Greetings from the ancient Thai capital of Ayuthya where I'm struggling to get back to working internet and 24hour electricity after a simply wonderful month in the bonkers, tragic but also brilliant country of Myanmar.
Before leaving Vietnam (and my stay in Laos which I'll cover in the next email) I asked everyone not to write anything too controversial in emails as Myanmar is of course run by a military junta who aren't exactly keen on criticism of their governing techniques. My favorite George Orwell novel is Burmese Days but the joke of course is that Myanmar society now better resembles that of 1984 rather than the quiet colonial images of the earlier novel. In truth though, the expected incessant propaganda didn't really materialize; whilst there are a couple of government papers that nobody reads there aren't posters up everywhere saying what a great job the government is doing (like there is Vietnam) or people being compelled to stand for the national anthem twice a day (as in Thailand). For the majority of the population the real crime the military junta has been simply being one of the worst governments in the world over the last 47 years. During the beginning of the Iraq war when the arguments about invading because of WMD started to falter, both Bush and Blair started using the justification that regime change was necessary as Saddam Hussein was such a bad leader. Then surely they should also have invaded Myanmar. I honestly think if I got a group of friends together as a cabinet and had weekly meetings down my local on a Thursday night we could probably have done a better job than the Junta has managed.
The evidence of this came straight away; the first few hours in Myanmar are really quite unpleasant as they don't have a functioning exchangeable currency. Due to international sanctions there are no international ATMs in the country and you can forget about using travelers cheques or credit cards, therefore you have no option but to get hold of lots of US dollars and change them up once you arrive. In a first demonstration of their complete lack of a basic understanding of economics the Junta keep the local kyat pegged at around 6 to the US dollar. However, 6 kyats would buy you literally nothing as the smallest denomination is a 10 kyat note which is worth about $0.01 on the black market that predictably has sprung up. As in other countries where the only way to get hold of money is via a black market, you end up dealing with little more than organized criminals and it's more a question of how much you'll be scammed out of rather than if you'll be scammed. I lost a few dollars but we met a Polish girl who lost $100 and it's a horrible introduction to the country.
Thankfully it doesn't last as Yangon is just a fantastic city to be in; as its position on the map suggests it really feels like a bridge between SE Asia and the subcontinent as a diverse mix of peoples and cultures congregate in the city. It has just about every religion covered and the sights of the different cultures and the smells of the fantastic street food stalls make it a marvelous place to walk around. With the faded grandeur of the English colonial architecture that's been untouched for 60 years, a liberal sprinkling of palm trees and the sight of old women sitting out in the evenings smoking the fantastic local cigars (which I'm still enjoying) it's impossible not to draw comparisons of the city with Havana and it would have to rate as one of my favorite cities in Asia.
The evening were a bit quiet however as Yangon like the rest of Myanmar has very patchy electricity supplies, even right in downtown whole districts can be without power for entire days at a time; which was why on the bus North arriving in Nay Pyi Taw was quite a shock. In 2006 the government moved the capital away from Yangon to a field 4 hours North in the middle of nowhere, whilst this has been done many times around the world for political reasons (e.g. Ivory Coast, Brazil have done so and Iran is planning it) the Junta spent $250 million doing so and the country really cannot afford it. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia and the effects of this shockingly unnecessary waste of money can be seen all over the country. Ostensibly the move was done to protect ministries etc from possible cyclones but in reality the reasoning behind it was to remove government (and the ability to protest) away from the people. After the blackouts and poverty of Yangon arriving in Nay Pyi Taw was utterly surreal as brightly lit 6 lane highways lead up to the huge mansions the generals live in whilst a tiny population of just 20,000 people service their lavish, utterly corrupt lifestyles.
So we headed North to our next major stop at the amazing temples of Bagan on the central plains; rivalilng the temples of Angkor as the most amazing sight in SE Asia the sheer scale of them is quite incredible. Whilst at Angkor the individual temples were the attraction, Bagan is a series of around 2500 temples built by a Buddhist fanatic King onto a plain by the Ayrewaddy, on some of the biggest you can climb up some 70m and view them out over the plains below. You have to get around by horse-cart and with virtually 0 tourists (you're a bit more off the beaten track here) it's a truly incredible sight looking at them all spread out below.
Burmese roads are notoriously bad and just like the Robbie Williams song the road to Mandalay was utterly turgid; in this very dry season travelling on the dirt roads was slow, dusty and painful and so we were pleased to finally make it to the nations 2nd city. However, if Yangon showed off the country's past then Mandalay was more of a view of the country's present. One of the most tragic things about Myanmars recent history is that it should be one of the wealthiest countries in Asia; blessed wth abundant oil, gas, gold, timber and precious jewel supplies when the British left it had a lot going for it, a good railway system, civil service and even the most bounteous rice crop in Asia.
But through a series of terrible decisions the junta have ruined things, allowing the railways to fall into disrepair and as in Cambodia forcing the people to overfarm the soil has had a dreadful impact on the country's food production.
Ultimately it's the natural wealth of the country that keeps the junta in power; in the West many protestors against the Junta argue that the presence of China and Russia on the UN security council is pointless as they will accept any political regime provided they have resources to trade and Myanmar is a perfect example of this. Mandalay is on the main road to the Chinese border and is now an ugly collection of functional buildings that take away any ideas of distinct neighbourhoods or individual districts in a fairly monotonous city. There are signs of the Chinese investments everywhere mainly in timber and other commodities but most major countries have some form of investment here. The UK has around $350 million invested in oil projects but seeing Nicolas Sarkozy give a typically robust lashing of the junta recently sounded particularly hollow as Total also have a huge project in the Ayrewaddy delta region.
Whilst the city itself is not particularly memorable the area round Mandalay is utterly fascinating composed of no less than 3 ancient capitals and many, many Buddhist sights in the area. The people are everything the government is not, relaxed and humble everywhere we went people were spectacularly friendly, this was particularly so of the women although in truth that was mainly because I spent the month with a Dutch Tom Cruise lookalike and they all wanted to have their photo taken with him. We rented a motorbike and really got into the lovely countryside which was just great as we got to mix with the people away from the main touristy areas. They're really happy to see you and are surprisingly open about how much they hate the government, several times telling us how to avoid the entrance fees for tourist attractions (because the money goes to the government) using side doors and the like.
Whilst I mentioned earlier that for the majority of the population the major crime of the Junta has been their shocking lack of governing ability by no means is that true for everyone in the country. Often military governments start wars with other countries to justify their continued hold on power but in Myanmar they went for option b) and started clamping down on ethnic minorities. One of the worst things the British did in the area was to set Burma up as an administrative region with no respect to the many different tribes that live there. Perhaps one of the few good things the junta has done was to change the nations name from the English designation Burma which only reflected the Burmese majority to the Union of Myanmar which in theory reflects all the different tribes which make up the nation. However, many of the tribes want at least more autonomy if not full independence and see the name change as being little more than reflective of the Burmese juntas desire to continue to control the whole region. From Mandalay we went North into the Shan region and then down to the beautiful Inle Lake where we started to see the effects of the the restrictions placed on minorities lifestyles. The junta say they've been constantly fighting rebel insurgents for decades but it's quite easy to view these conflicts as little more than a way to justify there role in government. From the vast numbers of refugees that have been forced across the borders into Bangladesh or Thailand or tribesmen desperately forced to take up arms against the marauding Burmese army as usual the results have been nothing but expensive for everyone and predictably hit the poorest hardest.
Perhaps the most memorable example of this was the sad plight of the Paduang women forced to act as tourist attractions on Inle Lake, they're the ones with the neck coils who have zero quality of life from the age of about 9 onwards. Originally done to stop the women being carried off by neighbouring tribes there now a nasty millstone round their necks. The coils can weigh up to a stone and seeing some of the older women with severe hunchbacks barely able to move is not a pleasant sight. They're now forced to pose for photos for tourists for a small fee (which they get very little or nothing of back) and are a sad indication of how unpleasant the junta can be.
The lake itself is in a gorgeous setting flanked by two mountain ranges and at an altitude of about 900m. The way of life here is still very traditional with the fisherman using a unique one legged paddle to get around and the aquatic reeds supporting massive floating gardens of fruit and vegetables. Myanmar has few 'big' companies and we spent a lot of time going to local factories (eg noodles, sugar and my favourite cigars) seeing how people got by. Even here though the effects of the governments terrible decision making can be seen, by granting huge timber concessions to China and India the local price of teak which the people make their boats out of has doubled in the last 5 years and virtually none of the money raised from the timber sales goes back to the people.
Aside from building unnecessary new cities the government has heavily invested in tourism viewing Thailands success across the border and trying to get a piece of that market. Whilst other countries in the region (China, Vietnam etc.) are also guilty of over-development of the tourist industry, in Myanmar it feels the most tragic as the money has been almost entirely wasted. Over the '80s and '90s the government built many 4 and 5 star hotels that stand near empty with little prospect of a upsurge in visitors due to the ongoing political situation. Every year they make bold predictions of how many visitors will come and every year they have to come up with lame excuses as to why the visitors didn't show seemingly not having the intelligence to see the link between few tourists and their leadership. Which in some ways is a real shame as culturally Myanmar is just a fascinating place with the Buddhism practiced here being one of the main attractions.
One of my Mums biggest regrets in me is that despite living a virtually identical lifestyle I never actually became a monk- she should have sent me to Myanmar. Aside from the incredibly friendly locals the other overwhelming memory I'll take from the country was the incongruous sight of the huge number of monks and the huge number of soldiers. Myanmar is one of the most religious countries in the world with an incredible 1% of the population wearing monks robes, almost every village has a monastery and at times you are surrounded by the men in robes. We stayed overnight in one and even attended a meditation session for 300 of them set in one position for 3hours which was an strange experience. We also went to quite a few of the famous pilgrimage sights including climbing a mountain up to the beautiful Golden rock shrine which is one of the most important one in the country. Seeing all this religion in action made me think that it's a lot of the problem with the continued power of the junta- the people are just too relaxed and not militant enough...
Whilst the vast majority of the people are completely against the junta government historically the Tatmadaw (as the armed forces are called) are very important in the countrys history. Aung Sun Suu Kyi's dad was the General in charge when independence was secured from Britain, he still retains saint like status and 50 years of propaganda has meant the Tatmadaw still plays a key role in the psyche of the nation. However, if you look closely you can see that the government has done little more than buy loyalty from the army. Despite having no external enemies the country spends a shocking 40-45% of the GDP supporting an army of nearly 500,000. Heavily armed soldiers are seen everywhere not doing very much but whilst the people don't like the army leadership they do provide strong financial stability. A local guy told us that after 7 years of studying and paying for their education a doctor earns around $80 per month whereas a private in the army earns $120 per month once they've completed basic training. When you thrown in food and accommodation and it's easy to see why for so many people it's the easiest and best way out of poverty for them and their families.
By simply buying the loyalty of the army at great expense to the rest of the country it's a tragic situation but somewhat controversially I think the people themselves must take some of the blame for it. Whilst 'the lady' (as Aung Sun Suu Kyi is deferentially referred to as) has remained under house arrest (albeit in a beautiful villa with lake views) the pro democracy movement has been led painfully unsuccessfully in her absence. Whilst espousal of non violent resistance may get you friends in Hollywood and even a Nobel Peace prize it patently hasn't brought any results in decades and the country has continued to get poorer under the junta. What was frustrating about Myanmar is that it doesn't feel like the Chinese in Tibet or the Zionists in Palestine where much wealthier and better armed enemies crush the locals from without. It's an internal dictatorship and as the 2007 riots (the failed saffron revolution) led by the monks showed at least parts of the army can be persuaded to revolt. If slightly more militant methods were used then I did feel things might change and the political and economic freedom the people deserve can be achieved.
Whilst I've as usual banged on about the politics a bit too much Myanmar really is an incredible place and both me and my Dutch companion rated it as one of the most interesting places we've ever been to, I won't forget it anytime soon.
I'm now back in Thailand where I'll spend my final couple of weeks in SE Asia.