Sunrise , Sunset, Myanmar
Nov . 2004, I went with a group of Burmese-Chinese friends to Myanmar . Most of them now reside in the US , and this trip was arranged as they wanted to introduce their home country to their children, who were all born in the States.
Myanmar is one of the places I have always put off visiting as I was firmly under the notion that as a citizen of the world one should always join forces to impose sanction on autocratic regimes . But after some moral struggle I decided an opportunity to tour the country with native speakers was much too good to miss , and I'm happy to say it was a good decision.
There was a brief moment of anxiety as a couple of weeks prior to our departure there was a military coup in Myanmar which resulted in a change in Government . Fortunately the power struggle was internal between rival Generals and was swift and bloodless . Apart from being cautioned at the airport not to bring in " unfavourable reading materials " and not to shoot our mouth off in public places about politics, we were not unduely affected and things were outwardly calm.
Zaw-Lim , our Burmese tour guide , told me later in private that the ousted government was deemed to be too lenient towards the pro-democrates , and the moment the hard liners came into power soldiers started rounding up pro-democracy activists in the big cities, and many people were again thrown in jail .
We flew intoYangon and drove directly to Bago, arriving there at dusk so we didn't see much of the city.
Bago, 80km from Yangon, was an important seaport and ancient capital in bygone days . It was founded by 2 Mon princes from Thaton,who saw a female hamsa ( a mythological bird ) standing on the back of a male hamsa on an island in a huge lake, took it for an auspicious omen and made the spot a Royal capital.
The 2 birds became the symbol for Bago, to honor the compassion of the male hamsa in providing a place for the female to stand in the lake with only one island. Hence the men of Bago are said to be more chivalrous than men from other Burmese areas, but the local joke is Burmese men from other areas shy away from Bago women for fear of being henpecked !
I'm inclined to think the symbol is auspicious only because everything's always better with the woman on top !
Our next stop was Kyaing Tong in the Shan State, right next to the Thai and Chinese borders, where we treked up to the hill-tribe villages to distribute supplies ( food and soaps, etc ) we bought for them. Our Shan tour guide , a grey man in his 50's, was an anti-government guerrilla fighter in his youth and for 2 days I was treated to a stream of horrific tales of fighting and surviving in the wild . He later converted to Christainity and became a preacher, but the tour guide job fed his family .
We visited one of the oldest anti-leprosy service centers in Myanmar but for me the high light in the Shan State was still The Central Market !
The Market's about the size of Victoria Park, but was chockablocked with stalls selling food, clothing , fabris , as well as house-hold items - the whole of Shan State must all shop there ! I loved the fabric which mostly came from Thailand and Indonesia , and had a grand old time haggling prices with the stall owners , some of them turned out to be new immigrants from China and spoke Madarin !
We were intrigued by a white powder extracted from a special tree bark which the locals put all over their faces for beauty, but the item everybody bought was the battery operated mosquito swat, and for the rest of the journey the swats were waved about constantly like badminton rackets, for the mosquios were multitudious and viscious !
It's always joyous when a birthday falls in the middle of any trip and as it happened it was Jennifer's birthday so we scrounged a cake from the restaurant !
The Inle Lake, which we toured on flat bottomed boats, is famous for its man-made floating islands. These are fertile solid masses made from marsh, soil and water hyacinth, averaging a few yards across , on which incredibly are grown a wide variety of flowers, tomatoes, beans, cauliflowers, cabbages, eggplant, garlic, onions, betel vine, melons, papayas and bananas. The lake is shallow and muddy, colored like the yellow water I saw on sale in a temple alleged to be the bath water of Buddha.
Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country so monasteries and pagodas abound, but the one I particularly liked was the Phaungdaw Oo Pagoda with its oval windows and scores of young novice monks , who crowded around us , chuckling gleefully over their own images inside our digital cameras .
Customs dictate footwears must be taken off when entering the precincts of pagodas and monasteries, thus slippers are definitely more convenient . We were all amused when Katie kept losing her slippers and had to buy new pairs at every stop during the trip, it's as though her slippers had wings and were escaping hither and thither !
I, on the other hand , kept losing umbrellas and I was surprised in a country with so much sunshine how incredibly hard it was to find umbrellas ! In the end I had to buy a monk's umbrella which earned me strange looks from the locals.
The next stop, Bagan, is one city I'd like to visit again. It is easily the most wondrous sight in Myanmar : the 40sq km of country is dotted with thousands of stupas , monuments and patho ( temples ) , all of them magnificient architectural glories built between 1057-1287 and then suddenly abandoned, barely touched over the centuries .
Zaw-Lim, an earnest young man, somehow had a fixation that we were all ardent photographers with a special interest in sunrises and sunsets, and we had to endure many early rises and late suppers in the tour because of his delusion , but I must say sunset over the Bagan ruins is every bit as spectacular as proclaimed , and is the enduring image I'd always associate with Myanmar.
The Myanmar horoscope decinates different animals to each day of the week, unlike the Chinese horoscope which goes by the year, and as I was Monday born, I've to pay homage to the tiger as my protector, a proud beast once common throughout Southeast Asia but is now becoming extinct .
The whole day boat ride from Bagan to Mandalay afforded ample time for people to catch up on their readings or their journals , and we even had time for some party games after lunch . The evening was memorable unfortunately for the wrong reason : we were attacked by swarms of insects attracted by the light bulbs, even the mosquito swats were rendered powerless . A few with unusual foresight came prepared with masks and were protected , while the rest of us tried to hide in vain in the darker corners of the boat .
From Mandalay we flew back to Yangon and stayed in the Dusit Inya Lake Resort . We were told Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest in a house across the Lake from our hotel .
Amid our frantic sight-seeing and shopping in Yangon Karen was urgently called to go back to San Francisco because her mother was admitted into hospital with a heart condition ; this was the only fly in the jam of this trip .
( Corrections : this and the greater tragedy of Bush being re-elected into the White House during the same peroid .)
I found out Zaw-Lim was a follower of Aung San Suu Kyi , and wore proudly her colors ( peach-coloured jacket for men and dark green skirt for women ). He was still in University during the uprising in 1988, and saw first- hand his student friends being gunned down by the Government troupes . His contempt and hatred for the Military was palpable .
I was curious as to where he stood on the subject of sanctions and he was, as I suspected, ambiguous. We faced the same dilemma after the Tiananmen Crackdown in 1989, but I heed the words of Ma Thanegi , a pro-domocracy activist who once campaigned alongside Aung San Suu Kyi and was also a former political prisoner .
Aung San Suu Kyi caught the imagination of the world by her highly moral and uncompromising approach to Myanmar politics. However , Ma Thanegi wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review that he was of the opinion she was mistaken in choosing sanctions to put pressure on the Government when she could have struck up a constructive dialogue with the Government, help build a stable economy and laid the ground work for a sustainable democracy . Human - rights groups poject that when sanctions undermind the economy and the people become desperate enough they'd start a revolution, but it'll be a revolution they would watch from the safety of their own country while the Burmese are the ones to have to pay for these empty heroics !
I've carpeted the Heavens above Myanmar with the Swastika , an ancient Buddhist symbol for good luck, and the chrysanthemum flower which signifies peace and tranquility - this is my prayer for Myanmar ; though at this moment Freedom and Democracy appear to be as elusive as the Burmese old lady's blouse that I liked and scoured all over the country for in vain !
Myanmar has been in isolation for 30 years and needs to be again a part of the world . Her people had suffered enough hardship .Comimg away from this trip I'm convinced contact and not sanction is the better solution, so three months later I went to Cuba .
But that's another story.