Is it Myanmar or is it Burma? If you call it Myanmar are you a fascist conspirator? If you call it Burma are you a colonial bigot?
Apparently the two words mean the same thing and one is derived from the other. Once upon a time it was called Bama or Bamar, a local corruption of the word Myanmar. Then the Brits came along and called it Burma. Then came independence and the name stuck. Then it all went belly up, the military took over, and in 1989 formally changed it to Myanmar.
The United Nations, and countries such as France and Japan, recognise the name Myanmar, but the US and the UK don’t. My Lonely Planet is tactfully titled “Myanmar (Burma)”. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Bejeesus. We haven’t even arrived and I’m confused.
Perhaps a greater dilemma is whether you should even be there in the first place. This is (allegedly? undoubtedly?) home of the some of the worst human rights abuses of modern times. International tourism puts money in the hands of government, thus supporting the regime. But it also puts money in the hands of the locals and increases international awareness.
At the end of the day you makes your own choices. And our choice is to see the country before a relentless drive to capitalism and commercialisation takes it the same way as all other Asian countries. Besides which, political correctness has never been my forte. Travel and be damned.
No sooner have we arrived in Yangon (or Rangoon?), in February of 2014, changed some of our immaculate US dollar bills for some Burmese kyat, and taken a taxi to the hotel, than we are exposed to some of Myanmar’s delicious raft of oddities.
The USD and the Burmese kyat appear to be used inter-changeably throughout Myanmar, but the US dollar bills must be immaculate. No folds, no creases, no tears, no marks, no ink-stains, no nothing. They’re either fresh off the press, or they’re not accepted. But why? It’s not an ‘official’ requirement. The only explanation appears to be that as US bills are a safer investment than kyat, which is frequently and inexplicably devalued, people want their source of investment to be in mint condition. And that’s it.
And then there are the cars. Right-hand drive cars, driving on the right-hand side of the road, which makes a mockery of the theory of giving the driver the longest possible line of sight in traffic, and possibly says something about the country’s (or the General’s) attitude toward public safety. And in marked contrast to all other cities in developing Asia there are no motorbikes in Yangon. Legend has it that a high-ranking official’s car was hit by a motorbike one day, so he promptly banned them. True or not, no motorbikes, right-hand drive cars and pristine bills. We’ve only been here five minutes and this place is endearingly bonkers already.
Traders Hotel is completely the opposite of course – very functional, efficient and business-like, arguably to the extent of being boring, but in a place where you simply want things to work, it’s a welcome slice of order. As much as we’d love to have stayed in some of Yangon’s gorgeous, old, but recently restored, colonial-style hotels, they are, sadly, out of our budget.
The following morning we set off on the Lonely Planet’s walking tour, which immediately demonstrates the pace of change afoot in Myanmar. The guidebook is just over two years old but where City Hall is described as a “yellow colonial building with oriental overtones”, it is now a rather ugly pale blue colour and looks less colonial than ever. And the adjacent former Immigration Office and former department store described as “now seemingly abandoned”, has already undergone major renovation and would appear to be close to its third incarnation, as either a hotel, apartments or offices. The old exterior has been maintained and at this stage it is looking pretty good.
Opposite is the Immanuel Baptist Church, another apparent idiosyncrasy. While most of Asia’s dictatorships take a dim view of religion, in Myanmar it seems that anything goes. While Buddhism is obviously predominant there is no shortage of colonial-era churches and cathedrals, all in good states of repair.
From there we stroll down Pansodan Street which is lined with stalls selling second-hand and photo-copied books, including Freedom from Fear and Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as t-shirts carrying her image. Hang on. I thought she was persona non grata here at this time, and openly selling her material would result in the sort of punishment for which the military junta gets its undoubtedly deserved bad press? There are even copies of Orwell’s Animal Farm which, according to the author Emma Larkin, many Burmese like to believe is about Burma. The joke is that Orwell wrote not one but three books about Burma; Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. And now you can openly, albeit unofficially, buy Animal Farm? I’m getting more baffled by this place by the minute.
We continue on past the grand High Court Building, the equally grand Inland Water Transport offices, and the even grander Myanma Port Authority building (and that is not a spelling mistake – the ‘r’ on the end of Myanmar appears to be optional). And while these are all reasonably well maintained, and the latter again under refurbishment, the area is also full of some beautiful old colonial buildings, some still occupied and some abandoned, all in an advanced stage of decrepitude, which, ironically, renders them even more tragically beautiful. Yellowed exteriors are now green with moss. Plaster peels from walls to reveal decaying brickwork. Weeds grow wilfully from any available crevice. Daylight pours down through ceiling-less rooms. Neglect is everywhere.
From Strand Road, we walk along Bank Street, passing the Customs House and Law Courts – both well-maintained; then onto Sule Road. We walk past Mahabandoola Garden with little more than a sideways glance, cross the roundabout that is the Sule Paya (pagoda), and take our seats in the Thone Pan Hia teahouse for a cup of tea so strong you could stand your spoon up in it. If the local pub is a cornerstone of British life, then the teahouse is the Burmese equivalent. It is teahouse, snack-bar, cinema, sports venue, social club and office. Old men while away the day in idle chatter. Young men watch football games on tv. Housewives watch the soaps. Businessmen hold meetings and strike deals. And everyone drinks bucket-loads of strong, sweet, milky tea.
We then continue along Mahabandoola Road and 26th Street to the Theingyi Zei market, which is something of a disappointment, selling ordinary housewares and textiles, traditional herbs, cosmetics and medicines. The Sri Kali Hindu temple is a riot of coloured figurines and a walk up Shwe Bon Thai Road takes us to Bogyoke Aung San Market. Built by the British in 1926 and formerly known as Scott’s Market, the market is housed in a colonial building in a remarkably good state of repair compared to so many others. It’s a major tourist destination, dominated by antique shops, Burmese handicraft and jewellery shops, art galleries, and clothing stores. Whilst we’d hoped for an orgy of retro junk, it’s a bit more tourist-tat that we’d expected, and ultimately rather disappointing.
Bogyoke Aung San Road (named after her independence-winning father and not the Lady herself) however is crowded with unofficial stalls – many nothing more than a sheet or tarpaulin on the pavement – selling either junk or antiques, depending on your point of view – including some old bakelite, rotary dial telephones, which take my fancy. Thanks to my procrastination however, and a determination to make sure we’re buying something authentic, by the time we make a decision on the model we want, it’s already gone.
But not to worry, the trader’s ‘friend’ has some more at home that we can go and look at. Normally when someone says anything related to their ‘friend’ or ‘uncle’ or ‘cousin’ I’m off in the other direction, but this time decide to go with the flow. And the flow takes us to an absolute Aladdin’s cave of old phones, cameras, lamps, stereos, radios – you name it, and these two old Indian fellers have got it. I’m not sure if we’re actually in their house or their shop, but either way it’s a great experience, as they search under dressers and behind curtains, and dust off a procession of old telephones in various states of repair, while the wife serves us Cokes and Granny does some dusting.
In the end we settle on a phone which appears to have the correct Ericsson stamp on it, is in reasonable condition, actually works, and the piece de resistance for me, has BURMA TELECOM etched into the bottom.
People describe Cuba as being stuck in a time-warp and while Myanmar doesn’t have a fleet of run-down classic 50’s cars, in other respects they’re positively in the dark ages. There must be money to be had buying everyday stuff, then shipping it to Hong Kong to sell as ‘retro’. Then again, I’m not sure anyone would really pay good money for the Bullworker we found in the most out-dated sports store on earth.
Then, we have to cheat, as Yangon’s number one tourist site, Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, is a little beyond walking distance and requires the use of a taxi. With it’s huge golden dome and diamond encrusted hti, you can’t help wondering, in a country so desperately poor, how much wealth is tied up in this place (not that I’m advocating tearing off the gold leaf and converting it into cash of course).
Aside from the main pagoda, there are a zillion other stupas, shrines, bells and buddhas, and specific spots representing the day on which you were born. I’m tempted to get a little pious but don’t actually know on what day I was born. I could swear me Mam always said it was a Tuesday, but according to t’internet, it was a Monday.
All that glitters is gold, and Shwedagon is undoubtedly a deeply spiritual place, it’s even a cool place to just hang out and watch the devotees go by, but – and I feel rather sacrilegious and disrespectful saying this – it just doesn’t do it for me in the same way that, say, St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, is utterly spine-tingling. That’s my karma screwed.
And our walking tour over. Yangon is still caught in a delicious time-warp. The isolationist policies of the junta and the overall lack of investment have created an anachronism of beautiful ruin. But it’s already changing, undoubtedly for the betterment of the people who live there, and if modernity has not actually yet arrived, it is certainly just round the corner.