Back Door in Mandalay
After descending the Irrawaddy, I finally drift into Mandalay, the second biggest city in Burma.
What can I say about Mandalay? Having a blast! Well, a blast of hot air and a load of dust. It's the hot season. The mercury in Mandalay hits 42 degrees Celsius. In a single day, I down some 20 drinks--sugar-cane juice, Cokes (somehow got past embargo), orange juice, several frozen-yogurt lassis. And nothing comes out the other end. Mysterious how the plumbing works.
At night, it's cooler. Under the cover of darkness, it's time to venture out to the humble house of the Moustache Brothers. Mandalay has an impressive array of pagodas and temples, but here's something completely different: comedians who are former political prisoners. As part of NLD campaigning in Rangoon in 1996, two of the Moustache Brothers performed on stage, cracking jokes about generals and corruption. Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were sentenced to 7 years of hard labor for those jokes. The brothers were banned from public performance, but they found a loophole to survive: performing for foreigners. The front door was closed, so they simply opened up a back door. Par Par Lay was arrested again in 2007 and put away for another month for supporting Mandalay's monks during the "Saffron Revolution."
The three courageous comedians appear somewhat jaded today, having performed their routine so many times (they are in their sixties). The performance is mostly amateurish slapstick, with some satire thrown in--at times testing the limits of free speech in Myanmar.
And by any reckoning, freedom of speech is a major issue in Burma. The military regime hates any hint of criticism. In June 2008, well-known Burmese comic Zargana was handed a 35-year sentence for assisting his fellow citizens when Cyclone Nargis hit, and following up with criticism of the government's handling of the crisis, where the military callously turned a blind eye. In October 2011, Zargana was among 220 political prisoners released by the Burmese government as part of their reform program.
Should you visit a place where such heinous human rights transgressions have taken place? Yes, says the NLD office in Mandalay. Because now there is new hope. For the first time, Daw Suu and the NLD have endorsed the idea of foreign tourists coming into the country. Previously, she called for a tourist boycott of Myanmar, because tourist dollars only supported the corrupt military regime. Campaigns in Europe and elsewhere bolstered the idea of a tourist embargo. Now, the mood in Burma has changed to one of cautious optimism.
Gateway to the Golden Rock
A few days after seeing Daw Suu in Rangoon, I head off for Burma's top pilgrimage spot: sacred Mount Kyaiktiyo. A five-hour bus-ride to the base of the unpronounceable mountain is punctuated by a screechy video blaring up front in the bus. But this one catches my attention. It shows large chunks of the missing secret history of Burma's last 60 years in documentary style. Quite radical fodder for a bus ride, considering none of this material is available in bookstores anywhere in Myanmar. It appears that underground video is the way around the regime's severe clampdown on the flow of information.
Due to sanctions, there are no McDonalds in Burma, but there are Golden Arches--lots of them, attached to pagodas and temples, usually flanked by giant chinthe (Burmese lion-dragon guardian statues). From the base of the mountain, there's a truck ride to the halfway point, where you begin an arduous trek on the final approach.
Where is the blessed rock? Passing under a dozen arches, but no rock in sight. More marching, chatting with local pilgrims. Eventually, soaked in sweat, I enter the final portal. The Golden Rock appears: a huge boulder miraculously balanced on a rock below, and topped by a small golden pagoda.
Burmese pilgrims at Mount Kyaiktiyo are very relaxed, asking you to pose in their family photos, not concerned if you take pictures of them. They are remarkably easy-going and friendly, considering what they have endured. At night, the Golden Rock really comes to life, as monks apply gold leaf to the lower sections, and floodlights bring out the golden sheen. Clouds of joss-stick incense waft through the air. Flowers and fruit are presented to the rock for consecration.
At a small open-air restaurant, parked over a bowl of noodles, my attention is riveted to a television set that glows in the darkness. Some incredible images appear: Daw Suu delivering a victory speech--part of it in English. It takes me a while to figure out that the channel is DVB (Democratic Voice of Burma), broadcast by Burmese exiles based in Norway. The channel uses brave undercover reporters who smuggle information to offices in Thailand and Norway. DVB is banned in Burma--but that does not prevent cheeky Burmese from tuning in to learn the truth.
Daw Suu's NLD party has romped home with a landslide victory, scooping almost all 45 seats in the by-elections. That's a drop in the bucket for the number of seats in parliament (over 600), but it's seen as a major victory for Aung San Suu Kyi, who has finally gained some leverage at the seat of power, with her own seat in parliament secured. Positive response to the elections, deemed free and fair, is swift. UK PM David Cameron arrives in Burma on an official visit, praises the pace of reform, and announces he will push for suspension of sanctions. The Burmese regime lifts some key investment restrictions.
Following all these developments, tourism is poised to explode. To give some idea of the potential for tourism: in the year 2011, Burma attracted only 350,000 visitors. Compare that with 19 million visitors to next-door Thailand in 2011. The ruling regime is keen to promote tourism to generate foreign revenue. In a reference to the zillions of gilded pagodas that dot the landscape, billboards in Rangoon welcome you to The Golden Land. Where, hopefully, silence is no longer golden.
If You Go
If you visit Myanmar, help break the silence on Burma's modern history. There are rows of books about Burma on the shelves in Bangkok bookstores. Buy some and bring them to hand out as gifts. Anything in the way of printed material (recent magazines, even the in-flight magazine) will be much appreciated. Nothing official states what kind of personal reading material you can bring for your trip.
Bring U.S. cash, lots of it. Cash U.S. dollars are currently the only way to handle expenses in Burma. The greenbacks must be in mint condition: no marks, minor tears or creases. Otherwise they will be rejected by banks and moneychangers for exchange to kyat. Hotels sanctioned for foreigners will insist on payment in US dollars (not Burmese kyat), and airlines do the same. There are currently no ATMs in Burma that accept international cards. Only a few high-end hotels in Rangoon accept credit cards, charging hefty commissions. With lifting of sanctions, this situation could change.
For recent news and views on Burma, go to: www.dvb.no
Michael Buckley is author of several books on Tibet (listed at www.himmies.com) and filmmaker for several short documentaries about Tibet (www.WildYakFilms.com). His e-books are available through Smashwords.com. He is a frequent traveler to southeast-Asian regions.
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Hijacking the Shangri-La Brand by Michael Buckley
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