The colonial architecture of old Rangoon is slowly losing its battle with the tropics. From the street you can see the jungle emerging sheepishly from blocked gutters, the cracked pastel cladding peeling away and the broken filigree that hints at a former grandeur. In the stifling midday heat, the deserted streets and crumbing scene leave you with the impression you’ve stumbled into a post-apocalyptic disaster film. The only sign of life is from three-man road gang dealing with a craterous pothole. One of them is sporting a t‑shirt emblazoned with a large Nazi swastika — complete with an S.S. eagle and oak leaf cluster. Taking in the scene, I thought Kipling had a point when he said: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”
As it abandons the worst vestiges of its autocratic past, international opinion has spun on a dime. One minute it was seen as a pariah state, the next it’s seen as a pin‑up. I was acutely aware of the burden of its history when I arrived in Yangon — formally known as Rangoon. Hopping into a cab clutching a copy of Orwell’s Burmese Days, the driver let me in on what appeared to be the national joke: “You know Orwell wrote two more books about our country? Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four!" It was a gentle reminder that behind all of the excited chatter about the country’s 'opening up', it is emerging from a dark and complicated space.
Although it has moved forward in leaps and bounds, it would be naive to think that all is well in the Union of Myanmar — as it is officially called. The country is home to over 130 recognised ethnic groups, twenty of whom have, at various points, launched armed insurrections against the central government. Every now and then, reminders of this internal conflict pop up. I was perplexed when the guard refused to sell me a ticket for a ludicrously early morning train from Mandalay to Hsipaw. Perhaps sensing my increasing irritation, his boss ambled over, placed his face near the booth’s window and curtly added: “last train shot at by Shan army… no train today”.
For a country with a patchwork of ethnic groups and a history of immigration I thought I might get a look at a ‘multicultural society’ in action. That naïve assumption was shattered early on. Casual racism appears to be part of the local vernacular — there is no love lost between some ethnic groups with accusations of: ‘laziness’, ‘dishonesty’ or ‘deviance’ easily slipping off the tongue. Religion too can be particularly divisive. Wandering through Dalla — a small town on the ‘wrong side of the Yangon River’ — I met a young Muslim Rohingya boy aspiring to be a tour guide. The sites he showed me were nowhere near as interesting the reaction he inspired in others. When I pressed him about it he shrugged and said: “I’m Muslim, they hate me”.
On the shores of Inle Lake, in Nyuang Shwe, I met a shopkeeper desperate to hear what I thought of her country. Her shop was a hipster’s dream — stocked full of beautiful handicrafts handmade from organic products. I found myself discussing politics, the economy and her future marketing strategy over a bottomless pot of tea. She was determined to succeed so that she could support her family in a distant village. Her products could be a hit on the streets of Brooklyn, but sadly they’re unlikely to make it there anytime soon — she had very real third world problems, lacking access to both a bank account and the internet.
Just south of Mandalay lies the
former royal capital of Amarapura, it’s home to the worlds’ longest teak bridge
and at the height in the wet season — the Yadanagu Nat festival. Although the
country is predominantly Buddhist, many Burmese also worship one or more of the
thirty-seven ‘official’ Nats — a type of indigenous spirit. Perched on the back
of his motorbike as we weaved our way through the back streets of Mandalay my
new friend, Mon, didn’t hold back his feelings about Nats: “Don’t trust a Nat.
They cheat you! Most people are afraid of them… so they give them money for
Arriving at the festival I was met with a cacophony of bright lights, grating music and people queuing to throw their money away, literally — I felt like I’d entered a Burmese poker machine. To untrained ears the traditional music appeared to be inspired by two alley cats fighting amongst the garbage cans. Surrounding the shrine groups of sober young men were gyrating like they were in the thick of the action at Glastonbury. Sneaking through a side door I caught a glimpse of worshippers prostrating themselves in front of a cross‑dressing spirit medium. The unfortunate medium appeared to be suffering from the combination of an elaborate costume and stifling humidity. Every now and then he would take some of the money given as an offering and scatter it amongst the crowd. Pandemonium ensued as the seated masses clambered over each other to get their hands on some ‘lucky money’. The spirit‑medium noticed I missed out on the lucky money, so he reached onto the offering table and chucked me a ‘lucky’ beer instead!
One particularly humid evening in Mandalay, I made some new friends over a bottle of Mandalay Rum. This local drop is unlikely to break your bank, but it can wreck havoc on any delusions of activity you might have planned for the following morning. Our conversation was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a sanctimonious Englishman. This gentleman was trying to convince a gaggle of perplexed locals that: “Your country doesn’t need more foreigners, because they’ll just ruin the vibe.” Judgment calls aside — I thought his nonsensical argument was particularly ironic. That this is a country that — until recently — a lot of people have thought queasy about visiting. Some still do. In a rare showing of bipartisan support, friends and family from different ends of the political spectrum stridently declared that they wouldn’t travel to Burma for ‘political reasons’. Generation Y spent their formative years catching news bulletins where it’s name was frequently paired with ‘military junta’, ‘repression’, ‘protests’ and ‘violent crackdown’. Shaking that reputation doesn’t happen overnight.
Mercifully the hedonism that appears to be a defining feature of the tourist trade in some of its neighbours hasn’t made it across the border at this stage. The whole country seems to go to bed by 11pm. Once outside the relatively cosmopolitan Rangoon, the only semblance of nightlife — outside the fluorescent ‘beer stations’ — are the odd group of young men crooning around a guitar player. With European football on the telly, cheap beer and a complete absence of women, the ubiquitous beer station’s are the very definition of a man cave. For the average foreigner at least, the output from the golden triangle appears to be limited to wholesale traders with connections to the right General — nary a joint can be found. This is a country where the major attractions are all pagodas in one form or another. Its innocence, in that regard, is clearly intact, but for how long remains to be seen.