Arriving in Burma
“I love her like she is my mother,” our taxi driver told us.
It was our first evening in Burma and we were rattling through the streets of Yangon in a $2 taxi on our way to the famous Shwedagon pagoda. We’d finally ventured to ask a local what he thought of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Burma, kept for decades under house arrest by the military junta.
“I keep a picture of her on my phone. Here.”
We were shocked.
“Aren’t you afraid of what might happen to you because you have this?” we asked. In Burma, “defaming the government” or supporting the pro-democracy movement are crimes punishable by imprisonment or forced labor in a work camp. (For that same reason, I’ve altered the identifiable characteristics of everyone mentioned in these posts.)
“It is for truth. I talk political and I have her on my phone because I love truth. I am afraid but I love truth more,” he said.
These kinds of conversations became a theme of our visit to Burma, but this was our first day and we were surprised to meet someone who would talk with us so openly. “You are very brave,” I said.
“Compared to some people I am a coward. Some people are really brave.”
Yangon’s streets are leafy and pleasant. The broad sidewalks are a market for vegetables, meat, used books, anything you can imagine. Every component of urban civilization is on display. Barbers cut hair in the street next to key makers, next to a shoe repairman, across the street from a girl folding betel nut and lime into a leaf and selling it for ten cents. A group of boys play a fast-paced dice game with bottle tops, and a few houses down some girls are betting on dominos, perched on tiny plastic chairs.
How is it that colonial architecture looks so good when it’s falling down? All the buildings are in a state of artistic decay. There are holes in the sidewalk that could break your leg. And there are the anachronisms of a closed society: balance scales, tiny blue Mazda taxis with two-stroke engines from the 1940s, mechanical typewriters.
(Video: Typing in Yangon)
Buses stop frequently, and it’s a hell of a thing to see. An attendant jumps out of the open door as the bus slows and shouts out what I can only assume are the names of the onward destinations, while pushing people on and off with a violence that makes me flinch. Old ladies are shoved into the street and the bus is moving again in a few seconds.
Some people are camera shy, but most are happy to have their picture taken. A few stop you and pose, expectant.
The Burmese have been living under some form of occupation for hundreds of years. After the British left they never really attained self government. The father of the country, Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, was killed before he could take power and a military junta has ruled the country ever since, for forty years. Where else in the world has the military run a country for so long?
So I expected to find in Yangon an oppressed, suspicious people. And there is a suspicion here we didn’t find in the rest of the country, but there is also a hint of cultural energy that surprised me, that we didn’t find in Cambodia, for example. Open-front tea shops and bars are on every block. Guys with long hair and tattoos sit together at a cafe and talk, gesturing excitedly. A library we pass is full of people and a sign that says “free wifi,” though we are told by an apologetic girl that there is no wifi.
The city is diverse, with Indian, Chinese, Burmese and minority people passing each other in the street, dropping a few bills into a passing monk’s bowl. A camera shop TV shows Al Jazeera English.
We walk at random into the open doorway of a decrepit building and find a second-story art gallery where we meet a Buddhist artist whose paintings have strange themes. We are warned not to go to the 3rd floor; “it is collapsing.”
For an entire day we don’t see a uniformed police officer, but the Lonely Planet warns that secret police follow every tourist at some point during their trip. Once on a side street we are told to turn around, that foreigners are not allowed here.
But the streets are beautiful in their activity and colors, and we feel welcome here.
“Sorry, we are sanctioned country,” the concierge explained when we got to our hotel, “No credit card. US dollars only.” He looked embarrassed to admit it.
In Burma, there are no ATM machines, and except for three hotels, credit cards are mostly useless. The three exceptions proxy charges through a shady company in Las Vegas.
Exchange rates between the dollar and the Kyat, pronounced “charts,” vary widely. So like most travelers, Stephanie and I flew into Burma with a money belt stuffed with crisp US dollars. And crispness matters — an older note, a visible fold, a discoloration, a tiny tear or pen marks on the bill mean that the government money changers with whom hotels and other services must exchange their dollars will refuse to accept it, or change it at a lower rate.
Despite our best efforts to get brand-new bills before leaving Munich, about 20% of our money did not measure up to the standards of the Burmese guesthouse operators. One $50 bill was rejected because its serial number began with “CB” — a sure sign that it’s counterfeit, we were told.
So in Burma I have seen the cleanest, starchiest US dollars of my life, to all appearances fresh from the mint.
By contrast the local money is ratty in the extreme: taped, stapled or sewn together, smelling of pond water and disintegrating in your hand in a manner reminiscent of the shroud of Turin, Kyat are accepted in any condition without a second glance. Stephanie once received as change a 200 Kyat note in such a state of disrepair that it was given to her in a little plastic baggy, lest its various components blow away.
After our short ride with the politically courageus taxi driver, we arrived at the Shwedagon Pagoda to find a staggering Buddhist edifice, one of the largest Buddhist constructions in the world, a giant conical stupa covered in 85 tons of gold, topped with a 76-karat diamond and surrounded by other religious buildings of similar magnificence. It is opulence in a very poor country, and I wonder what the Buddha would think of it, but it is unutterably beautiful.
It happened to be a full moon, and there were a lot of people at the pagoda. I am used to the frowning solemnity, the hushed shuffling of a Christian cathedral. Both are built to awe, but there is a coldness and distance to a cathedral, whereas Shwedagon on the full moon pulsed with life: young professionals stop by after work to pour water over a statue of the Buddha or to apply a tiny sliver of gold leaf. A husband and wife meditate together on the marble while their children run and play around them. There was a lively vibe, more like a public square after work, or a shopping mall on the weekend, than a church.
We picked up a wonderful guide who explained that each corner of the eight-pointed pagoda represented a different day of the week (Wednesday is divided into morning and evening for some reason). People gather at the corner of the day they are born to pour water over the Buddha, and over the statue of their “birth animal.”
As we circled the pagoda we noticed a group of people clustered around Tuesday — the lion. “That is her corner,” our guide whispered. “Many people come to honor her. That is why they close the pagoda on Tuesday, so she cannot come on her day of birth.”
“She” is Aung San Suu Kyi, and many times in Burma we will hear her referred to in this furtive way, a pronoun with no antecedent. It is appropriate to the mythical status she has among the Burmese people.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, is the “number one hero” of the Burmese nationalist movement, the man who signed the Aung-Attlee treaty granting Burma independence from Britain. He was the clear choice for Burma’s first leader, but he was assassinated before he could take office. Because of the tremendous respect his memory commands among the Burmese military, his daughter has a kind of protection. She cannot be killed or exiled, so instead they’ve put her under house arrest and limited her movements.
If this story sounds familiar, it is nearly identical to the first half of The Lion King, with Aung San Suu Kyi as Simba. Some people in Burma believe — I am not making this up — that the Disney movie predicts her eventual triumph over the greedy military jackals who pillage the country’s wealth and stash it in secret accounts in Singapore.
Burma is not simple. In a couple of weeks you don’t have time to gather more than a few distorted impressions. For some more pieces of the puzzle, and far better photos, be sure to check Stephanie’s blog.
From Yangon we flew to Bagan, a completely different part of the country, filled with ruins. Bagan is one of the best places I’ve ever been. And the subject of my next post.