After crossing the Friendship Bridge between Laos and Thailand, I returned to Bangkok by train. I applied for my visa for Burma – opting to apply myself at the Embassy instead of using the usual Khao San Road travel agents. I took a brief detour from the Golden Triangle to travel to Brunei for two days. Yes, Brunei. And it was my second trip to the small country. Suffice to say one of my graduate topics was Southeast Asian Maritime Piracy and I was there for research purposes. Then back to Bangkok for an evening before flying to Burma the following day. I had dreamed of visiting Burma since 1994, when I had watched a movie about the events of 1989. I had an evening flight, something I generally try to avoid; however, in this particular case it turned out to be lucky. Strangely, I remember almost nothing of my time in Rangoon, a name that evokes something akin to romantic colonialism. (Though I know very well colonialism is not romantic. My title is a take on George Orwell’s Burmese Days) I remember walking a long way through the older, colonial part of town looking for something, but I do not remember what it was or if I found it. Most likely it was the Strand Hotel, as it used to be one of the most famous and luxurious hotels of Colonial Southeast Asia. I recall the tea house from the first evening, the low lighting, the smoky air. I remember drinking Star Cola, Burma’s answer to Coca Cola as the US brand had not been sold in the country for years (in 2012 Coca Cola returned to Burma after half a century away). I can vaguely conjure up the second-floor entrance to my very cheap guesthouse. And standing in the grocery store while my Burmese seat-companion-turned-benefactor gleefully helped me shop. And even those memories are just fragments.
On my flight I sat next to Tin Tun, a Burmese living in Singapore, working in Algeria, heading home to Rangoon for a week. We talked half the flight. Tin Tun and his family are expatriates who have made their lives outside their homeland. He has lived in Singapore for 15 years, his sister is a doctor in Brunei, his brother-in-law a bank advisor in Manila, nieces in New York. He told me a brother-in-law, who was picking him up at the airport, might take me to the guesthouse of my choice. His brother in-law drove me first to Tin Tun’s home, a lovely lakeside house on the outskirts of Rangoon, where he plans to retire. Tin Tun had brought gifts from Algeria for his family. It was like Christmas. And the family treated me so nicely and made me feel at home, that I would not have been surprised had Tin Tun pulled a gift out for me. In a way he did. He and his brother-in-law decided it was too late at night to take me to a guesthouse in a new city, so they told me I must stay the night. And that is how I came to spend my first night in Burma a room on the banks of Lake Inya. After breakfast the next morning Tin Tun drove me to the guesthouse.
I stayed at the Mahabandoola Guesthouse in the center of town. Although it was a bit run down, it was only $3 a night and suited me fine. It was also right next to the Sule Paya, one of the most popular Buddhist temples in Rangoon after Shwedagon. I learned the Burmese staying at the guesthouse paid only US$1. I do not mean they paid the equivalent of US$1, but an actual dollar bill. Burma essentially has a three-currency system. The USD, the Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) and the local Kyat (pronounced Chat). (The FEC was abolished in 2013) Supposedly the FEC is equivalent to the US$ on a one to one basis. That is even printed on the bills themselves, but in practice it is not the case. But nothing is really as it seems. The official exchange rate is something like US$1=6 kyat, but the unofficial, black market rate was US$1=1000 kyat!! But 1 FEC would only fetch about 920 kyat. Foreigners though are forced to purchase 200 FECs at the official rate at the airport. It is all a government racket. Kyats and dollars are really the currencies of choice. The kyat gives you the best spending power; FECs the worst.
Rangoon is a sprawling capital of wide dusty streets lined with many British colonial period buildings. The most popular sights are the Sule Paya and Shwedagon Paya. On my first evening I went to a tea house lauded in my travel book as the best in the city. I liked it so much I went twice more while in Rangoon. There I had a lovely Burmese tea, rather like Indian chai, of dark tea with milk and sugar and a plate of bain mok. Bain Mok is an opium cake, although today the seeds sprinkled on it are no longer opium. The café offered a wonderful atmosphere to see Burmese relaxed with one another and to write in my journal.
On the walk home from the tea house I met a Burmese man, who popped up alongside me and asked to speak with me. After making sure he did not want to change money and sincerely just wanted to talk to a foreigner we sat for a soda at a street café. These are all over Myanmar. In the evenings these establishments spill out onto the sidewalks and even the street, with small folding tables and even smaller, almost preschool-sized, chairs. He was nice enough but I was a bit put off by the fact that he A. wanted to accompany me on my trip all around Myanmar though we had just met and upset that I did not think it a good idea, and B. his betel nut habit. One of the worst things about Myanmar has got to be the addiction to betel nut. he nut is put in a green leaf and chewed in the mouth, like chewing tobacco. Users must spit out the juice which is a horrible bright red color that stains the teeth, the gums, the lips and the pavement it is spit upon. This guy kept chewing his betel nut, and even when he wasn’t, his red stained mouth was distracting. Throughout the trip I grew to hate betel nut more and more…
Shwedagon Paya was lovely, though it was first place in Burma where I faced the foreigners-pay-more practice. For Burmese entry is free; for foreigners the price is US$5. There is a long shop lined arcade up stairs leading to the temple, during which the whole time one must be barefoot. There were ceremonies of families with golden painted parasols touring the paya as their sons were to become novice monks. There are shrines around the paya to which people pray depending on the day of the week they were born. I visited the Tuesday shrine and poured XX (a whole lotta) cups of water for my age + 1 and threw in a small donation to appease the Buddha and bring me luck. As it was a Saturday the shrine for that day of the week was the busiest. There are also places to worship the Nats, who number more than a hundred, and are the animist gods of pre-Buddhist Myanmar, but reign alongside Buddhism to this day.
After Shwedagon, I returned to the guesthouse and called Tin Tun, who had told me we could meet again for dinner. However, when I got ahold of him, he said he was quite sick with food poisoning, but he would take me out anyway. He picked me up around 6:30 PM and we drove down to Chinatown (which to be honest didn’t look any different from any other part of Rangoon, and was only a few blocks away after all). Then he started buying me food right and left. He also took me to a supermarket and bought me a bunch of food. He said he was worried about me traveling by myself and that I needed some food for the travel. I tried to say it was not necessary but he told me that he was older, had a lot of money, no children and not much else he wanted to buy in life having most of what he needed and wanted already. Well….okay, you do not need to twist the arm of a no-income graduate student. I would be well stocked for days.
On a walk during my first day I did experience an odd and rather disturbing situation. I wrote about it in my journal: Today on the street a man tried to give me a child. I had stopped to look at a cute little boy when suddenly a man was beside me asking “Do you like baby?” I said, “Yes, the boy is very cute.” The man asked where I was from and then told me I can take the baby to America. He then stooped down to ask the boy, who was about four years old, if he would like to go with me to America. The boy looked scared. Then man scooped him up in his arms, told me the boy’s name is Mohammed and tried to pass him to me. I have traveled to quite a few developing countries but never before or since has someone tried to give me a child.
On my third day I traveled to the town of Twante, famed for its weaving and pottery and located across the Irrawaddy River and along the British-built Twante Canal. Twante itself turned out not to be that interesting other than giving me the opportunity to see a satellite town of the capital. What turned out most interesting, as so often is the case, was the journey there and the completely unexpected turn the day would take. First, I crossed the Irrawaddy by ferry. I had wanted to take a boat up the canal but no boatman would do so without charging me an exorbitant foreigner price. So, I opted for a mini bus. The trip to Twante was about an hour along a bumpy, dusty road. Though I could not see any of the scenery as I was seated on the inside. The truck has a small covered bed lined with benches, similar to the jeepneys of the Philippines. I was jammed on the very last seat towards the open back, though with only half of my behind on. When we hit a bump I was airborne, but did not fall out because the entire back of the truck was lined with men. There were 10-15 men standing hanging on to every available piece of rail on the back and sides of the truck.
Once in the town I wandered around trying to find anything resembling the famous pottery or weaving, but no one spoke English and there did not seem any obvious I came upon a small boy who must have never seen a white person before. Normally this results in shrieks and screams and running away (I have had this happen many times) but for him it resulted in absolute incredible delight. He began laughing and laughing and laughing. Pointing at me and saying something to some other boys. He ran up and threw his arms around my leg and looked up at me continuing to laugh with un-abandoned delight. I took his picture with my Polaroid and tried to give him the picture, but he didn’t understand, so I kept it. (and I still have it taped in my journal).
After being unable to find anything of note in Twante I prepared to head back and hopped into a truck for the ferry. It was not full and I would wait a long time for it to fill up and return to the ferry. An Indian man in the truck asked if I had been to the pagoda and since I had not, I decided to get out and go in search of it. I walked and walked but without any luck. No one seemed to know where the location of the pagoda. Several children ran after me screaming “I love you,” so I stopped to blow them a kis,s which threw them into hysterics and made them follow me all the more. Somehow, I ended up being invited to a wedding reception. Soon I was in a large covered all seated next to the newlyweds eating ice cream and having our picture taken together. I left with the whole party waving goodbye to me. I returned to the ferry in a truck chartered by an Italian couple, stopping at a monastery along the way.
I ended up staying a few extra days in Rangoon than expected because with the work and school holidays it turned out difficult to get a bus ticket out. The earliest ticket I could get was on December 23rd. I did meet Tin Tun one last time, back at the tea shop. Then it was off to the next stop: Lake Inle.