Monday, April 28, 2008

On the Road to Mandalay

((On the premise that not many people have ever managed to visit Myanmar/Burma, I'm returning to my 1986-87 journal to recount some adventures I had there--back before the military junta cracked down again, before Aung San Suu Kyi's seemingly permanent house arrest, back when Westerners could still visit, even if only for a very controlled single week.))

June 24

The Strand Hotel in Rangoon is another out-of-time survivor of the British Empire, preserved much as it was to please us romantic Westerners, but also slowly decaying beyond recovery. Patches on the carpet and cracked walls in the slightly seedy bathrooms bespeak the Socialist government's basic disinterest. But it continues to serve as a social center of Rangoon, ready for parties, weddings, and officials taking other officials to lunch.

Before heading up-country I'm sharing a double room at the Strand overnight, with Tomas, a professional photographer from Santa Cruz. He travelled here five years ago, says nothing has changed that he can see; but he hopes to rent a jeep and cruise the un-touristed countryside, something the government attempts to discourage/prevent. With my own more-limited time, looks like all I'll get to is Pagan's 40 square kilometers of temples and ruins (one of the wonders of the world, the books and visitors say), then back to Rangoon.

Turning the clock back (a suitable expression since Burma is the most placid and time-lost country left in Asia): it was pouring rain in Bangkok, with a two-hour wait at the airport till Burma Airways folk deigned to allow passenger check-in. There and on the flight, I spoke to more Americans at one time than I've seen in the previous five months of travel. (Everyone wants to see this mysterious country, I guess, envisioning Kipling and the Empire, WWII's Burma Road, Flying Tigers, etc.)

Then on arrival the customs/immigration/declarations/cash conversion process seemed interminable; my passport and one-week visa must have been stamped a dozen times. Anyway, I converted $100 in travellers checks, receiving 729 official kyat (pronounced "chaht"); these bills must be used for the government-sponsored travel and hotels. After that legal transaction, I ignored the inadequate offer from one of the customs officals and instead sold my duty-free fifth of Johnny Walker Red and carton of "555" cigarettes (total cost $14) to the taxi driver for 500 kyat, equal to about $70--which is how the traveller in Burma acquires "illegal" kyat to finance food, beverages, souvenir-buying, etc. The trick is to use up all the ill-gotten money, plus just enough of the official kyat to satisfy government watchdogs--a silly and time-consuming exercise in this land of double-think, where we have only seven days (six for me), much of which must be spent on planes, trains, or buses just getting around. Maddening, peculiar, confusing, and fun, and the long-standing Burmese tradition. Who am I to refuse?

(The other, more dangerous option is to sell U.S. dollars on the black market, at about 30 kyat each. My friend Patrick was here not long ago, was caught selling just $20, held for eight hours at the police station until the American Consulate effected his release.)

June 25

I stood in line at Tourist Burma to book an overnight train to Thazzi and bus from there to Pagan, then wandered the city. Rangoon seems almost blissfully quiet compared to Bangkok or Jakarta, but also unexpectedly dirty on the rain-splotched side streets.

Observations and encounters: Burmese women in sarong-like dresses, with streaks of a yellowish pasty substance dabbed on their faces, and the men in their wraparound longyis--a cascading human rainbow of colors and stripes and plaids, usually mixed together... The stares experienced by Westerners, neither friendly nor hostile, just watchfully blank until you make the first overture... The absence of garish advertising, with every movie poster subdued, save for the familiar James Bond scene of a woman's legs framing gun-ready 007; this one attracts a group of men who stare up, mesmerized...

Locals sidling up to tourists: "Anything to sell? Kyat for dollars?" One man's rapid-fire rap listed 20 different items he wanted to buy, but we couldn't agree on price. Another was dying to acquire two of my old shirts: "I'm a poor man. Many children. Not sell. For myself. How much you want?" He started at 20, went to 30, tracked me down a half hour later to offer 40. But, finally, I only sold him a Bic lighter for 10.

Block after block of grubby, three- and four-story, cracker-box-shaped buildings, all in need of a sandblasting facelift... Pouring rain driving me indoors to a cafe lunch of noodle soup (good) and lime pop (execrable). Suddenly a man sat down at my table, ordered his own meal, and began passing the dishes to me to share. We soon swapped names, addresses, and Burmese phrases as well. ("Thank you" sounds like "Je-zoo-te-mah-day," and "Hello" equals "Mingle-a-bah.") Then departing for his work just as quickly as he came in, Mr. Ko Kyaw Swe insisted on paying for both of our meals. "Welcome to my home," he said as he left.

On to Sule Pagoda, a tall gold-plated spire surrounded below by many Buddhas of terracotta, painted soapstone, and gold. From the many sellers clustered at each entrance, worshippers buy paper parasols, floral wreaths, braided ribbons, and incense sticks, all to offer up. Workers prowl the grounds pouring water over the Buddhas' heads. Young women stand pitching coins into buckets rotating on a lazy susan. A fascinating exhibition of photos and painting from all of the varied Buddhist countries of Near and Far East also includes three-dozen bright cartoon drawings like Disney animation cells, on the life and miracles of Gautama!

Finally, ambling back to claim my pack and head for the train, I stopped in a busy bookstore full of ancient dusty stacks of old Penguin and bantam paperbacks, most from the Fifties and Sixties, Classics and hot rods and Westerns, but also Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar and Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues! But all of these are ignored by the thronging Burmese who instead crowd the long front counter, shouting and waving their hands to obtain the latest International issues of Time and Newsweek.

The ride north on wooden seats should be interesting.

((As indeed it was, to be recounted next post.))

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