From sarongs to scorpions: Rangoon/Yangon 2004

“WHAT’S he saying?” I asked the man standing next to me, who I hoped had a better grasp of English than I had of Burmese. “He” was kneeling on the pavement, with a scorpion weaving between his fingers and what looked like a load of bits of wood spread out on the tattered sheet in front of him. We were part of the 20-plus crowd watching him in bemusement.

Scorpion seller, Rangoon

Scorpion seller, Rangoon

The pieces of wood were “blood king root”, my neighbour explained. It was like the stuff women put on the faces, but better because: “He says that 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 beat a hasty retreat.

“The stuff women put on their faces” was thanaka, a paste made by mixing finely ground bark and water.

I’d seen foot-long branches of thanaka for sale for a couple of hundred kyat (a few US cents) in the market. And I had seen thanaka paste on the faces and arms of so many local women, even sophisticated-looking ones in this, Burma’s capital city.

Thanaka was partly a sunscreen, partly a decoration; some women ‘drew’ patterns on their cheeks, or put a line of dots down their nose. You could even buy special ‘thanaka brushes’, just for that purpose; they were like toothbrushes only smaller and softer.

Burmese women could well be the most beautiful in the world (always accounting for taste), I decided. They seemed to combine the best of Indian, Thai, Chinese and hill tribe looks, with maybe a bit of European thrown in there too.

The majority had thick, straight, very black shiny hair, which they grew incredibly long – bottom-length was not unusual – and almost every one wore a modern version of traditional dress: a long sarong and a fitted top.

Their deportment was pretty stunning, too; even the oldest women carried themselves so beautifully. Maybe it was because many of them still carried 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.

The beauty, the long hair, the neat clothes and the poised carriage combined to make this model of grace and elegance… until the woman projected a jet of red betel spit from her mouth.

Betel nut stall

Betel nut stall (in Mandalay market, but typical of stalls everywhere)

Everyone in Burma, it seemed, chewed betel non-stop; young or old, man or woman, they were all at it, even though it was rare for a Burmese woman to smoke or drink. As it got them ever so slightly stoned, maybe it helped them forget how crap life in the country was?

Betel was everywhere: there were stalls in the market selling nothing but massive sacks of areca nut and betel leaves, which were piled high on huge platters made from woven grass, and every couple of yards on the street there were little carts where people were folding betel ‘quids’ (chews).

The men wore skirts, too, or rather longyi, a male version of the sarong. It was like a tube of (usually check cotton) fabric, around ankle-length, with the ‘waist’ gathered into a knot in front of the wearer’s belly button. Given the heat and humidity a loose cotton ‘skirt’ probably made far more sense than trousers, and I’d say 85 per cent of the men wore longyi 100 per cent of the time.

Even what I suppose you could describe as middle-class men – office workers and the like – wore longyi for work, but with a conventional, Western-style formal shirt as a top. The longyi was part of the boys’ school uniform too: dark green, worn with a smart white shirt.
Pretty much the only men who weren’t wearing longyi (much) were the men in uniform, although seeing as this was a country ruled by the military, there were rather a lot of those.

Payas and Politics

So that was the people of Rangoon; what was the city itself like?

Well, there were some lovely Colonial-era buildings, all mouldings, graceful arches and character windows. However, many of them hadn’t been properly maintained and were covered in mould, and the once-lovely mouldings were chipped and cracked. (Yeah, yeah, I know that what those buildings represented might not be too lovely – Colonialism and the Empire – but they were there and an asset to a city and it was a shame they didn’t look as good as they could.)

There were also some scary new buildings, say six or seven storeys high, faced with the horrible tiles that seemed to be indigenous to south-east Asia, or there was a block of admittedly nice but incongruous flats slapped in the middle of a row of Colonial houses.

The road surfaces were surprisingly well-maintained (compared to those in the capitals of surrounding countries, at any rate) but the pavements were shocking – in places little more than rubble.

One of the most prominent, and stunning, local buildings was the Buddhist temple, Shwedagon Paya. It was one of the most famous and most sacred sites in Burma, as it is believed to enshrine eight hairs of Siddhartha Gautama – ie the Buddha.

It was lovely – lots of white and gold – but it was hard to take much in, given the pain I was suffering.

In surrounding countries it was traditional to remove your shoes when you entered a Buddhist temple, but in Burma, you were supposed to take your shoes off even in the grounds of one. Although most of the floor tiles were white marble, they still got bloody hot in the beating sun, so I ended up scooting round as quickly as I could, before the pain got too much.

Yes, it really was that bad; as though Burmese people weren’t suffering quite enough already (because of the junta), they were trying their best to add blistered feet to their woes. Judging by the calm demeanours of the locals around me, though, maybe you got used to the third-degree burns after a while.

Although I was reluctant to visit any museums as the entrance fees went to the junta, I decided I really should check out the National Museum.

The building was huge, but there was 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 platforms – 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 was 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 got 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” was one word for it, I supposed, because, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and had been for years. OK, so the generals ‘released’ her every so often, but then they promptly re-arrested her. The roads around her house were 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 (NLD) had refused to attend.

The “National Convention” had been convened years earlier, but it had been suspended almost immediately because the (few) attendees who weren’t members of the junta refused to do as they were told by the generals.

For some reason the generals had recently resurrected the convention, but the NLD was boycotting it anyway. The NLD had a point: the party won something like 80 per cent of the vote in the 1990 election, making it the democratically-elected government of Burma, and therefore responsible for organising things like conventions and constitutions.

The generals, however, had always refused to recognise the election result and continued to cling to power like limpets, crushing opposition whenever it arose, including slapping Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the NLD, under house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi had reportedly asked tourists to boycott Burma, arguing that by going there they were giving the junta moral and financial support.

Some people said she meant all visitors. Others, however, claimed she was referring only to high-end tourists, on tours organised in conjunction with the state-run tour company MTT, and who stayed in government-run hotels, rather than independent travellers, who usually used 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.

(The rat thing was the main issue here, but considering the time and money I had put into getting my English teaching qualification – and the amount of money I could earn working as a teacher – why couldn’t I go as a ‘proper’ teacher, as in a professionally detached one, rather than foist myself on my students as their new BFF? It’s not like I had expected the charity to fund by accommodation – I had said I would pay for it myself.)

Should I still go, without ‘earning’ the right? Well, yes I could, and I was glad I did. I reckoned the governments in Vietnam and Laos were no better than the junta in Burma and I had been to both those places.

In Vietnam, the control was more subtle: there were democratic elections, but all candidates had to be approved by the Communist party, while the government did a really good job of indoctrinating people into believing their country was better-run than anywhere else.

In Laos, people were 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 knew their government was incompetent and brutal and had 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 couldn’t wait to let off steam by telling foreigners this. If they could be sure they were out of earshot of government spies, that was.

I applied for a visa to enter the country as an English teacher; if I had put ‘journalist’ I just wouldn’t have got a visa. I hoped to bear witness to what was going on around me while I was there, and tell as many people as possible about my experiences after I left.

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. One of these was a 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 had (probably) been killed and thousands imprisoned because they had tried to get their opinions to count!

From Burmese Daze – the book. Available directly from me (£6, including p&p in the UK); or from Lulu, Amazon, or to order from your local independent bookshop or via Hive. E-book available from Smashwords.

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