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2000s Archive

Back on the Map

Originally Published August 2002
Things have loosened up in Myanmar, the beautiful country run by an ugly regime. Is it time to end the tourism boycott?

The monsoon season had just officially ended when I arrived in the country formerly known as Burma, but everyone was waiting for a last, cleansing rain to usher in the cool weather. Waiting is a permanent state of being in Myanmar; the place is a party where the guests never show. In downtown Yangon (you may remember it as Rangoon), a verdant capital city of parks, lakes, and crumbling colonial mansions, hotel doormen in starched uniforms stand idle, hopefully eyeing passersby, while bored chambermaids dust and then dust again the always empty rooms. Up north, at Mandalay's sparkling new airport, the international arrivals screens are eerily blank, the customs booths unmanned.

There's a reason for the dearth of tourists in this beautiful country—a reason that kept me away for years. An old Asia hand, I'd long heard stories of Burma's wonders, but also of its oppressive military regime. And of the tourism boycott called by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the acclaimed prodemocracy leader, who had been under house arrest. But then came the good news that the generals had released Suu Kyi, a certain overture to reconciliation. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in detention, although the government has now promised to release them soon. Even so, I decided that it was time for my long-delayed visit.

Glossy tourist brochures tout Myanmar as "the land that time forgot." It's really the land the world forgot. Finally freed from long British rule after World War II, this Southeast Asian country, rich in resources and culture, was taken over in 1962 by a military junta that closed its borders for three decades while misgoverning it into destitution. When the country finally emerged from isolation, the government's well-documented human rights abuses and brutal squelching of a prodemocracy movement provoked the United States and other nations into imposing economic sanctions, which stopped short of banning travel to Myanmar.

Although the country is tightly controlled by the generals, I rarely saw soldiers, or even policemen, during my weeks of travel, and I felt completely at ease with the Myanmar people, who are disarmingly hospitable. Most everyone I met spoke with candor about their lives. And even in fleeting encounters, the truth sometimes revealed itself unexpectedly. At Mount Popa, the cloud-ringed home to Myanmar's powerful nats, or guardian spirits (including a brother-and-sister team named Mr. Handsome and Golden Face), a pretty young woman smiled at me as she strolled by on the arm of her boyfriend. Her face was decorated with the yellowish white powder, ground from thanakha tree bark, that's worn by women, and some men, as a sunscreen and astringent. "You have a beautiful country," I called out. "I don't think so," she replied, smile intact, and kept moving.

As a waiter told me—his only customer—that same afternoon, "tourism is politics, food is politics, everything here is politics." Even religion. Buddhism is so strong in Myanmar that the generals contribute generously to maintain the temples and monasteries, hoping to win the support of the monks and, in turn, the people. It was sunset when I visited Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's holiest Buddhist site. The sky was streaked with pink, the grounds crowded with families and young couples on dates, all barefoot, as is the custom. Eight hairs from Buddha's head are enshrined here. When the hairs were uncased, legend has it, they emitted celestial rays that cured the crippled and caused trees in the faraway Himalayas to flower.

Sacred but not solemn, Shwedagon is an exuberant jumble of colorful shrines and glittery monuments on top of a high hill in Yangon. As I looked around, a young monk approached, explaining that he came here daily to practice his English on tourists (English learned from CNN broadcasts; his monastery has satellite television). "But please forgive me, for I am feeling rather topsy-turvy this evening," he said. "That's fine," I told him. I, too, was feeling topsy-turvy.

It was a feeling that never left me during my weeks in Myanmar, a feeling that must be any sane person's response to the disturbing juxtapositions of extravagant beauty and poverty, of the country's gentle Buddhist people and violent political history—contradictions of charm and woe that imbue every moment here with irony.

In Yangon, I was introduced to Ma Thanegi, a journalist and artist who wears gold rings on every finger of her left hand and has a passion for food. Ma Thanegi was a wealth of local, often bizarre, gossip that she loved sharing over bowls of soup noodles—the fermented fish-sauce-spiked mohinga at breakfast, or, at lunch, the ubiquitous curried chicken, ohn noh khauk swe.

Ma Thanegi told me of the Myanmar Air flight rerouted near Mandalay to avoid the path of a levitating monk. And of her friend's driver, who, told by a fortune-teller that he would have two marriages (the Myanmar people are obsessed with fortune-tellers and astrologers), wedded a duck to get the first one out of the way. After a week, he had the marriage annulled and the duck killed and cooked. "It was scrumptious," Ma Thanegi assured me.

But it was others who told me that Ma Thanegi had been an aide to Aung San Suu Kyi and had been imprisoned for three years for her politics. Today, like virtually everyone I met in Myanmar, she is of two minds about the prodemocracy leader: While staunchly supporting Suu Kyi's stand on human rights, she opposes sanctions and welcomes tourism. "Our people need jobs, or they'll starve to death while waiting for democracy," she says.

Ma Thanegi invited me to lunch at her old school chum Ruby's house. In Myanmar, ei wut kyay, or "fulfilling one's duty toward guests," is one way to gain merit points, redeemable in the Buddhist reincarnation cycle. Ruby, a cherubic mother of three, must be aiming for sainthood in her next life, for her modern house has enough chairs and sofas to accommodate a Greyhound busload of guests. The small, tidy kitchen boasts two stoves and a portable gas range.

Two cooks were at work when I arrived, washing greens and chopping garlic. The day was hot and humid, and I was perspiring so profusely that, to my embarrassment, a servant lugged in a huge electric fan and trained it on me. But Ruby, directing preparations from the kitchen doorway, was a model of cool serenity in her pretty longyi (the local version of a sarong, worn by both sexes). "Women like Ruby don't cook, they supervise," Ma Thanegi said. Ruby laughed. "My husband says I cook with an air stove, because I only use my mouth to tell the cooks what to do."

My offer to pitch in was politely refused, but I couldn't help pestering the cooks with questions about ingredients and measurements. Their answers&*8212;"as much as the size of a betel nut" or "about a joint of a finger"—didn't translate easily. Ruby gently steered me outside.

Soon, Ruby's dining room table was covered with platters: soup made with a catfish stock and roselle (a sour green leaf); chicken curry; wing bean salad; and coconut rice. Serving the curry, Ruby apologized for the chicken. "It's tasty, but scrawny, because our farmers don't like hormones—they hate the smell," she said, piling food on my plate. "I usually tell my foreign guests that it's sparrow."

Just when I was so full that I could hardly stand, Ruby brought out a beautiful sectioned lacquer box, its center filled with laphet. Fermented tea leaves kneaded with peanut oil, laphet is, hands-down, Myanmar's weirdest and most wonderful contribution to world cuisine-served everywhere, at any time of the day, but especially when guests stop by. Following Ruby and Ma Thanegi's example, I scooped up some laphet with my fingers, quickly dipped it in the surrounding condiments, which included dried shrimp, fried slivers of garlic, toasted sesame seeds, and fried peas, then popped it into my mouth—where the flavors exploded. Forget potato chips and nachos, laphet redefines finger food: oily, salty, and savory; slick and crunchy; and with a caffeine kick. It is the ultimate addictive snack. And I was hooked.

Feeding guests may be a good way of gaining merit, but if you can afford it, building Buddhist monuments is worth jackpot points. Back in the 11th century, King Anawrahta began a building spree in Pagan that lasted more than two centuries and resulted in thousands of pagodas punctuating the vast, scorched plain between the Ayeyarwady River (also known as the Irrawaddy) and a shadowy mountain range. Though time and a major earthquake have taken their toll, it is still an astonishing sight, the pagodas, built of local earthen bricks, seeming to rise right out of the same-hued soil. At sunset, seen from the upper terrace of one of the pagodas, the landscape is otherworldly and unsettlingly beautiful. As the earth releases the day's heat, the pagodas shimmer like hallucinations, burst with intense color, then, as the sun sinks into the river, disappear.

Pagan, about an hour's flight north of Yangon, is one of the world's great sights. But for me it had another, greater, charm: I found it the easiest place in Myanmar to meet local people. Though it may one day turn into another Chiang Mai or Kathmandu, for now Pagan is a place where the sun is blazing hot, the tourists few, and the exchange of dollars for souvenirs or services really just an excuse to sit down in the shade and have a long chat. I rented a bicycle and pedaled miles, visiting pagodas and talking to everyone. In the marketplace at Nyaung Oo, a short bike ride from Pagan, I met a young painter who calls himself Mr. Brushie and who said proudly of his abstract creations, "They are modern, so you must have a high mind to understand them." I spent half the morning discussing art with him.

Pedaling back to Pagan with one of Mr. Brushie's paintings rolled up in my day pack, I stopped at a roadside tea shop where the water was delivered—as I watched in horror—in old oil drums on a donkey cart. Unnerved, I ordered bottled water—which arrived with two straws and a reassuring label that read: "Warranty: Absence of E. Coli and Pathogenic Organisms."

Tea shops are the Starbucks of Myanmar; there's one on almost every corner, in every village and city. Though the term suggests a colonial gentility, they are, even in Yangon, as informal and basic as can be: usually open-air, with some umbrellas or an awning for shade and utilitarian tables and chairs. And the routine is the same everywhere. First, you're served a glass of Indian tea sweetened with condensed milk. When you've drained that, a tin pot of Chinese tea arrives with porcelain cups. (The locals wash out their cups with hot tea before drinking.) Plates of snacks—Indian samosas, Chinese buns, packaged Dumbo brand cakes—are brought to the table; you help yourself and are charged only for what you have eaten.

The Ayeyarwady is the lifeline of Myanmar, flowing from the Himalayas down into the rich delta area below Yangon and into the Andaman Sea. The Scottish Irrawaddy Flotilla Company once operated the world's largest private fleet of ships on the river—until World War II, when the company scuttled them all to keep them out of the hands of the invading Japanese.

A few years ago, the recently reborn company took a 1947 paddle steamer, removed the paddle, and refitted it as a passenger vessel with 16 staterooms of polished teak and brass. I booked passage on the Pandaw from Pagan to Mandalay, an unhurried three-day journey with occasional stops for sightseeing along the way. My fellow passengers were a jovial French tour group who moved about the ship as a single 28-legged creature, spewing cigarette smoke. Aung Aung, the Shan bartender, whose body is covered with mysterious tattoos (carved into him by his grandfather with a bamboo needle, he told me), mixed a mean Martini. The voyage could not have been more peaceful or pleasurable—until, on the second afternoon, we docked at the prosperous market town of Pakokku.

The French went off en masse to visit the market. I took a trishaw to the local monastery, where I was given a tour and tea by a garrulous monk. I was on my way back when the sky suddenly turned as black as midnight and opened up with a late monsoon. My trishaw driver unloaded me at a leaky wooden shelter already crowded with villagers, then disappeared into the rain. Shivering from the wet and cold, I was stranded. Nobody spoke a word of English, but I instantly understood the terror in their voices when they shouted and pointed to a dark, ominous shape slithering toward us through the mud. A deadly viper. After running out into the storm, I eventually managed to flag down a horse cart. Safely back aboard the Pandaw, I changed into dry clothes and headed to the bar, where I told my viper tale to Aung Aung. "What would have happened if I'd been bitten?" I asked. He smiled reassuringly and poured my Martini. "We would take you to the hospital, sir. But when we get there, you are already dead."

Grateful to be alive, I flew from Mandalay to Inle Lake, where villages are built over the water and crops are grown in floating gardens. From there I returned to the capital and checked into The Strand, smack in the center of downtown. Once considered the finest hotel in Asia, the century-old Strand was restored in the early 1990s. Today, it conjures its colonial grandeur without any attendant stuffiness—thanks mostly to Sally Baughen, the hotel's manager, an energetic, blond New Zealander who has a passion for street food and, when off duty, zips around Yangon in black clamdiggers and sneakers.

Sally took me to the morning market on Bogalay Zay Street, a narrow residential lane a few blocks from The Strand. Though Yangon's main produce market offers a far greater variety (the banana section is mind-boggling), Bogalay Zay is more fun. Here, the vendors, mostly women, display their wares in woven baskets or on plastic ground cloths: chickens and river fish, both fresh and dried; tofu, fresh and fried; tiny hillocks of spices and fermented pastes; bundles of leafy greens and herbs. Halfway down the lane, Sally had found a tiny tea shop with two rickety tables and shin-high stools. We ordered rice-flour pancakes from the Indian cook just across the lane. We watched her fry them up in sizzling oil, then deftly transfer them to old newspaper and sprinkle them with sugar. Squeezing limes over the still-hot pancakes, we ate them greedily, then ordered more.

Other than the food at tea shops, the other great dishes I tried were the traditional salads at The Strand, whose bar is the gathering place for local expatriates and visiting foreigners. One night, I stopped in for a Strand Sour (lime juice and Mandalay rum). Ma Thanegi appeared, and The Strand's chef, Jordan Theodoros, offered to whip up some dinner for us and bring it to the bar. Ma Thanegi whispered about the chef's own recent, and brief, marriage—again to foil a fortune-teller's prediction: "Had to marry a Barbie doll," she said softly. "I sewed the wedding dress."

By this point in my stay, that news seemed ordinary. I ordered another Strand Sour and sank back into my rattan chair. Jazz floated through the air. The ceiling fans whirled. A laphet salad appeared with my drink. I dug in. Ma Thanegi, who is not much of a drinker, grew tipsy and reminisced about a childhood visit to The Strand. "My parents brought me to a piano recital here, a German pianist. The hotel was so run-down back then. While he played, the German ambassador kept stomping on cockroaches." I happily licked the laphet oil from my fingers as she smiled at the memory. "There were mice and rats running across the stage. It was great fun."

Though I am not a Buddhist, I thought it prudent, before leaving Myanmar, to perform a merit-gaining act of my own. Feeding monks is a popular point getter, so on my last morning, I donated a meal at the family temple of The Strand's florist, Min Maung, affectionately known as George. I expected a solemn, ceremonial occasion, rows of monks with their bowls extended and heads bowed, perhaps. To my surprise, there were only four monks. The lunch—a banquet by local standards—was prepared, and shared, by a gaggle of chattering, jovial ladies who were, I gathered, sort of the local Buddhist Hadassah. We watched while the monks ate first, and the very moment they put down their spoons, we dug in. It was better than any restaurant food in Myanmar, particularly the myin kwa ywet, a tangy salad of horseshoe leaf tossed with fried peanuts and red onion—which is, one well-fed lady kindly informed me, "very good for your urine."

During dessert, a rich semolina cake made with coconut milk, George turned to me with a look of grave concern. Had I committed some karmic faux pas? I wondered. "According to yesterday's Myanmar Times, Miss Liza Minelli is not well," he said and, before I could muster an appropriate reply, burst into a heartfelt "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

That evening, I paid a reluctant farewell visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, where I once again ran into my English-speaking monk. While we strolled together through the grounds, past the smiling Buddhas and the gold-domed stupa, I told him how I'd fallen in love with both his country and his people, and how glad I was that I'd made the decision to come. "I hope you'll return some day," he said.

But it was time for me to leave. I looked one last time at the stupa and smiling Buddhas of Shwedagon—the repository not only of sacred relics but of Myanmar's faith, history, and hopes for the future. As the lights of Yangon blinked on below us, we shook hands. "It was a rapture to meet you," my new friend said. "Yes," I repeated. "But the rapture was all mine."