangon; which is a difficult city to describe? One of my friends once described it, fairly accurately, as a “post-apocalyptic London.” Still, downtown Yangon, with its delapitaded colonial buildings, coupled with hordes of pedestrian traffic and street vendors, and sprinkled with religious shrines of various persuasions, instantly became a favorite city of mine.
After breakfast, where I tried Mohinga (Myanmar’s favorite breakfast of catfish soup), we ventured out into the Monsoon to find a local tourism agent to book our domestic flights for the remainder of the trip. After about 2 hours of smiling politely back and forth to each other, the agent finally showed us our flights and asked us to pay…one slight problem, they do not accept credit cards. In fact, credit cards are pretty much non-existent in Myanmar, but they do accept U.S. dollars, particularly brand new, crispy U.S. dollars- actually worth more in an exchange. Hmm, perhaps I should have read the guide book before arriving here. With not enough cash on either of us, Michelle and I worked our way to multiple ATMS and a money exchanger, in order to scrounge together enough cash between the two of us to pay for the flights. Being that we had to pay over $700 US dollars in what would be the equivalent of $5 bills, this process alone took another hour.
After our almost 4 hour ordeal of getting plane tickets, the skies really opened up and it began to pour. Yet, somehow neither one of us cared that we were walking through puddles deep enough to anchor a small private fishing vessel. In our effort to not get totally soaked however, we ducked into a tea shop. The tea in Myanmar is Indian black tea, boiled with condensed sweet milk, and it costs about 30 cents. Tea shops are also very important places in Myanmar, where men (and more recently, women) have traditionally gone to discuss politics and socialize.
From here, we headed to the Bogyoke Market to grab some lunch, and perhaps do some early souvenir shopping. After eating a questionable meal (still not sure if we’re in the clear from this one) of cold chicken curry and a Burmese version of vegetable samosas, we went back into the market where we stumbled upon a bunch of people cheering in a circle, and a friendly man explained to us that it was a game which would be on national television. As the weather looked like it was clearing up a bit (how quicly our definition of good weather has changed), we hopped a cab to take us to the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is one of those “must-see” sights that doesn’t actually disappoint. Considered Myanmar’s most important temple, it is said to house eight strands of hair from Buddha, along with other relics. Iconic to Myanmar, the pagoda has also served as a rallying point for pro-democracy forces, and was the site of Aung San Kuu Kyi’s first public speech on August 26th, 1988.
As we explored the pagoda, we came across a goup of people with brooms who were volunteringly trying to remove as much of the rain water away from the path as possible, so that visitors (not necessarily tourists) could walk safely through the temple. We also came across a gentle, elderly man who tried to sell us on a tour of the Pagoda. After politiely declining, he began chatting with us about Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and other facets of American politics. We quickly realized that whether or not we took a tour with him, he really just wanted to practice his English. When we were done, he gave us a warm, glowing smile, thanked us (for what, we’re not sure), then went off on his way. Just two more examples of the goodness of humanity.
As the weather continued to worsen (didn’t think it was possible) we headed back to the hotel for some pre-dinner wine, then made our way to 19th street; the famous night market of Yangon. All along the road there are bars and restuarants, many of which pour out into the street offering “pick your own” mystery things on a stick, that are then taken away and presumably bbq’d for you. After filling up a basket with weird looking balls, vegetables, and something that resembled a baby bird, we ordered two giant Myanmar beers and were given a small plastic table to sit at, and awaited our feast of grilled “what the hell are we eating?”.
The next morning we were up at 4:30 to catch our flight to Bagan, the reason I wanted to come to Myanmar. If Yangon was this amazing in one day, I could only imagine what was in store for us in Bagan.