A Happy New Year to my dear hypothetical readers!
In the month of December I hurtled through a trip that gave me quite a few passport stamps and a bout of digestive distress (finally) worthy of the illustrious title of “food poisoning”.  Many memorable moments were had, but the most outstanding were the six days I spent in Myanmar. The Nation-state Formerly Known As Burma has been headlining frequently of late with Secretary Clinton’s visit and Aun Sang Suu Kyi’s decision to run for office; all the media attention's probably been causing thousands of geographically challenged heads to be scratched vigorously from sea to shining sea at every mention. Not that I should pretend to be so superior; here's an index of what I knew about the country before visiting it:(1) Jade, loads of
(2) Freely elected government, absence of
(3) Petite, steely-eyed Nobel Peace Prize laureate, name of
(4) Villainous foe of King Mongkut’s Thailand in The King & I, appearance as
Thus I arrived in Yangon on a hot midmorning in December, formidably naïve. Despite my ignorance, I have had the dubious privilege of having lived in societies so publicly riddled with corruption that their people seem almost proud of the fact, as though nepotism and flagrant abuse of the law were unique facets of the national character. So I imagined all sorts of terrors in wait for me even as I biked, six weeks earlier, to the Myanmar embassy in Beijing to get my visa. The building was square-cornered and about as cozy as the backside of a bathroom tile. A lavishly carved sideboard in the lobby, looming as one entered, is all I really remember of the place--that, and the subtly terrifying waiting room with over-high ceilings and bad lighting. The transactions with a kindly, roundish gentleman behind the window were pleasant enough (I spoke English, my go-to for when I am actually begging someone to "please be nice to me"), but for a small obstacle. I was supposed to turn in a copy of an invitation letter, even though I was merely asking for a tourist visa! After some parleying, I was given a sheet of white paper and a juicy black pen to write my own invitation letter, stating name, age, occupation, and intentions. My handwriting is evidently much better than I usually think it to be. One week later, I had my visa.
Cutting back to my arrival in Yangon: all around the airport there were fields. Inside it were the efforts of very diligent floor-waxers on display, and little else; the official money-changers--distinguished from the nice lady who eventually made the trade for me by sitting beneath a sign with a logo on it--refused to do anything with my Chinese bills. The airport and our hotel were so far apart that, by my eventual arrival in the lobby, I had taken a taxi-tour of the city. The town was bustling enough to have a few traffic jams, but the billboards plastered with very cheerful people endorsing suspiciously named vitamin pills (along the lines of Lucy's Vegetameatavitamin), 3-in-1 coffee mixes, and the odd piece of industrial hardware gave away the poverty, or rather the gaping canyon that split poor from rich. It was especially a shock to notice that the men and women selling fritters, clinging to the backs of tiny pickup trucks-turned-buses, or otherwise going about their business were uniformly thinner than their fairy-tale counterparts in the ads. Much thinner, maybe in proportion to the relative size of haute couture models to the average North American. A very shallow bit of first-world irony, perhaps, but a bit that, thanks to the ubiquity of those ads, never quite left me.
The remains of my first morning in Myanmar was spent at Shwe Dagon, an enormous complex of pagodas, shrines, and images that dazzled every sense and packed us off with raging thirsts and slight headaches from the merciless sun.
|Very, very shiny.|
The apparent piety suggested in all the well-tended buildings and the wafts of fragrance from the flowers and fruits on altars was, I would later learn, rather more complicated: local spirits, sages, and ghosts had been thoroughly merged with imported Buddhism, though it's a wonder that some of them, transplanted into the Buddhist body of belief, weren't summarily rejected. According to an otherwise stodgily P.C. book on Myanmar culture I later borrowed from a hotel, sages who attained great wisdom would, as they meditated on remote peaks, seek out a kind of plant shaped like a woman's torso, animate a few with their wisdom-magic, and… well, have a bit of fun. Not what Lord Buddha was doing on his mountain retreats, if my feeble grasp of his biography serves.
|A game in which kiddies threw coins at a creakily rotating bowl for luck.|
Anyway, insight into the sages' frolicking came later; initially Shwe Dagon simply overwhelmed with its sheer size and density of decoration, an effect amplified by the contrast with the shanties and mostly-pothole lanes in the neighborhood. Then, it felt odd. Odd in in the way that you might feel odd if you caught sight of an enormous, gilt, many-tiered cake daintily sitting atop an overflowing bin of (unsorted) trash, or a gold lamé party dress sized to fit a giantess on top of a hamper of dirty socks.
But then I realized that much of the country was like this, innumerable pagodas shining over landscapes of toil. On the first of two 17-hour train rides--the worse one, because it took up an entire day after rising at 5 o'clock--I could only think, repeatedly, of how medieval this was. Maybe it reflects on my shabby understanding of the European condition before 1250, but wasn't the ideal, at least, a landscape of agricultural productivity as far as the eye could see dotted with beacons of spirituality/sinkholes of resources in the form of churches? That was the Myanmar countryside, anyhow, and the view was especially striking at night, when many of the palm-thatched huts in villages past which we bounced were bathed in darkness while a nearby pagoda beamed, tawny under a few weak incandescent bulbs.
|Sunset in Mandalay.|
Our train took us to the capital of British Burma, Mandalay. The city was big, but the electricity was unreliable; the streets stank of the gas-powered generators that shopkeepers posted before their establishments in case the lights went. (I gave one family a little entertainment when I showed up with my headlamp to buy crackers.) After passing out, my head still woozy with a phantom sensation of swaying, we woke to gawk at a colorful market and to rent bicycles to take around town. Having been in 2011 to a good number of picturesque places with ridiculously abundant produce, the stalls at the Zegyo Market were less notable to me for their unique wares than for the aesthetic of poverty, what Zoolander would call "derelicte" gorgeousness. Baskets balanced improbably on the heads of slight women, doorways jammed with coconuts, the smoke-belching mopeds that hauled away sacks of rice--all looked antique because they were. During our entire stay, one of perhaps ten cars had a third brake light. Apparently, back in the Days of Yore (i.e., before the mid-eighties), there had been no requirement for a third light-- a dire condition that I was too little to remember. (This is the kind of enlightenment you get in on when traveling with your father.) I've been suspicious before of my own lust for all things old or even merely old-looking, and in Myanmar this suspicion rose once and again. What brand of perversity could make me think the creativity born of desperate poverty beautiful? The answer, of course, is the perversity of privilege. And that, reader, is why everyone who can afford it should go to places like Myanmar--to realize the depth of that privilege. It doesn't really lighten any spiritual burden, make me feel special or lucky; instead it supplies everyday life with a ballast by reminding us, "Behold, the bottom, where it has always been!"
|Picking up a few things at the market?|
Before tapering off this far too lengthy post, I have two further reasons for visiting, both rather more positive. The first is the glorious ancient capital of Bagan, on the banks of the wide slow Irrawaddy--for consistency's sake I should call it the Ayeyarwady, to go along with "Yangon" and "Myanmar." Dotted with somewhere between two and four thousand stupas, pagodas, and shrines, the place is a marvel, especially for those who just can't get tired of temples. Far and away the highlight: remnants of beautiful frescoes from the twelfth century adorning some of the sites. These, along with the stucco columns and lacy embellishments on the outside faces of the buildings, had a distinctively Indo-Greek feel.
|Bagan, Land of Indeterminate Thousands of Pagodas.|
But it wasn't all medieval treasures and glory. We saw that some of the frescoed interiors had been brutally whitewashed--though often only up to a height of seven or eight feet, above which the old, colorful patterns clung on. It seemed like an attempt to restore the paintings had suddenly lost the half-a-heart that it had begun with, probably to a new golf course.  And we had the answer to the question of why UNESCO hadn't made the city into a Heritage Site, namely the clumsiness with which the Orwellian government had rebuilt some of the buildings and maintained the city has kept it from the fame (and lucre) that status entails.
It seems the changes ongoing in Myanmar will mean the reversal, soon, of the cultural and economic sanctions. On the one hand, maybe that would mean fewer villagers having to ride to town in ox-drawn carts virtually identical to those their great-great-grandparents used or work the fields with water buffalo and wooden plows; maybe that would mean more consistent electricity, education, better health, and all sorts of wonderful things that everyone deserves, as our domestic politicians always remind us. Maybe it would also mean that glass-and-steel bastions of the wealthy would come to tower above a country of smoke-darkened thatch along with the grand, golden monuments to Buddha.
In George Orwell's documentary novel, Burmese Days, the villain U Po Kyin dismisses his own conscience with "a careless wave of his hand that meant 'pagodas'." And while I agree, as I struggle through Orwell's brilliant but emotionally tortuous story, that there's something terrifying about a country being known as "the Land of a Thousand Pagodas" when each is a gilt-and-plastered black hole for wealth that very few have, at least the people hold something sacred. Neither U Po Kyin nor the military junta could tear down the pagodas; though watered down, some vague flavor of righteousness versus evil lingers on. What will happen when the powerful, ardently embracing Globalmegacorp., decide that they can ignore their consciences, or at least trade out the dharma for Diet Coke and iPads?
Aun Sang Suu Kyi is revered like a saint, with her face in sticker form on the dilapidated dashboards of countless cabbies (including those driving not early-80s jalopies but horse-carriages). She might be on her way to Power at last. But the One Ring, as Bilbo Baggins taught us so well, corrupts absolutely; can she avoid its perils?
Go now to see this country, now, before the sharks of change circling it finally close in.
|Sunrise on the Irrawaddy/Ayeyarwady.|
(1) It is most shocking that I had never had anything more the matter with my innards than this, considering the sorts of things in poorly considered combinations that I routinely stuff down the hatch.
(2) The view from Mandalay Hill included one of these; though I never saw the Bagan counterpart documented by Mr. W. Pedia's site on Bagan, turfing that parched soil, which was beyond sandy, being actually sand--couldn't have been a very ecologically sound plan.