Burma

Travel by Chance: Burma (1987)

The news that Burma (Myanmar) is tentatively exploring reopening relations with the outside world makes me wonder not just about their future, but their past. Their future, which has been non-existent for decades, may now look bright - if they are able to bridge the past, present, and future with sound decision making and intelligent development that benefits people. But that is a tall order as foreign money, influence, and outside pressure will be aggressive. No doubt, Cuba, the other throwback to an earlier era will soon be facing the same dilemma – how to enter the 21st century without obliterating their past. Throughout much of the world the past is sometimes cleaned up and preserved for future generations. Since a 1962 coup Burma has kept one foot in the past through inept government run by a military junta that has isolated Burma and frozen them in a suspended state. In addition to widespread poverty, lack of infrastructure, military dictatorship, ethnic strife, and corruption, Burma is faced with political unrest, and ethnic strife. Although the government has been guilty of numerous abuses, visiting Burma had an element of time travelling. What will be lost is immeasurable.

I have never visited Cuba but I visited Burma for one week in August, 1987. Getting there took some ingenuity and some luck. In Bangkok, as in many well travelled destinations, westerners meet and share stories and tips about where to go, how to get there, what shouldn’t be missed and what should be avoided. A few weeks before arriving in Bangkok I heard from a fellow traveler in Singapore that Tioman, an island off the east coast of the Malay peninsula shouldn’t be missed. The best way to get there was to take a local bus to the first town in Malaysia and then share a four to six hour taxi cab up the east coast of the Malay peninsula. Find a cheap hotel and early the next morning go down to the waterfront and find a water taxi for the roughly three hour boat trip to Tioman. Tioman had two accommodations alternatives: an upscale but not lavish hotel, or a series of lean-to’s on the beach. There was one village, a mosque, and (I later learned) an airstrip on the island. I spent an idyllic week on the beach where there was no electricity or running water. The food was adequate and they had beer.

Days were spent scuba diving or hiking jungle trails. One night while talking to a Swedish couple who had recently gone to Burma I discovered that in Bangkok it was possible to book a flight to Rangoon. While it was possible to visit Burma and travel on your own, the conventional wisdom was to join an official “government” tour guide. Visas were only available for one week and without the “government” sanction of a tour guide there was no guarantee that spaces could be found on what little transportation existed. Burma had an airline which primarily served Rangoon and Bangkok and Rangoon and Mandalay. There was a train to Mandalay but it would take twenty-four to thirty-six hours out of the week in Burma – if you were lucky and could get a seat. So the story went… and one more thing – don’t forget the Johnnie Walker Red and Marlboros – not Cutty Sark or Dewars or Winston or Camels or any other brand – one bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and one carton of Marlboros per person.

The one hour flight from Bangkok, with its urban sprawl, traffic, pollution, American-style malls, hotels and plentiful dining options to Rangoon was a trip back in time. Rangoon may be sprawling but retains the look and feel of a previous era. Rangoon may be sprawling but retains the look and feel of a previous era. As the small plane approached Rangoon it the usual sights and landmarks were non-existent. The green patchwork of mostly rice fields interspersed by palm, coconut and banana trees was broken by the occasional road and village –not only were there no suburbs, but the usual traffic and landmarks – factories, parking lots, athletic facilities were all absent. The downtown of Rangoon was in the distance but the absence of high rises, except for the Schwedegon Pagoda, was striking. The gold spire punctured the heavy clouds which let loose intermittently with a steady rain. Since this was the daily flight from Bangkok, and the only major government sanctioned connection with the outside world, the airport was buzzing with activity. Inside the aging yet delightfully decrepit terminal, we were greeted by the very official looking “customs” agents who after a perfunctory look at passports offered cash for the Johnnie Walker Red and Marlboros. But the advice was don’t sell your goods at the airport as outside one could get a much better exchange.

Although it was a small airport (one building), the pandemonium was omnipresent. Taxis were Toyota pick-up trucks and the connection with our tour guide did simplify matters as we were shuttled to the Strand, a seedy but formerly grand hotel in the British tradition. It may have been the only hotel for foreigners in Rangoon if not one of the few lodgings available. Once inside the lobby, the pillars were massive as was the front desk. Adjacent was a spacious dining area and an impressive mahogany bar that ran the length of the room. Lazy ceiling fans rotated but didn’t seem to move much air. At the bar I ordered a beer but to my chagrin was informed that there was no beer. Where can I get a beer I inquired? In Mandalay – where the brewery is located. Mandalay is four hundred miles to the north and home to Mandalay Ale – a British style ale not surprisingly from a brewery built by the British – probably about the same time they built their Raleigh Bicycle factory. Hence two remaining legacies of the English Empire still remained in Burma – Raleigh bicycles were everywhere, and while many were old, most were in good repair. And of course a good bitter which doesn’t require carbonation and shouldn’t be refrigerated anyways. My personal quest to find and enjoy a Mandalay Ale began there – at the Hotel Strand bar, perhaps the largest bar I have ever been to where they were out of beer.

This quest for liquid refreshment served as a primer in Burmese economics and a very different spin on the principle of supply and demand. The bar at the Strand Hotel was expecting a shipment of Mandalay Ale in a week or so, but the brewery only had a limited amount of bottles. Hence, they brewed their beer, filled their bottles, distributed them around the country, and waited until bottles came back in order to refill them. While this is certainly a sustainable practice, it doesn’t lend itself to growth. No surprise, but in Mandalay beer was easily located while Rangoon, four hundred miles to the south, experienced regular dry spells.

As I digested this unfortunate lesson I heard someone call my name. At a nearby table sat a couple I had met several weeks earlier in Tioman. I sat down to join them with something resembling a carbonated beverage and started to catch up on our travels when we were stopped by a large and alarming crash at the next table. Parts of the ceiling had given away and several chunks, one as large as a basketball, had given away from the twenty foot ceiling. Fortunately no one was sitting at the table – it could have been fatal.

The tour guide presented herself for a tour of Rangoon. A woman in her early thirties with excellent English, her knowledge of Burma was informative and as the week passed she had more and more reflections on life in Burma and questions for all of us from the outside. Her observations and opinions came more freely with the trust that developed during our week traveling from Rangoon to Pagan to Mandalay and beyond. I do not recall what I paid for the trip, but for a week of transportation (bus and air) meals, lodging, and a guide it was a bargain.

Rangoon was crowded, noisy, and exotic. Theater marquees advertised movies that seemingly were based on imitations of Rambo. Most notable was the former government buildings – the same brownstone which could have been the Smithsonian along the mall in Washington, D.C. - except for the moss and growth on the walls and the numerous broken windows. The main attraction of Rangoon is of course the Schwedegon Pagoda – an astounding temple and source of national pride. If they can erect and maintain anything this beautiful then the people of this nation are capable of anything. On the periphery of the pagoda were the artisan stands that represented one of the few pockets of capitalism – people selling their wares. I was struck by the artistry and found through the help of a random interpreter, that my bottle of Johnnie Walker or cartoon of Marlboros would gladly be accepted as payment for an elephant tapestry.

Physically Burma is a diverse and beautiful country with both natural and man-made wonders. The lowlands are hot and dense with humidity. The hill country is drier with refreshingly cool evenings. The spectacular ancient ruins at Pagan may be crumbling due to age but are untouched by the wear and tear of tourism.
Burma is still an impoverished nation so trade will bring in needed foreign exchange. But who will benefit and what will be lost are legitimate questions.

David Dethlefs
Watertown, CT © 2011

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