Tearing ourselves away from the pleasures of the Thai coast, we determined to head north to Myanmar (or Burma for those readers still stuck in the colonial past). I will now give you a quick primer on this long-isolated state. Population of ~60 million, majority Buddhist but many Christian and Muslim, ethnically ~60% Burmese but also many minorities, land area about 2.5 times the size of NZ. Most of you will have heard of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning former political prisoner known locally as ‘the Lady’ (cumulative time under house arrest: 15 years). Myanmar was an independent kingdom till it was progressively brought under the boot of the Imperial British Raj by 1885. At this time it was known as Burma and was famous for its teak wood, tea, rubber as well as gemstones (today Myanmar is the source for 90% of the world’s rubies). George Orwell lived there and wrote an anti-colonialist novel called Burmese Days (reading it as we speak) so will share more about this history another time.

In 1947 it gained independence until a military coup in 1962 led to a dictatorship till 2010. In recent history, Suu Kyi, daughter of the general that led the independence struggle, and her party, the NLD (National League for Democracy), won the 2010 election in a landslide. Challenging negotiations led to the military ceding some power but reserving key veto power under the new constitution as well as immunity and control of key ministries. The current situation appears a somewhat halfway house between a dictatorship and a democracy. Over time, people hope things will improve (currently workers earn an average of US$3 per day), as the sclerotic government and its ministries will improve under the tentative opening of the economy. The military and its cronies have their claws into all nooks and crannies of the economy and corruption is all-pervasive (Transparency International Corruption Perception Index country ranking of 136 out of 176).

From Thailand’s border port of Ranong, we crossed a land border, which actually consisted of a long-tail boat trip across the river mouth, dotted with customs and immigration guard posts. The Myanmar side is called Kawthoung and is nothing to write home about, so I won’t. Saddled with a thick wad of the local notes, kyats, we flew to Dawei. This 1 ¼ hour flight probably saved us 14 hours on a terrible road. The south of Myanmar has been closed to tourists for many decades and previously the only way in was by living on a boat and going on dive trips to the Myeik archipelago, a 800+ island nirvana. Mark my words, this area will become the next big thing once Myanmar hits the next stage on its tourism evolution.

Dawei is a cute, dusty town and the capital of Tanintharyi Region. Things that have struck me so far have included the general application (by both male and females) of a cosmetic paste made from the bark of the sandalwood tree which is applied to the skin as protection but then also applied extra thickly to the cheeks and face in intricate designs. Our taxi driver had the stuff around his eyes to make him look like a tiger or something. Swirls, loops, circles, swatches, it’s all been seen. Ladies and children also love wearing brightly patterned pyjama pants, often with matching tops. This is apparently not considered strange, in fact the western idea of pajamas as nighttime clothing was stolen from the Asian colonies who were just wearing comfortable clothing. Otherwise the national dress is longyis which are patterned cloth which is wrapped around the waists of men and women. Very breezy and cool in the heat of the summer’s day. Another piece is the use of betelnut as a stimulant. More on this in a future post.

Departing at 5am we embarked on a 7-hour juddering, rollercoaster of a minivan-ride from Dawei to the third largest city in Myanmar, Mawlamyine (capital of Mon State and also known as Moulmein) which pounded my spine into each and every pothole as we streaked (ha!) north along the economic heartline of the south, curlicues of mist wreathing the palm trees standing sentinel on the flat coastal rice plains of Tanintharyi Region before entering Mon State. This ‘highway’ was being widened for most of this route from 1 ½ lanes to 2 lanes wide using road-building techniques which reminded me of the way the Roman’s used to build their roads. The swarms of locals shifting wicker baskets of stone, tar being liquified in oil barrels over slow fires and the occasional steamroller will no doubt drive development. The road was further cushioned by rubber tree plantations as well as legions of military villages fringing the road. I must have counted 20+ bases in 150km of road. The military of Myanmar (the Tatmadaw) has 500,000 men, one of the largest standing armies in the world and busy with suppressing the independence movements of minorities since forever. On a positive note we also almost ran down a wedding party crossing the road, about to start their party at 7am (!) with all assembled guests dressed in their finery, pink chiffon adorning the roadside restaurant. Beautiful!

Mawlamyine was the capital of British Burma and as such has a certain faded and mouldy glamour. George Orwell wrote an essay in 1936 entitled ‘Shooting an Elephant’, informed by his experiences as a colonial policeman whilst stationed here. The rough-and-tumble development is not really that apparent. No high rise buildings, traditional bustling markets remain, dusty main roads and limited foreign presence. The drooping old teak mansions are slowly being replaced by concrete Chinese-style McMansions adorned with chrome balustrades and slick gaudy tiles. I get it. Who wouldn’t want a waterproof, plumbed, wired, warm and long-lasting house to live in? We tourists like authenticity and photogenic uniqueness but we don’t have to live here.

A pagoda visit was on the cards and we ascended to the ridge-top from where we had an excellent view over the river, the city and the notorious ex-British prison dominating the center of the view. The internet in general is terribly slow and we have purchased a local SIM card provided by Telenor, one of the new mobile providers which has spread its internet crack across the nation. Can you imagine – most of the country internet-free till 2010 and now you can buy a cheap-as-chips SIM and access the world through your phone! Embarking on an early-morning excursion across to ‘Ogre Island’, a neighbouring landmass hosting a population of 200,000 and a 5min and 500 kyat (EUR 0.30) boat trip away. I saw how rubber bands are made (an incredible process!), writing slates and slate stylus’ for school children, bamboo hats, saw longyis woven (also such an intricate skill by girls who would still be at school in a western nation) and a wood-working knick-knack workshop.

On my return I sat down to lunch (an eggplant curry and a seafood curry with rice) and was delighted to have the opportunity to talk to a member of the Mon State Hluttaw (parliament) who had come from his morning debate in the parliament building. He is one of 19 members of the democratic NLD (military 8, rest 4, total 31 seats) and grew up on the island. He was one of the original tour guides in the area (>20 years ago) and we had a fascinating discussion about government priorities (hospitals, schools), the corrosive nature of corruption, the embedded special interest blocs in positions of power beholden only to state ministries and therefore dismissive of democratically-elected officials, the tragedy of the hundreds of thousands Mon State remittance workers in Thailand, Indonesia and on fishing boats, the human trafficking, the deliberate addiction of many of these workers by their managers on ya ba (a particularly nasty local amphetamine that enhances energy levels and ruins the body and mind) and the too-slow progress in replacing the dictatorship-era bureaucracy mindset with a more modern development-focused one. He excused himself and returned to the business of governing. I can only wish him the best.  

Next up: Hpa-an, Kyaito, Bago, Yangon and photos when we find decent internet!