From sarongs to scorpions: Rangoon/Yangon 2004

MEN in Burma wear skirts. Not for a laugh or to make a fashion ‘statement’ or because they’re all transvestites, but because it’s normal.

They’re called longyi, and they are just a tube of (usually checked cotton) fabric, which they gather together into a knot in front of their belly buttons. I’d say 85 per cent of the men wear them 100 per cent of the time. It was kind of weird at first, to see men strolling along the street in the capital city, Rangoon, clearly on their way to work, with conservative shirts on their tops and their longyi flapping around their ankles (especially the boys in their school uniforms of white shirts and dark green longyi.

In a way, Rangoon reminded me of how Phnom Penh was when I first went there, in 1999, although in Phnom Penh the pavements were usually OK but the roads were shot to bits while Rangoon has good roads and – in many places – pavements that are little more than rubble.

Rangoon probably never was as elegant as Phnom Penh, mainly because the streets seem narrower and/or the buildings taller. But then again, ‘Colonial’ Rangoon was built by the British, while it was, of course, the French who were responsible for the ‘Colonial’ buildings in Phnom Penh.

Even if they are stoutly British, the Colonial-era buildings of Rangoon are still rather attractive, or they would be if they were properly maintained. However, many of them are covered in mould while the decorative mouldings are chipped and cracked.

At the same time, people have been allowed to build scary new buildings, say six or seven storeys high, faced with the horrible tiles that seem to be indigenous to south-east Asia, or they’ve slapped a block of admittedly nice but incongruous flats in the middle of a row of lovely Colonial houses of mouldings, graceful arches and character windows. (Yeah, yeah, I know that what those buildings represents might not be too lovely – Colonialism – but they’re there and they are an asset to a city and it’s a shame they don’t look as good as they could.)

I know you can’t generalise, but Burmese women could well be the most beautiful in the world (always accounting for taste): they seem to combine the best of Indian, Thai, Chinese and hill tribe looks, with maybe a bit of European thrown in there too. The majority have thick, black shiny hair, which they grow incredibly long – bottom-length is not unusual – and almost every one wears a modern version of traditional dress: a long sarong and a fitted top.

Their deportment is pretty stunning, too; even the oldest women carry themselves so beautifully. Maybe it’s because many of them still carry stuff on their heads? The most impressive I saw was a middle-aged woman having a very animated conversation with a man, all the while balancing a three-foot high carrier bag on her head!

Even in cosmopolitan Rangoon (Yangon), women use this stuff called thanaka, which is some kind of wood or root, ground into a fine powder and mixed with water to make a runny paste, which they put on their faces and arms. It’s partly a sunscreen, but partly a decoration: some women ‘draw’ patterns on their cheeks, or put a line of dots down their nose. You can even buy special ‘thanaka brushes’, just for that purpose; they’re like toothbrushes only smaller and softer.

The long hair, the clothes and the carriage combine to make this model of grace and elegance… until the woman projects a jet of red betel spit from her mouth. Everyone in Burma, it seems, chews betel non-stop; young or old, man or woman, they’re all at it, even though it is rare for a Burmese woman to smoke or drink. (Maybe it’s because it gets them ever so slightly stoned, so it’s easier to forget how crap life in their country is? Just a thought…)

Betel nut stall

Betel nut stall

Betel is everywhere: there are stalls in the market that sell nothing but massive sacks of areca nut and display massive platters made from woven grass that are piled high with what must be thousands of betel leaves, and every couple of yards on the street there are little carts making betel ‘quids’ (chews).

You can see foot-long branches of thanaka for sale for a couple of hundred kyat (a few US cents) in the market, but one man in Rangoon must have been selling some super-strength premium stuff. He was sitting on the pavement, on a mat covered in little pieces of wood and he was letting a scorpion wrap itself round his hand as he recited what sounded like poetry but was actually his sales patter.

Scorpion seller, Rangoon

Scorpion seller, Rangoon

“What’s he saying?” I asked the man next to me (who I hoped could understand English). He explained that this was like the stuff women wear on their faces, but better because: “He says if the scorpion stings him this paste will make it all right”.

Having heard about how painful a scorpion sting can be, I figured this bloke must have real confidence in his product. I hadn’t, however, so when he offered me the scorpion, I made to beat a hasty retreat. “Thanks for translating,” I told the man next to me. “No,” he replied, “Thank you for taking an interest in our natural resources.” Hmm.

Actually, they seem to go in for pain in a big way in Burma. In surrounding countries it’s traditional to remove your shoes when you enter a Buddhist temple, but in Burma, you’re supposed to take your shoes off even in the grounds of the temple.

Which means that I can’t really tell you much about what one of the most famous, and most sacred, sites in Burma – the Shwedagon Paya – is like because I didn’t have time to examine it properly as I had to sprint round it before I got third degree burns on the soles of my feet from the hot marble floor tiles. Yes, it was that bad; as though Burmese people aren’t suffering quite enough already (because of the junta), they try their best to add blistered feet to their woes!

That said, I did find a minute or two to anoint the tusked elephant that is the birth sign of those of us who were born on Wednesday morning. Apparently, Buddha was born on a Wednesday morning too, so I am (ahem) rather special.

Although I was reluctant to visit any museums as the entrance fees go to the junta, I thought I would check out the National Museum. The building is huge, but there’s rock-all in it, apart from some thrones from the royal palace in Mandalay – not chairs as in the Western sense of ‘throne’ but ornate platform things – and some of the costumes worn by royal families about a century ago. They were all quilting and sequins; beautiful to look at but, I should imagine, unbearably hot even if you sat immobile all day.

I also went to the Bogyoke Aung San Museum. Bogyoke Aung San led Burma to independence and became the country’s first post-independence leader, although he was assassinated a couple of years later. He was also the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the museum, in what was once the family home, contained what is probably the only publicly-displayed picture of Aung San Suu Kyi in the country, but then she was only six years old when it was taken.

Having been warned against talking politics with the locals (in case it gets them into trouble), I didn’t know what to do when one of the guards pointed to Aung San Suu Kyi and said: “… aaand that’s his daughter. She lives in Rangoon now, near the University.” Well, “lives” is one word for it, I suppose, because, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest, and has been for years. OK, so the generals ‘release’ her every so often, but then promptly re-arrest her. The roads around her house are crawling with police, soldiers and the like.

Aung San Suu Kyi should have been out and about, taking part in the “National Convention” to decide on a constitution but, according to the junta, her National League for Democracy had refused to attend. The “National Convention” was convened years ago, but it was suspended almost immediately because politicians who weren’t members of the ruling junta just would not do what the junta wanted.

For some reason, though, the generals had resurrected the convention, but the NLD was boycotting it, mainly because the party, as the democratically-elected government of Burma – it won 80-or-so per cent of the vote in the 1990 elections but the junta has never allowed it to take power – felt it rather than the junta should be in charge.

Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists to boycott Burma, arguing that by going there they are giving the junta moral and financial support. Some people say she means all visitors. Others, however, claim she’s referring only to high-end tourists, on tours organised in conjunction with the state-run tour company MTT, and who stay in government-run hotels, rather than independent travellers, who usually use smaller, private hotels and tour companies, and so put money into the local economy rather than just the generals’ hands.

I thought long and hard before going to Burma. At first, I felt I should ‘earn’ the right to go by volunteering with Burmese refugees in northern Thailand, but then the refugee project turned me down because I said I couldn’t live with my students in a ‘rat-prone’ house for three months. (Yes, they were prepared to reject US$2,000 or more’s worth of work from a qualified teacher who was looking to do a professional job of equipping her students with English language skills, because she couldn’t live with those students as their new best friend!).

Should I still go, without ‘earning’ the right? Well, yes I could, and I’m glad I did. I reckon the governments in Vietnam and Laos are no better than the junta in Burma. In Vietnam, the control is more subtle: they have democratic elections, but all candidates must be approved by the Communist party, while the government does a really good job of indoctrinating people into believing their country is better-run than anywhere else. And in Laos, people are too laid back (and possibly too hung up on this Buddhist belief that suffering in this life is payback for bad behaviour in the previous one?) to get too stressed.

In Burma, though, most people know their government is incompetent and brutal and has no right whatsoever to be in charge of the country; just one per cent of the electorate in the 1990 elections voted for the military party, and the 99 per cent who didn’t can’t wait to let off steam by telling foreigners this. If they can be sure they’re out of earshot of government spies, that is.

I applied for a visa and entered the country as an English teacher; if I had put ‘journalist’ I just wouldn’t have got a visa. You wouldn’t believe how stressful I found it masquerading as a teacher for five weeks!

I was in Burma at the same time as the elections to the European Parliament were taking place at home. I knew my parents were voting by proxy for me, but, mindful of where I was, I asked a bunch of fellow travellers (Westerners) what they thought. No one seemed in the least bit interested, apart from to pass comments about how there was no point voting because all politicians were the same (including one man from Slovenia, which had joined the EU just one month earlier, and where, of course, democracy was stifled for many years when it was behind the Iron Curtain). I just couldn’t believe my ears. We were in Burma, for goodness sake, where people took the trouble to vote but didn’t get the government they wanted, and where hundreds have (probably) been killed and thousands imprisoned because they have tried to get their opinions to count!!!

Rangoon wasn’t all political awareness, though, and I had time to check out the local nightlife (as in entertainment rather than rats on the streets, and boy did I see some of those!), including one local club. I was with an English girl and her Burmese boyfriend. Karen is a nurse from Warwick who met her Burmese boyfriend, Ne Lin when she stopped off in Thailand on her way home from a year working in Australia and he was working (illegally) at the guesthouse where she stayed.

Ne Lin had gone home (permanently) and now Karen was making a detour to meet his family. She was in the seat in front of me on the plane from Bangkok and she was rather strange with me at first. I figured out later it was probably because I had introduced myself to her during the inflight meal by poking her through the seat and growling: “D’yer want my meat?” at her, which, if I had been a bloke, would probably have got me thrown off the plane!

Ne Lin, who lives near Rangoon, met Karen at the airport, and brought along his mother, grandmother, aunt, sister and two young cousins, all of whom wanted to see the exotic creature he had found in Thailand.

One night, the three of us hit a club in one of the fancier hotels. We knew for sure it was rap night, but, with the exception of one group who were good, we couldn’t decide whether the performers were paid entertainers or any bunch of drunks who fancied a spell in the limelight. I’m hardly a world expert on rap, but even I recognised some of the songs. Well, the tunes at least, because the lyrics were in Burmese. I think the junta bans performances of songs in English, so the locals either translate the lyrics into Burmese or make up their own to fit the tune. They’re called “copy songs” and whereas in some countries they’d be done for infringing copyright or something, in Burma it’s all perfectly respectable. Indeed, it seems quite daring of even top pop stars to release original songs!

Iron Cross in concert, Rangoon

Iron Cross in concert, Rangoon

The following night’s entertainment was far more to my liking, though: I went to see the band Iron Cross. They are the biggest band in Burma; considered to be very alternative, and they were doing a gig at The Strand, which is the classiest hotel in Burma (it’s a sister to The Raffles in Singapore and the Oriental in Bangkok). Yes, the cheapest rooms might be US$425 a night, but they had a rock band bouncing away in their ballroom. It was a bit like having the Sex Pistols perform at the Savoy in 1977.

Don’t ask me how many members the band has, even the locals couldn’t tell me. You see, first on stage were a keyboard player, a drummer, a guitarist and a bassist, then there appeared a singer, who did three songs then left the stage, to be replaced by one woman singer, then another, then another two men, then the first man returned and joined the last man to sing for another hour or so.

Apparently, it’s not unusual in Burma for a ‘band’ to be just the musicians, who perform with various singers. Let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the Burmese version of Cher’s Just Like Jesse James. The set lasted three-and-a-half hours, though, and it was nice to see that one of the male singers (who did the rockiest ‘copy songs’) was a man who was not ashamed to play air guitar!

When I entered the ballroom it was pretty empty (it later got packed and very hot), and I headed for the first white face I saw, which belonged to, of all things, a man in his 50s. It turns out he’s Danish and he and his wife were staying with the family of the wife of the keyboard player, who is a student at a university in Sweden, which is how they had met. The band members might be allowed to study abroad, but that doesn’t mean that the government doesn’t censor their songs and monitor the way they dress, look and act on stage. They chose the name “Iron Cross” because in the World War II it was the German army’s highest award for courage under fire, which tells you all you need to know about what they are trying to do.

The man also told me that he had been visiting Burma since 1968, and that the country had developed more in the past five years than it had during all the previous 30. If there so many countries have sanctions against Burma and there’s so little trade with or aid from other nations, where’s the money coming from, I asked him. He couldn’t answer, but I met someone later who told me that many of the new buildings were probably built using money from drugs: the generals and their friends have made vast amounts of money from selling heroin and amphetamine to surrounding countries, but they can’t get the money out so they spend it instead on massive buildings inside the country.

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