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.