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Burmese Days

What a way to finish the trip: two madcap weeks among the most generous people on Earth suffering under one of the most oppressive dictatorships on the planet. And of course I was detained by gun-wielding security guards at least once. Would I disappoint?
I'm sitting here at Yangon International Airport, killing time before catching my 10:30 flight to Bangkok that will connect with my return flight home. In just under 24 hours I should be lying in my own bed, in my own room, in my own country. I guess it's strange: this is the first post that begins and ends at an airport.

You may recall that as I finished my last update I was sprinting off to catch a flight to the Myanmar capital of Yangon. Now while I usually revel in the adrenaline rush and jitters that only a last minute "will I make it in time" dash to an airport, seaport or bus station can induce, this time I'd vowed I'd be there with time to spare.

You see I'd agreed to head to Myanmar with Lisa, a Canadian I'd first met, and apparently insufficiently annoyed, in Hong Kong almost two months ago. Lisa was understandably nervous about heading into the dictatorship as a lone female, so she'd ensured that she was on the same flight as me the next morning.

But being well aware of my pathetic inability to meet a deadline - I'd even been almost an hour late meeting her for drinks that night - especially when international transport was concerned, she bid me farewell with a reminder to "please be on time".

"Relax!" I assured her in a dismissive voice. "What'dya think's gonna happen? I may have had a lot of close calls, but I haven't missed a flight yet."

...I was standing at the side of a gridlocked Bangkok road desperately flailing my arms in a vain attempt to hail a cab, which, judging by the taxis obliviously whizzing past me must have interpreted as nothing but a strangely-timed and badly executed attempt to set a new world break dance record.
Which was of course true, until the next morning.

By 6:20 AM I was packed and on board a shuttle bus to the airport, marvelling at just how strange it felt to not be frantically checking my watch as precious seconds ticked by. Why, I even thought to myself, I might even be able to squeeze in a bit of background reading.

Less than ninety seconds later I was standing at the side of a gridlocked Bangkok road choking on the acrid, smoggy soup the locals call air, desperately flailing my arms in a vain attempt to hail a cab - which, judging by the taxis obliviously whizzing past me must have interpreted as nothing but a strangely-timed and badly executed attempt to set a new world break dance record - and frantically checking my watch as precious seconds ticked by.

I'd been seated comfortably, reaching for my well-worn guidebook, when I realised that I'd left all 936 pages of it, along with the airline ticket and passport I'd been using as temporary bookmarks, at my Khao Sanh Rd guesthouse.

It was now 7:00 AM. I had less than ninety minutes to race back to Central Bangkok, retrieve my guidebook, ticket and passport and return to the airport in time to check in for my 8:40 flight. In any other city on Earth this would have posed a challenge, but in the stationery wreckage of steel, rubber and fumes that constitutes rush hour in Bangkok it verged on the impossible.

By 7:40 I was back at Khao Sanh, guidebook in hand, and jumping into a thankfully unoccupied cab.

"How long to airport?" I panted breathlessly.

"One hour," came the indifferent reply.

Emptying the contents of wallet onto my lap I challenged: "If you can get me to airport 35 minutes, this is all yours."

Eyeing the 300 baht (AUS $15) suspiciously - a fifty percent bonus over the regular fare - the driver paused for a moment, studied me for second longer, and then floored the accelerator. Here we go again.

And that's when I noticed the security guards hunched over the X-ray machine monitor, staring at the contents of my bag and muttering quietly to each other. "Sir," one of them finally asked, "what's this?"
It was 8:16 by the time we screeched to a halt in front of the international terminal and I handed the delighted driver his reward. Five minutes later I'd sighted the check-in desk, thrown my rucksack down on the X-ray machine and breathed a sigh of relief. I'd made it. Checking-in twenty minutes before an international departure was pushing it, but I knew it was nothing that a few well-placed smiles and 'pleases' couldn't fix.

And that's when I noticed the security guards hunched over the X-ray machine monitor, staring at the contents of my bag and muttering quietly to each other.

"Sir," one of them finally asked politely in remarkably good English, "what's this?"

I stared at the small metal objects on the screen for a few seconds before it dawned on me that this could get very, very messy.

"Ammunition shell casings," I replied in a resigned tone, realising that there was no way to sugar-coat this admission.

Understandably my reply did not go down all-too-well with the post- September- 11-paranoid security guards, one of whom had now ripped open my pack to paw through it manually, while the other radioed his supervisor for advice before escorting me to the security office for his version of twenty questions. Why do you have casings? Where did you get them? Are you carrying a gun? What religion are you?

I wanted to explain that this all had a logical, rational explanation; that there was no need for two officers to be standing guard by the office door and nervously patting their guns. I wanted to explain that I'd pocketed some of the shells from the AK47 and M60 I'd fired in Phnom Penh less than three days earlier as a souvenir. I wanted to explain that I'd intended to calmly show the casings to security before I'd raised any unnecessary alarms, but in my mad rush to check-in I'd simply forgotten. I wanted to explain that despite my Middle Eastern heritage and ten-day growth, I was in fact a devout pacifist, and an agnostic to boot.

But if the guard's more urgent and frequent chattering into his radio was any indication, I'm guessing my breathless assurances sounded more like "AK47... Phnom Penh ... terrorist ... no shave!"

This was going nowhere, fast. Realising that I had little time left, I asked to return to the check-in counter where I pleaded with them to hold the plane while I satisfied airport security that I didn't intend to blow three hundred people out of the sky in the name of a religious deity that had repeatedly expressed his desire for peace on Earth.

Minutes later, after having my shoes X-rayed and submitting to a rather lingering frisk, my rucksack (sans-shells) was returned to me and I was waiting patiently as the check-in clerk conversed with the pilot over a radio link.

"You're very lucky," she finally said. "The captain's decided to wait."

Relieved, I threw down my bag and smiled wearily to myself, suddenly feeling the fatigue of thirty sleepless hours in Bangkok. Another close call, but I'd made it.

After a moment, the radio crackled to life again. The clerk answered the question in hushed Thai and then nodded to herself gravely in response to the deadpan reply.

"Sorry," she said, "the captain's changed his mind."

I'd come so close! "Why?!" I asked in exasperation. "What did he ask you?"

Her calm reply: "The captain wanted to know why security detained you. I simply told him that it was because a man born in the Middle East had been detained attempting to bring Cambodian ammunition on board the plane."

Well if you put it that way.

Freshly pressed sugar cane juice is one of the more popular drinks in the height of Myanmar's summer. Enlarge »
Maybe it was the pleading. Maybe it was the begging. Or perhaps it was the fact that I sat opposite the check-in clerk and stared pitifully at her for seven hours, looking very much like a man who hasn't slept or showered in two days, and who knows he's in for the biggest arse-kicking of his life when he finds his travelling companion in Yangon. Whatever the reason, I managed to score a seat on the incredibly overbooked evening flight to Myanmar and fifteen hours after my mad dash to the airport I'd landed, cleared customs and checked into a guesthouse in the heart of the city.

Now all I had to do was find Lisa.

The Union of Myanmar, or Burma as it was known until 1988, is, with the possible exception of North Korea, the most insular country in Asia. Like so many of its neighbours, Myanmar's problems began soon after World War II, when the fleeing English colonisers and Japanese occupiers left a leadership vacuum in their wake and a procession of inept leaders who unsuccessfully attempted to create a 'socialist nirvana'.

In-fighting and political instability followed until 1962, when the army led a coup and assumed power as a transitional government which gradually strangled the country's fragile economy, imprisoned or executed any political dissidents, cut Myanmar's contact with the world beyond its borders and generally gave crackpot dictatorships a bad name. The army's chief, General Ne Win, finally bowed to international and domestic pressure, and twenty-five years after installing himself as the 'transitional' leader of Myanmar, promised to hold general elections in 1989, proclaiming that the people of Myanmar would reward his government for the efficiency, success and tough-love compassion that they had shown during their years of power.

When almost ninety percent of the population made their views abundantly clear by voting for the opposition, however, Ne Win refused to abdicate his power and proceeded to do what any self-respecting dictator would do in times of political crisis: he had the opposition party arrested and thrown in jail. When university students protested, he simply shut down universities. When his own constituency protested, he tortured them. Easy.

Getting around Burma's capital requires only one skill: the ability to hold on for dear life. Enlarge »
In Myanmar today little has changed. General Ne Win's 'State Peace and Development Council' still runs the country with an iron fist, political dissent of any kind is treated with torture and imprisonment, forced child- labour gangs can still be seen in rural areas, the Internet is illegal, mail (and e-mail) are subject to government scrutiny and censorship, and the country's economy, crippled by the corrupt government, loses approximately twenty percent of its value each year. And just in case the people of Myanmar get any strange ideas about democracy, or heaven forbid freedom, billboards across the country written in both Burmese and English remind them that the "People's Desire", among other things, is to "crush enemies of the State" and "resist foreign meddlers, acting as stooges".

Dictatorial government aside, it didn't take long for me to fall for Yangon. Not since my first night in Shanghai had an Asian city seduced me so quickly.

The first thing you notice about Yangon, and indeed the entire country, is just how Indian everything is. Wedged between Bangladesh and India on one side, and Thailand and the rest of Indochina on the other, Myanmar has become a racial and cultural bridge between the two very different world's of West and South East Asia. Throw in the Chinese and Middle Eastern migrants from the north who flooded to Myanmar during the early days of British rule, and suddenly you begin to wonder if the local Burmese don't feel a little outnumbered in their own backyard. It's not uncommon to hear the afternoon Muslim calls to prayer being blasted out across the city from one of the many mosques, while the local Chinese community holds a dragon dance as part of the New Year Tet celebrations across the road from a Sikh temple outside which a handful of Buddhist monks are quietly talking amongst themselves.

The first thing you notice about Yangon, and indeed the entire country, is just how Indian everything is.
The second thing that strikes you about this country is how much it differs from the rest of South East Asia. Men stroll down the street wearing traditional longyi sarongs past candlelit markets where vendors sit on blankets spread out on the pavements hawking everything from sunglasses to steaming hot curries. Young Burmese women, faces painted yellow with a paste made from crushed wood pulp to protect them from the sun, stroll arm in arm while giggling at their male counterparts who sit at the pavement tea stalls that mysteriously appear around sunset, absent-mindedly chewing betel nuts and trying to act as nonchalant as possible. And above all this comes pervasive smell of garlic, turmeric and shrimp paste, along with the sounds of joyful chatter among friends and the frustrated honks of impatient drivers.

But what makes Myanmar so special is its humble citizens. I may have been travelling solo, but not a day or evening in Yangon passed without me being shown around, taken out to dinner or just chatted eagerly to by a local who wanted nothing more than to show their foreign guest a good time. The warmth, hospitality and generosity of the Burmese surprised me, raising the already high bar set by their close South East Asian neighbours. Essentially cut off from the rest of the world, the Burmese have developed a voracious appetite for knowledge of the lands beyond their borders. The only news they receive are trivial tidbits that the government considers innocuous enough to publish in the paltry state-run media. As a foreigner you're seen as a key to the world and its not uncommon to be accosted by a stranger on the street asking you to pass a message on to a distant relative living in Sydney ("I know his first name is Rajeesh").

It's a good thing I was so fond of Yangon, since for the next four days I'd come to know it intimately as I searched in vain for my friend Lisa. Without access to e-mail or any known contact point, I was left to manually search every hotel, guesthouse and tourist attraction in the city. My days were spent sprinting to all 30-odd budget hotels in the city, searching visitor logs at temples, pagoda and stupas, recruiting black-market money changers, postcard sellers and tour guides to help me in my search - I'd offered a 7000 kyat [AUS $20] to the person that located my elusive prey - and told my woeful story to every backpacker I could find.

Yet again my terrible, grainy camera couldn't do the English, colonial architecture of Yangon's street justice. But hey, what did I expect for $30? Enlarge »
By my fourth day in Yangon - which was incidentally the day of the Muslim festival of Eid-el-Fitr which was being celebrated with the slaughter of sheep on tarps spread out on the pavement in preparation for the afternoon's feast - I mused that chasing phantom women around strange Asian cities was becoming something of a strange habit, and figured that if the 150 or so people I'd recruited and the AUS $70 I'd spent hadn't been able to locate Lisa, nothing could. Deciding it was time to move on, I packed my bags and jumped on a bus to Bagan.

Bagan (known as Pagan in Myanmar's colonial days) stands with Cambodia's Angkor Wat as one of the finest examples of ancient architecture in the world. King Anawratha established the city as the region's spiritual capital in the Eleventh Century, and as such the city soon sprouted countless temples, pagodas and stupas. In keeping with Buddhist beliefs only the city's religious buildings were built with permanent materials, so Bagan's schools, markets and houses have all since rotted away rendering the city a desolate ancient wasteland from which the towering forms of large stone temples rise.

There's seems little point in describing the bewilderment and awe I felt standing amid the ruins of Bagan ... it's the sort of feeling that no words or photos can do justice to. And just in case I thought I'd never see anything to match the majesty of Angkor, Bagan managed to take me to a new plane of wonder.

On my last afternoon in Bagan I rented a rickety Chinese pushbike from my 2100 kyat (AUS $6) guesthouse and rode off to locate a rarely visited temple I'd been told by a local would make a great vantage point for sunset gazing.

Faced with a rickety, thirty year old bike that had a strange affinity for sharp objects and thin tires, I became a regular with the bike repair stalls dotted through the Bagan's savannah. Enlarge »
I rode for an hour or so, before turning off onto a narrow dirt walking track and riding for another hour on a dirt track through the endless, parched savannah of Bagan's dry season. And then I heard what no person out in the middle of nowhere wants to hear, especially when they're just a tad lost: the sound of a bike chain snapping.

After ten fruitless minutes attempting to fix the chain, I said 'Screw it', took my bearings from the sinking sun, and headed off on foot through long-deserted cotton fields and knee-high grass towards the vague direction of the mysteriously elusive temple.

And that's when, mid-stride, a thought struck me. I was totally alone, in fact there probably wasn't another living soul within 20 kilometres of me; I was well and truly lost in a country where I couldn't speak the language and in a landscape that was foreboding and unfamiliar; the setting sun would mean I'd soon have to navigate my way back in darkness; I had no transport to cover the sizeable distance back to the village; and to top it all off, I was on the verge of dehydration.

I should have been petrified. I should have turned back there and then. But I didn't. Instead I just paused for a moment and allowed a broad grin to spread itself across my unshaven and sun-blackened face - the same grin that had become an unexplainable, semi-permanent fixture for the past few weeks. Casting my mind back to my first nauseating and terrified days in Jakarta almost five and half months ago, I realised just how much I'd come during this trip.

I now knew that no matter what happened, I'd somehow manage to jump this hurdle. It might prove uncomfortable, it might be difficult, but I'd survive. The fact that I was stranded alone in near-darkness in the most alien environment I could imagine didn't phase me in the least; I'd get through it somehow. And that feeling: that you're capable of achieving anything was perhaps the greatest reward of my journeys.

So when I finally located the soaring temple almost half an hour later, clambered up the steps to perch myself on its roof and sat watching crimson streamers fanning out from the horizon as the sun sank slowly out of view, I drank in the sight of hundreds of temples rising out of the land around me like some ancient chess set and not for the first time in the past five months uttered to myself: "Life just doesn't get any better than this."

When you're village is built on stilts in the middle of a lake, there only seems to be one logical place to look for dinner. Enlarge »
After a brief stop at Inle Lake, a twenty-two kilometre long body of marshy water that has become the lifeblood to dozens of villages and towns that line its shores, I was on my way back to Yangon. Back to Bangkok. Back to Australia, and back to reality.

During my brief stop over in the Yangon en route to Thailand, I took the opportunity to sit down to a cup of tea with Richard, a geriatric Burmese tour guide I'd befriended during my "Lisa Hunt" the previous week. Richard had been an English professor at a Myanmar university until the government shut down tertiary education over a decade ago, and now he's forced to scour the streets looking for potential tourist clients in order to feed himself and his invalid wife. Angered and frustrated by Myanmar's oppressive regime and painfully aware of the freedom enjoyed by all other countries on Earth, Richard has ignored the very real possibility of torture, imprisonment or even execution to become a Burmese democratic crusader.

Armed with encryption software that the technologically-illiterate, government censors simply assume is random gibberish, Richard has opened up a secret, virtual pipeline of information that flows in from the outside world, bringing in news, articles and information about Myanmar's dictatorial government and the global efforts to eradicate it. After meticulously translating page after page e-mailed to him by sympathisers throughout the world, Richard photocopies and distributes these articles among friends, students and colleagues to educate his countrymen about the horrors of Myanmar's leadership and on tactics to help undermine their power from within.

But after listening to Richard excitedly outline his plans, dreams and aspirations for over three hours, I had to step in and play Devil's Advocate.

"Richard," I asked, "do you really think that you can make a difference? The government seems almost too powerful. Perhaps even invincible...?"

It may look endearing and cute, but after you've sat on the back of a tractor for ten hours as it takes on mostly non-existent roads you come to the conclusion that inter-city transport in Burma is best attempted in vehicles with roofs. Enlarge »
Richard just smiled at me in a way that made me feel my painfully young age, refilled my tiny cup from the tea-pot and replied: "Ally, the people of Myanmar are wonderful, the culture of Myanmar is rich and the country of Myanmar is beautiful, but the current government is terrible. People don't change, cultures don't change and landscapes don't change ... but governments do. There's hope for us yet. One day we will be free, one day..."

And with people like Richard fighting the fight, I've no doubt they will.

POSTSCRIPT March 7, 2002. MELBOURNE (Australia). 11:38 PM:

I've just finished transcribing the last of my posts from a tattered Burmese notebook onto my laptop screen and my bed is calling me invitingly upstairs. I've been back home for four days now, but am still struggling to come to terms with non-Asian life: the white faces, the loud voices, the comparatively lifeless streets.

Every friend I meet inevitably asks, "What was the highlight of your trip? Which memory stands out the most?", but these are questions without easy answers. While it might be tempting to think that my all-to-frequent near-death and near- arrest experiences might form the lasting memories of my trip, I don't think these will be the incidents I recall in ten years time. Instead it will be the memories of walking down a dusty Savannakhet side street in Laos, only to be mobbed by dozens of children grasping one finger each and yelling "Sabai-Di! Sabai-Di!" ("Hello! Hello!"); the daily rush of people, produce and sounds at a Vietnamese morning market; the sight of naked kids flying home made plastic-bag kites from the rooftops of Manila's slums; the unforgettable grin on a young Cambodian's face as they plugged into my Discman and listened to techno for the first time in their short lives; or the sheer challenge of eating green papaya salad out of a plastic bag with chopsticks at 2:00 am on an ancient bus that threatened to drive the wooden skewer through my skull with every sadistic jolt.

To put it simply I've fallen in love with all of Asia: with its sights, its sounds, its smells. With the warmest and kindest people who welcomed me without question and with the landscape that left me constantly awed. With the foods that had me drooling day and night and with the sense of community that enveloped me like a warm blanket.

I try to verbalise the emotions I've felt and the sights of seen and all that tumbles out are lame clichés that seem an injustice to the life-changing experiences of the past twenty-two weeks. I've learned more about people, the world and myself in the past five and a half months than eighteen years at school and university could ever hoped to have taught. I've extended myself through the emotional rollercoaster of solo backpacking, met inspirational people from every country and walk of life and have returned more mentally, physically and spiritually prepared for anything life throws at me.

I covered almost 40,000 kilometres - of which 17,000 kilometres was travelled overland - in over 20 modes of transport including hovercraft, elephant, farm plougher and 12 flights that whisked me through a total of 11 countries and 2 Special Administrative Regions. I've used 15 currencies and walked through 18 international border crossings. My average length of stay was 3 nights in 43 cities, towns and villages in which I stayed in over 50 guesthouses, dining room floors and dorm rooms. I shared my experiences with more than two dozen travelling partners from around the world and suffered 2 (noteworthy) cases of gastro, most probably caused by the 6 new types of meat I tried, including rat, bat, grasshopper and dog, and from which I recuperated by reading 27 novels that also helped distract me on 11 sleepless nights spent in transit.

And although my body's back here in Australia, shaking its hands after yet another caffeine-fuelled session behind a keyboard, I can't help but think that a part of me will forever grounded in countless rice paddies and warm smiles of Asia.

Four days back home and I'm already itching to leave. I feel like the rest of the world is there to be explored and I can't sit still at the thought. Where to next? South America? The Middle East? Africa? Or perhaps even Eastern Europe?

Whichever it is, all I can say is:

Bring it on.

Comments about this page

Well we agree is Yangon is culturally influenced by South Asia but not everything is Indian. Since some ethnic Indians like to deal with tourists for foreign exchange services etc..
One should not conclude that all is Indian.
Aung Kyaw Soe (Singapore) on Jul 29, 2004 at 8:14 pm

I am planning to go to Myanmar shortly. While browsing websites for information, I ran into yours. What a windfall? What a vivid description? What a sense of humor? I thoroughly enjoyed your travel to Myanmar, your hunt for Lisa, your paddling the bicycle, your comments on Military Junta, your kind thoughts for the oppressed people. Keep it up my friend; you owe it to the world.
Hafeez Malik (Karach, Pakistan) on Mar 7, 2009 at 7:07 am

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