HOT INFO On The Road

Ben van den Anker
SE Asia: REPORT #10

2nd November, Y2K, Mandalay, Myanmar

Twilight over Burma

From the airplane, I can see the shimmering reflection of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda, a promising entree to this new country. Waiting for the immigration I adjust my watch, half an hour back this time. I try to walk past the exchange counters but two officials stop me and accompany me back. Lying that I only plan to stay for 2 days and for a "little present" I only have to change $100. This Monopoly money "for the convenience of the tourists visiting Myanmar" is actually one of the ways the government gets to foreign currency.

Yangon looks different than other cities, the lakes and the trees along the roads give it a green impression. It's colonial buildings are in a constant state of disrepair but add to the impression. Traffic lights with a countdown board, 35 seconds from red to green. The Indian influence is clearly perceptible, darker colored people in Indian clothes, eating houses like "New Delhi", curries and lassi on the street. Nowhere the Coca Cola billboards that can be seen in every other country, instead big red government billboards showing; "Oppose those relying on external elements. Anyone who tries to break up the nation is our enemy." No mobile phones can be seen, there's no internet. Only the military government think that they're important enough to access the net. Citizens are forbidden to discuss politics with foreigners, despite this all, many are happy to tell what's on their minds.

The Shwedagon pagoda impresses me too, the many golden plates covering the monument are said to be stolen from Thailand's temples in its ancient cities. I walk carefully around between the praying people, to some people, this is the most beautiful pagoda in Asia. During the bus trip to Bagan I see many hilltop temples, it seems the Burmese built a temple on every hilltop. I also see the first gangs of teenage and grown up workers along the roads, they're doing 10 hour shifts for which they receive 25 dollar cents. This kind of involuntary civilian service to the state was common in other Asian countries till the beginning of the century. Another sign that Myanmar isn't living in the same century as we are.

In Bagan I see the first snakes and scorpions in Asia, the area is breathtaking, thousands of 800 years old temples looking out over the Irrawaddy river. I drive around on my rented bike for two days, local people show me of the road temples. I find a Buddha artifact and want to take the risk to try to take it out of the country. Bagan is one of the true wonders of this earth, I'm speechless.

Mandalay is big and busy, for the first time I get annoyed by the government entrance fees. When I want to see all here I should pay $40, the average monthly income in Myanmar is $12. These entrance fees are not only outrageous to tourists but also to the local people. The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism is still creative enough to invent new entrance fees when they find out that tourists discover new sightseeing spots. In a coffeehouse a Burmese man tells me about the back entrance of Mandalay hill. So the next day I biked and partly walked up that road. I walk around for some 15 minutes till a government official spots me, he "kindly" escorts me to the exit, in no mood for a discussion. The forest monastery greets me more friendly, one monk invites me to visit his monastery. It turns out to be the biggest one in the area with "2247" monks. He learns his Buddhist texts out of an old Pali script book, to remember the page he uses a picture of a western woman. "Do I look that strange or do you" I think when about 20 monks are following me and my companion.

I want to see the less visited countryside too and decide to catch a bus to Hsipaw. The rural town, at the border of the SSA (Shan State Area) occupied area, shows a peaceful life. A small market, some Shan restaurants, not much traffic, in fact there's little to do but I enjoy my time. I visit the former Shan palace, a short walk out of town. It has known better times, the teahouse overlooking the rice fields and the river still shows grandeur. The tennis area is totally covered by garden garbage. Ronald, the nephew of the former prince, invites me in for a cup of tea. He and his wife show me yellowed pictures of how it used to look like, they tell about the past. Inge Argent, an Austrian woman, married the prince and lived a happy life till the military takeover in 1962. They arrested the prince and executed him one year later, she was forced to leave the country immediately. She describes her life in: "Twilight over Burma; My life as a Shan Princess". It doesn't surprise me at all that I can't buy the book in Myanmar. I'm silent as I walk back to town, thinking "Burma does something to me.."


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