Myanmar - The Pariah State

Trip Start Feb 26, 2010
Trip End Feb 26, 2011

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Motherland 2

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

The alarm call came at 04:30 and it was time to set off on perhaps what would be the most interesting, most challenging and potentially most dangerous part of the trip. It was time to go to Myanmar, known as Burma during the British rule, a country that has been cruelly subjected to the longest military dictatorship in history.

We got dropped off at the airport by the hotel Chauffeur (oink oink snobs) and joined a huge queue for the Air Asia flights. We now had clear recollections of exactly the same thing last time we were here, it is fair to say that Bangkok airport is an extremely busy thoroughfare to many other SE Asian destinations. Although we arrived a good two hours before flying at 05:00 it took us almost 1 hour 45 to check in. A further 10 – 15 minutes to clear immigration and security, followed by a short jog to the gate and we were on the plane almost immediately.

After a short 1hr 15 minutes flight, a couple of coffees and some toffee cake for breakfast we descended into Myanmar. Well it was different to say the least (a catchphrase Erica is now taking the mick out of me for). We saw lots of shacks in the patchwork of countryside that were practically falling down all with rusty corrugated iron roofs but interspersed between them were large golden temples glinting in the sunshine almost everywhere. It was an unbelievable contrast and so we were pretty much in a state of confusion for the first day. Erica edit: It was so fitting that our very first impression of Myanmar, the incongruity of those tumble down shacks against the magnificence and beauty of the pagodas yards apart, would come to sum up our whole crazy experience of this country.

Upon landing we applied for our 'on arrival' visas, a relatively new system here, which worked ok and hopefully gave the most amount of money we will be giving to the Myanmar Government during the whole of our stay here, the visa fee was $30 each so about 40. We had read to bring the best condition US Dollar notes you could to Myanmar as any that are damaged (folded), defaced (a slight mark) or old (not in hot off the press condition) will not be accepted. We watched as dollar bills in perfect condition were rejected one after another with reasons like "bend", “too old”, “not good serial number”, “mark” and then instantly started to worry that our notes, which we thought were in good condition, were actually unusable here. This is even more worrying as believe it or not there is not a single ATM in the whole country, nor is there any bank able to accept foreign accounts (more of this later). In other words if you run out of money you are screwed. You have to bring enough US Dollars into the country for your entire stay and exchange it for local currency when here in either the hotel or with black market money changers (men on the street).

We then moved onto passports and I got stopped for maybe 20 minutes while they messed about with the computer, again this didn’t seem to bode well. Thankfully it appeared this was just a computer error and we were asked to join another queue, however after what we have read you cannot be sure about anything in a country like this.

After seeing the “Erica Heywood” sign disappear with another couple, whilst I was stuck at immigration, we thought we had missed the airport pickup but the guys from Motherland 2 Guest house were very popular being the Lonely Planet’s best choice for independent travellers and providing very slow dial up internet. This seems a little odd to us having travelled for all this time staying in hostels with WIFI etc that a place should boast about having internet access. The actual percentage of the population with internet access is 0.01%, and that 0.01% has a very restrictive and censored version. This makes the censorship in China appear like they have unequivocal access. You can access almost nothing online, no foreign e-mail accounts, no outside web pages, no BBC (more of that to come later as well). About 2 years ago, internet cafe’s started to spring up around the big cities like Yangon and Mandalay and people started to be able to access ‘information’. This obviously caused problems for the Government as people started to write to people like the BBC telling them about the conditions inside the country. The Government responded in a way to resolve the problem quickly and efficiently , for the second time in world history they clicked the switch and removed internet for the entire country in any form. They then methodically worked each of the cities and closed every single unlicensed internet connection (this was the vast majority). The licensed places on the other had had to agree to a whole new set of terms and conditions. Now every single e-mail that is sent within, into or to the outside world is available for the Government agencies to read and check the content. Every search done on every computer can be seen by the Government and there is also a rumour that a screen dump is carried out every few minutes to check the content of what each licensed computer is viewing. This is stunning isn’t it!

Anyway the free pick up dropped us at the Motherland 2 Guest House, on summarising the journey we saw some beautiful parks around stunning pagodas with golden stupors. We also saw some of the most run down areas you could see anywhere. We kind of have it in the back of our mind that these are the rich people though! As a quick overview Myanmar was previously a British colony. When Myanmar first gained independence from Britain it was the wealthiest nation in SE Asia as it has so many natural reserves. Now it is the poorest. Checking the stats before we came here Myanmar’s GDP per capita is only slightly higher than that of Ethiopia and Sudan etc. Incredible.

A little history, Myanmar had a military coup in 1975 where 5 Generals appear to have taken power of the country. Military rule has run ever since and the wealth has progressively been taken away from the people and to the dictatorship. As a consequence of this the major Governments of the world at the time took economic sanctions against Myanmar banning trade to prevent the Government getting stronger and richer.

Anyone with a political view that is not shared by the Government is imprisoned immediately and without trial. These people are often tortured before being sent to forced labour camps to work on major Government construction schemes, essentially working as modern day slaves. The ethics of forced labour for genuine criminals is debatable but the ethics of political prisoners under a military dictatorship having to undertake forced labour isn’t.

Anyway it’s a fairly difficult blog to write because we are trying to document what we know with what will shape the rest of this trip and our thoughts and views. The Lonely Planet suggests that part of what our role as responsible tourists is is to tell people about our lives and our countries and what life is like in a democracy. You should not ask people for political opinions and need to ensure that you are not giving an opinion about Myanmar. There is a huge secret police force here that are known to follow tourists, especially Americans, to ensure they are not spreading anti-Government messages or inciting unrest. All the locals are obviously highly aware of what may happen to them if they discuss anti-Government subjects with foreigners and other locals alike. Most private businesses appear to be nationalised however the Government recently embraced the private sector to encourage growth (from inside and outside) so there are privately run guesthouses, private bus companies etc. By avoiding Nationalised companies like the train and Government airlines, you spread wealth to some of the poorest people in the world and avoid giving too much of your money to the Government (our aim).

We were warmly welcomed at the guest house and the sight of all the men and women both wearing long skirts, called longyi, and gold make up smeared all over their faces and ears in varying patterns was awesome. The people here seemed to be a mix of lots of Indian looking people and lots of SE Asian looking people. Two distinct racial groups but all seem completely integrated all wearing the national dress.

We were showed to our fairly basic room (which was still $12 per night) and we had a free breako, fried eggs or omelette again, before heading out for a walk after changing some money. Again the note checking was amazing and on the second attempt we managed to change a $50 bill (we are slightly worried as most of our notes have creases and bits of pen marks) what we got for our $50 was about a 3cm thick wedge of cash each note being a 1,000 Kyat (pronounced Chat) note.  It is so infuriating as the Dollar bills you exchange are expected to be in pristine condition yet the local notes that you receive back are almost falling apart and held together with sellotape.  

If Yangon is the biggest city we didn’t know what to think at all. From the second we started walking towards the ‘down town’ district we knew we were somewhere very, very, very different. The cars were all really old wrecks (strangely almost all White Toyota Corollas), most seemed to be from the 1960’s and early 70’s. We saw so many mechanics all over the place working on old taxis, cars, trucks and buses, oil on the broken pavements and people black with grease. The houses looked like they were about to fall down. The pavements well we walked on the road. The pavement is just a collection of huge holes and bits of wood over gaps, bits that were obviously hollow underneath. The roads themselves are in a terrible state of repair covered in pot holes and things which make any journey one of the bumpiest experiences of your life. This first morning Erica hated it and to be fair I was not too far behind her. We decided that we would probably take our first flight option in 3 days and get out of here.

Erica edit:  For some strange reason, although I didn’t know what to expect, I wasn’t expecting Yangon to be as like Delhi as it actually first appeared, albeit with less people.  Betel stained pavements, malnourished, deranged looking stray dogs roaming the streets, the unmistakable stench of dried fish hanging in the air, dilapidated old colonial buildings black with dirt clothes drying hanging from every veranda and the blatant and uncomfortable staring of the locals.  It was a ‘fight or flight’ moment and I must admit my first instincts were to get the hell out of there. Thank god we didn’t.   

In a place like this everyone stares at you. They look at what you are wearing, your face, your physique (Erica’s in particular), your hairstyle, what you have on your feet. I think I have said before the power of a smile in China etc is major, here is no different. A simple smile and “Hello” were met every time by a big beaming smile returned back to you (with red teeth because of the chewing betel) and a wave. The kids in particular would always be waving, people want to know about you. That afternoon we decided we were staying for 12 days, the place is so different, the people so great we do not really have a choice.

We toured one of the famous Yangon pagodas, Sule Pagoda, where we thought we had got in free but we were quickly pushed to the tourist desk and charged 2,000 Kyat each. There are a lot of monks here (here as in Myanmar not as in the temple, that would be obvious), and they dress in red robes not orange.  The pagoda was lovely and the place was very busy with lots of people milling around.  We remembered to walk around clockwise despite lots of locals not doing and took in all the nats (spirits) images and Buddha statues.

As we were walking around the downtown area you couldn’t help but be amazed at the huge colonial buildings that looked like they were part of a film where a huge bombing campaign had gone on then the town was deserted for 50 years. These beautiful grand buildings left unmaintained and falling into rack and ruin. Most had become Government buildings and you could see that at one stage this was a very wealthy place (like so often with colonies though you question who took the most benefit the ruler or the people). We reached one building and as soon as we walked onto the pavement in front of us four army guards started to run at us grabbing for their weapons. We quickly took a detour down a back alley accompanied by a local money changing shark who explained that bit of the street was ‘strictly out of bounds to tourists and locals alike’. We were soon joined by a lovely old man who offered to show us round town as a guide for $10, he gave us his phone number and told us that he has managed to get a new sim card, his old one cost him $1000 and would soon cut out this one cost him $500 and may work for the rest of his life, or until someone found out he had it.

It started to chuck it down, well it is the monsoon season, so we retired to a nearby cafe which had a few tourists in and watched the rain and wind pass. We then got what must have been the first Toyota Corolla in history to drop us back to the guest house. Similar to so many places in SE Asia, and we thought it would be different here to be honest, people still see white skin and think either you should pay or can pay a lot more than anyone else. After asking 5 taxis the cheapest we got quoted was about $2.50 for a 5 minute journey. We insisted we would pay locals prices and it should be no more than $1 (1000 Kyat), as we walked off around the corner one of the drivers followed us and agreed to $1.

We got back and got chatting to Alex (an Austrian Legend) over a few early evening beers and a bit of tea. He had been here for three weeks and suggested we get out of Yangon as soon as possible so we booked an overnight bus journey to Mandalay for the following day. We quickly started to realise we barely have enough time to see the major sights the transport is that bad and time consuming.
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