Burma: Lost world on the cusp of change
The mass tourism and hyper-development bomb has not yet detonated in Burma, but the clock is ticking.
Ironically, it is thanks to the paranoid and agoraphobic clique of generals who rule the country that Burma is still largely unscathed — even though it sits smack in the middle of the fastest growing region on earth.
In fact, Burma is one contradiction after another.
The military, which is the ruling body here, stays out of sight. With just 56 million people Burma is said to have the world's fourth largest standing army — but no enemies. Many young men end up in the army and the monkhood, because they've got nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. There are simply not enough jobs to keep everyone occupied. The last thing the government wants is millions of frustrated young men hanging around with nothing to do. So the army soaks up the excess and the government grudgingly tolerates, but does not trust, the huge numbers of monks you see everywhere with their shaved heads and rust red robes.
Gated military installations and barracks are ubiquitous, but you rarely see soldiers — at least not in military dress. I'm thinking that the future of the country — and its potential productivity, creativity and innovation — is locked up behind walls in monasteries and huge barracks, making no material contribution to the nation.
Plainclothes secret police roam the streets, so you never know who's standing next to you. Our guide cautions us in a whisper: "Here the walls have ears and the shadows have eyes."
In Burma (officially the Union of Myanmar) you will find some of the world's kindest and gentlest people. It seems incongruous that they should have to answer to one of the worlds nastiest juntas, with a largely unreported track record of brazen cruelty that for 40 years has brought suffering and death to some very patriotic, if dissenting (read pro-democratic) Burmese citizens.
On Sept. 25, 1987, according to author Justin Wintle, the Burmese people woke up to find, not for the first time, that the regime had robbed them blind. Overnight the three top denominations of Burmese currency, the Kyat, had been declared no longer legal currency. The price of rice skyrocketed and millions lost much of their net worth.
In Burma the crime rate is impressively low, but the extent of alleged heroin trafficking very high. It is widely believed, though never proved, that the generals not only condone the heroin trade, but are actually complicit. Entire sections of the country to the west and north, and parts of the "golden triangle" in the east, are off limits to foreigners and their prying eyes.
This much is known: In the early 1980s large quantities of high grade Burmese heroin from the golden triangle — reputed to be the worlds purest — was leaking into San Francisco, New York and other American cities, with curious brand names such as US Air and Sweet Lucy's Tit.
Our new friend Tanzin from the northeastern Shan state says he knows of some Swedish tourists who snuck in to a forbidden sector not knowing what to expect. They'd been told that that if captured by rebel tribes they might be beaten, taken hostage or even beheaded. Instead, they were met at a roadblock by rebels who greeted them with open arms, and partied with them all night.
Though the country is a dictatorship, it's an inconsistent dictatorship. For example, the media is state operated and tightly controlled. But access to CNN and BBC, curiously, is available without restriction to anyone who can afford a satellite dish.
The army's biggest worry, ironically, is not attack from the outside. Rather, it comes from within, in the graceful form of a delicately beautiful — and formidable — Burmese woman known as the Titanium Orchid. Aung San Suu Kyi is the world's most famous hostage, recently featured on the cover of Time magazine and only recently released from years of house arrest in Yangon (Rangoon). She is immensely popular. But to mention her name in public is to invite trouble. So everybody refers to their national hero simply as The Lady.
Because of her fame and popularity, the Lady is a real headache for the junta. But arguably even more worrisome are the regional tribal armies that are, if not in open rebellion, at least in open defiance of the government. Peace exists internally only because the federal army tends to stay out of the rebel zones.
For the time being, Burma is much as Thailand was 50 years ago. With the exception of some traffic congestion, strolling the streets of Rangoon (Yangon) or Mandalay is like stepping back into the 1950s. More than half the country is still tropical rain forest. Eighty percent of the world's teak wood comes from the wild forests to the north (but there are so many giant teak logs stacked high on the muddy banks of the Irrawaddy in Mandalay I hate to think of the damage to the wilderness). Eight out of 10 Burmese live in primitive villages, many lacking electricity or running water, and on farms.
You will find no discos, few tour busses, no jumbo jets at the airport, no Internet to speak of. What little Internet there is ancient dial-up, with 20 minute load times and Byzantine navigation and access skills required. Sometimes even that doesn't work. So you might as well ditch your useless iPhone or Blackberry and simply lose yourself in the world as it was before the World Wide Web.
But there's a price for all the charm and quaintness. If you get critically ill, medical facilities are nowhere near western standards, and you could wind up get shipped home in a box. That is exactly what happened to 12 Germans last year, who couldn't get the urgent medical attention they needed in time to save their lives.
Managing currency needs here is maddening as well. Credit cards are not accepted (except by the two top hotels in Yangon). No one accepts traveler's' checks. The U.S. dollar is widely used. But if your dollars are not crisp and new, they are not negotiable. It's advisable to bring lots of 20s and ones (if they are not new, you may have to iron them). If you underestimate your dollar needs (you pay cash only for meals and excursions and anything you buy), as we did in the middle of our 12 days in Burma, you are out of luck. We wound up borrowing from our travel company and paid them back when we returned to Yangon.
Once you get past the logistics, Burma is not just a destination — it is a lost world with sheer magic waiting at every turn.
Our adventure begins in the storied city of Rangoon, which is also the capitol and the biggest city. The sense of unearthly calm and quiet in the major cities — Rangoon, Mandalay and Bagan — may be in part due to the iron hand of the generals and in part to the fact that the government banned motor scooters in Yangon/Rangoon eight years ago to cut down on noise, congestion and air pollution.
But the strange sense of peace may also be a function of the fact that there's no nightlife and no gambling, and the visa process is lengthy and comparatively costly. So Burma attracts a very different kind of traveler. Instead of armies of backpackers, and noisy gangs of Aussies, Russians and Europeans on brief holidays looking to party and have a rip-snorting good time, you'll find much older visitors here — well heeled, educated Europeans and Americans, many of them retired, on pricey, high-end tours that may last a month or more, complete with guides and drivers.
There's also a sizable British ex-pat population, attracted by the low cost of living. You can find them in what's left of the old colonial infrastructure, dining by candlelight, for example, on the lawn at the Governor's Residence hotel.
Poverty is ubiquitous and undeniable, so you won't see many fat people — except perhaps wealthy Chinese who own and run most of the profitable enterprises in the country. Their garish box-like mansions in the outskirts of Mandalay — some of them in polluted industrial zones so the boss can skip their commute and walk to work — stand out like cupcakes in a litter box.
While it's true that the vast majority of Burmese don't live like Chinese, they eat well. Fish is plentiful and cheap (fish farms are everywhere). Fresh fruit (papaya, mango, banana, pineapple, dragon fruit, lychee, guava, watermelon, grapes) is literally hanging from the trees in the yard, or in the field out back. We also have to mention the infamous durion fruit here. Durion tastes sweet like papaya but smells like a dead pig that's been rotting in the sun for two weeks. People not accustomed to the lurid bouquet have been known to gag or vomit at the first whiff. My first sniff sends me recoiling back three feet with my eyes rolling up into my head. So it's banned in hotels, busses, taxis and wherever people congregate in an enclosed space (one taxi driver tells me someone snuck a durion into his trunk two months ago. He's not been able to staunch the stench, and has had to borrow his cousin's rattletrap 1980 Nissan sedan ever since to make a living).
Rice and veggies straight from farms and gardens — tomatoes, lettuce, onions, carrots, green beans, watercress — can be purchased in street markets for pennies. The main dish is sticky rice, or rice noodles. Meat is used as a condiment only. You flavor your food with luscious savories — mild or hot sauce, soy sauce, chutneys, vinegar and garlic, or sweet and sour sauce. The poorest kids in this country eat better — and healthier — than the richest kids in America. Still, you witness great poverty the likes of which you are unlikely to see except for in the most destitute areas of Africa, Indian and Latin America.
With the cost of goods and inflation up and many mouths to feed (the average family numbers five or six kids) even two jobs don't cover the nut. So children selling souvenirs swarm at every shrine and monument. These kids are amongst the most enterprising and delightful people we meet anywhere in the country — clever, smart, engaging, full of friendly laughter and multilingual.
One beautiful little 8 year old speaks English, Italian, German, French and Russian. Her German and French are as facile as her English. But for all her enterprise and demonstrable intelligence, tragically she may never break out of poverty. For all her resourcefulness, the circumstances of her life may simply be too overwhelming. As in Cuba, even if you get a good education and an advanced degree your future is not assured. One of our guides holds a masters degree in mathematics. Another is a physicist. Both are women. Neither can find jobs in their chosen professions.
Among other things, perhaps because of the hardship that's a big part of daily life, Burma is the Land of No Spoiled Kids. Even the littlest ones burst into smiles, and wave when we pass. No complaining, no shouting, no screaming. We never saw a child yelled at, nor spanked, nor handled with anything but patience and gentle kindness. The parents smile, the kids smile, everybody smiles, even in the midst of what westerners might think of as the meanest of living conditions. Their parents may never give them a BMW, but these kids will never need one. They seem happy with what they've got (perhaps because they don't know what they are missing).
NEXT: Burma Part 2: A world that time forgot.