myanmar: first impressions

I have been meeting Burmese people in Singapore in the past, from construction workers to specialized doctors. They do have notable characteristics in common: They are meek, introvert and most of the time, restrained. That gave me the impression of enigma as their non-verbal gestures are not easy to decipher.

The country was succumbed with the nightmare of oppression and military cloister for the past five decades or more. Anyone who would dare to oppose the government will be pinned to the ground relentlessly. No freedom of speech, no modern interpretations of art and media was hidden in the dark alleys of colonial capital. A sight of anyone holding a camera will warrant a summon for interrogation.

I was haunted by the picture in my head on what will greet us upon arrival at the airport . Popular travel guides printed at the beginning of this decade illustrate a dark ghastly city thriving in the colonial metropolis that dodged the bombs of the recent world war. I even had nightmares of us, eight travel bloggers being invited in a dark mafia-looking niche with Al Pacino looming from the corner of the room.

I was on the verge of huddling-up with Monette, Gay, Marky, Robbie, Melo, Dong and Jerome to give contingency instructions if in case one of us got on a hook. But I know I would be ridiculously laughable, so I stopped myself. I am glad I did.


After more than 24 hours in transit, we arrived at Yangon International Airport all ambivalently excited and exhausted, except for Luna who kept on running around the arrival area like as if she was intentionally attenuating all eight adults to drop tired until the armed troop comes-in to pick us up while she smiles sinisterly behind.

The morning sunrise greeted us. The glass bound airport made me utter silently “Come on, you are kidding me… This airport is waaaay better than NAIA

The immigration officer gave me the release cues by saying Mingalabar with a sweet smile. Behind the immigration line, families of other passengers were flashing sincere smiles like as if we were the ones they were waiting for. Greetings of Sawasdee ka flying left and right affirmed my anticipation that we will be mistaken as Thai tourists.

We’ve heard of horror stories about the midnight train to Bagan. The rusty, wheel catapulting, butt tendering and death defying old piece of machine from the country’s colonial inheritance chest. To ratify that, just a few nights ago, the sleeper train got derailed, leaving us with the slow hard seat cars as our only option.

We spared ourselves from doing return trip in flying caskets. So we bet on our biggest sacrifice on this trip—Hiring a private van to Bagan in the tune of US$400. We gagged and froth in the mouth but it was the safest and more comfortable way of crossing the vast arid Burmese plain. Plus we get to use the van to go around the city for the initial sight seeing resting.

Running on the streets of Yangon, I felt misled by my paranoia. The gaping holes on the pavements, as vividly described in the books, were no longer there. Yangon in fact, is a surprisingly clean city. I’m sure there are alleys somewhere where it isn’t as clean as the main roads. But I give props to them who effectively hid it away from the visitors.

So where do we go from there? We still have the whole day before we hit the road on a 11 hour road trip to the ancient capital of Bagan. That was the point when we met Mister Moe, whom we endearingly baptized with a pet name, MOE HITLER!

Mister Moe Hitler was the guide who came with the van package by mandate, he embodied what I believe to be those who witnessed the iron fist of the past and he effectively demonstrated it to us, with me as the subject.

I was cleaning my camera when we passed along Shwedagon pagoda, he pointed towards the towering stupa and asked me to take pictures:
Mister Moe: Take a picture, hurry take a picture!
Me: Uhmmm, maybe later when—
Mister Moe: NO!!! TAKE A PICTURE!!!
Me: <gulp> ok
And I clicked randomly taking blurred images just to satisfy his pushy orders.

We were eating lunch and mister Moe was putting a plethora of unknown spices and condiments on my plate. I politely refused by saying “It’s OK. I am not really a fan of those (nasty looking) chopped chili” But to no avail. He was still happily dropping mounds of pureed spices on my heaping plate of rice. I was half expecting that he would eventually retract my mouth open to stuff-in blocks of mutton like an oral lavage.

I asked him about the wash room, He told me to follow him but I just lit a stick at that time, so I stayed put. When he realized that I was not following, he made a kissing sound like as if he was calling a dog or a donkey. When he saw me not moving, he took my arm and literally dragged me to the wash room. I swear, looking back it really felt like he grabbed me by the neck and I was really scared for my life.

On our way back to change vehicles and drivers, he was seated in front of me, his knee was pressing my leg against the hard edge of the seat. I did not complain, I remained quiet like a puppy scared for his life. I braved a good 20 minutes of it leaving a red mark on my shin.

Seriously, I never took offense of the bossy attitude even though it was bordering to slave driving, I know it was unintentional. Besides, we find it amusing and situationally hilarious. It is possibly an effect of years under dictatorship, it may be a manifestation of a sub-conscious conditioning that the Burmese people suffered while they were in deep tribulation.

Now they are waking-up and they are approaching the sunrise head on.

After Obama visited the country and Aung San Suu Kyi leading them to democracy, the country’s spirit was once again got to see the light of day. But the repercussions of the gun-on-throat regime are still existing and sporadically evident in different forms: The only-crisp-dollar-bills-printed-after-2005 rule on money changers, no credit card facilities, one ATM per city and  please do not expect for a 3G connection in a place where dial-up is still a luxury.

These may all change very soon, because they are doing it really fast. Now I have a different and even scarier paranoia, I am hoping that the next time I visit Yangon, the same warm sight of good progress will welcome me, and not those ugly golden arches.