Travel

Rangoon: A City Where the Future is Unwritten

With the recent release of political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar is poised to open itself up to the outside world. Ou Runyi explores the country's capital city.

The Lady is free.

On 13 November, Burma’s most famous political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from nearly ten years of house arrest. This followed the completion of nationwide elections where the military junta, which is known as the Orwelliansounding “State Peace and Development Council”, won an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats. Reassured by their comprehensive victory, Suu Kyi was granted her freedom by the ruling generals.

The news made headlines around the world, as journalists scrambled to interview her. Among the whirlwind of meetings, public appearances, and questions being asked of her, she found the time to call her son in England, who she had not seen in a decade. As her house had no telephone or internet access – banned to isolate the democracy advocate – she was handed someone’s mobile phone to use. It was the first time she had ever held one.

The planet had changed in incredible ways during her years of home imprisonment (put it this way, future Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was in high school when she was sentenced, and 9/11 was still a year away), and in no area more so than technology. Yet, as much as the world had moved on, her country remained much the same: people suffered under the yoke of harsh rule, the army still called the shots (unfortunately literally in several instances), and the country as a whole remained impoverished. Yet tourists, as had always been the case, were greeted with smiles and a warm and interested welcome by a downtrodden population. It is an idiosyncratic attitude that mystifies many visitors.

I landed in Rangoon two weeks after Suu Kyi’s release (when I applied for my visa, the Burma embassy in Bangkok was full of surreptitious journalist-types seeking to gain entry to the country as tourists) partly expecting to see soldiers on the street corners, military police behind me, and a scared populace afraid to even look my way. I saw none of that. Instead, I spent my days freely wandering around the former capital, and travelling out to see distant temples where the only checkpoints we encountered were tollbooths run by teenage youths, charging us to use the stretch of road before the next village.

There are some oddities, naturally: unlike every other country in Asia, all motorbikes are banned from Rangoon’s streets. The story goes that a top general was cut off by a scooter in morning traffic, and became so incensed that he banned all bikes from the city’s roads the very next day. You also see large container-like boxes along the busiest streets – these are in fact generators, the only way for shops and businesses to guarantee power all day long.

There are also remarkable surprises. For instance, you never expect to encounter the level of multiculturalism you do. The city is full of churches, mosques and temples, which are home to Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist worshippers – there is even an Armenian Church of Saint John the Baptist. Outside the hotels, ethnic Indian and Barmar street children hustle to sell tourists postcards, while Rangoon has its own Chinatown and Little India districts. Indeed, the national dish of mohinga (fish broth with noodles, onions, garlic, ginger and lemon grass, served with optional boiled eggs, fried fish cake and fritters), tastes remarkably like Penang’s Assam laksa. Historically, of course, Rangoon was the jewel in British India’s crown, an entrepot without parallel that drew migrants from across the subcontinent. At one point, ethnic Indians outnumbered the native Bamar in the city, though most of them were forced to leave during the ethnic purges of the 1940s and 1962.

The city is also home to a small but vibrant expatriate scene, a mix that includes English teachers, hoteliers, travel agents, entrepreneurs and numerous NGO workers. With access to the internet restricted (although, of course, there are always ways around it), gatherings are organised via Facebook and Gmail. Oddly, these hugely successful social networking programmes are not blocked in Burma. For the latter, the GM of one of the city’s most prominent hotels explained this was because the government itself relied on the popular and stable email service. Sipping on a glass of locally-made Dagon beer (the newer upstart to the national favourite Beer Myanmar), I envisaged five star uniformed generals busily engaged in Gtalks and deciding what to put as their status message, while simultaneously sending off emails with subject headings such as: “Crackdown on Monks” or “Extend House Arrest Indefinitely”. It brought new meaning to Google’s motto, “Don’t Be Evil”.

Another little known fact is that Rangoon is home to numerous golf courses (I counted five near the international airport alone). Although it’s possible some are due to the ruling classes’ love of the game, the reason for their existence probably has more to do with a universal truth. As was explained to me, the golf course is where deals are sealed. Just like in any other country on earth, a round allows businessmen to walk with government figures, and then walk away with government contracts – after letting them win, of course. Judging by the number of restaurants with signage in their languages, it seems that Chinese, Korean, and even Japanese traders are ahead of the game – or at least Western companies. Roadside signboards advertise beauty products, fashion, and yes, even cell phones. The point is, though, that most of this is out of the reach of the ordinary person on the street.

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One Burmese I spoke to, his voice lowering when we touched on the topic, blamed the situation on the passive nature of the Buddhist majority; their reluctance to stand up and willingness to be led. It’s a possible argument, but impossible to say. What is a fact is that patience sometimes perseveres – think of Gandhi outlasting the British, or Martin Luther King leading the march on Washington. Of course, there can be no comparison with Burma – every country has its own unique problems to face. What is a fact though is that after a very long time The Lady is free. Whether her country will ever be is another matter entirely.

EAT
The Strand Grill
The Strand, 92 Strand Road,
+95(1)243 377; www.ghmhotels.com

DRINK
The Strand Bar
The Strand, 92 Strand Road,
+95(1)243 377; www.ghmhotels.com
50th Street
9/13 50th Street, +95(1)397 060

SHOP
Heritage Gallery
2/F, 21 Bogyoke Aung San (Scott)
Market, +95(1)256 390 ext.739

STAY
The Strand
92 Strand Road, +95(1)243 377;
www.ghmhotels.com

TRAVELLER’S TIP
Guests at The Strand should pick up a copy of their excellent heritage walking tour map, while the hotel bar is the place to be on a Friday night to meet the city’s many characters.

Source: The Expat February 2011 
This article has been edited for Expatgomalaysia.com
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