Three Cheers for the Lady

November 14, 2010

Almost everyone’s got something to say about the release today from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi including David Cameron, U2 and me.

I’ve been to this checkpoint just down the road from Aung San Suu Kyi’s house a few times. But the first time I was in Yangon / Rangoon in 1995 the checkpoint was not there because The Lady was ‘enjoying’ one of her brief spells of relative (but very limited) freedom and on a Sunday afternoon in December we took a taxi from Schwedagon Pagoda and wandered up the street to join a crowd of a couple of thousand in the street outside her house.   Aung San Suu Kyi appeared as she has done today at her front gate (though on a higher step, more of her was visible) and spoke to those assembled to hear her, with obvious humour and charm.

Squatting beside the road I met a man who explained that his shaking was a result of vitamin deficiencies endured during his time in prison. He pointed at the (not so) secret policeman taking photographs of all present and said that he feared the government not one jot.  He knew already the worst that they could do to him and he believed that if they came for him again he would endure again or die trying. He was absolutely confident that however long it took there would come a day when the Burmese people would be free.

That day is not today.

Today Aung San Suu Kyi is not free.  She’s just less captive.

The 2000 political prisoners still locked up remain as captive as ever.

For the ordinary Burmese people, excited as they may be by the events of today, their pre-occupation will remain the challenge of their daily lives; the release of Aung San Suu Kyi does nothing about the rising price of rice or of a bus ride. It does nothing about the intermittent electricity supply, nothing about the limited healthcare and education, nothing about the lack of opportunity to make the most of your talents.

It’s unlikely, but something very extraordinary and unexpected could happen in the next few hours or days; Aung San Suu Kyi is someone very extraordinary. If she has it in her to take to the streets and can have the impact she had in 1988 anything might be possible. But it will take a hell of a lot to shift the (now elected, haha) China-backed military government and I wouldn’t hold your breath.

I’m hoping that people don’t see today’s great news, as a problem solved and that there’s nothing more to do, because this is not a Mandela moment, this is not a short walk to freedom.  There’s a long way further still to go.

Bono knows that.

Somewhere in Bulcote

All good things come to an end (hopefully a temporary one) and the journey back to the ranch went pretty much without a hitch.

Back at that ranch spring has sprung and the grass in the garden is tall beyond the reach of the mower.  So I went boating.

If you’re new to the site then below you will find a string of stories about my recent trip to Myanmar. With more to follow.

I hope you find some of it worth the read.

Well there’s a bit of time to fill so let’s go with a couple of short stories – I guess we’re pretty much working backwards from here. No photos at this stage; there seem to be a lot of viruses about so I’m not going to be sticking my stick in during my one night in Bangkok.

1. Taking it as red

This afternoon I took a motorcycle over to Siam Square where normally you can while away hours in some of the finest shopping centres you’ll ever come across. When Nottingham’s Broadmarsh Centre sells Lamborghinis and Ferraris on its fourth floor I’ll start to believe in the top five retail destination. In the meantime let’s just settle for saying that Bangkok has even better shopping than Nottingham. Normally. This week the Siam Discovery Centre (which used to be great), the Siam Paragon Centre which put it in the shade, (such a modest name. Will it be bettered? Can it be bettered? Siam Nirvana Centre?), a bunch of other shopping centres and lots of restaurants and other businesses are closed because, as you will have seen on TV (though obviously not since GB called that bigoted Rochdale woman a bigot), the red shirted supporters of that nice Mr Shinawhatsit – who got a mention in post one all those weeks ago – shifted camp following the exchange of blows with the army and police that killed 25 plus and injured many more. Their occupation of the commercial retail centre of the city is very sizeable, there are a lot of people there making a lot of noise and there are no signs of the security forces (they are elsewhere where yesterday’s – rain interrupted – clashes and stand-off took place).

The Lamborghini and Ferrari (and Paul Smith) shops are all shut. Sorry folks, no glitzy gifts upon my return this time. According to the Bangkok post businesses are losing more than a billion Bhat a day. A couple of months of this and they will have lost as much as Thaksin had seized as ill-gotten – and about which all the fuss really.

That the FCO should issue a travel advisory saying to avoid all but essential travel to anywhere in Thailand is bonkers. Like saying avoid all of the UK because Covent Garden has been taken over and shut-down by a bunch of folks from the sticks threatening violence and Civil War with sticks (Countryside Alliance anyone?) if they don’t get their man back. That kind of advice scares the horses and sends foxes running when they really need not. (Tally Ho!). OK the pack did kick off right by Kao San Road in mid April so I can understand Middle Class Mum and Dad urging their little chickens to get out of town, but it’s a damned big town and life in most of it goes on pretty much as normal. Right now I can hear some guy in the bar next door knocking out ‘You’re so vain’ so all in the world must be well enough. To see the Kao San Road area with only ten to twenty percent of its normal numbers is interestingly weird but not interesting enough to write about at any length. Wannabe super-shoppers, road users and the business community, particularly any relying on tourists, are getting more and more pissed off with the Red Shirts. Why don’t they just go home? Before they get hurt. Which they will. Thailand’s government is no more elected than Myanmar’s; it too kills civilians.

I wonder where have all the (often-self-defined-adventure)-seeking backpackers gone at the first sign of trouble? I bet there are few beds to be had ‘on the islands’. That will have been a very Full Moon Party last night, or the night before. Or have they transferred their rabble rousing to Pub Street (no really) in Siem Riep (where Angkor Wat is, Cambodia)? . Or are they floating-stoners making their way down the Mekong on inner tubes at Vang Vieng (Laos)? Wherever they are they are being missed here.

2. Ping Pong not Pat Pong.

I met Jessica on the bus from the airport this morning. She had been on the plane from Yangon but we only spoke on the bus. Did she have a good time in Myanmar? Yes she did; she got married. Her husband was one of Myanmar’s leading table tennis players when three of them defected during a tournament in the USA. One of them was a soldier so political asylum came easy enough. Like so many immigrants to the US getting residency was harder. He’s sorted for citizenship now.

To get to his own wedding in Mandalay he had to enter and leave Myanmar illegally crossing a river to and from Thailand in the south, easing his path with ‘gifts’ along the way – including at one point ping-pong lessons. Yesterday he left Yangon at 11am and was in Bangkok only 18 hours later. I think it would take longer doing it the legal way.

His Mum lives close to the Hotel that’s my residence-de-choix in Mandalay. Jessica stayed there at the same time as me during water festival but we did not see each other before today. Maybe we’ll meet up another time we’re all in Mandalay; for sure we’ll all be going back.

Ping Pong might be a minor league sport but it gave one guy (with an out-sized head apparently) the chink of opportunity he needed to get out of Myanmar and get on with his life (and if he wants to get up at 8 every Sunday to go to the pub to support Liverpool that’s his funeral). Now Jessica and her new husband live in Miami and I wish them all the very best in their life together. Nice lady.

* The name of a sport has been changed to protect the innocent.

Bangkok for Breakfast

April 28, 2010

Luckyboystar sends greetings to all his friends in the UK.

There is still much to say about this trip, so many reflections upon the state of the nation, its government, its religion(s) and its people.

There is news of the reappearance of the fortune-teller’s daughter, Te Yew, and of her new plans to become a fluent English speaker.  There is the story of my earlier meeting with the fortune teller himself (I’ve been saving that one, it will benefit from some crafting).  Because I think she’s worth it there’s the brief tale of my brief meeting during my brief return to the beach with a L’Oreal lady (the sea was, impossibly, even warmer).

There is an idea for how something might be done (by me, with your help if you’re so motivated) to give just a few opportunity-starved young(ish) people here a leg-up in life.

But all that will have to wait a day or two.

It’s 10pm Yangon time and I’ll be in Bangkok for breakfast.  It looks like there is some kind of something going on there that might be worth a look – whatever the FCO travel advisory says (does that invalidate my insurance I wonder?).

All that remains is to pack my bags and see if I can’t muster the energy to watch the special one put another one over Barcelona.

It’s been a special one.  I’ve enjoyed writing this stuff.  You’ve been reading; thanks indeed.  Do come back for the more that will appear here soon.

So … let’s get back to Mandalay and the motorcycle-madness of the Thingyan water festival and Buddhist New Year.

You’ll probably have heard about the Palio horse racing in Siena, the festival of burning things in St Sebastien (?), the running of the bulls in Pamplona, that messy tomato throwing weekend somehwere else in Spain.  You might know of Glastonbury, Burning Man, Lake of Stars and Exit. But any idea about what’s involved in Mandalay’s Thingyan.  No?  Well I’d put it up there with that other lot.  You’ve not got the set until you’ve been to this one.

Thingyan is the Myanmar version of Songkran (Thailand) etc celebrated all over SE Asia.  In Myanmar the festival takes place all over the country and all over every part of every the country.  Once upon a time it was probably a pretty sedate affair involving gentle pouring of water – careful not to get the hair wet – over each other.  People gather on the roadside outside their homes to soak any passers by in a ritual which – allegedly – washes away the sins.  People are keen to be soaked.  They stop walking or their car in order to be soaked.  You spend the whole day soaked.  There is no saying no and no not getting soaked.  Riding your motorcycle will just mean getting soaked with water thrown at you that hits at 40kph plus with a stinging slap across the face and neck if the aim was good or water that is hose-piped at you.  It goes on for four days.  Non-stop until nightfall.  If you do not submit to it you will just be annoyed by it.  You have to submit to it.  You can’t beat them; you have to join them.

Away from residential districts there are major destination sites – Kandawgii Park and Inwa Road in Yangon, Mandalay palace in Mandalay.  The done thing has been to hire a car or pick-up to drive around the palace walls and moat and get wet in.  Water pouring into the car wet.  No caring how wet wet. (So wet it’s not really for taking pictures wet.) The palace moat is two kilometres by two kilometres square and full of water.  The arrival of the petrol-powered pump has raised the game in terms of the amount of water one person can shift onto others and the pandel (stages) from which water was traditionally thrown onto a passing crowd have become bigger and bigger as the numbers willing to pay-to-spray go up. Over the four days most of the (not very clean)water from the moat is transferred form the moat to the street – where it can be calf deep – into cars and onto people.

Traditional dancing (including inter-city dance-offs) was always an element, and remains so, but now the pop-star-movie-stars are in on the act bashing out the latest chart-toppers nightly (you can only be both in Mayanmar – a trick even Simon Cowell is missing thus far).  There’s also a major commercialisation as big local brands like Alpine (leading bottled water) sponsor stages and put on major acts (Debby and I saw Iron Cross in Yangon in ’08).

Now the newly arrived motorcycle has added another dimension.  The orderly procession of four-wheel vehicles has been swamped by bikes driven mainly by the new younger generation that’s so very apparent in Mandalay.  It’s gridlock at times.  Gangs of (good-natured) kids sweep around town, many dressed in the new uniform of non-conformity, the punk-lite / emo kid fashion choice du jour.  Others stake it more seriously.  Punk’s not dead apparently.  There’s a lot of alcohol about (and who knows what else?) and road-rules are suspended for four days (only two allowed on a bike normally – four or more a common sight during Thingyan).  Imagine if a muddy Glastonbury were to ‘benefit’ from the addition of a motorcycle for every tent.

Millions of people take part in Thingyan in Mandalay every day.  I joined in to the full. I took my bike around the palace several times.  I stood in the sweltering (rave-like heat, outdoors) evening crowds to watch the bands and dancing. I risked riding around after dark among so many light-less vehicles, riden by drunk kids.  And on day three and four I joined my friend Htun Htike, his girlfriend Su and their friends form the PES monastery English class (and Evanna and Patrick) at our very own pandel from where we belted out the latest tunes and, constantly supplied by pump, threw water in the faces, through the car windows, into the buses over children and old ladies, at whatever, whoever passed by on 62nd street.  We behaved like nine year olds.  For about four hours.  I can’t remember having so much fun.

Some readers – hello Mum – might think some of the above sounds a bit dangerous.  Maybe.  But in what must have put a bit of a dampener (haha) on celebrations in Yangon’s Kandawgii Park three (small but deadly) bombs were exploded in the midst of a crowd in front of one of the major stages (it was in the UK papers).  Nine or more people were killed, 70-plus were wounded. Moe Naing had been there five minutes before. No-one claimed responsibility; no-one ever does (though it has been a few years since the last ones).

I’ll be in Yangon for another week.  And avoiding crowded places.

Why Did You Come Here?

April 20, 2010

Incomplete posting ….

In 2008 I left Myanmar (with Debby) just eight days before May 2nd when Cyclone Nargis hit the delta region and south of the country (at least 140,000 dead).

I’ve never been a fan of disaster tourism, it seems a bit .. oh, I don’t know, insensitive? .. and with a post visit track record that includes earthquakes in 2001 (Bhuj, India; Richter = 7.6, dead = 20,000) in 2003 (Bam, Iran; Richter = 7.6, dead = 26,000) and in 2004 (Asian Tsunami; Richter = 9.1, dead = 230,000) it’s perhaps a stone left best unturned.

Cyclone Nargis off the coast of Myanmar May 2nd 2008

The day before yesterday Mo Naing and I took the ferry across the Yangon river to Dalat. This is the town Vivien and I visited on our first weekend in Myanmar in 1995. On the same ferry. Dalat may be only two minutes from downtown Yangon but it’s more a rural small town suburb than any part of the metropolis. The delta region starts almost straight away once you’re out of town. We traveled by taxi, hired at the jetty with a contribution from the manager of a petrol station in Bogalay – our destination today – who joins us for the trip. Although Bogalay is only 80 miles from Yangon he’ll be away from his family (it turns out they live around the corner from Moe Naing) for a month, which is a reflection on both the state of the road and the cost of traveling on it. Today we’ll lay out about six week’s average Myanmar salary for a three and a half hour ride.

Moe Naing wanted me to make this trip because she has spent so much time here since Nargis and because she wanted me to see the kind of places that money we raised at the time was spent. Put out of your mind the stories she tells of the horrifying height of the tidal surge (some died in collapsed buidings but the wind was not the biggest killer; most who died were drowned) and of the bodies roadside, uncollected and unburied even a month after the cyclone, and you can sit back and enjoy some pretty scenery. There’s no getting bored; there is plenty to see, not least a lot of ducks – it’s breeding country – and the state of the road is pretty pitiful. Along the way we pass through a few towns including XXXX from where the British controlled the delta and its outputs (ducks, rice, toddy, betel leaf, fish etc).

These days sleepy Bogalay is where the delta (in)action’s at. (I was here before – on the boat to Pathein but if you’ve read any of this previously you will be aware that I was distracted that night. So what do I know?). It’s certainly where the post-Nargis NGO action was at. There is plenty of evidence of that in the form of project sign-boards and the previously non-existent – very clean – guest house that we call home for a couple of days. Where does this branding requirement come from. Do those we help have to know from whom the help is coming? Like a charitable Champions League or World Cup it’s an A-list-only of ‘sponsors’ – Unicef, World Food Program USAid (from the American people), World Vision, the Australian Government. There are also the usual NGO tales of money perhaps not quite reaching those most in need; my favourite here is of a team of seven with 32 lap-tops between them (a bit pot-kettle that one I’ll accept).

But Bogolay is not where we’re headed, that’s further into, out into, the delta and for that we need a boat which we hire for 30,000 Kyat for the following day along with a driving team of two. We explain that with my boating skills one will be enough but they take that as a joke. we do get the price down from 33,000 (it seems to have gone up since Moe Naing;’s last visit) firstly by refusing to pay for their betel nut requirements and then by explaining how the global economic crisis has brought the dollar down relative to the Kyat. We then give them the $3 back by offering to provide lunch for them.

We set off at 7.30, at a lowish tide. It’s two and a half hours to where we’re going – two villages on opposite sides of the river bank. We spend an hour on a major tributary, half an hour taking a winding shortcut inland and then another hour on on a mile-wide tributary. This is where I follow up my offer to drive and after a moment’s trepidation both our boys are settled inside in the shade having a smoke and leaving the tiller-work to me. They are somewhat surprised that I seem to know what I’m doing. I don’t explain that the River Trent that I’m used to is not one fiftieth the size of this river, I just enjoy myself for an hour sweeping past sandbanks at 20kph, criss crossing from one side to the other when necessary and following the shoreline the rest of the time.

We’re greeted at the first village – XXXX – by the head of the village, Har Tar Zaw. He’s 34 and became head of the village (after some kind of due process at a village meeting) after Nargis which took his Uncle who previously had the job. He also runs the village shop. He explained that on May 2nd 2008 the village had over 700 residents; the next day only 180 were left alive. “How did you survive?” “I was in Yangon, with my whole family. Very lucky”. You bet. We walked through the village, which in addition to NGO aid, has been mostly helped by individual Myanmar donors, with its Unicef water pots, crossed the almost-a-bridge, still broken, that links two parts of the village.  They need $500 to build a new one, although surely a DIY effort could improve this one (old ladies have to use it and, yes, sometimes they do fall in) but as in other villages apparently a let’s-await-a-donor culture sets in and gets in the way of self-improvement. We met a crowd of people who wanted a chat. It’s clear that Nargis was a BC / AD moment around here. Even (or just?) two years on many conversations reference it. One woman calls her unusually fair-skinned child a ‘donation pig’ these having arrived pink whereas the normal local pig is black. (Though a reader suggested another interpretation). Amongst this group there seems to be a collective psychological something going on here. I wonder how long it will last. How long will it take for a younger generation who grow up post Nargis to start the “Oh, stop going on about the war Dad” talk?


Elsewhere life goes on as normal(ish). The rice crop may have been destroyed by rats but there are still crab cages to be baited – with bits of frog and rat – and to be set up at low tide and recovered again at the next low tide and then sold on towards Yangon where, eventually, a crab worth 600 Kyat here will fetch 5000 Kyat at the restaurant table.

We’re a long way from anywhere.  There is no TV.  “So not many Manchester United fans?”.  “Many.  We go over there when we want to watch the football:, says the head man pointing to the village across the river.

We returned to our boat, raised our crew from their slumbers and enjoyed with them the lunch we had brought with us.  One of the drivers told us of spending from 10pm to 4am on the night of Nargis sitting on an embankment in his village chest deep in water with his pregnant wife and children aged nine and three.  If they stood the water knocked them over.  They sat on one end of a piece of tarpaulin holding the other end over their heads.  By morning the kids were losing their strength.

Then we headed across the river to that second, larger village (lucky enough to have a TV and Manchester United).  This one is something of a showpiece having been aided by the Htoo company one of the country’s biggest with their fingers in many pies.  The government bring visitors here to show-off how well those hit by Nargis have been looked after.

3000 people used to live here; just 300 survived the cyclone.  Even brick-built building were wiped out, taking with them all those who had thought them safe enough to take refuge in.  Everything went.  Apart from the pagoda which simply took a beating.  Now, after what must be considerable investment in hard standing and new housing the village is rebuilt.  But it’s a dreary place; the houses are lined up like an army or prison camp, their tin roof’s bouncing sunlight skywards, with nothing much in-between. It’s quiet. There seems to be little to talk about in the dirty (but friendly) teashop (except of course the football).  I’m wondering why on earth anyone young and energetic would stay here after such a disaster.  Maybe if you’re making money as a fisherman there is a point to it, maybe if you are staying committed to rebuilding your community there is a point to it but otherwise, with your family and home gone, why not leave?  There’s nothing to look at in this pancake of a landscape except watch the water passing by.  We’re only about 30 miles from the Andaman Sea but the only time most people here have seen it was the time it washed their families and homes away.  Yangon is only 100 miles away; perhaps it seems a world away.  I’m wondering whether I’m at a meeting of the Myanmar Flat Earth Society when a young woman asks; “Why did you come here?”.

(All stats from Wikipedia so feel free to dispute them.  Opinions are all mine, feel free to dispute them too.)

This year's Myanmar in Bloom entry?

I first came to Myanmar in 1995 – with Vivien and Simon – which was dubbed (not by us) Firewood Substitution Year. This was one year ahead of the overwhelmingly unsuccessful Visit Myanmar Year. I think of it as the year I saw Aung San Suu Kyi speaking over her garden gate. That was quite something.

We made a foray out of Mandalay and up into the Shan mountains. The terminus of our trip was the only-recently opened-to-foreigners and almost-border-town of Lashio from where the Chinese city of Kunming felt within easy reach but for the closed-to-foreigners-and-locals border at Muse. We met an American who had made it through from China – at the third attempt – concealed in a truck-load of fruit. I got to Kunming myself, by the easier route from Beijing, with Sarah in 1998. Even then Kunming was a city of 10 million people and not-quite-sky-scrapers; I can only imagine what China’s economic ‘miracle’ has made of it. In 2006 in Kyaukme I spoke with a driver who had for years driven trucks to the border and swapped them there with a Chinese driver who would take the load on to Kunming. I asked him what he imagined Kunming to be like. He said, “Like Taunggyi”. Which is like equating Bangkok with Milton Keynes.

On the way up to Lashio we made two stops; at Hsipaw and before that at Pyi U Lynn (or Maymo in repressive-colonial English). It’s a great trip, including a great railway journey that involves crossing the Gokteik viaduct, perhaps the highest railway viaduct in the world. You’re not supposed to take pictures of it (as with all bridges in Myanmar) – top secret of course, although given that it was built by the British (the locals have painted it a few times since) it’s pretty certain the (imagined?) enemies know where it is and what it looks like. (I can’t find it on Google maps just now but I’m sure it will be there.) The train slows right down presumably so as not to shake the viaduct to bits rather than for easier camera focussing and out in the middle stand two lonely boy soldiers, probably bullet-less like most of the boy soldiers here, guarding literally thin air.

But that’s all an aside, other than to recall that back then it took us about five and a half hours by small pick up, winding up-hill on a switchback road, to reach Pyi U Lynn (where we went swimming beneath a waterfall and spent a night in a guesthouse which cost each of us 50 Kyats – less than 50 cents at the time). Just the other day I rode up there myself on my borrowed Honda dream – old Japanese ‘mechanology’ beats new, cheap Chinese ‘mechanocopy’ every time – in a little over two hours. The road is much improved for the simple reason that it was becoming in 1995, and it has become to enormous effect, the single artery connecting Mandalay with the economy of China. Down this road have traveled fruit and vegetables, consumer consumables, domestic appliances and above all else the millions of cheap Chinese motorcycles and hundreds of tousands of Chinese people that together have transformed Mandalay from a tiny city centre of just a few streets surrounded by perhaps the biggest village on the planet (Pop. 5 million) into a booming motorcycle-metropolis and outpost of the Chinese economy, making it at one time – and maybe still – (given that low base) the fastest growing city in Asia.

And that’s another aside because the purpose of this post is not to talk about my route but about my destination; the National Kandawgyi Gardens viz. the Botanical Garden of Pyi U Lynn on which work started in 1923 under the direction of Colonel May (after whom Maymo) and and which was largely completed after WWII with the assistance of 11,000 Japanese prisoners of war. Who knows what hardships they endured but I bet the lads building the death railways would have swapped jobs pretty quickly.

dsc03131

However it came about, these gardens are a national treasure and must-stop-spot for those locals lucky enough to make a tour of Myanmar. I’ve been three or four times before but only ever in winter (pretty much like and English spring-turning-to-summer at this altitude). It’s a pleasure at any time to enjoy the collections of trees and bamboos, the orchid garden and butterfly museum, to wander around the lake, to watch the peacocks strut or the deer rut. This was my first opportunity to see the gardens with the flowers of summer in bloom.

It was well worth the trip but I’m out of internet time now (so many asides) so more will have to follow and, in the meantime, I’ll let these few pictures speak for themselves.

I’m off into the delta today to see how the effects of Cyclone Nargis are playing out two years on.

It was well worth the trip but I’m out of internet time now (so many asides) so more will have to follow and, in the meantime, I’ll let these few pictures speak for themselves.

I’m off into the delta today to see how the effects of Cyclone Nargis are playing out two years on.

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