After a few uneventful days in Bangkok, we have headed to Rangoon in Burma. Burma, I am told was renamed Myanmar by the military Junta. As a result, Burma, is still used by many, even though Burma is the name given to the region by the colonial British.
My first impression of Rangoon was one of a crumbling version of London in the 1980’s. Here trees and shrubs grow from the windows and crevices of old buildings, sometimes obscuring the beautiful facade. But unlike the 1980’s in London, you wont find MK II Ford escorts (complete with Chav inside), here almost everything is a Toyota, almost certainly a 80’s model and usually clapped out.
And then you see and meet the Burmese. The Burmese people are quite different to any I have encountered elsewhere in Asia. Men and women wear Loungi’s, a type of a Sarong, the likes of which I have only seen in South India. However, here it’s almost universal worn, given a really different feel to the place. Women’s makeup is still in the form of a yellow paste, called thanakha, smeared in intricate patterns across the face, which also acts a sun block.
Burmese ladies walking around Shwedagon Paya
And then there are peoples with their smiles. Smile back and a grin emerges. It’s a wonderful experience. Get talking and you are soon engrossed, usually with lots of hints and tips about the things that you must go and see in Burma. They are also very interested to know a little about where you are from.
I also have to say the Burmese script is wonderful:
I am enchanted by it. There is something mesmerizing by the curves of the script, with each character somehow appearing to be circular in nature.
I am going to really like this place.
That said, Its quite clear the country has come under long term economic sanctions which effects everyday life for most Burmese. The most obvious is a lack of an international banking system. The banks here are basically a bloke behind a desk, a big wooden one at that, in an more or less empty building. Really ... it’s like the 1950’s without bank robbers. We changed some money, through the black market (thereby avoiding the auspices of the military government) only to find that the highest denomination note is 1000 Kyat. That's about 90 cents. We also know that you get the best exchange rates for the largest bills, which gave us a huge wedge of money when we changed our US $100 bill yesterday morning. I am sure that will last a long time, particularly as 100 Kyats will buy you a coffee in a restaurant.
We have also run into George Orwell’s old friend, Big Brother. The was best manifested yesterday afternoon when we went to the wonderful Shwedagon Paya . Shwedagon Paya is a magnificent golden Paya (Stupa), some 98m high, which majestically shimmers, even in a monsoon-ridden sky, against the Rangoon horizon. After a circumnavigation of the Paya, we sat chatting to this chap, someone we met through the wonderful exchange of Burmese smiles. We chatted about Buddhism and the English language of all things, when some 15 minutes later this bloke came to sit near us. We all noticed. Very quickly the conversation from this chap ended. We said our pleasantries and he wondered off. He, too, has read George Orwell’s 1984.
And, not surprisingly for me, I am also back in the land where the Internet is in lockdown, just like our experience in China. My blog is blocked, along with other important stuff such as my email account and my daily dose of fun from Paul’s Back For More blog. In fact it seems to be more what the Myanmar Junta allow, rather than what they block. Thankfully, Google and all of its services seems to be the flavor of the month in Rangoon, so this blog comes to you courtesy of Google mail and a very helpful facilitator in London ... now that comment makes me feel like a criminal.
One of the conditions that Sarah and I set for coming to Burma was a vow that we would actively channel our US dollars to sources that would prevent a minimum amount ending up in the Military Junta’s hands. We am keeping a track of what percentage of our outgoings are going to government sources, and we’ll let you know on this blog. These include things like VISA’s, Government sponsor museums/monuments, VAT and government owned travel. Unfortunately this also includes the State owned brewery, so no Myanmar beer for the next three weeks !
You may not hear much from me in the coming weeks, Internet cafes are sparse and poorly connected behind the state controlled firewall.