Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2



Well, it looks like it is another epic newsletter. Having just got into Thailand from Myanmar, formally known as Burma, I rightly came to the conclusion that this newsletter could take some time to get together. Not only because it will be charting my exploits for the best part of a month that I spent in the country, but also because if ever there was a country that needed comment and provoked opinion Myanmar would have to be it.

Just to clear something up before I get started, The Union of Myanmar is now the official name for the country. Despite all the rest that has been done by the government of Myanmar, this is actually seen by many as a positive change as it appreciates that not all the citizens are of Burman descent, unlike the previous Moniker. For this reason I generally try to use the name Myanmar, but (in my experience at least) Burma / Myanmar and Burmese / Myanmari are used interchangeably by many people (although not in official circles etc.) so there will be some inconsistency within the text, but don't read any extra meaning in to it.

Arriving in Myanmar, one of the first things one must do is change money into FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates), a government method of getting hold of much needed foreign currency. With a nominal bribe one can change half the amount requested, saving one from having expensive scraps of paper at the end of the end of one's stay. Going into Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) one can see lots of old colonial architecture all over the city, unfortunately this looks like it will not last very long as new, ugly buildings are springing up all over town. In Yangon, the principal site of interest is the Shwedagon Pagoda, an impressive temple atop a hill with a 107 meter golden stupa, crowned with a hti (symbolic umbrella) that has huge diamonds in it. One of the most impressive things about the huge structure is that it doesn't cast a shadow at any time of day. The other sites of Yangon, were not so impressive (the Independence monument, Sule Pagoda, City Hall, High Court, Maha Bandoola Park and Botatung Pagoda), but the Stand Hotel, which in itself is not so impressive, merely being a well preserved colonial style hotel is impressive as an example of the governments mercenary nature, they charge three hundred dollars a night for a hotel that doesn’t even have a swimming pool or twenty-four hour room service (needless to say I wouldn't stay in such a place). The national museum was rather impressive in part due to the fact that Lord Mountbatten convinced the British museum to return a number or artefacts to the Burmese at independence, so one can view the ancient royal thrones and other impressive exhibits. After making my plans and consulting with other travellers about what to see etc. I headed off to Kalaw, a former hill station.

From Kalaw I went to visit the Pindaya Cave temples. These are some natural caves that have been crammed full of Buddha effigies. In the main cave there were literally thousands of Buddha images, and apparently the custodians have had to stop accepting any more images as there is limited room. The drive to and from Pindaya was very picturesque and one could see the Pah-O tribe tilling the fields with ox carts and ploughs that are reminiscent of a Constable painting. The sad bit being that most of the country unfortunately has not been able to progress to modern agricultural methods. So although quaint, it is also rather sad. On the way back from Pindaya, we stopped at Shan umbrella making factory. These people apparently being famous for the paper and bamboo umbrellas they make. The nicest bit was that after showing me the process of making the paper and the umbrellas, they unsurprisingly offered to sell me one, when I said that I had absolutely no need for one, they accepted this and gave me some tea. It was refreshing to be somewhere that the people don't try to had sell things to you, a recurring theme for most of my time in Myanmar.

The main reason for visiting Kalaw was to do a short trek, it turned out to be more like a two day stroll (not necessarily a bad thing). The purpose of this trek was to visit some of the hill tribes, particularly the Paluang and Taungyoe people. After going to the market in the morning (where many of the local tribes turned out to sell their produce, so it was quite a good way to see them in their traditional dress, but not on show) Eddie (our guide), Gustav (a Dutch bloke) and myself set off on our walk. The route we took to leave town took us past all the old British Mock-Tudor homes, many of which have fallen into disrepair and have a number of families squatting in each of them. If they had been in better condition, one could quite easily be mistaken for thinking one was in rural England, with English gardens and house names like "The Gables". We stopped by the Shweohnmin Caves, a less impressive set of caves with Buddha images in. Then we started properly on the scenic walk into the hills. On the way the heavens opened with a torrential downpour. The worst bit of this was not that it meant we got a bit wet, it is that in this part of the world with the rain come the leeches. So, it is important to be wearing a hat as these are the paratrooper variety. They drop out of the trees, as well as climbing up one’s legs. So, one has to very vigilant, constantly checking oneself and each other for the blighters. At one point Eddie managed to find an amorous leech that crawled all the way up his trousers to his groin. We left him alone to fish that one out in private. Eventually the rain abated just before we reached ¡°The View Point¡± where we would be spending the night. This place is run by some Nepalese folk. There being many Nepalese around the former British hill stations, as the British bought Gurkhas before and during the Second World War, and when the British left, many of the Nepalese decided to stay behind. From the view point we wandered down to a Paluang village, where the people seemed pleased to see us. This is most likely because, as well as bringing tourists to the villages, Eddie gives medical advice, administers medicines and mends wounds for the villagers. He also had a well dug and the village gets a cut from the amount we pay for the trek. The people were very hospitable, competing with each other to have us come to their part of the long house (several families live together in one very long house) and have tea and refreshments.

The following day after breakfast we set off to the Taungyoe village. These people are much more educated and developed than their Paluang neighbours. They have very different style houses and grow different crops. Whereas the Paluang grow mostly tea and cheroot leaves the Taungyoe are vegetable growers. After lunch with these people we headed back towards Kalaw when the rains stated again, fortunately this time we were out of the woods so there were no leeches to worry about.

The next morning I tried to get on a bus to Inle Lake, but they were all booked full. Whilst tying to get a bus, a taxi driver offered to take me for a very reasonable price as he was taking someone to the airport in Heho (which is close by) anyway, so for a little bit more he would take me to Inle. I went back to my guest house and asked Kari (a Finnish guy who was also staying there and had been planning to go to Inle the nest day) if he wanted to join me, so we all got the cab together. The guy he was taking to the airport was a former British soldier (now seventy-five) who had served in India and Burma during the war. It was very interesting talking with him about his experiences then, as Burma constituted the East Indian front against the Japanese during the war and was the scene of some horrific fighting.
In Inle Kari and I decided to do a canoe trip around the lake. This being a pleasantly sedate way to get around. It tuned out not to be just sedate but incredibly slow. So most of the time we played cards as our canoeist took us on a tour of the northern pat of the lake. He took us in amongst the stilt villages which unlike most villages I have seen of this type before, are not on land, but are actually in the middle of the lake. Where the only way of getting around is by boat. They also farm directly on the lake, with floating gardens growing vegetables. We then went to a cheroot (type of cigar) making house where the women roll these things all day. I asked one of them to show me how to make one, the first one she helped me with a lot, the second I went mostly solo and I was impressed with the result (later we asked people to guess which one I had made and which had been rolled by a professional, they guessed wrong). This has filled me with hope that if everything else in life should fail, I can fall back on my cheroot rolling skills and earn perhaps as much as two hundred Kyat a day (nearly twenty pence or thirty US cents). We also stopped off at a monastery where Kai and the abbot had a bizarre conversation about Marshall Mannheim (a famous Finnish Marshall) that surprised Kari more than me. It isn't often one meets a Burmese Buddhist archimandrite with an interest in Finland's military leaders up to and during the second world war. After this illuminating conversation we headed back to town (very slowly) where Gustav had turned up. We decided to hire a proper boat the next day to see the lake properly.

Due to the comparative speed of this motor boat we were able to see many things in the course of the day. First we went to the market which was quite interesting ad colourful. Then on to pottery village where an ancient old lady hand threw some pots, but we were more interested in the basket weaver, who was not really on the tour, which confused the locals. We went though more water villages to a couple of monasteries of limited interest. We watched silver and goldsmiths at work and women weaving silk. We always asked what these people earned, if they had a good day they could earn as much as two hundred Kyat (the same as a productive cheroot roller). On the lake one could also see the unique leg rowers. In order to be able to fish and row at the same time, the locals have developed a baffling method of rowing, whereby they stand at the end of their boat, with one leg wrapped around the paddle, moving it in an elliptical motion. It looks like they discovered some alien object with no comprehension of its purpose and had a competition to find the most quizzical way in which to employ it. It brings back memories of Daniel Day Lewis in ¡°My Left Foot¡± Our last stop on the tour was without a doubt the most memorable. It was to a monastery where the monks have for twenty-two years been training their feline friends to jump though a hoop. Unsurprisingly this has led the monastery to be called ¡°Jumping Cat Monastery¡± The monks were delighted to give us a demonstration of the fruits of their labour. One by one the cats (who were generally named after sexy female movie stars) were brought over and commanded to jump through the hoop the monk held about three foot from the floor. I think I can say with some justification that you haven't really seen anything unless you have visited a Buddhist monastery where the monks make a cat repeatedly jump through a hoop. We decided we had to find what purpose this served so asked, “Why have you spent twenty-two years training pussy cats to jump through a hoop?”

Expecting some new interpretation of the Buddhist teachings, we were told “Oh, no real reason.”

“So can it get pretty boring being a monk at a monastery in the middle of a lake?”

“Yeah, sometimes.” I think we found the answer.

After all this excitement I decided to move along to Mandalay. Mandalay is in my opinion one of those place names that has a kind of romantic ring to it, in part thanks to Kipling’s famous prose. Unfortunately in this case the town is not so special, it being a fair sized modern city, set out on a grid system. Part of the reason that it doesn’t have to much allure left may be attributed to the fact that during WW2, when the Japanese occupied the city the British bombed it to smithereens. Amongst the casualties were the royal palace which was utterly destroyed. The other reason it has limited aesthetic interest is that it is on the overland route to China and has a very large Chinese population. These Chinese have brought with them apart from their money, connections, business savvy and cuisine, what is quite possibly the most boring architecture on the planet. It seems to be the pinnacle of Chinese design (in their opinion alone, I am sure) to have a plain building covered in rectangular white vitreous tiles and have blue tinted windows. It is a phenomenon that is popular across China, Tibet and in a number of expatriate Chinese communities and now it is taking over Myanmar. There are a few sites of interest however.

I went and saw the “Mahamuni Image” a golden Buddha found in Rakhine (near the Bangladeshi border), that is supposed to glow at times. In order to gain merit, Buddhists can have gold leaf applied to the image. As a result, over the last century the image has gained a fifteen centimetre (six inch) veneer of gold leaf that gives it a strange appearance. I then went to Shwe In Bin Monastery, which is entirely constructed of teak. Whilst there a monk decided to tell my future, but I couldn't understand him despite the fact he was speaking English. We found that the only way to communicate was I could talk but he had to write what he wanted to say. He didn't give me any great insights or recommend some sure-fire lottery numbers, just that the next month or so should be good for desire attainment and then from July 17th to August 16th all is not good, everything is empty. I didn’t think much of this bit, but he was quite insistent that there would be a bad period between those dates.

In the evening I went to see the “Moustache Brothers” show. It is an A-Nyeint Troupe, which is thought of as the Vaudeville of Myanmar. The performances typically consist of traditional dancing, singing, puppet shows, all interspersed with comedy. These A-Nyeint troupes would be found touring around the country performing at weddings, funerals, house warmings, festivals or simply to entertain a village. The ¡°Moustache Brothers¡± show used to be the most famous of these troupes, but a couple of things have created problems for the show in more recent years. Firstly they are not allowed to tour anymore and public gatherings are prohibited (to the extent that university courses are almost all correspondence courses, to prevent too many people gathering). The second reason is that Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, two of the three ¡°Moustache Brothers¡± have been in jail since 1996 for telling a few anti-government jokes at a NLD rally or as the official statement went, for telling “False news, knowing beforehand that it is untrue” and “Abusing there freedom of speech against the government” One of the jokes which seems rather innocuous to occidental ears was a satire of a man who refuses to die, despite being repeatedly shot by a general (To understand this joke you must know that hit and right are homonyms in Burmese, the same way bank (embankment) and bank (repository for money) are in English). So, as the general asks the man “Why don’t you die?”

He replies “Why should I die if I am right / hit” It doesn’t seem the most offensive thing to most people, but the government took offence and the two comedians were sentenced to seven yeas in jail, the first year they were doing hard labour, breaking rocks with several hundred drug offenders, but these two were the only ones forced to wear leg irons. This left Lu Maw (who had not gone to the rally in Yangon) holding the fort. The performance itself although entertaining is not the main reason people go to see the show, it is mainly to have the opportunity to talk with someone who is willing to speak about what is happening in Myanmar, as almost everyone else is scared to say anything (see below). Before the show Lu Maw, who spouts proverbs like a hyperactive Sancho Panca, tells the audience (in this case the three of us) about the plight of his brother Par Par Lay and cousin Lu Zaw and what can and is being done to help. He took the three of us up to his small bedroom, locked the door and then showed us press cuttings and leaflets that have been smuggled into him from the west. This included a number of British newspaper reports, particularly those covering a campaign led by some British artists and Anita Roddick (of the “Body Shop” who collected 1.6 million thumbprints from the public and celebrities including Nobel Laureates Desmond Tutu and H.H. Dalai Lama. These were then used to create a picture of the two imprisoned comedians. He also has press cuttings from when comedians Hugh Laurie, Frank Carson and Eddie Izzard have done benefits for the pair. In the USA, comedians Carl Reiner and Ted Danson have also put on shows on their behalf. After being told the political intrigues, we went downstairs to watch the show. This largely consisted of Lu Maw’s wife, sister and two sister-in-laws doing traditional dances, which involves throwing themselves around somersaulting, dropping to their knees, whilst making elegant hand movements, singing and looking very elegant in their formal dresses. What is most impressive is that the youngest of these women is in their late forties, it boggles the mind that they have kneecaps left the way they drop on them during a dance. In between the dance numbers Lu Maw told us his jokes, invariably with an anti-government slant. Thankfully he would usually make it clear when the joke was finished so we could laugh politely. For a little more info. on the “Moustache Brothers” see: www.csmonitor.com/duable/2000/04/25/p7s2.htm or www.justgoeast.com/roadstories/body_lumaw.html

After a bit of political intrigue, I went the following day to Mingun, an ancient city near to Mandalay, where a former king had decided to build the largest Buddhist monument in the world. It wasn't finished when he died and his family decided that what he had built was enough already, so the Tu Main Pagoda is not the largest Buddhist monument in the world but is the largest brick base ever built. Which is not too surprising as it is bloody huge. Unfortunately it was damaged badly in an earthquake in 1876. They do however have the largest complete bell in the world. It is the second largest bell there is a much larger one in Moscow, but that one is cracked. This one weighs in at an impressive ninety tons and when I gave it a bit of a whack, it emits a surprisingly nice tone. To get to Mingun and back one takes an hour long ferry ride on the Irrawaddy River, the ¡°Road to Mandalay¡± which is rather nice. I met some nice Japanese folk on the boat and later we met up to go up Mandalay Hill. On the way up a couple of monks who wanted to practice their English accompanied us up the steps. When we got to the top the view was pleasant but not spectacular. We had managed to choose English practice day for one of the local schools. When the English teacher brings all her students from six to twenty up the hill to talk English at the tourists. I managed to find a couple who spoke pretty good English and they were quite interesting to talk to. At one point one of them pointed to a semi-circular block of buildings and asked me if I knew what it was, I said I didn’t. She then told me "That's the prison where they keep the political prisoners" I asked her if there were still many political prisoners as the government like to make noises that so many have been released. She assured me there were still very many, nobody knows how many. Myself and one of the monks I had met decided he should be my guide around Mandalay the next day. That way he could show me bits I might otherwise not see and he could practise his English. On the way back to our hotel my trishaw guy (in Myanmar the rickshaws are a bike with a sidecar, with back to back seats) was whinging about how hard he has to work for so little money. So after a while I told him to shut up and move aside. So for the greater part of the journey he sat there whilst I cycled, but continued to whinge. Some folk you just can't please. Later that evening we went to a marionette puppet show. The performance was reasonably interesting, at the beginning of the show we were informed that this company had the honour of having a master puppeteer to watch. Apparently this master had one a gold medal at the 1995 Myanmar cultural games. During the show they would raise the curtain to show the puppeteers at work behind. The master was easy to spot as not only was his the best puppet mastery I have seen, but to prove the point he wore his gold medal for the duration of the show. Towards the end of the show one of the other puppeteers gave a sycophantic speech about the master which he concluded with the statement ¡°So not only is he a great singe and puppeteer but he only has three teeth¡± at which point the man in question smiled broadly, but we could still only see the one tooth at the front.

The next morning I got up before dawn to go to the ancient city of Amarapura to see the sunrise. I got there just about in time, walked over the U-Bein bridge, 1.2 kilometres long and made entirely of teak. Had a quick look at the monastery which wasn’t that interesting and then got back in my trishaw for the return journey to Manadalay and to meet Ramdas, the monk who would be showing me around. En route I fell asleep a couple of times, which wouldn't have been a problem normally, but these trishaws have narrow seats and as a result of my dozing off I came very close to falling out the thing, one time I came within inches of head butting a parked truck as I teetered to one side. Eventually got to the university where I was meeting Ramdas. He showed me around the campus, which took five minutes. There are no big lecture theatres and the only big hall is for the on-site temple, as it could be dangerous to have many people gathered together. We went to his room, where he had an attractive Burmese pin-up on the wall (not very monkish). Then he decided to take me to the Royal Palace. As previously mentioned this was razed to the ground by British bombing, but the government decided a few years ago to rebuild it for the tourists. The advantage the government has is that they don’t really have labour costs as they either simply tell people that they will do this job (irrespective of whether they actually have gainful employment) or use prisoners to do the work. In most countries this would be called slave labour and that is precisely what it has been called by many agencies including the UN. In Myanmar they call it a volunteer workforce (the same type of volunteer workforce has been building a pipeline from Myanmar to Thailand for Total (French) and Unocal (American) oil companies). As one enters the palace walls, one must go though security checks and form filling as it is also home to a number of government ministries. There is a sign showing the tourists where they may o may not go with the waning “If you deviate from the above route you will be purnished (sic)” We had a look around the palace which had been recreated very well, but was too sterile as it was simply a collection of buildings. Apart from a couple of replica thrones there was no furniture, so it was difficult to get an impression of how it really was. The high point of the visit was however a small park in the back where they had an old propeller fighter plane. Ramdas asked me if I could drive a plane as I knew how to drive a car, I said didn’t, but did know the basics. So, I climbed in and showed him how the pedals move the rudder, how the trigger fires the gun (which had been removed), how to release the bombs (one of which hopefully a dud was still attached) etc. He seemed quite impressed and it took little coercion to get him to jump in the cockpit and play with the controls. Somehow it did not occur to me to take a picture of a monk in all his finery playing at being a fighter pilot, but it left an indelible image on my mind. One of the other things is that there are a number of government signs around the palace walls, only the tame ones have English translations, which makes one wonder what the others might say as most of those I saw were Orwellian to say the least (I have written some of those I saw at the foot of this mail). Ramdas then took me to the market (nothing special) and a couple of Pagodas that were not particularly spectacular either. We then made our excuses and parted company.

From Mandalay I headed to Pyin-Oo-Lwin another former hill station, with Brooke an American. After some hassle getting on a pick-up to take us there, we finally set off on the three hour journey. In the pick-up with us was a doctor who spoke some English. We chatted with him for a bit and asked him how much he earns (this is not a rude question in most questions outside the west). He told us he earned fifteen thousand Kyat a month. That is 500 Kyat a day (at the time it was between 6-700 to the US dollar) he actually earns less money that a trishaw diver who generally makes one or two thousand Kyat a day. At one point we stopped, the doctor pointed out that it was to allow the prisoners to cross the road. We looked out and saw a procession of women in coarse white pyjamas and conical straw hats slowly mach across the road. To the side of the road was a huge pile of rocks they had just broken into smaller pieces. When we got to Pyin-Oo-Lwin A diminutive Nepalese guy called Kamur greeted us off the pick-up. He helped us sort out accommodation (without taking a commission) and made sure we were settled in comfortably. Later when walking around town he saw us and decided to give us a tour. He offered to take us on a bike tour of the area the next day for a reasonable price. Brooke said she couldn’t as she had a bad knee which would prevent her being able to cycle. He insisted this was no problems as he was a Gurkha, she could sit on the back of his bike. I noticed this still left me having to cycle, oh well if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger. That evening we decided to try some of the local wine which the locals were so proud of. It was unfailingly bad, the most impressive thing about it being that they continued to produce and presumably sell something of such poor quality.

In the morning Kamur came to take us off on our tour. The first stop was to a Shan village, where we were going to have lunch with the monks. As we dismounted from our bikes, Kamur who had previously seemed such a meek resigned man suddenly started talking about the state the country was in and what was being done by the government in a somewhat unrestrained way. He was seething with anger at them and released a string of expletives that would have made Bernard Manning blush. Both Brooke and I were slightly taken aback at the sudden onslaught, although we both knew there were negative feelings simmering in many of the Burmese, it was an eye opener to see how deep those feelings really were. As soon as we got to the monastery Kamur regained his composure, appearing as meek and mild as before. Maung Maung a local farmer who spoke good English joined us for lunch with the monks, which was not particularly appetising. Generally the food in Myanmar is not too great in my opinion. George Orwell actually went so far as to say “What is almost the worst thing in Burma, the filthy, monotonous food” Perhaps this is a little strong a statement to make, but I did find it remarkable that in Myanmar the cuisine is nowhere near as good as any of it’s neighbours as the Indians, Thai and Chinese all know how to cook decent, tasty food. The worst bit of Burmese cooking is in my opinion the Ngapi. This is a fermented seafood paste that they seem to mix in with too many things even when you tell them you don’t eat fish. Kipling described Ngapi as “Fish pickled, when it ought to have been buried long ago” in my opinion an overgenerous statement. Getting back to the meal with the monks, Brooke and I ate what could be best described as diplomatically. After the meal the abbot offered me his betel nut box, for me to make myself some Pan. If you don’t know Betel nut is a mild stimulant, if you chew copious quantities and is very popular across Asia, it is the reason that many Asians have blood red or black teeth. To prepare my dose I gave it to Kamur, as I have no idea how to get it all together. It involves chopping some of the nuts into smallish pieces which are placed on a leaf with some white paste, with a bit of tobacco and a few spices (sorry, but this is as much as I know). The whole thing is then wrapped in the leaf and placed in the side of the mouth where one chews it slowly over the course of an hour or so. I had previously had some in India and found it not entirely unpleasant, although I could quite easily never have it again. When the abbot offered me it, I decided I would politely have some, so after Kamur had prepared it I popped the wad in my mouth like an old pro. After a couple of minutes I noticed it was stronger than that which I had previously tried. I mentioned it to Kamur who insisted it was of normal strength. I stated making more use of the spittoon provided than the monks expected. The abbot found it hilarious to see me spitting so much. At one point I thought he might do himself an injury, he was laughing so hard. After about ten minutes I had thankfully got rid of the last of the betel, but was still left with a slight burning sensation on the left side of my tongue. Later Kamur admitted to me that it may have been a slightly strong mix as he had given himself a mouth abscess, despite having chewed betel for some years.

From the monastery Maung Maung took us to his home and then showed us around his farm. We then went to the “Hill Pagoda” so-called because it is a Pagoda atop a hill. This Pagoda is only a year old but is very impressive nonetheless. It was just built by Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt. General no. 1, or in other words the top man in Myanmar. He decided that as the Buddha image fell from a truck as it was being taken towards China, it was a sign that the image should stay near where it had fallen, in a suitably auspicious site. Building a pagoda is the best way to achieve merit, and with a good enough pagoda or collection of them, one can get straight to Nirvana. That is why he decided to dedicate resources to this building. Before he became General No. 1, he was head of military intelligence and had effectively been running the country for many years. Myanmar is the only place I have been where there is a section in the guide book “How to know and what to do and not do when you are being followed by Military Intelligence” From there we went to a not particularly dramatic waterfall. Then to Kamur’s place where his wife made us some more lunch.

From Pyin-Oo-Lwin we headed back to Mandalay to get a bus to the ancient city of Bagan. Before we went however we were invited to dinner with the parents of the niece of the owner of the hotel where Brooke had previously been staying (I'm not going to repeat that). One of these nieces / daughter is engaged to an Englishman, so she found it interesting to talk with me about what it might be like for her living in London. I tried to put her mind at ease, without distorting the facts. Something about the whole thing seemed kind of sinister though, the girl is only seventeen. She will be marrying this guy as soon as she is eighteen and moving to England. The guy is thirty-four and his father is arranging the whole thing, she seems reasonably carried away with the whole thing, “Fifty percent scared / fifty percent excited” as she put it to me. Somehow though it didn’t all seem right, it is nothing surprising to see someone from a county like Myanmar try to marry abroad, but it was difficult top work out what her fiancée was getting apart from a young attractive servile wife (or maybe that is it).

Bagan my next stop is a former capital of Myanmar, it’s first buildings being built towards the end of the tenth century. Now there are literally thousands of Pagodas over the Bagan plain. Some are very small, some are rather massive. There are cubed pagodas, pyramid pagodas, Indian style pagodas and Mon style pagodas. As you have probably gathered by this point there are pagodas of many shapes and sizes. Some with murals on the walls, some without, made of various types of stones. I won’t go into detail about them all, needless to say it took a couple of days of exploring to see my fill of them. Also from Bagan a few of us hired a taxi to take us to Mount Popa, where a volcanic plug is crowned with some temples. It was nice, but one of those things that is better viewed from a distance. On our way to Popa, we stopped my a shack where they make the local moonshine from the Toddy Palm. They gave us a sample and now I know where to get some potent paint stripper.

From Bagan I decided to go to Pyay, but the bus I was on didn’t stop, so I ended up in Yangon again. Feeling lazy I couldn’t be bothered to go back up north again to come back south again, so got a couple of bits sorted and then made my way here to Bangkok.

So, after a two year hiatus I am back in Bangkok. Back in what must be the backpacker capital of the world. Whilst here I have various bits to get sorted, including buying some stuff and getting visas. Which also brings me petty much up to date, once again.

To make it easier to understand what has been said above I have written a brief bit of background to the country. If you aren't too bothered, by this bit, take care and keep in touch. For the rest of you, read on.

In 1948 The Union of Burma received its independence from Great Britain. The man who was to lead the country Bogyoke (General) Aung San was assassinated, just a few months before the scheduled date of independence. It was widely seen that he was the only person who had the charisma and wherewithal to put Burma safely on its feet, uniting all the various factions that make up the population.

Under the British, Burma had been the world's largest rice exporter as well as having numerous other natural resources including seventy five percent of the world's teak, oil, minerals, jade, rubies, fish and other foodstuffs. It is generally reckoned to be the richest farmland in South East Asia so coupled with the other assets, it is unsurprising that Burma was a huge asset to the British Empire with a totally self sufficient economy. However, after independence things started going wrong. U Nu, the elected Prime Minister at independence did not have the charisma etc. of Aung San and widespread dissension in the country began to wreak havoc within just a short time. Although the ethnic make up of the country is sixty-five percent Burman, the other 135 Nations that make up the union have considerable power and as a result their lack of influence with the central government created problems that eventually led to sufficient instability that U Nu called General Ne Win, the military chief, in to try and set things straight. This became known as the "constitutional coup", it didn't work and after U Nu was popularly elected again, Ne Win stepped down without fuss. Ne Win's taste of power had obviously not whet his appetite as just two years later, in 1962 he led a coup d'etat, installing himself as chief executive.

If things had been problematic before, now things became dire. Ne Win (of Chinese extraction, his real name being Shu Maung, Ne Win means "Brilliant as the sun") decided to institute a confusing hybrid of socialism and Buddhism to Burma, with startlingly bad results. He expelled foreign nationals, and had great faith in "privates and corporals dressed up as generals". His biggest influence was his belief in Yedaya Chay, a theory that fate can be outwitted by prompt action. So his astrologers were able to influence the nations course to quite an unbelievable extent. The final interpretation and methods to put it in to practice was left to Ne Win however. This resulted in some quite astronomical debacles. Possibly one of the most bizarre bits of economic management in modern (or any) times was when his astronomers told him his lucky number was nine, something that suited his ego well as Burmese kings had always had nine for their lucky number. In his wisdom he decided to change most of the banknotes. The one hundred Kyat note and fifty Kyat notes were discontinued and replaced with ninety and forty-five notes, as these are particularly auspicious numbers as they are not only multiples of lucky number nine but also the digits add up to nine. This however was not lucky for most of the population who were left with piles of useless currency. In 1980 his astrologer told him he should "move the country more to the right". Something many may have interpreted as an indication to take a more capitalist path. Ne Win however took it to have a different meaning and overnight all the traffic had to change from driving on the left to doing so on the right. It is unsurprising with someone at the helm like this that what was previously the wealthiest country in South East Asia became more and more impoverished. Nobody is quite sure if he is still alive, officially he is, but this would put him in his nineties, there have been rumours for years that he is either totally senile or dead, no-one really knows though. His cruelty and paranoia however is a legacy, the Myanmari army numbers something like half a million, one third the size of that of the US army, for a country the same size as Texas. As put by the Sunday Telegraph "The Burmese regime has some claim to be the most cruel, incompetent and paranoid in the world".

This incompetence actually brought this agricultural superpower to the point of having to import rice and by the mid 1980's the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. They applied for and received "Least Developed Nation Status" from the UN in 1987, which opened up aid packages. Everything however points to poor management for the reason things are so bad. As National Geographic put it in an article in their July 1995 issue "Burma is not poor, it is a rich country gone wrong".

A few interesting statistics regarding Myanmar are: The black market is at least equal if not greater than the legitimate market; Exports of narcotics are at least equal if not greater than legal exports; Myanmar produces eighty percent of the heroin produced in "The Golden Triangle", which according to estimates accounts for at least eighty percent of the narcotics on American Streets. If you prefer, more than sixty percent of the narcotics on American streets come from Myanmar. Khun Sa "Prince Prosperous" (his real name is Chang Chi Fu) previously ran the narcotics industry in Myanmar. During his heyday, which lasted from the early 1980's until 1995, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) rated him as the "Most important Mafia druglord in the entire globe". He tried to style himself a liberator of the Shan people and had up to 15,000 men in the Mong Tai, his personal army. He surrendered to the government in 1995 and now lives in luxury in Myanmar. He owns a number of businesses including the "Traders Hotel", the most prestigious hotel in Yangon and enjoys government protection. Needless to say the government officials are more than just a little bit corrupt. Apparently his surrender was due to pressure from Thai generals who he had upset and the Wa. The Wa succeeded The Mong Tai and apparently number perhaps as many as 30,000 soldiers, led by a former communist Chao Nyi Lai. It is alleged that narcotics have been one of the most reliable sources of foreign exchange for the government, necessary to buy armaments.

In addition to the quixotic fiscal management of the country, Myanmar also holds the mantle (according to those agencies that monitor these things) of having the worst human rights on the planet. Considering the competition from places such as Iraq and North Korea this is quite an achievement.

The U.S. State Department, in its 1994 report on human rights in Myanmar wrote: "Despite an appearance of greater normalcy fostered by increased economic activity, in fact the Government's unacceptable record on human rights changed little in 1994. Out of sight of most visitors, Burmese citizens continued to live subject at any time and without appeal to the arbitrary and sometimes brutal dictates of the military. There continued to be credible reports, particularly from ethnic minority-dominated areas, that soldiers committed serious human rights abuses, including extra judicial killings and rape. The use of porters by the army--with all the attendant maltreatment, illness, and even death for those compelled to serve--remained a standard practice and probably even increased. The Burmese military forced hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ordinary Burmese (including women and children) to "contribute" their labour, often under harsh working conditions, to construction projects throughout the country. The forced resettlement of civilians also continued."

At times the government’s attitude to the rights of citizens could be seen as comical if it weren't so sad. A good example of their ludicrous statements concerning forced labour is: When they were using prisoners in leg irons to dredge ten kilometres of Manadalay Palace's moat, Lt. Gen. Kyaw Ba - the Tourism and Hotels Minister made the statement "They are happy, they have good rest, good food and we don't torture them". The government has made some quite impressive claims regarding the food inmates receive as when Leo Nichols, an honorary consul died in police custody, Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw explained it was "because he was unused to the rich food served to prisoners".

Unsurprisingly the people are not particularly satisfied with this state of affairs and this has been the case for some time. On the eighth of August 1988, what became known as the eight, eight, eighty-eight (it is amusing to note that eight in Burmese is "Shit" so they say "shit, shit, shitser, shit". It probably couldn't be any more appropriate if you tried) major pro-democracy demonstrations took place. After the government had massacred several thousand of the protestors and imprisoned many more, they decided to make a gesture of change. All the generals that had been running the country resigned from the army, became civilians and formed the new civilian "State Law and Order Restoration Council" or SLORC the appropriately acronym. It was at this time that Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to lead the NLD (National League for Democracy).

Aung San Suu Kyi (or Daw (aunt) Aung San) the daughter of the liberation hero and "Father of Independence" General Aung San had married Michael Aris an English Academic, worked for the United Nations and studied abroad including Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford. So, she had quite a lot to recommend her for the leadership of the opposition movement, her husband said "there is a certain inevitability in the way she, like [her father], has become an icon of popular hope and longing". In 1990 the government allowed elections to take place that were surprisingly free and fair with extremely little tampering or intimidation. Observers at the time actually commented how much better conducted the elections had been than those by many of Myanmar's neighbours. The NLD had a landslide victory, taking eighty-two percent of the seats. The result seemed to take the SLORC by complete surprise, so they simply ignored it and placed Daw Aung San under house arrest until 1996. Technically she was released, but she continues to be denied movement to see her constituents and to have barricades and armed guards all around her home "for her own protection". In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the citation read "One of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades". However in recent years the strength of the NLD has been waning a little. This is put down to several reasons, including: The government has managed to broker separate deals with some of the ethnic factions that made up the NLD; The Pro-Democracy movement is mostly run from outside the country; The slow acceptance of people to their lot; Rumours that since winning the Nobel prize, Aung San Suu Kyi has herself become a bit of a dictator within the party; Constitutional changes that negate her right to prime-minister-ship (the constitution now makes it a condition that a prime minister must (a) have served with the military (b) not have a foreign spouse (c) have been continually resident in Myanmar for the past twenty years. Unsurprisingly all these points she fails on). These were made in a very shallow attempt to block her ascendancy; More opportunities for comparative wealth, with a slowly emerging market economy; Fear. As Bertil Lintner (one of the leading observers of what is taking place in Myanmar) said in 1995 "The pro-democracy movement has been marginalized. It's been taken over by events inside the country".

From the people I spoke with, the biggest reason for a lack of militancy against the injustices they suffer is simple fear. I would ask people very simple questions such as "so you must have seen many changes then?" or when they asked me how I enjoyed their country I would say, "I like the people very much, how do you find it?". Often people would just leave, sometimes they would ignore the question, and other times they would just say "afraid" as the answer to anything not totally innocuous. Despite having been to some other countries where freedom of speech is limited to say the least, I have never seen such striking trepidation anywhere else. It was this that makes a visit to Myanmar more complex, as the smiley people one is talking to are often suffering from severe anguish. Although one wants to talk to them about what is going on, perhaps even to help, one is worried that if they are overheard, they could simply disappear.
So far the best quote I know about Myanmar is the one I will finish with. A Monk in Mawlamyine said to James Strachan of the Financial Times "You see, we live in a lion's cage. He must never know that we are frightened, let alone that we might be plotting to kill him. He would eat us just in case. So we always smile broadly".

As always take care and now that I am back in the land of communication, you have no excuse not to write to me. Raph

In case anybody didn't get the reference in the subject this should clear it up.

On the Road to Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

By the old Moulmein Pagoda lookin' eastward to the sea,

There's a Burma girl a-settin' and I know she thinks of me.

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple bells they say,

"Come you back, you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay."

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay.

Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?


On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin' fishes play,

And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China 'crost the bay.

'er petticoat was yeller, an 'er little cap was green,

An' 'er name was Supiyawlat, jes' the same as Theebaw's queen,

An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,

An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on a 'eathen idol's foot.

Bloomin' idol made o' mud,

What they called the great Gawd Budd,

Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed her where she stood


On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin' fishes play,

And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China 'crost the bay.

Ship me somewheres east of Suez where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren't no Ten Commandments, an' a man can raise a thirst,

For the temple bells are callin' and it's there that I would be,

By the old Moulmein Pagoda lookin' lazy at the sea.

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay.

Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin' fishes play,

And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China 'crost the bay.

GOVERNMENT SIGNS (Tatmadaw is the army)

Crush any internal or external enemy.

If the Tatmadaw is strong, the people are strong.

Love and cherish the motherland.

Only where there is discipline will there be progress.

Tatmadaw and the people united, anyone who opposes them is the enemy.

Tatmadaw and the people co-operate and crush all those harming the union.

Peoples 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 union.

-          Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state.

-          Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy


Many of these slogans are also plastered across the pages of the newspapers, you can see from this the government is a barrel of laughs.



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