66 – The City of Ghosts and Rats

November 1 – 3

Everybody freaked out when I said I was granted visa for Myanmar. Of course. The BBC comes up with a new terrifying story practically every day. And to be fair I was asking myself those questions. Is it OK to visit a country involved in a civil war? Civil was is probably a too civilized term for it. Should I visit a country that has been getting rid of one of its ethnic minorities, without even trying to be too elegant about it? Not because I was afraid about my own safety (the incidents are confined to one region after all, and the military authorities will make sure no foreigner gets anywhere near) but because I was trying to figure out whether it was morally OK to spend money in a country engaging in such atrocities. But I guess I could not travel anywhere, if I allowed myself to think like that. After all, during this trip I spent time in Russia, where almost everyone is so brainwashed they are convinced that being Russian equals to being right under any circumstance and that good Vladimir is some kind of semi-God sent from Heaven to lead the nation to regain its rightful glory. And I spent time in China, where everyone has been oppressed for so long they lost any capability of critical thinking. I have always refused to even consider visiting North Korea (or Cuba), because I see nothing romantic about being led around a communist skanzen by a not-too-secret agent and being shown only what the regime wants me to see. I also don’t want to contribute to funding Kim’s delirious regime. But ultimately, is there really that much difference between spending money in a country that oppresses all of its inhabitants and one that only persecutes some? I still haven’t been able to provide a satisfactory answer to quiet my conscience, but I am very happy to have visited Myanmar.

Shwedogan Pagoda, Yangon

So what is it like in Myanmar nowadays: the Rohingya crisis is happening in the Rakhine state bordering with Bangladesh, and even though Ngapali, popular tourist seaside town, is in the same state, it is a fly-in-fly-out destination and foreigners will be prevented from travelling there overland. You will not hear anything about the crisis in the local media (in fact, you will not hear much more than soccer reports from about every league around the planet), and you should not try to discuss it with the locals. You could get them in trouble, and besides they will not tell you anything (I suspect most times they are completely unaware of any problems going on in Rakhine). Truth is the locals willing to talk don’t feel any sympathy for the Rohingya. Whether this aversion is a completely unfounded result of state propaganda or they have their reasons is not for me to decide. The Rohingya consider themselves indigenous to Rakhine state with history traceable to 8th century. Burmese government considers them illegal Bangladeshi migrants, and has repeatedly omitted them as one of ethnic Burmese races in any of the bills passed in the 20th century, so effectively the Rohingya are a stateless minority prevented from acquiring any citizenship and thus state protection. Yes, there has always been Muslim community living in Rakhine (formerly Arakan), forcibly displaced before the English conquer, and then encouraged to move back during the colonial rule as labour force. Whether these migrants were the original indigenous population coming back or new Bangladeshi seeking work is difficult, if not impossible to assess. During WW2 the Brits formed Rohingya battalions to fight the Japanese, thus providing them with weapons that were instead used to settle centuries-old rancors and polarize the population along ethnic lines. To me this sounds as (yet another) classic example of a colonial issue handled in a typically british manner. Whatever happened is probably irrelevant anyway, as “who was there first” argument does not have much value in such disputes. The Rohingya find themselves in an unenviable situation, where they have no state recognition from their home country (or from any other country where they seek asylum) on one side, while their cause is being revindicated by many foreign terrorist groups on the other side. I’m guessing they did not ask for either. The reason the crisis escalated in the last two years is the fact that Rakhine is rich in jade, precious stones and possibly oil (that has been recently discovered on Bangladeshi side of the border), and the establishment is expropriating practically anything.

Riverside at sunset, Yangon

That being said, Yangon is a strange place. It was the country’s capital until 2006 when the military establishment relocated all government institutions to purpose-built Naypyidaw, without giving much explanation to anyone, possibly to prevent protests and rallies in support of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is still the largest city and the most important commercial centre. Otherwise it is exactly as you’d imagine any asian metropolis: big, hot, chaotic, noisy, dirty (although less than Phnom Penh) and full of rats. The only difference is that you will not see any scooters or motorcycles around. The reason is quite bizarre: the story goes that once some senior military officer was riding around in his car when a bike stopped next to him at the red light and the rider pointed a hand at him in a gun-like gesture. The day after all two-wheelers in Yangon were banned. The other version of the same story is that the officer only had a dream about such incident. Both versions are equally likely, I suspect.

Our arrival to Yangon coincides with the full moon festival, so the city is one big party. Our hotel is in the lively Chinatown, where we have several meals sitting on the street on doll-size chairs, with rats happily running around. The guys go for the boring (but safe) fried rice, whereas I am a bit more adventurous and opt for fried eel and superspicy eel stew, which is delicious and surprisingly consequence-free (although the locals do look at me with some sort of admiration). The city is a strange mix of old colonial buildings, abandoned former government offices (both left to rot), private residences hidden behind high walls and barbed wire and unbelievably luxurious shopping malls (who goes there I have no idea, the tourist, western expats, the military and their friends, I suppose).

The locals are unbelievably kind. They smile all the time and are genuinely helpful. Men and women wear longyis, a long skirt tied around their waist, and cover every piece of exposed skin with thanaka, a yellow paste made from bark used as sunblock. They all chew (and spit) betel nuts, which makes their teeth first red and then rotten. The result can be sometimes quite frightening, because you see this big red smiles full of horrible teeth contrasting with the pale faces, they look like from a horror movie. Also they spit out the chewed betel leaves constantly, so it seems like everyone is walking around with terminal lung cancer.

We originally plan to stay for four days in Yangon, but as there is not much to do (that I haven’t seen elsewhere), we cut the stay and head for the beach earlier instead. We skip the visit to the city’s most important monument, the Shwedagon Pagoda, partly because we are warned it will be crowded due to the festival, and partly because I am still over-templed from Angkor Wat (and we will see all the pagodas we can wish for in Bagan anyway). Instead we go for a long walk to the adjacent park, which is full of locals celebrating the long weekend but no tourists around to be seen, so we are quite an attractions. Some local teenagers ask me for a picture and they hug be as if I was a teddy bear. The asians in general have no notion of personal space or comfort zone, but at least they are not asking me to pose for photos holding their naked babies (it has happened). I guess I missed my only chance to impersonate the Virgin and the Child.


Stay: the SAT Hostel, Yangon. It is central, conveniently located in Chinatown, close to nightmarket, restaurants, supermarkets. It is also super clean, there are private rooms with airconditioning, and although the bathroom is shared, it is cleaned about 16 times a day. The owner-manager speaks excellent english and is about the most competent hotel manager I have as yet seen in Asia. She’ll help with booking bus tickets and taxis and will give you many useful tips for Yangon. The breakfast is very nice, and if you happen to leave very early in the morning, they will provide for take away breakfast, which we did not expect and it was a lovely touch.

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