Notes from the Burma Road

I write to you from Pyin U Lwin, née Maymya, roughly seventy horizontal kilometers east and a thousand vertical meters up from Mandalay, in Myanmar aka Burma. It's a town originally built by the British as their summer capital; every year their civil service would move here en masse for several months to escape the brutal heat of Rangoon. They left behind a church, a clocktower, a number of magnificent colonial buildings now converted into hotels or government offices, the loveliest botanical gardens I've ever seen, and sizable Indian and Anglo-Burman populations. There's also a railway station, of course, on the line from Mandalay to Lashio, which in turn was one terminus of World War II's famous Burma Road.

But enough of history. If ever a nation has had too much of history, it is this one, and today, at last, it seems to finally be shrugging off history's yoke. Today the streets of Pyin U Lwin bustle with thousands of motorcycles (and scores of horse-carriages) and shake with the passing of Toyota trucks. On the road here, the 'gas station' we stopped at consisted of a few metal barrels from which gasoline was siphoned into large aluminum kettle-like containers, which were then poured into cars via a big aluminum funnel; but that was an aberration. Directly across the divided highway was a modern (albeit Chinese-style, not Western-style) gas station, and I've seen far more of the latter than the former.

Wandering around yesterday, I came upon, to my surprise and delight, a very new and very modern Japanese lakefront restaurant serving Thai, Chinese, and even sushi. I hadn't even known there was a lake. Discretion being the better part of inland Burmese sushi, I didn't try it, but still. There was free wi-fi, too, slow but acceptable. I haven't come across any blocked sites at all, although uploads to Flickr seem to be barred in some way - they begin, get to about 5-10%, zero out, begin again, etc. ad infinitum.

Many of the women and children here wear wing-shaped pats of clay smeared artfully upon either cheek (and sometimes chin and forehead too) allegedly as sunscreen and moisturizer, which gives them the look of going about semi-masked at all time. Girls also start riding motorcycles at a young age, so it's not uncommon to see two teenage clay-faced girls roaring along on a motorbike, one driving and the other riding sidesaddle, in flowing clothes utterly devoid of any road-rash protection...with one or even both in conversation on their mobile phone. It's pleasingly surreal.

On the whole, though, this is really no longer the Land That Time Forgot. True, there are no chain stores here, and I've seen no Western brands at all except for Coke, Pepsi, and Apple, but while Burma/Myanmar is much less wealthy than Thailand or even Cambodia, it really doesn't qualify as remote and isolated any more. Twice now I've been passed while walking by gleaming new tour buses full of elderly Europeans. Everyone seems very pleased to see so many tourists - many smile and/or cry out "Hello!" to me as I pass - but no longer surprised. And this is just the beginning; once ATM and credit-card connections are forged (right now it's a cash-only country) and visas-on-arrival are implemented, the floodgates are really going to open. After all, it's only US$200 return from Bangkok to either Mandalay or Yangon.

This whole post-tyrannical phase is deeply weird for the traveller; I can only imagine what it's like for the Burmese. Is it OK to spend money at government-owned establishments now that Aung Sun Suu Kyi picked up her Nobel Peace Price and joined the parliament? (Although technically she's still barred from the presidency because her sons are foreign citizens; this restriction, though, is widely expected to be loosened before the 2015 elections.) Pyin U Lwin is a resort for wealthy Burmese and Chinese -- there's a golf course, and a dozen high-end hotels. Do the worldly, fashionably dressed packs of young rich Burmese I saw laughing and goofing off in the botanical gardens today feel unease about their families' presumed complicity with the military government? Or relief that they're no longer international pariahs? Do they expect amnesty, or fear prosecution? Do they think about it at all?

While waiting for our visas at the Bangkok embassy, the subtext of most discussion was "I'm so glad I get to go there now, before it's ruined!" To which I couldn't help but think: what, ruined by democracy and freedom? Come on! And yet. I can't say I didn't understand. To the traveller Myanmar always loomed large as another world entirely, one shrouded behind the curtain of tyranny; travelling there, it was said, was like travelling back in time. No longer. I felt far more in-another-world in the global shipping hub of Djibouti last year than I do here. Of course being connected to the world, and its wealth, and its investors, and its goods and medicines and technologies, is inarguably a good thing; and yet, for the travellers who seek places away from not just the madding crowds but that web of roads and wires called modern society, it's a little bittersweet to see them all being slowly eaten up, one by one, year after year.

Well, not all. You can get really remote and isolated and untouched-by-the-modern-world if you really want to, still; you can mount an expedition to the Danakil Depression, or the Irian Jaya jungle, or the remote mountain fasts of western Nepal; it just takes a whole lot of time and work and money. And in Burma/Myanmar it's arguably a moot point, as it was already heavily economically influenced by China before the doors were opened to the West. It's still a really interesting place, in this weird time of flux.

But as much as I approve of the web of packets and supertankers and shipping containers that connects us all, I'm glad I commenced my travelling career before it was quite so pervasive. In China in 1997 and West Africa in 1998 I felt - because I was - far away in genuinely alien lands, to which one could venture and return (and make phone calls) but not expect to check your e-mail daily or eat at Pizza Hut in every major city. It seems kind of a shame to me that today's generation of travellers will never have that same experience unless they put a whole lot of time and effort into it. The changes are for the greater good, of course, but at the same time, I think it's fair to say that something has been lost.


Anonymous said…
Great update!

Re: The 2 styles of "gas stations". In Cambodia it's very common to see yet a 3rd style. The vendor has a row of dusty 1 liter glass bottles filled with gas. Typically they re-use an old Johnny Walker or soda bottle. They empty the whole thing into your motorbike with a funnel. $1 / liter when I was driving.

The problem with this system is you can't be confident that what they're pouring hasn't been diluted beforehand.
Anonymous said…

In the two weeks I spent in Myanmar's "deep south" in March, the only Westerners I saw/met were an Aussie-French photographer and his assistant and a French couple hoping to catch the boat from Myeik to Thailand. I had gone there to see if it is possible to visit some of the 300 or so islands that make up the Myeik Archipelago. I got to visit only one--Pahtaw Pahtat--a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland. Independent travel by foreigners is still highly restricted in the region, although I met a fisherman in Dawei who said he could take me to some of the islands on my next visit.

The oceanfront in Myeik, cooled in the evening by a sea breeze, is lined with restaurant chairs and tables. I tried to explain to the immigration officer I was dining with that the first place to offer an English menu will be the one that surges ahead once the south is opened up. The view, especially at sunset, of the harbour, dotted with the distinctive Burmese fishing boats and bounded by islands as far as the eye can see, is stunning. Squinting, one can see crowds of backbackers enjoying the heavily Thai-influenced food, the very cold (and very cheap) Singha beer and the typical Burmese hospitality. Maybe in the future. But for now there are no tourists and 300 islands, many uninhabited and untouched for decades, to discover.

As for your sympathies for today's generation of travelers, who will "never have that same experience unless they put a whole lot of time and effort into it," where does one draw the line? I spent six months travelling across China, including Xinjiang and Tibet, in 1987. Retracing my steps in 2001, I found the country almost unrecognizable. But even the concrete makeover of Kashgar didn't prepare me for the change I found in Lhasa, which had become a sprawling Han Chinese doughnut of low-rise lean-tos with what is now referred to as the "Old City" squashed into the middle. Does that mean that first-time visitors to Tibet today will leave with their expectations in tatters? I doubt it. Lhasa is still "far away" and "genuinely alien," as is much of Asia for the Western visitor.

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