Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Opening up: visiting Burma at a time of change

A stall selling Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirts at Bogyoke market
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
While Aung San Suu Kyi was visiting London for the first time in 24 years, I was in Rangoon, Burma (also known as Yangon, Myanmar). It was a fascinating time to visit, with the country just starting to open up politically and economically. On the drive from the airport to the hotel, I passed several street vendors openly selling t-shirts of ‘The Lady’, an activity which two years previously would have landed them in jail.

Although it’s less than 600km from Bangkok, Rangoon could be a different world, or at least a different time. Most people – both men and women – still wear the traditional longhi, a sarong-like wrap-around skirt made from a tube of fabric that you step into. Women and children also covered their cheeks, nose and forehead in coloured chalk. Initially I assumed this had cultural or religious significance, but I was wrong. “It’s actually cosmetic,” my colleague Ye Lwin explained.

The only vehicles on the roads of Rangoon were cars, most of them ageing and some literally falling apart, giving the streets a very different feel to other South East Asian capitals where the motorbike is king. They were banned here a few years back, allegedly after one crashed into a politician’s car. Rangoon was also very green with plentiful parks and gardens, a pleasant change to the concrete overload of Bangkok.

It was the rainy season and most evenings a storm would whip up, starting with a strong wind and occasional whirlwinds, followed by heavy driving rain. There were regular power cuts and at night streets and buildings were plunged into darkness, the remaining light coming from car headlights.

Trading places
Is it hotel? No, it's the UNICEF Myanmar office
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
I was staying in hotel in the central district and working at another hotel directly opposite. In an unusual arrangement, the UN had taken over several floors of Traders hotel and turned them into offices, which nonetheless still resembled hotel suites. It’s probably the only UNICEF office where you can have a bath in the conference room.

It was also one of the only tall buildings in central Rangoon and from my office on the 20th floor I could see countryside only a few blocks away in most directions. The few smart buildings like Traders were interspersed with hollowed-out, derelict concrete shells that were lived in by squatter families. Both my office and hotel were in the Indian quarter, and walking through the crush of people with street stalls spilling out over the pavement and into the road, it was easy to imagine myself in Delhi.

My main reason for being in Rangoon was to develop a digital strategy for UNICEF Myanmar, which was complicated by the low Internet and mobile penetration. An Internet connection or mobile contract cost upwards of $900 US, way out of the reach of ordinary people. When I visited, the state owned telecoms company had recently launched a ‘cheap’ mobile SIM card for $20 US. Unfortunately they only lasted for 30 days, after which you had to buy a new one, with a different phone number.

Getting local currency was also an issue. The official exchange rate in banks and at the airport was ten times the black market rate. However, some hotels offered deals close to the later and youths hung out on street corners offering to change money for foreigners. “Sir? Change money? I give you good rate!” they invariably asked me as I crossed the road on my short commute to work each day.

Although much of the recent news from Burma was positive, violence had just erupted in Rakhine State between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. I witnessed the darker side of the new Internet freedom, with people on both sides of the religious divide posting incitement to violence on Facebook. In my first week, we were warned that there might be unrest in Rangoon following the Muslim Friday prayers. Having dinner at my hotel that evening, I could hear a muezzin chanting the distinctive ‘adhan’, or call to prayers, and see men in white caps and robes making their way to the mosque. In the end religious leaders urged people to stay off the streets and the danger passed.

Auspicious days
Monks at Shwedagon Paya, the holiest temple in Burma
A man pours water at a name day shrine at Shwedagon Paya
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
The main sight in Rangoon is the vast temple of Shwedagon Paya, the holiest in Burma. I visited it twice: on Saturday morning with my colleague Jill, who was also visiting from the regional office, and on Sunday evening with my camera.

Shwedagon was an impressive sight. We took our shoes off at the entrance and entered barefoot via a long dark staircase, along which vendors sold Buddhist offerings and souvenirs, into a wide open terrace with a cool marble floor. There was one main gold-plated stupa and dozens of smaller ones, plus side temples with Buddha statues in alcoves. There were large gongs placed around the edge of the terrace with heavy wooden logs. People would pick up the log, tap the ground three times, then hit the gong. Like Vietnam, the monks wore dark red robes but there were a few groups in bright orange robes, presumably visitors from Thailand. The Buddha statues were made of plaster and painted white, making them less somewhat impressive than Thailand’s, which are usually covered in gold leaf.

Despite the size of the place it was incredibly peaceful. The only sounds were the distant chatter of birds and clatter of small copper bells shifting in the wind at the top of the main stupa high above. In marked contrast to temples in Bangkok, as far as I could see we were the only foreigners there. “The women look beautiful in their longhis,” Jill observed as a group of locals walked past, colourful and elegant. “I hope they don’t change.”

Visitors to Shwedagon in longhis and umbrellas at sunset
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
Burmese Buddhism is interspersed with astrology, numerology and an obsession with the day of the week in which you were born. We were trying to identify the shrines to the days of the week and asked a middle-aged man Burmese man in a longhi with a wispy beard. In Burma, the older generation who were educated during or soon after British rule generally speak excellent English, but most young people don’t. In other countries in the region, the reverse is the norm.

The older man showed us to the Tuesday shrine, guiding me with a familiar hand on my elbow. “Each day is linked to a different animal,” he explained. “For Tuesday it’s the lion. If you are born on this day you come to pray and pour water over the statue for good luck.” I checked the calendar on my phone, scrolling back through the months to November 1973, to discover that I was born on a Friday. “That’s a very auspicious day,” he said. On the way out, we saw him again. This time he was the one wandering around. “I found your day but now I have lost my wife,” he laughed.

I visited Shwedagon again the next evening in the hope of seeing sunset but instead I got caught in an evening rainstorm. I took shelter under a pagoda and watched as people took out brightly coloured umbrellas which beautifully offset their longhis, the colours of both reflecting in the shining surface of water flowing over marble. Next to me, an old woman recited prayers from a small book. I could hear the sound of bells on top of the stupa like a million distant wind chimes and the nearby bong of a gong. Wafts of incense mingled with the smell of fresh rain and I could feel a cool breeze across the soles of my bare feet.

As darkness fell, lights came on around the terrace. As I left, I passed alcoves where monks prayed before Buddha statues lit up with neon lights that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1980s disco.  Near the exit, a tour guide pointed out a place where you could see the shadow of the stupa against the mist of falling rain. “You can only see that when it rains,” he said.

Bananas and tea
Myat, Jill and Alexander, with red bananas at the monastery
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
With Jill, I visited two more Buddhist temples and the resting place of the Last Mughal Emperor of India, who died in exile in Burma. At the second temple, we were approached by an old man in thick rimmed glasses with several rings on his fingers. His name was Alexander and I got the definite sense he was selling us something, but decided to go with the flow. “I was a monk here for seven years,” he said. “Let me show you the monastery.”

The monastery was adjoined to the temple in an old, dilapidated colonial building. It had wooden shutters, crumbing masonry and traces of brightly coloured paint. It must have been quite beautiful once. The sky was covered with dark clouds that had been threatening rain for some time. Alexander extracted a guide fee from us then, as the inevitable downpour started, invited us inside for golden bananas and tea. “It is our Buddhist welcome,” he said.

Inside we met his friend Myat and sat cross legged on the wooden floor while they served us tea. “I’m from a hill tribe in the north,” Myat said. “I came to Rangoon after my wife died, to join the monastery. We are very happy that things are changing here in Burma. For decades the people have suffered too much. They have been so poor.”

The bananas were actually red skinned rather than golden and possibly the best I’ve ever tasted. It was fun shooting the breeze with two old ex-monks while the rain hammered down outside. I was glad we’d taken a chance on Alexander, even though he had one more sales pitch to go. “These days I’m a jeweller,” he said, taking the rings off his fingers and showing us each one in turn. They looked like something you could pick up at a second hand market. “This one is an antique. It has English writing on it,” he said showing Jill a thick ring with a large red stone. She smiled and passed it to me, pointing discretely. Around the edge of the stone in small letters were the words ‘Champion Truck Driver’.

Red Prince

At work, I got to know my Burmese colleagues including Sandar and Ye Lwin. Sandar was a former journalist and we had a lot in common, including an interest in modern history. Sandar told me about Taw Phayar Galay, the grandson of the last king of Burma and so-called ‘Red Prince’. “He was my teacher,” she said. “He died four years ago and I went to the memorial. This weekend is the anniversary of his death, so I’m going to see his widow.”

There are also red princes and even a red king in Laos and Cambodia. I’d always found the idea of communist royalty a contradiction in terms but talking to Sandar it made more sense. “The princes were the ones who got the best education,” she explained. “They were taught to think for themselves. When someone like Taw Phayar Galay is educated, then looks around and sees all the poverty, that’s when they become a communist. Later in life he found religion.”

In the UK, I guess our nearest equivalent is Tony Benn, the veteran British left winger who renounced his peerage in order to become a Labour MP. But it’s hard to imagine Prince Charles reading ‘Das Kapital’.

Sandar is still close to Taw Phayar Galay’s wife. “She’s in her 80s but her mind is still sharp,” she said. “When I applied for a job at the Myanmar Times, I had to submit a feature. I wrote an article about her. Her life is an untold story. Now I’m writing a book about Taw Phayar Galay’s later years. I want to keep his teaching alive and pass on his knowledge.”

Fresh Prince
The Nay Pyi Taw cinema in central Rangoon, now showing Hollywood blockbusters
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
Taw Phayar Galay was not the only prince in town. My hotel was next door to the main cinema in Rangoon, which was showing Men in Black 3. Will Smith and an increasingly old and craggy Tommy Lee Jones stared impassively out of a huge billboard. A security guard got agitated when I took a photo on my phone.  “Cinemas have only recently been allowed to show Hollywood films,” Sandar said. “Before we could only see Indian and Chinese movies. Of course you could still get bootleg video CDs at the market.” I was curious to see what cinema going was like in Burma so I bought a ticket for the evening showing.

Cinematically it was a disaster, but as a cultural experience it was fascinating and unexpectedly charming. The seats were small and badly laid out, so that the bottom third of the screen was obscured by the heads of the people in front. There were adverts before the film, as you would expect, but here they were a series of still images with Indian music played over them. When the movie began, the picture was scratchy and the sound was badly mixed, so that the music and sound effects were deafening but you could hardly hear the dialogue.

Despite the poor quality of the cinema, the auditorium was packed full and people were clearly excited to be there. It was also a family activity, with several generations of relatives taking up entire rows. People talked throughout and even when the film started, the theatre was full of the noise of chatter and popcorn. In front of me, a woman held up a small child whenever aliens came on screen, and he laughed with delight. It was an intriguing experience, but after half an hour I decided I’d be better off watching the movie at home on DVD.

The stupa at Shwedagon casts a shadow on the falling rain
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012


  1. Great blog Andy and such a great place!

  2. Thanks Alyrene, I enjoyed your Burma posts too. I'll be going back in November so watch out for further updates...