8 months ago, before my start, I said to my father: “Take it easy dad, in this journey I will always stick touristic routes and I’ll never go in dangerous places, for sure I won’t go to Burma!”
And here I am, confident, and with grandpa Willy supporting me from far away, checking in for Yangon, Burma’s former capital city.
The history is quite easy: after being a province of British colonial empire together with India, from 1962 Burma is ruled by a dictatorship military junta: martial law.
In ‘89 the name was changed to Myanmar, but we don’t like regimes, especially the military ones, then we keep the name Burma, feeding the protests, ok?
Every voice of democratic opposition is promptly shut up and huge peaceful demonstrations in ‘88, ‘97 and 2007 ended up with a bloodbath as much as TienAnMen, where young military men were forced to shoot on the crowd (monks, students and likely their families gathered in the streets); those who were hesitating, showing humanity, were arrested and replaced by other poor and ignorant youth taken from remote countryside villages, being happy to hold M-16 or AK-47 and playing at wargames, having a grotesque revenge against rich and cultured university students...
All this shit is happening today, present time, it’s not history; and nowadays the terror regime makes every wrong deed or word suspicious of conspiracy, leading, if lucky, lo prison… Students and Intellectuals are constantly under fire from sharp shooters and those who speak too much with foreigners must check their back and avoid taboo words.
I’m wondering what’s behind this Orwellian madness (that was prophet writing “Burmese days”, “Animal Farm” and “1984” in the ‘40ies).
I can’t believe a surgent waking up one day and creating all this; then I got the answer: Burma is n.2 producer of Opium (n.1 Afghanistan), keenly smuggled by China and Russia, with silent ok by the US (they are behind everything, and increasingly fearing China); in turn they provide weapons and intelligence.
While in the middle east the “democratic” wars are constant, here they don’t even need lullabies...
What you see in everyday life is a “police and thieves” game in a paradoxical exotic and sadly happy context; the Burmese people are stick to the wall, chocked and impotent in their farmer old tradition, and I still wonder how some people can sleep at night...
As a tourist, I brought some bad and some good: 50ish of my dollars ended up in the government pockets as “security foreigners taxes”, on the other hand I lent both my ears to the many voices willing to talk and shout their rage, I brought many smiles and laughs, I made friendships and I showed a human side to those living under siege, where your neighbor may be a spy and shoot your back.
I could write 10 more html pages about shit seen, read and been told, but I’m rambling and you’re getting bored so I better start to write about my 4 burmese weeks:
Sadly I haven’t done any mean of transport trades (after having sold my skateboard to a teenager in Bangkok!), and switching from a board to a paddling boat to an aeroplane might sound drastic, but I didn’t have a choice, all the land crossing are shut due to rebel fights and opium business...
So you think New York is the metropolis, the definitive multi-culture place?
You’re wrong, Yangon is the real meltin’pot!
Whites, blacks, yellows and reds: Burmese, Chinese, Bengali, Cingali, Pakistani, Nepali, Buddhists, animists, hindu, muslims, jews and cristians all live in a square meter!
“Hey Brother! Change money! Taxi! My friend! Drink tea! Want girl?”
A stroll through Yangon’s streets is a trip of smells, stinks, dust, trash, colors, sounds, noises, screams, robes and turbans, the experience I was waiting for! A big city, where old women sell dubious food covered by flies next to modern coffee shops, where barefoot Indians sell hi-tech products, where garbage is a décor and living scenography!
A dive in this world, where the heat is unbearable so that taking showers is just useless, you better get use to and manage the layer of sweat-dust-smog-shit that grows between you and the rest of the world, hoping a strange ecosystem won’t rise up!
After this poly-sensorial experience I start hitchin’ a ride: the first goal is to see the new capital city built just 3 years ago in the middle of nowhere 6 hours north of Yangon:
NayPyiTaw (pronounce NiPiDo) is well off the track and protected from everything and everybody, where only military men and government officials live, where electric power is running 24 hours a day (in the rest of the country light is yo-yoing, and people have power generators and some hire power from Chinese companies), and, most important, where astrologists said that is the perfect point where raising the capital of “A new perfect society, a new race...”, awkward.
No bus leads there, no guidebook talks about it, nobody wants to go. I start walking, like a lunatic, under the boiling sun through the surreal, long, desert paved and clean road that lead to NayPyiTaw.
I feel like entering Pyongyang, North Korea.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see a nuclear weapon behind a dune or a Blackhawk hidden in the bush.
I’m stopped by 3 police blocks where the guys, surprised as much as me for my appearance, ask me where the hell I am going: I mumble, gesture, pretending to know where I am and start walking again. The cop speaks in his walkie talkie my arrival in town. I start feeling like a fugitive.
Luckily a concrete mixer truck comes with some ok Burmese that bring me to their place of work: the building of the new government palace, a huge, no, more, a fucking huge cement building under construction rising in the distance from the desert, that annihilate the palm huts in which the slave… ehm the workers live, with a bridge crossing the huge moat dividing the palace from the rest of the world. Will they put crocodiles? It’s majestic, big, beautiful, and reminds me of Berlin’s Reichstag but 10 times bigger and spiky roof.
What the fuck!! Where the hell am I? Will I be cuffed?
While some fear starts bumping in my throat I also feel much adrenaline growing up, and take as many pictures as I can, before a guy on a motorbike approaches me “Hey you?””Yes?””No photo.””Ok my friend thank you!” He leaves, I’m safe.
Another motorbike comes and takes me downtown: a cluster of 4 lane streets in the middle of nowhere, kilometres of poured asphalt separating nothing from nothing, while the sun seems to melt down the landscape. Am I dreaming? Hallucinating? What the fuck!
Eventually we reach the first houses, built with dreadful Chinese material, all the same, with obscene colors, with barbed wire and machine guns (no just kidding), with barbed wire and many antennas; entire ugly blocks, where nobody walks, nobody lives, where the hell is everybody? Man or robots?
Ah there they are, all in the main square drinking hot tea, today actually is Sunday.
The ugliest square around Asia, I guess, everybody stares at me and mumbles. I drink some sugar cane juice pretending to feel comfortable. Somebody talks with me, don’t know if they are spies or whatever and I just nod at them. One man sits next to me and tells me that he hates this place and he was forced to move here 3 years ago from Yangon with all his family.
Then he leaves. Tough situation.
As somebody says I’m the first tourist of 2009, so I gift myself a t-shirt “Rememberance of NayPyiTaw”. I look for a place to sleep and the only one open to foreigners is an expensive 20 dollars one (never paid more than 5 dollars in Asia), thus I leave the capital, choosing the option “Northbound Night Train”.
The journey reminds me of the unforgettable route Beijing-Pingyao with people sleeping anywhere, with a bit less rubbish on board but more bumps, a swinging slow train.
Yawning, I get to Inle lake, a hi-altitude lake surrounded by mountains, where I put aside my revolutionary thoughts and military shit and enjoy them, the Burmese, in their simple fisherman’s life, rowing with one foot while catching the net with both hands and standing still on the other foot. Circus!
After many funny lifts on motorbikes and trucks I get to central Burma. In the dusty Mandalay I find the exuberant and conspirator Moustache Brothers and chat with monks and local friends, while striving against sandstorms comparable to Gobi desert ones. Sometimes the famous layer of sweat-dust-smog-shit is really unbearable...
All the country is filled with temples and pagodas, especially on the mountain tops, these lands are with plenty of golden towers, hence the name “Golden Land” is worthy! Burmese truly believe a lot in Buddhism, they practice and travel the country as pilgrims, not tourists, and try to gain merit for their next life, hoping that will be better than this...
In Monywa I luckily saw 2 huge Buddhas, one reclined and one standing, more than 130 metres high! Much more stunning than the Leshan’s one, in China, and inside him (!) 25 floors (now available only 5), showing images from Buddhist’s Hell (a moment between one life and the other), in which I don’t wish for you to end up: people twisted, broke into pieces, stabbed, cooked…
Then in Bagan, after 1 million more pagodas, it’s time for adventures: I met some Burmese guys who invited me for an incredible event: Nat worshipping festival: 2 days of party and offerings to the Nats, the spirits that, according to pre-buddhist beliefs, live inside everything surrounding us! Just like shamans and animists they worship these spirits being sure to get their luck and their protection.
At 4am I’m ready to ship with other 80 burmese man and women aging from 1 to 70, going north to the small village where the massive festival is held.
On the swinging boat everybody is beautiful: men wear short sleeve shirts and longji, the traditional and everyday life cloth that covers legs like a long skirt;
their mouth and teeth are stained with a redder-than-blood powder, it's not they've been eating a zebra in the jungle; it's betel, local liqorice!
Women are simple and beautiful in their flowered long dresses, and their cheeks are full of thanaka: a yellow cream, gotten from wood, that everybody, men and women, use as makeup, decoration and protection against the sun. The results are amazing and exotic designs painted on everybody’s face and arms, stunning on chubby child’s face and sweet Burmese girls! Ah so much exoticism!
I’m by far the dirtiest on board (I didn’t expect all this cleanliness!) and with some compassion my friend MaoMao lent me a shirt and a longji: I’m a Burmese! I’m clean!
Burmese’s English is definitely good, but it seems they mix a little English and Spanish: their “Yes, Nos, Thankyous” bring big laughs to my face!
We’re off: from 8 to 11 a woman around 30 starts the worshipping on the boat, offering food, drinking, smoking, dancing and singing under the crazy Burmese music coming from crappy megaphones. After 3 hours the woman will have honestly finished a bottle of rum and smoked at least 60 cigarettes (2 at a time!) and fed everybody on board including me, and we all thanked the spirits burping!
The chaotic music, the noise of the engine and the swinging of the boat, the chanting, dancing and some rum and I’m totally dizzy and in a spirit trance together with my crazy crew!
Fantastic, absolutely amazing, and more has to come: at night, after 12 hours sailing upstream we reach the village, and we are not alone! Flocks of boats come from every corner, overcrowded with party-mood and full-of-rum Burmese singing and swinging.
The real festival is managed by some men dressed as Nats that took all the offerings of money and alcohol giving back dancing and blessings.
The crowd is literally overwhelmed, they mosh pit dance under the full moon in an atmosphere that... I cannot say... Crazy? Magic? Enchanting? If only I would be able to understand what they are screaming out...
A human sacrifice would be the perfect climax, but it seems these indigenous still have some brain power!
The night I sleep, well I try to, on the roof of the boat, with the echo of the music still running until the morning... The day after on the way back I find myself in the middle of a fight on the boat: 2 guys, due to too much rum, cannot peacefully decide who was winning over a card game and as result all the people on board hysterically scream and push each other among shouts, tears and flying punches!
I remove myself and watch (never get into local’s affairs) and after 5 mins the fight is over; the balance is not bad: just one slightly wounded.
Great stuff man!
So now I also have protection from the spirits, nobody can stop me!
Eventually I reach the Bengali bay and rest at the beach for a few days. Burmese on holiday (for now is summertime here) swim in the ocean totally dressed with shirts and long pants (!) for their society is pretty much conservative, and a bikini may be too much...
I have great symposiums in French with a 60 year old couple from Paris now retired (just like me!). And finally I meet Jack, he’s over 50 and he tells me how 20 years ago he was in the Philippines and ended up working as an extra for the movie “Apocalypse Now”! Crazy world!
Yes, that’s my Burma, where, far from political shit, I had a great experience with this great people, but where political shit is rooted and scary; I often felt like bandit, and in fact I did, for their laws!
After seeing NayPyiTaw it seems, alas, that the worst still has to come, but I hope I’m wrong;
For my little side, I hope at least that these words help to keep alive the memory all my friends met in Yangon, Bago, Inle, Mandalay, Monywa, Bagan and ChaungTa, and the ones that were so brave by challenging the spies and talking to me, will have good luck as much as courage.
On the fly back to Bangkok I met a brother whom I travelled with in Mongolia, reminding me of yaks and camels, yeah!
And now I’m in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and have too many plans in mind for the future so let’s see what happens in these 30 days!