Going via Gothiek to Hsipaw

I decided to move on east to the small town of Hsipaw, and to go by train. The eye-catching Celica dropped me outside the station about half an hour before the train was due to leave.

The ‘Foreigner price’ fare was US$2. I slapped down a $20 bill. The station-master said he had no change. “Well, I’ll pay in kyats, then,” I said. “Only dollars,” he replied curtly. There was nowhere to leave my pack, so I had to cart it the quarter-of-a-mile into town in search of change. Eventually I found someone who could change the $20, and I ran – yes, ran – back to the station, where the station-master, smiling away, handed me my ticket.

I’d chosen the train because it went over the Gothiek Viaduct, a marvel of turn-of-the-last-century engineering and once the second-highest railway bridge in the world.

Although the bridge was built by an American company such things always make me wonder about the old Colonial types. I mean, what on earth would someone from my home village in England in the 19th Century have made of the heat, the humidity, the wildlife, the locals, whatever, in a place like Burma?

It’s not like they would have seen it on TV or something, or even, until the later part of the century, seen photographs – drawings and descriptions would be all they had.

Even in the 21st Century going over the bridge was pretty hair-raising, as it was a looooong way down. Actually, given the shoddy state of the bulk of the infrastructure I’d experienced so far, maybe going over in the 21st Century was even riskier than going over when the bridge was first built. All I could do was hope that its strategic importance – as a link between the north-east and the rest of the country – meant that the government looked after it better than it maintained everything else.

You’ll have to take my word for it about what a nerve-wracking experience going over the bridge was. I tried to take pictures as proof but I was stopped by a soldier, who watched me like a hawk until we were well past the bridge.

I did wonder whether the train itself dated from Colonial times, with its solid wooden seats and (by now) knackered windows. The track was so shoddy we had to go very slowly.

Train from Pyin U Lwin to Hsipaw.

Train from Pyin-Oo-Lwin to Hsipaw.

I didn’t lack for entertainment during the long journey though. For a start there were three mice playing in the sacks of vegetables, parcels of bamboo and shopping bags of the women sitting opposite. Then there was the constant stream of vendors prowling up and down the aisle, offering all sorts of things, from food to books to “medicine”.

One such vendor was selling little vials of powder that would fix anything from stomach upsets to headaches. How did I know this? He was yelling his sales patter into a megaphone at our end of the carriage, and it was being translated for me by Mr C, the local guide of an American called K. (I think the station-master in Pyin-Oo-Lwin had sat me with them because I was a woman alone and he thought they would look after me.)

Anyone who didn’t have a headache before the miracle cure man had started his spiel certainly would have one by the time he’d finished; strewth he was strident. I didn’t ask Mr C what the powder was, but it looked rather like ground black pepper and there was an awful lot of spluttering from the people who put it into their mouths or noses.

The most depressing experience of the trip was probably watching the local girl opposite me smarten herself up before getting off the train. She uncoiled her past-bottom-length hair, combed it a bit then twisted it into a rope, wrapped the ‘rope’ round her hand and made a knot with it, then wrapped the loose end round the knot and anchored the lot back on her head with a comb. Even my very best hair day wouldn’t match one of her very worst hair days!

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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Coffeemix and a Celica, or the Road to Pyin U Lwin

K, N and I took the bus from Nyaungshwe to Mandalay and travelled from there to the hill station of Pyin-Oo-Lwin. They were going because they had heard it was really nice. I was going because it was one of the places that, 50 years earlier, British travel writer Norman Lewis had included in his book Golden Earth, only then it was a Colonial hill station and called Maymyo.

The town was one of many renamed by the junta in 1989, supposedly as a way of consolidating national unity; even the country was renamed, from Burma to Myanmar, as the generals claimed “Burma” was too closely associated with the Bamar majority people. Most young people used “Myanmar”, possibly because that was what they had been brought up with, but older people often used “Burma” to show what they thought of the junta.

We arrived in Mandalay about 4.30am, with around two hours to wait for a bus to Pyin-Oo-Lwin. Despite the time, the streets were pretty packed, with monks collecting donations of food. Burmese males were expected to become monks at least twice in their lives, even if was only for a couple of weeks. The mother of a friend of N’s, having heard about her son’s antics in Thailand, told him he had better go to a pagoda for a few weeks to atone for his sins!

It was a common sight all over Asia: monks wandering the streets soliciting their food for the day. People would feed them in the hope of “earning merit”, and increasing their chances of being reincarnated into a better life (a big incentive in a country with as many problems as Burma).

We whiled away our time drinking Coffeemix, a three-in-one blend of coffee powder, sugar and creamer, and which was particularly popular in Burma. Signs outside roadside cafés, for example, proudly proclaimed: “Coffeemix”. And there was something quite addictive about the stuff.

Although Coffeemix would be your last choice of beverage when you arrived, after a week, you would not patronise any establishment that did not offer Coffeemix. I’m not making this up: I met so many visitors who admitted that they had sworn at first that they would dehydrate to death before they would drink Coffeemix but had gone on to develop an addiction for the stuff.

The ‘bus’ was actually a songthaew, and it was eventually ready to leave. We set off. And promptly stopped outside an office at the side of the road. From there, we went to a petrol station, where the driver put some fuel in the tank, then, after driving for about five minutes, we stopped to fill up at one of those roadside carts of pop bottles of fuel.

I found out later that drivers, even bus and pickup drivers, were rationed to six or eight litres of petrol a week, and after that they had to turn to the black market.

One litre of ‘legal’ fuel cost 800 kyat, but it was 1,800 kyat a litre on the black market. And, of course, people had no choice but to pay, even the bus drivers who provided public transport in a country where so few people had their own vehicle. And, of course, a country with such reserves of oil that there was once a company called Burmah Oil.

Pony and trap on street in Pyin Oo Lwin or Maymyo, Myanmar or Burma

How to travel in style in Pyin Oo Lwin – in a pony and trap.

We arrived in Pyin-Oo-Lwin and called the guesthouse, which sent our ‘free transport’ to collect us – a Toyota Celica with a purple metallic paint job, thumping sound system (Burmese rap again), with a row of lights across the back bumper that flashed in time to the music, and “Blackburn Rovers” seat covers (even though the driver looked at me blankly when I said: “Blackburn Rovers?”). We didn’t half give the trap-pulling ponies a fright!

The point of the hill stations, not just in Burma but throughout Colonial-era Asia, was to give Europeans a cool escape from the heat of the lowland plains, especially in Summer.
I could understand why Pyin-Oo-Lwin, or, as it was then, of course, Maymyo, had been so popular. The climate was rather English – ie, cool – as was the vegetation – lush and green. It was hardly surprising, really that a botanical garden had been established there in Colonial times.

Another relic from Colonial times was the British-looking churches. Christianity had a presence in Burma, largely, I suppose, because of Colonialism, so there had to be churches elsewhere, it was just that I didn’t notice them as much as I did those in Pyin-Oo-Lwin.
Seriously, they would not have looked out of place anywhere in the UK. More than once I found myself cycling past one then, especially with the climate and the green everywhere, having to pull myself up short and remind myself that I wasn’t actually at home.

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.

Undercurrents on Inle Lake

The main attraction of Nyaungshwe was as a starting point for boat trips on the lake. I booked with a company my friend L had used a year earlier, as she had asked me to take presents to some people she had met through them.

House on Inle Lake

House on Inle Lake

The boat took us past villages of houses on stilts, some built from wood, others from grass, many with TV satellite dishes, and past fishermen rowing in the way unique to Inle: standing up, holding the oar with their hands but moving it by wrapping a foot round the blade and pushing with that.

Our first stop was the village of Taung To, where the morning market was in full flow. Most of the people, buyers and sellers, were hilltribes-people; dainty, tiny women dressed in tunics and skirts of roughly-woven black fabric, with orange and red scarves wrapped round their heads.

Women in traditional dress at market in Taung To Village.

Women in the market, Taung To village on Inle Lake.

The market was small, and pretty unremarkable, although I noticed scores of people gathered round three stalls away from the vendors. They turned out to be hosting a local cross between a one-armed bandit and roulette.

At the front of the ‘machine’ was a board divided into squares, in each of which was painted an animal. Against the back of the ‘machine’ and held in place by a bar to which a piece of string was attached, were three massive dice. Each side of each dice was decorated with one of the animals from the chequered board.

When everyone had placed their money on one of the squares the ‘croupier’ would yank the string and release the dice. If a dice landed with your animal uppermost, you won.

Buddha in temple at Taung To village.

Buddha in temple at Taung To village.

After two failures – on the peacock and the turtle – I said: “I’ll have 50k (that’s K as in kyat not K as in thousand) on the blue rabbit.” The string was pulled, the dice rolled down, and the blue rabbit came uppermost on not one dice but two, which meant I had won 100 kyat for my 50 kyat stake. So what if one thousand kyat was worth around one US dollar, I was a winner!

We moved on to Phaung Daw U Paya, the holiest site in southern Shan State. It was famous as the home of five religious figures that were carried around the lake in some festival every autumn. Three of the figures were supposed to be Buddhas and the other two of disciples of Buddha, but they had all had so much gold leaf stuck to them by devotees that it was hard to tell what they were – they looked more like blobs than Buddhas.

House on stilts over Inle Lake.

House of my friend Lotte, on Inle Lake.

Then I got to deliver L’s gifts to her fisherman friend. They weren’t much: some instant Ovaltine mix and a Spiderman t-shirt for his son, and a couple of toys. The fisherman seemed to like them but he didn’t make too big a deal about them; I wondered if it was because several of his neighbours were around and he didn’t want to flaunt the stuff in front of them.

The fisherman’s wife invited us into their home, and it was actually rather humbling to see the people inside trying to sweep the floor as we entered. They sat on the floor so K and I could sit on the two-seater settee that was the only piece of furniture in the room. They offered us tea and sticky rice cakes, and I so hoped their home and their hospitality made U feel just a little bit guilty about the fuss he’d made over paying “so much” (ie US$3.50) for his day on the lake.

Our last stop was, for me, the highlight: Nga Phe Kyaung, or the “Jumping Cat Monastery”. The monastery was 150 years old, all aged teak, some of the most serene Buddhas I had ever seen… and 15 cats who jumped through hoops!

If you sat behind them and made a ring around them with your arms and touched them under the chin, they would jump through your arms. More spectacular, but for experts only, was to hold a hoop a couple of feet over their heads and have them jump through that.

We asked one monk why they had trained the cats. “For fun,” he said, and he had a point: the monastery was lovely; tranquil and very atmospheric, but it was in the middle of a lake in the middle of nowhere, and there really was rock-all to do there apart from train cats to do stupid tricks… oh, and swot up on European soccer.

This was the time of Euro 2004 and the monk was better acquainted with the fixture list than K or any of the other visitors. As for me, well, I shut my ears and let three of the cats curl up on my lap and go to sleep. And, no, they weren’t for moving when the time came to leave…

We had supper in an Indian restaurant in Nyaungshwe. We were the only customers, and, during conversation the owner told us about her sister, a teacher who earned the princely sum of 10,000 kyat (around US$10) a month for teaching science to classes of 70 children and more. That was in a private school, apparently; in a state school she would be paid less.

N couldn’t really hold his drink, and by now he had had a couple of measures of whisky. “My government is bad,” he slurred. “This country is so bad, everyone wants to leave.”
By this stage, I’d spent around two weeks with N and K but it was only when N was tipsy and in an empty restaurant that he was brave enough to tell me that his government stank.

This was not a country where people were encouraged to speak their minds, and the only way of sending an email was through the official government provider, so emails could be read and checked for potential subversion.

Some internet café owners were smart – and brave – enough to work out how to access Hotmail and other ‘banned’ sites (via proxy websites). There was one such café in Nyaungshwe. “Won’t you get in trouble if the Government finds out?” I asked the owner but he just shrugged and went back to the stupid (and innocent) discussion about beer that he was having with someone on Messenger.

Burmese people were so friendly – and so tight-lipped when there were other Burmese around – that it was easy to forget what was going on. Until you read in the papers about the exploits of “Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt”; “Secretary I of the State Peace and Development Council [the euphemism for the junta] Lieutenant General Soe Win” and “Deputy Minister for Information Brigadier General Aung Thien” and their ilk and you realised something just wasn’t quite right.

Scenes from around Nyuangshwe:

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.

To Inle Lake

Catching the bus from Bagan at 4am was brutal enough, so I could have done without the presence of another tourist, an Israeli called U.

Considering U had been travelling for seven months or so he got stressed very easily. He flew into a panic, and a temper, when he realised his backpack was no longer on the roof of the bus and only calmed down when the driver showed him he had put it inside, to protect it from the rain and dust.

U only calmed down – he didn’t apologise or anything, which seemed bang out of order, seeing as the driver had been under no obligation to keep his pack out of the rain. Thank goodness for K and N, who were also on the bus and were able to interpret between U and the driver.

It wasn’t just inside the bus that there was unpleasantness, though – there was some outside too: we passed people repairing the road and many of them were quite clearly children. I’d say some were scarcely 10 years old and yet there they were, digging trenches and carrying baskets of stones.

Even though I understood how economic necessity forces millions of children around the globe into work when they should be at school or playing with their friends, whether that’s working on the family farm or looking after younger siblings, or making carpets or footballs or whatever, it was still pretty shocking to see a tiny child struggling with a basket of rocks.

I couldn’t find out whether the children were working by “choice” (aka because they were getting paid) or as forced labour. If the thought of a small child carting rocks by choice makes you happy – because it means they’re not doing it by force – then you’re in a country that is seriously screwed up.

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.

“The People’s Desire” – it’s Bagan

NEVER could it be said that journeys in Burma were uneventful. The overnight bus from Pyay to Bagan was pretty ramshackle, as was the road. At one stage, we may have driven across – or rather, through – the Irrawaddy River, which must have been a quarter of a mile wide, although looking at a map later, I couldn’t see why we would have done so.

All I did know was that in the wee small hours we went through about three feet of muddy water for a very long time, then got stuck in sand as the bus tried to get up a bank and half the male passengers had to get off and push.

Then we were woken from our half-slumber and dragged off the hot bus into a café where Jean-Claude van Damme was doing side splits on the large-screen TV. Great, I thought., “It’s the middle of nowhere, they rely on a generator for their electricity, yet still they can find the power to inflict Jean-Claude van Damme’s turquoise Lycra-clad arse on us at 1.30 in the morning.”

Bagan was one of the biggest tourist sites in Burma: thousands of zedi and temples spread over 40 square kilometres. We arrived there at around 6am, and driving through this bizarre landscape in the early morning light was pretty trippy. The zedi were a thousand or so years old, and wear and tear along with at least one major earthquake had taken their toll.

In recent years, though, many had been restored. It was difficult to know whether this was right or wrong: Bagan must have looked more like it did in its heyday, and the project must have created work for local craftsmen, but there was a real Disneyland feel to the place.

"People's Desire", Bagan.

“People’s Desire”, Bagan.

One of the first sights to greet visitors wasn’t a zedi, though; it was a massive billboard on the road into the historical zone, which proclaimed – in English, note:

“People’s Desire:

Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.
Oppose those trying to jeopardise stability of the state and progress of the nation.
Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state.
Oppose all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.”

There was a matching one in Burmese, just in case the locals need reminding that these were indeed their desire, and there were similar boards around the country.

I rented a pedal bike. First, I hit the market, which was possibly just as scary as the totalitarian billboard: there was a sack of chillies which had clearly been gnawed by rats, then a big metal dish of grey stuff that looked like nothing more than a grey cat’s fur-balls collected together and coated in slime and sold as food.

Earlier, I’d asked N about what kind of illnesses were common in Burma. “People are sick,” he said, miming retching. I could well understand that: 40 years of political isolation hadn’t done a right lot for public health awareness.

Example? In another market I had seen a woman squatting by a woven grass tray. She was in the shade under an umbrella but the sun beat down on the tray… and the entrails spread over it. Every so often the woman would turn the entrails with her bare (unwashed) hands, then scoop some into a bag for a purchaser.

Then there were the pots of drinking water scattered around public places. The pots had covers, which helped keep out solid nasties, dirt and the like, but they also had a cup attached, from which everyone drank; “safe” drinking water that was anything but.

Pretty much the only places I saw that had standards of hygiene even vaguely high enough not to induce a complete meltdown in a Western public health inspector were those where there was some kind of Western input. Cafés set up by returned expats, say, or restaurants used by Western aid workers or high-end tourists.

After lunch with K and N, who had gone straight to Bagan from Rangoon, I cycled round the archaeological zone. Some of the bigger temples were open to the public, and it was possible to climb onto the roof for a panorama of (just) some of the thousands of religious buildings.

Ananda Pahto from a distance

Ananda Pahto from a distance

My favourite temple had to be the Ananda Pahto, a square white temple with a golden spire; nice from the outside, lovely inside, with wall paintings, floral floor-tiles and a huge standing Buddha who was smiling from one angle and frowning from another.

Even though the number and spread of the zedi and temples was impressive, Bagan actually didn’t move me overmuch, and, in addition, I felt as though the locals saw me as a walking wallet rather than a person. If I heard the words: “You want horsecart?” (a common way of getting round Bagan – and many other towns and cities in Burma, for that matter) ever again in my life, my brain would explode, I decided.

That said, one experience taught me how much tourist money could mean to the locals. Some of them had stalls inside the pagodas, selling fabric paintings or the local speciality, lacquerware.

Even though I had been asked umpteen times too many to look at paintings, souvenirs or lacquerware, I agreed, after a lot of badgering, to go to the home of one young vendor. I had arrived at the temple where he had his pitch just as he was leaving and he looked so dejected I didn’t have the heart to walk away from him.

That didn’t mean I was at all keen about going to his house: I was leaving town at 4am the following day and I hadn’t packed or bought my bus ticket, but I agreed to let him pick me up at 9pm.

What with booking my onward ticket and paying my guesthouse bill, I was half an hour late, but still he was waiting for me. I thought I would get away with spending five minutes with him. However, when we arrived at his house – brick-built, but with very little furniture – I found his father, mother and two younger brothers there to greet me, and that his mother had laid out plates of mango, peanuts, water and beer.

I wasn’t hungry, so I said I would look at their lacquerware straightaway. “Naïve” was probably the best way of describing it, but one battered piece caught my eye. It was an old money box, and I agreed to buy it for US$10. K, the young man, was really excited – I was his first sale of the whole day – while his father kept saying: “Thank you, thank you” and shaking my hand as enthusiastically as if I’d turned up and told him he’d won the lottery.

Yep, that was how much $10 meant to them.

They were lovely, genuine people and I stayed as long as I could; we ate mango while K’s father told me that civil servants earned about 20,000 kyats (about US$20) a month, while someone with a ‘good’ job earned $100. I so wanted to stay longer, much longer, but I had a 4am bus to catch…

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.

To the Bespectacled Buddha with Jean-Claude Van Damme

PYAY (aka Prome) was probably most famous as the site of the capital of the Pyu kingdom of around 1500 years ago, and the resulting ruins.

It was 160 miles or so from Rangoon. And what miles they were. The on-board film was Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer, on VCD (Video Compact Disc), a lower-quality, less reliable version of a DVD. The VCD kept cutting out, which made the young monk on the front seat very agitated.

I might not have understood Burmese, but it was pretty clear that he was demanding the film be put back on pronto, yet he didn’t protest when the ‘steward’ turned it off for no apparent reason well before we reached Pyay. I wasn’t too happy, though: I never did find out whether Jean-Claude gave Tong Po the thrashing he deserved.

There were some impressively massive Pyu ruins scattered in the countryside around Pyay, such as zedi that were, what, 10, 15 times taller than a human standing at their feet. Basically, though, once you had got up close to one and marvelled at the way that something so huge was made from tiny bricks, you didn’t have to get so near to the others, so you could see the rest from a trishaw in less than a couple of hours.

Less simple to get to was what I had mainly gone to Pyay to see: the “Bespectacled Buddha” at Shwedaung Pagoda, a few miles away. The Buddha was pretty big, seated, and (surprise, surprise) wore glasses. This might not be much of a deal for some, but for a person who had worn glasses since she was seven years old, it was un-missable.

I took the public bus. No one seemed able to tell me where to get off, despite my frantic gesticulations of praying and touching my glasses. Then one young man, who must have spent most of the journey trying to find the correct English, got off the bus. “Follow me,” he told me, so I did.

We ended up going to his house, where he collected a pushbike with a pillion seat at the back; clearly, he was going to take me to the pagoda. What you have to bear in mind is that it was virtually unknown for a Burmese woman to travel anywhere on her own, even to the market. Even a Western woman on her own was something of a curiosity, and people went out of their way to look after her.

I managed to persuade the young man I would be OK walking – Shock! On my own!! – if he pointed me in the right direction. As I left the village I passed an archetypal grass shack on stilts, from which there blared some very loud, very rocky music. Yes, Burmese people might not have had much of a government, but they did have rock music (as opposed to the cheesy Euro disco carnage so common in Thailand).

Bespectacled Buddha, Shwedaung paya, near Pyay

Bespectacled Buddha, Shwedaung paya, near Pyay

When I got to the pagoda, I was impressed to see that the Buddha’s spectacles were of the round, gold-rimmed type I wore for many years. The first pair was placed there about 200 years ago, by a local chief who hoped the gimmick would attract more worshippers to the pagoda. I don’t know whether it worked, but it certainly attracted an English Colonial officer stationed in Prome, whose wife was (apparently) cured of eye trouble after he visited the pagoda.

It didn’t seem to do anything for me, though – I still needed my glasses.

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.

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.

Burmese Daze: Burma/Myanmar, 2004 and 2005

I was watching comedians Dara O’Briain and Ed Byrne take the Road to Mandalay the other day on the BBC and I thought: “I can do that”. “Well, OK, I could. And I did. So why don’t I post about it?” So I am…

This is a short series of travelogues I wrote after visiting Burma/Myanmar in 2004 and 2005. Each visit was pretty much a month long, and pretty much a year apart. Note the “after” there: it would have been nigh-on impossible to post them while I was actually in the country. For a start, while there were a few internet cafes, the connections were usually pretty useless; you could be writing something and the system would crash with absolutely no warning. Even when it wasn’t crashing, it was incredibly slow – like dial-up on Mogadon.

However, even if I had managed to complete a travelogue, I wouldn’t have been able to send it to my family and friends anyway, as Hotmail, along with most other ways of communicating with the world outside Burma, was blocked by the junta that was running the country.

On my first trip, in 2004, I managed to access Hotmail a couple of times via a proxy server, but by 2005, the junta had got wise to that and the proxy servers were blocked too. Hard to believe in the UK of 2017, I know, where practically everyone can access some form of high-speed connection 24 hours a day, but that’s how it was in Burma then. And yes, I am thoroughly aware that no matter how frustrating it was for me not to be able to access Hotmail regularly, it was like a thousand times more annoying (and unfair) for the people around me.

I have no idea what internet access is like in Burma/Myanmar now; I can only hope that it’s much, much better than it was in 2004 and 2005.

Blowing up bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

“WE’RE dealing with two 500lb bombs tomorrow and you can come if you like,” said Mr B. I was hardly likely to say no, was I?

Inspired by a review of this fascinating-sounding book, A Great Place to Have A War, by Joshua Kurlantzick in the UK Daily Telegraph, I thought I would dig up (excuse the pun) an account of my day blowing up bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

It happened like this…

I was in the town of Attapeu, in the very south-east of Laos and I was thinking of volunteering as an English teacher (I have a recognised TEFL qualification). However, I was worried that the school that was appealing for volunteers wasn’t for ordinary kids – in what is, after all, one of the poorest countries on the planet – but for the offspring of the elite, and an elite that’s practically a junta at that. Call me uncharitable, but if I’m going to work for free (and pay for my accommodation, by the looks of things), I want to be helping the poorest of the poor, not kids who are already extremely privileged.

As I didn’t know what to do I decided to consultant the oracle. Or rather an oracle, in the shape of an expat working for the bomb disposal organisation UXO Lao, who was staying in the same hotel as me.

I found out from the receptionist which was his room and pushed a note under the door, then went out for my tea. When I returned, Mr B was in reception. We chatted for about three hours, about life as an expat in Laos, NGOs, poverty, backpackers, my volunteering in Cambodia, mines, bombs, all sorts. And then he asked: “Have you got plans for tomorrow?” “Nope,” I replied. “We’re dealing with two 500lb bombs and you can come if you like,” said Mr B. “That would be very interesting,” I said calmly, while inside I was squealing: “Yippeee! Yippee!”

So 7am the following day saw me, picnic in hand, clambering into a UXO Lao 4WD with Mr B, his translator, a couple of EODs (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) officers and a couple of other staff. We took a ferry (originally a Russian pontoon, but now fitted with a motor big enough to enable the ferry to carry all manner of large vehicles) across the Se Kong river, and headed to the village of Phu Vong.

The parts of Laos around the Ho Chi Minh Trail are some of the most heavily-bombed places in the world; the US dropped something like two million tons of bombs on the country during the Vietnam War. However, only around one third of those bombs went off when they were dropped, so the place is littered with unexploded ones. That’s the bad news.

The good, if that’s the correct word, is that, unlike Cambodia’s mines, which are just waiting for some unwitting person to step on or drive over them, you really have to try hard to detonate Laos’s bombs (unless, as shown on a UXO Lao awareness t-shirt, you hit one with your shovel while digging for frogs). However, that doesn’t stop the locals from trying…

It isn’t unknown, for example, for them to take apart any bombs they find, so they can take out the explosive and use it for dynamite fishing. Officially, dynamite fishing is banned in Laos, because, as you can imagine, causing an explosion in a river then scooping out the fish (and other creatures) killed as a result is playing havoc with local ecosystems, but, of course, it’s still going on.

UXO Lao, which is part NGO but also works directly with the government, has been trying to educate the villagers about why – even for former soldiers – it’s not smart to tinker with 30-year-old metal containers stuffed with explosive, and to persuade them instead to report any bombs they find. And indeed, it was residents of Phu Vong and an adjoining village who had told UXO Lao about the two 500lb-ers I was to see blown up.

The first, in Phu Vong, was a few inches below the surface, on some rough land at the side of the road. When we arrived the site had already been prepared by other UXO Lao staff. They had cleared most of the earth around the bomb and packed it with sandbags, and they had started evacuating the locals. Mr B is a former soldier. Having trained in bomb disposal, he spent a couple of years in the UK, defusing WWII bombs in Kent. In the UK, he said, dealing with 500lbs of explosive would take at least two days, the evacuation of miles around, and a really delicate operation by a highly-skilled bomb disposal officer to dismantle the thing and remove or disable the fuse.

In Laos, though, a place where there are no built-up areas and not much money floating around, the simplest and cheapest option is blow the thing up. In a controlled way, of course. The situation is made simpler because the American bombs dropped on Laos are far less sophisticated than the ones dropped on Britain by the Germans, which had booby traps and similar devices.

It works like this: the EODs fill a small pipe with plastic explosive, just enough to blow a small hole in the bomb casing, but hopefully not enough to disturb the fuse and detonate it.

UXO Lao EODs crouched round a 500lb bomb they are about to dispose of.

UXO Lao EODs put a small amount of plastic explosive into a pipe.

There’s little in the way of high-tech equipment – some of the items they use have been designed by Mr B and made by a bloke in Attapeu market! Put it this way: the pipe isn’t placed directly on the bomb but is suspended a few inches over it, taped into a cradle made from sticks broken off surrounding shrubs and then taped together. A couple of sandbags are placed on the bomb and the cradle is balanced between those. It’s that sophisticated.

UXO Lao EOD inspects the small charge used to disable a bigger bomb

The explosive-packed pipe resting above the bomb.

A fuse wire is attached to the explosive, a last check is done to ensure that the mile or so around the bomb has been evacuated, then the bomb disposal team retreats about a mile, and someone detonates the charge.

"Pipebomb" balanced between two sandbags resting on the 'proper' bomb.

The “pipebomb” resting on the bigger bomb. The EOD attaches a fuse then heads about a mile away, uncoiling the length of fuse as he goes. When he reaches (what he hopes is) a safe distance he ignites the fuse, then waits for the bang.

Once the bomb casing is broken open the EODs get rid of the explosive, usually by setting fire to it. The bomb shouldn’t explode because it’s already been opened, although there is a chance that the fuse (fuses if more than one has been fitted) will be set off by the fire, but, again, the explosion will be smaller than if the whole bomb had gone off. Even so, the controlled explosions are not an exact science, and sometimes the bomb gets set off for real in the process.

Even though we were a mile from the bomb Mr B said we should hide behind a tree, which would catch the shrapnel if the bomb did go off. However, we ended up sheltering behind an abandoned house. Like most of the local homes, it was a one-room grass-and-thatch affair on stilts, but Mr B pointed out that it had something extra: a “daughter’s annexe”. Mr B told me that among the local people, the Phu Thai, if a daughter reaches marriageable age (mid-teens) and her parents don’t want to risk her being left on the shelf, they add an “extension” to their home, where she can “entertain” “friends” – ie potential husbands – without disturbing the rest of the family! And in such a modest country, where women who show even their ankles are seen as sluts!

The explosion was bloody loud but Mr B said he could tell that the whole bomb hadn’t gone off. When we went back to it, the casing had been ripped open and the explosive was scattered round about. We gathered up as much as we could and put it in the bomb casing, then retreated while the EODs lit a fire. Two small booms later and we knew the fuses had been destroyed so it was safe to go back to the bomb.

Remains of the 500lb bomb, with the casing ripped open and explosive spilling out.

The result of the small controlled explosion. Ideally the ‘pipebomb’ would have blown just a small hole in the bomb casing rather than ripped it open, but at least the bomb is now ‘safe’. The next step is to cover the bomb with dry grass and start a fire, to burn off the remaining explosive, so the locals aren’t tempted to reclaim it.

The second bomb was also a 500lb-er, in the forest close to a village a little further along the road. We walked half-a-mile or so to the bomb, past massive bomb craters, legacies of the war years. This bomb was also just a couple of inches from the surface and the area had already been cleared for us. Again the EODs made and placed the charge then we walked back to the other side of the village, trailing the electric wire for the charge behind us. The EODs detonated the charge and there was a boom, followed by a whistling sound, which I assumed had to be a bird, as we were too far away from the bomb to hear anything moved by it.

However, when we returned to the bomb, it was five yards from its original position, the casing was ripped open and the endplate, which contained the fuse, was missing. Someone found it about 20 yards away, so that was probably what had made the whistling sound! Again we gathered up the explosive and burned it, destroying the fuse in the process.

Then we had lunch, on the banks of the river, directly opposite a Ho Chi Minh Trail track. The track on our side had been upgraded into a logging road (many of the trees are sent directly to Viet Nam or Thailand, apparently) but the bit across the river is pretty much as it was 30 years ago. That’ll change soon, though, as the river is due to be bridged or forded soon, and no doubt that track will become a road too.

On the way back Mr B told me that his job was supposed to be to train local staff to take over his job. The EODs with us were recruited from local villages, mainly because they speak the same language as the locals and can, hopefully, make them understand why it’s so stupid to go playing about with big bits of metal packed with TNT. At first it was difficult to find recruits, understandable when you think about it: UXO Lao spends weeks warning people about how dangerous these bombs are, then asks them to let their sons and daughters work with them! However, once people realised the job of an EOD is actually to not get blown up, and that the pay is pretty good, the problems disappeared.

The training doesn’t cover just setting up controlled explosions but also things like calculating evacuation areas, radio communication, surveying for bombs, stuff like that.

Unbelievably there are some bombs even nastier than the ones I had encountered. The formal name is cluster bombs, but round here they’re known as “bombies”. They are basically bombs within bombs: scores of tennis ball-sized bombs packed into a single 1,000lb-or-so bomb casing.

The idea was that the bomb casings would explode on impact, scattering bombies over a wide area, where they would lie just waiting for some movement to set them off. A couple of months or so before my outing, the team had shifted 20 or so bombies from a school playground….

And if clearing up the mess left by the American bombing campaign isn’t time-consuming enough, UXO Lao sometimes finds itself dealing with bombs from the French colonial conflict, and even some from World War II.

Laos, 2002.

Unexpected hazards

I wanted to end my last travelogue from Vietnam with a few random thoughts that haven’t really fitted anywhere else.

Vietnam is full of hazards, some more expected than others. Conical hats, for example. Yes, people do still wear them, although less so in Saigon than elsewhere. But, well, you try walking through the narrow aisles of a market with a number of people wearing conical hats, especially if they’re Vietnamese height and you’re European height – you’re lucky to escape with your face intact.

Then there are the men like the one that jumped out at me babbling in Vietnamese while I walked down the street just a little distance from the backpacker area. I kept telling him I didn’t understand, but he kept babbling, and wouldn’t let go of my hand as I walked down the street. I wasn’t happy about him holding my hand, and I was even less happy that he was holding my hand so close to his groin. Anyway, then he did some kind of smoking gesture and mumbled something about “one dollar”. I think I sussed what he was on about, so I grabbed my hand back and left. The two men I encountered the other day had no such qualms. There they were, sitting on the pavement outside a hotel on one of the main streets of the backpacker area, smoking two of the strongest joints I have ever encountered. Even people who were just walking past were stoned.

Then there are the massive metal nails and part pipes sunk in the pavements. In the UK, these would be an open invitation to sue for a hazard on the pavement. In Vietnam, they’re what the café holders anchor their awnings to when they set up business for the night, and if you should trip over them, well more fool you.

Then there’s a mobile phone mast every couple of miles or so. No fears about the health risks here. Apparently, the government is sinking a lot of money into encouraging the development of a mobile phone network, as it’ll work out a lot cheaper than installing phone lines all over everywhere. So there they are, in the middle of every community, massive mobile phone masts, often modelled on the Eiffel Tower, and decorated with fairy lights for Tet.

Vietnam boasts an impressive number of dropped kerbs. Sure, because of the war, the country must have (far) more than its fair share of mobility-impaired people, but wheelchair users don’t tend to be such a high priority in developing countries, so I was extremely impressed. Then I realised: the dropped kerbs are less about helping wheelchair users and more about making it easier to get around by motorbike; people go everywhere by motorbike, and the dropped kerbs are awfully useful when you’re trying to wheel your bike into the front room of your shophouse.

February 2002