I was ten years old when I first fell in love with the secret land of Burma without ever having set foot in Asia. I was reading Rudyard Kipling’s masterpiece, “The Jungle Book”, and felt an immediate affinity for Mowgli, the man-cub raised by a pack of wolves in the jungles of Burma. Wolves are members of the canine family and a females are referred to as a “bitches” and even at my early age, teachers, priests, policemen, and most importantly my father, who was estranged from my mother, had already constantly referred to me as being a “son of a bitch”. Thus Mowgli was certain to be a kindred soul and I knew in my heart one day I would be Burma bound – and towards this day I eagerly devoured every news item on this fascinating country.
Some years later, in January of 2006, clutching a freshly issued visa, I finally deplaned in Yangon on my quest to explore Mowgli’s world.
However, since the time of Kipling a few minor tempests in the old historical teapot had occurred. Somehow Burma got seized from the benevolent English who were guarding the country’s rich natural assets of rubies, sapphires, teak forests, elephants, tigers, and opium lest they get put into the hands of the wrong sort of people – the slightly brown skinned ones who seem to have built a shitload of houses locally and speak an awfully hard to understand gibberish called “Burmese”.
But that was all changed by World War II when the same irascible guys who brought you Pearl Harbor and the Rape of Nanking pulled into town and spread their own unique form of fun-loving paternalistic imperialism to Burma. One actually has to feel sorry for the laugh-a-minute Japanese because, unlike George Bush in Iraq, they were a little strapped for cash and did not have room in their budget to hire any decent public relations people to point out all the worthwhile deeds their government performed. Consequently no one remembers them for all the good they brought to the country; the wonderful karaoke bars and golf courses they opened are never mentioned, and you don’t hear much about their hugely successful accomplishment of eradicating traffic jams and decongesting Burma’s roads by killing a few hundred thousand people and sending another forty thousand women back to the imperial homeland as sex slaves. No, the poor Japanese never got a break. In their attempt to construct a modern railroad linking neighboring Thailand with Burma, they built the Bridge Over the River Kwai – securing Thailand millions of baht in tourism and Alec Guinness an Oscar. Talk about ingrates – Thailand never uttered a word of gratitude and not once while the British actor was gushing out the names of the little people who helped him get his award, did he mention the Japanese!
The Japanese were soon replaced by a few civic minded local people of the military persuasion whose utopian dream was to create a land of wealth where all Burma’s citizens were equal. Although it took a lot of hard work, a few hundred thousand cases of genocide here, and the odd hundred thousand cases of genocide there, this laudable dream has come true. The generals ruling Burma are incredibly wealthy and all ordinary Burmese citizens have achieved total equality before the law – they are all shit-out-of-luck.
A few awkward moments of jai rawn have sporadically spawned military skirmishes and strained relations between Thailand and Burma in the past… but things are peaceful now. Due to the wisdom of the corresponding Thai and Burmese generals whose commands encompass the border areas, these disputes have dissipated into infrequent squabbles over how to equitably distribute the tea money they have been offered by honest businessmen engaged in trade between the two countries. These selfless individuals don’t want to slow the wheels of progress and get bogged down in nitpicking anti-business laws passed by ignorant legislators, prohibiting trafficking in urgently needed goods such as rubies, emeralds, jade, teak, opium (according to the latest figures released by the United Nations Burma produces 75% of the world’s opium supply), yaa ba, sex slave prostitutes and cheap indigent laborers.
Standing in the immigration queue at Rangoon’s International Airport my first impression is how wonderfully generous the Burmese government must be – since they have obviously spared no expense in hiring architects from Eastern block countries who have not cashed a check since being paid for the last gulag they designed. The airport is lavishly furnished in cracked grey concrete but before I can complete my observation the electricity goes out and everything is reduced to black.
Candles are quickly produced and lit; and while cynics might senselessly say this shows the country has inadequate power supplies (and consequently they are always prepared for such a situation) I, being an optimist, prefer to think of it as gift from the wise rulers of Burma - a planned romantic experience. Immigration by candlelight! How many times have I paid big money to wine and dine my wife at some overpriced restaurant by candlelight? Yes, Burma has taken it to the next level!
I approach the immigration queue to present my passport, worrying that the process will be a bit lengthy since the power outage must be wreaking havoc upon the inspectors’ computers. But as usual with my travels within Southeast Asia my suppositions are wrong. Burmese immigration agents don’t have any computers. I only have to wait for several chain-smoking gentlemen whose Russian passports receive the most cursory of glances to be waved into the country and it’s my turn in front of Burma’s gatekeepers.
I hand my passport and visa to the frowning immigration agent.
“What is your purpose here in the Union of Myanmar?” the agent uses the Burmese language name for Burma. In 1989 the ruling junta decided to change the English name of Burma to Myanmar, and then renamed most of the country’s cities as well – but it was met with a giant yawn by everyone except map makers who stood to profit from having new and improved wares to hawk.
“I’ve come to explore the land of Kipling,” I state, figuring I wouldn’t curry any favour by adding I also had a peripheral interest in observing life under a government reckoned by many to be the worst in the world. Only last month the United Nations General Assembly condemned the warm and fuzzy Myanmar government for its never ending violation of human rights, including killings, torture, rape, forced labour and jailing of opposition leaders such as Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi who having been elected to rule Burma has found herself under house arrest for most of the last 16 years.. Couple this with Burma posessing the world’s second lowest GNP, one of the world’s highest AIDS and infant mortality rates, and of course its preeminent position as the number one country for both malaria and dengue fever– and you can easily understand why tourists are flocking there by the millions, thousands, hundreds, - okay I think there must be at least four or five tourists in the country.
“Welcome to Myanmar,” the agent responds handing me back my passport with a sneer, “Kipling’s been dead for seventy years, so enjoy your stay.”
One advantage of the Yangon airport is you don’t have to search for the carousel on which your luggage is to arrive. There is only one – and of course due to the lack of electricity it lies inert.
Through an open door I see the baggage train arrive from the plane. The workers diligently place the luggage on the motionless carousel as they have been trained to do. Whether the carousel is moving or not is not their concern and they stand idly, taking joy in having performing their job properly.
Our luggage is tantalizingly close – just on the other side of the wall - and many of my fellow passengers grow impatient, especially the two or three other Judeo-Christian westerners who pounce upon the lounging baggage handlers and try to convince them to manually deliver the luggage from the unmoving conveyor belt. Their efforts fail miserably.
Having traveled extensively in Southeast Asia I have learned one truism which transcends the region’s individual borders – there are going to be long periods of unfathomable boredom during which nothing happens. Due possibly to their practice of Buddhism, the locals are prepared from birth for these interminable moments. Buddhists accept them and serenely meditate, figuring any wasted time will be doled back to them in some future life. Hence the Asian passengers stand stoically and wait patiently for their bags.
Being somewhat of a theological hedger I decide not to join with my fellow westerners in their futile negotiations, and rather than join the Asian Buddhists in standing and contemplating my oneness with the universe, or at very least, the question of who has the cellular phone with the most features, I study the advertising billboards which are written in both English and the squiggly circles which constitute the Myanmar alphabet. Burma’s isolation from the rest of the world is evidenced by the absence of advertisements for Samsung, American Express, Gucci, cellular phone providers or even KFC/Pizza Hut as you would find in any other Asian international airport. Instead there is an ad for Myanmar Blood Purifier for Women a product which would be a welcome addition to any countries’ economy if a large segment of their consumer base consisted of vampires. There is also a sign announcing that the Union of Myanmar is vigorously fighting the spread of drugs and that the penalty for narco-traffickers is death. I look closely for an asterisk by this warning granting an exception to those drugs trafficked by the Myanmar government, but surprisingly enough fail to find it. Perhaps it’s written only in the Myanmar language and not translated into English.
My musings are interrupted by a phalanx of soldiers marching towards the baggage handlers. The handlers quickly change their tune and start releasing luggage to the soldiers. I’m thinking perhaps there might be an advantage to being in a military run dictatorship as I move closer to lay claim to my suitcase. But my hopes are dashed as the only bags delivered are those belonging to the Russians, who, using the soldiers as porters, bypass customs and make a hasty exit from the terminal.
Approximately five minutes later the power is restored, the baggage carousel revs up and I am able to retrieve my luggage.
I walk over to the customs area and am asked by an unsmiling customs agent to open my suitcase. He carefully examines the contents and eventually comes to the conclusion that my dirty laundry is of no threat to Burmese security. However when he gets to my laptop computer he grows inquisitive. “Why you bringing computer into Myanmar?” he asks.
“I use it for transferring my photos from my camera and for writing.” I reply truthfully.
“What pictures are you planning on taking?” he presses, moving his attention to my fairly expensive digital camera.
“I want to take pictures of the land of Kipling.”
“Kipling dead seventy years, nothing to take picture of. You not need camera,” the agent takes the camera and places it behind him.
In my youth this would have sent me into a screaming rage – with the result that I would be quickly naked in a back room with some bureaucrat administering a “have a nice day” proctologic exam. But I’m older, smarter and far calmer now. Having read that the monthly wage of a Burmese customs agent is roughly 20,000 Kyat or $17 (US) I reach into my wallet and pull out a five dollar bill. “Perhaps you might want to take your family out to dinner tonight,” some closed minded people might accuse me of having offerered a bribe.
“I have big family; dinner more expensive,” he offers the first hint of a smile I have seen since my arrival.
I pull out another five dollars producing an orthodontist’s wet dream of a crooked tooth smile. “Kyezu be. Take many pictures of Myanmar and have a safe stay here,” he returns the camera to my bag and grants both me and my belongings the official right to enter the Union of Myanmar.
I exit customs and look for the guide I’ve hired. A woman, about thirty years old, in a maroon sarong and a face streaked with some sort of yellow warpaint is holding a sign with my name on it. I approach her and identify myself . “Mingalarbar,” she replies using the traditional Burmese greeting which translates literally as “wish you to be auspicious” – an understandable sentiment given all that I have read and heard about her country. I try not to stare at the intricate yellow makeup trowled on her face as she continues, “My name is Shwe Sao and I will be your guide; please let our driver take your bags.”
Thankfully before I stare myself into rudeness I shift my attention to the less than attractive man with bad teeth in a tattered skirt who is grabbing my luggage. I’m wondering if he might be a katoey, until I notice nearly every man around me who is not wearing a military uniform is dressed similarly. Perhaps because Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world its katoeys cannot afford the clothing and makeup of their sisters back in Bangkok… but before I can fully develop this thought Shwe Sao shows some sort of mindreading capability. “I know what you’re thinking. Don’t worry, the driver is not a homosexual, he is wearing a ‘longyi’ the traditional garment of Burmese people, same as me.”
“No I wasn’t thinking any such thing,” I lie while wondering where our driver keeps his wallet.
We exit the terminal and our driver leads us to a late model right hand drive Japanese car with the steering wheel on the right. Using my Bangkok instincts I look to the right to check traffic and step from the curb – only to be narrowly missed by a convoy of military vehicles carrying the Russians, coming from behind me on the left.
“You must be careful,” Shwe Sao admonishes me, opening the car door “In Myanmar even though our cars are right hand drives we drive on right hand side … and military vehicle carrying Russian nuclear workers don’t care about hitting you.”
I sit down in the backseat, “You said Russian nuclear workers?”
“Yes,” she says closing the door.
“Myanmar has nuclear capabilities?” I ask, not remembering the part in the Jungle Book where Baloo and Bagheera save Mowgli’s ass by launching a low-yield nuclear missle up Shere Khan’s nether regions.
“Here is our itinerary,” Shwe Sao seems to ignore my question as our car lunges into motion, “we will take you to your hotel, let you freshen up, and then take you to see Shwedagon, the Golden Dagon temple and then we will go to Chuat Htat Kyi, the reclining Buddha, the Sule Pagoda, and the Botataung Pagoda…” my guide rattles off a list of temples which quite frankly are of little interest to me as from my many visits to Thailand, I’ve come to the ugly American conclusion that “you’ve seen one temple – you’ve seen ‘em all”.
I’m trying to think of the diplomatic way to phrase this when we turn out of the airport, and Shwe Sao smiles, “Now we are out of airport it is safe to talk. My country has many informers and spies – you cannot trust anyone… maybe not even me! But I will look you in the eye and you can decide whether you want to trust me.”
Looking beyond her makeup Shwe Sao is a comely girl – not too different from a maiden one might meet in a Bangkok bar. “Sure I trust you,” I tell another lie. Lying can become extremely addictive in Southeast Asia and I wonder if there is anything like a 12 step “Liars anonymous” program anywhere around.
“Good. You asked me about my country’s nuclear situation. I don’t know the answer. All I know is what I hear and see, but lately many Russian men come here and the rumour is they are building a nuclear facility for electricity and maybe other things. We have no news here. What do you know? What have you heard?”
“I only know what I read in the newspaper, and what Kipling wrote many years ago,” I reply blandly, not wanting to end up in a discussion concerning the wisdom of entrusting nuclear materials to some of the most ruthless bastards to ever rule a country– a conversation which could prove, from what I’ve been told, inimical to both her and my health.
“Kipling’s been dead 70 years,” my guide echoes her fellow countrymen and then changes the subject, “On the way to your hotel would you like to see our white elephants? In Myanmar white elephants are very lucky, and a few months ago in the jungle our soldiers found two of them!”
“Has your luck improved?” I ask, I hope without any sarcasm.
“No, but the elephants are not mine. They belong to the Myanmar people.”
“Have the people gotten lucky?” I press.
“Yes, we wake up every day,” she smiles, leaving me to reassess my Western notions of what consitutes being lucky.
Soon we see a bilingual sign for the white elephants and pull into a small park guarded by several soldiers carrying automatic rifles. I reach to get my camera but am told by Shwe Sao that photographs are not allowed.
“Why, are the elephants classified?” I ask, getting out of the car.
“No,” she says softly. “It is just not permitted. Our government is going to take pictures of them soon for people to buy and it would not be right for a foreigner to make money first.”
We buy tickets from a bored woman and are taken to a pavilion where four sad looking elephants are hobble chained to a concrete post. None of them look particularly white.
“Perhaps they’ve gotten a bit dirty,” I give them the benefit of the doubt, “which ones are the white ones?”
Shwe Sao points, “see those two are lighter than the ones keeping them company.”
Perhaps two of the elephants are ever so slightly lighter, but they are no more white than Michael Jackson – and I have that all too familiar Southeast Asian feeling of having been hustled. I walk back to the car with Shwe Sao chasing after me, “don’t you want to go to the gift shop and buy souvenirs?”
“Souvenirs of what?”
“White elephant of course.”
I politely decline and we get back into the car and drive to Traders Hotel, reputed to be one of the best in Burma.
Entering the hotel I am asked by a security person to walk through a metal detector. I ask what I’m being searched for.
“We are checking in case you have a bomb,” I am told.
“Are there many bombs here?”
“Someone planted a plastic explosive bomb in the central market a few weeks ago – many people died. Now please sir walk through the detector.”
I walk through. The only alarm that triggers is the one inside my head. If the bomb that went off in the central market was made out of plastic explosives – how in Hell would a metal detector pick up such a device? And to make things even more surreal the bellboy carrying my bags just walked around the metal detector altogether. For some inexplicable reason, the theme to Twilight Zone is playing inside my head.
Shwe Sao tells me I have an hour to take a shower and get ready for a city tour of Yangon. The bellboy escorts me to the elevator.
“I heard you are from America. What brings you to Myanmar?” he inquires.
I again trot out my “I came to see the land of Kipling” line.
“Sir, Kipling’s been dead for seventy years. I hope you came to enjoy some of the other things which makes our country so great.”
“Such as?” I challenge.
“We have many wonderful temples and white elephants, sir” he starts his spiel as we enter the elevator.
“I’ve already seen the elephants, is it all down hill from there?” I may not have done the best job of concealing any derision.
“The white elephants are very lucky,” he says with an inscrutable smile, as the door shuts leaving us the lone occupants in the elevator.
We ascend for a few floors in silence when suddenly the elevator halts and the lights go out.
“Don’t worry sir. It’s just a power failure. This happens all the time. The emergency generator will go on in a moment, we won’t be stranded,” the bellboy seems unperturbed.
After a few seconds I can’t help myself from looking for the emergency escape hatch. “Do you like girls?” The bellboy distracts me from any incipient panic by changing the subject.
“Yes,” I respond, just in case Burmese and Thai bellboys are related since I’m pretty sure had I responded in the negative, he was planning to use the popular follow up question of his cousins back in Bangkok, “would you like a boy?”
“Burma woman are very pretty and I could send one or two if you like up to your room,” he offers, “very clean they even smoke.”
“No thank you I’m married,” I politely decline.
The elevator still hasn’t moved, so to kill time I ask the bellboy what he does for fun at night.
“We have no electricity at night; so my friends and have tea at our favourite tea house and exchange news. It’s difficult to get news here, the only real news we get comes from the BBC – but it’s dangerous to listen. You can be arrested. Do you know any news about Our Lady?” I’m pretty sure he’s refering to Aung San Suu Kyi. “Is she going to be freed?”
“I don’t know anything,” I respond watching his facial expression sag as the electricity is restored and our elevator resumes.
We exit the elevator and walk down the neat corridors. He opens the door to a comfortable and clean room. He turns on the air conditioning and the television. It is tuned to a local Myanmar stations. “We have two stations in Burma. But you saw our white elephants todays and are lucky,” the bellboy smiles, picking up the remote and changing the channels. “You also have some movie channels and the BBC News.” He leaves the television on the BBC and resumes with his guided tour to my room all the time sneaking glances at a newscaster describing the mounting protests against the Thaksin government in Thailand.
“You seem interested in the news,” I reach into my wallet and give him a tip, “if you want to watch a little longer feel free.”
“Thank you, but I must be back before I am missed. Please let me know if you hear anything,” he says softly, leaving the room.
I take a quick shower and dry off while switching between the two local Myanmar channels. Both are showing coverage of Lieutenant General Khim Maung Than, teaching people how to plant and water a physic nut plant in Madawkon Village. Throngs of smiling people are imitating the general, standing in a field with watering cans and lubricating their plants. The lesson in how to properly water a physic nut plant goes on endlessly and after about ten minutes I tear myself away from the this riveting coverage and decide to explore my hotel.
I leave the room and walk to the lift. The door opens and a heavily made up young Asian woman wearing an unflattering green cocktail dress smiles and asks in heavily accented English, “You have room on this floor?”
“Yes.” I nod.
“I take you to room and smoke you. I very good,” she brags exiting the elevator, putting a bit of wiggle into her gait.
“I’m sorry, I booked a non-smoking room,” I politely decline her invitation.
She isn’t easily dissuaded, “I take care you and give massage, with happy ending. I put smile on you. Very good price!”
I promise to let her know if I should ever feel the desperation to require her services and ride the elevator to the ground floor.
I check out the newstand. There are some Western fashion magazines, a few copies of the Financial Times and many copies of the extremely thin newspaper New Light of Myanmar. I pick up the local fishwrap and am suckered in by its screaming headline, “Vice-Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Commander-in-Chief (Army) Vice-Senior General Maung Aye Inspects Oil Palm Plantations.” I look at a picture of a grim faced General with a chest full of medals and ribbons standing by a tree. I’d probably be grim too if I were the General – imagine the painful writer’s cramp he must be suffering every time someone asks him to sign his autograph. Out of curiosity I read the accompanying text. It seems that the esteemed General is in some small hamlet teaching people how to plant trees. Another of my silly preconceptions about Burmese generals being ruthless murderers who lead their troops in rape and pillage take-no-prisoner raids against the Karen in the Shan states has been proved wrong. Evidently in the Myanmar Republic Generals are promoted for their considerable botany skills – and the pistol General Muang has strapped to his belt, and the AK47’s his entourage are carrying must be gardening implements used to aerate the hard Burmese soil.
However before I can get too far into the New Light of Myanmar’s hard hitting journalistic scoop a clerk politely asks if I might want to buy the newspaper. Figuring I had already digested most of the hard news I return the paper to its rack and head outside to wait for my guide.
“Can I help you?” the doorman inquires as soon as I exit the hotel.
“No, I’m just waiting for my guide.”
He studies me for a moment, “Where are you from, sir?”
“I live in the United States.”
“A long way from here. What brings you to the Hidden Paradise of Myanmar?”
“I’ve come to explore the land of Rudyard Kipling,” I decide to give the line one last shot.
“Kipling’s been dead for years sir,” he states grimly.
“So have I made a mistake in coming to your county?” I ask.
“No sir. Our country is great – we have two white elephants.”
“I’ve seen them this morning.”
“So you’re enjoying your stay and it’s been an exciting trip for you.”
“Yes,” I lie unconvincingly.
The doorman smiles and we stand side by side in awkward silence for a minute, me wondering what the Hell I’m doing here, and he, I surmise, ruminating on how wonderful being in a country with two white elephants is.
He of course proves me wrong. “Do you like girls?” he asks softly, without turning his head to face me.
“Yes, but I’m married,” I preemptively try to end this line of conversation as my guide’s car pulls up.
“In Myanmar nights are long – and if you change your mind just ask anyone for me, my name is Aung Thun.”
(To be continued)