Chiang Mai, THAILAND
16 July, 2010
Two weeks ago today, I was arriving in Yangon International Airport, after a brief, 50-minute flight from Bangkok. I hadn’t checked any bags, as I was only visiting for ten days on a tourist visa, and I proceeded with the gentle flow of arriving passengers towards immigration. Coming down the escalator, I noticed (too late) we were all on camera; from the first, our presence was noted by the invisible eye of the state. The customs officers were friendly, and I smiled for the camera, receiving a quick stamp.
I checked into my hotel room and placed a call to the reception: Hello. Do you have wifi?…[pause]…Wireless internet? I simply heard a laugh and politely, no. I sat down at a computer in the room next to the reception to check my email. My coworkers in Chiang Mai had warned me to be wary of using some internet shops, where it wasn’t safe to use the internet. Also, don’t use the computer if there’s already a USB memory stick plugged in. I gave the computer a quick look-over, noticed one, and unplugged it without understanding why. How could a USB save my passwords? Whatever: I wasn’t willing to take any chances. I sent off some work-related emails, and in my paranoid angst, I forgot to email Mom & Dad just to say I was here in Myanmar. Suddenly Facebook was blocked “by a third party”; I had been in the middle of a chat with a friend and co-worker, asking her for help getting in touch with local staff of an international HIV/AIDS NGO. Was there a connection between the content of my chat and the sudden shut-down? I couldn’t be certain.
I locked my door behind me and looked for cameras. None. Well, I thought, I should still hide my notebooks and any work-related papers that could link me to political activists or humanitarian groups. I was supposed to be a tourist, after all. I shoved my papers under one mattress.
The waitstaff in the hotel restaurant were excited to show off their English and talk about the World Cup. I’d made friends. In the morning, I hailed a cab to go out in order to exchange money at another hotel/business center. Getting in the cab, I noticed the interior had essentially been stripped out. The driver was sitting on what looked like a colorful beach chair, but it was just that the metal frame had been wrapped with thinly covered neon plastic strappings.
I caught my first sight of the majestic, golden-domed spire that one can see from all around town: Shwedagon, the enormous, 112-meter tall stupa that is said to house some of the Buddha’s hairs. It was originally built between the 6th and 10th centuries CE by the Mon people of Southeast Burma. Shwedagon is like a magnet at the city center around which all revolves, and I was continually confronted by different viewpoints of this incredible temple structure.
Over the weekend, I did some tourism (it was to be the only touristy outing of my stay, the rest being reserved for meetings with NGOs, local community leaders, social workers, and embassy personnel). After walking around Shwedagon, I was taken by my Muslim friends to the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Zafar Shah II, whose reign had ended in Delhi when he was deposed in 1857 and exiled to then Rangoon, Burma.¹ We ate halal food in a small Muslim restaurant in the downtown, commercial hub near Su Le Pagoda and Bogyoke Aung San Market.
I had arranged for a few people to come and meet me at the hotel, where we could have coffee and talk. The hotel staff didn’t seem overly curious about my routines, but they must have assumed I wasn’t exactly a tourist. Each morning, I’d have a coffee and breakfast and then leave with my dress shirt and notebook in hand. One of the waiters in the hotel guessed I was an English teacher. No, I assured him, I was a tourist. I spent two days going in and out of Traders Hotel, in the business center or the city. I had three meetings with UNICEF on the 14th floor. By the end of day two, one of the bellboys at the door asked me, “So you work for the UN?” No, I was a tourist [with an understanding smirk]. I wasn’t fooling anyone, but I wasn’t about to go telling everyone the motives and goals of my research.
Wow, was Traders nice! The 5-star hotel lounge reminded me instantly of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s Park Hyatt Hotel, or any other major hotel in a developing Southeast Asian city. You are immediately removed from the ordinary grind of city life. I had thought Yangon was more like cities in Laos or Cambodia, in their temporal distance from the megalopoles of Hanoi, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, etc. Was dilapidated, little Yangon going to grow into a business mecca along those lines? It immediately struck me that they were capable of huge developments, but luxury like Traders remains the entertainment of a thin, upper crust of Burmese society, expat businessmen and -women, and affluent tourists. It would be a long time coming before a solid middle class emerged in Myanmar to experience comforts like this.
I got rather used to the electricity outages and rickety taxis without handles to roll down the windows and with hard springs stabbing into your back through the worn seats. After all, it wasn’t so different from some other places I’d been. Yangon really reminded me of an Indian city, like New Delhi or Bangalore, in its street layout, infrastructure, and even the flow of traffic and people. Yet here, the jalopy taxis cost over $20,000 with colossal taxes, while Toyota SUVS run from $200,000 – $300,000. Only government employees can drive motorbikes. It seems the government not only wants to get a cut of the action when it comes to car dealerships, but they also want to restrict the free movement of its peoples. Need I remind the reader that it’s illegal to gather in a group of 5 or more?
Aung Thu Kha’s quickly became my favorite restaurant outside of the hotel. One cab driver who I repeatedly drove with told me he used to work there, and I took up his recommendation. The food was fantastic: green tea leaf salad, curried fish, fresh vegetables, a heaping plate of white rice, bamboo shoots, vegetable soup, and, an after-meal dessert, sweets that were made from some kind of sugary sap. The staff was friendly and professional, refilling my dishes without asking and constantly minding my table. You can find Aung Thu Kha at 17A 1st Street, West Shwegondaing, Yangon.
My time was running out. I enjoyed a lazy Sunday at the pool in the residence complex across the street from my hotel, totally removed from any commotion of traffic. I’d already paid my room bill at the reception, but I was short by 75,000 kyat, roughly $75. One pays for everything in Myanmar in cash, up front. They reassured me that I could get money from the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank Monday morning, before my 2:30 pm flight that afternoon. I woke up early after the World Cup Final to have breakfast and then get to the bank. Down by the old colonial hotels and municipal buildings near the river wharfs, I wandered through the bank looking for something like ‘Foreign Currency’. After consulting with various clerks, I learned that I could not withdraw money by credit card from a bank, due to US sanctions. Well, I asked, where can I go to get money?
Beginning to panic slightly, I had only 1,500 kyat left in my wallet, maybe enough to get back to the hotel to start over. Two cabs wouldn’t even consider that low fare from the bank, and so I walked a good 15 minutes uptown in the direction of my hotel, all the while glancing at my watch. I hurriedly passed by fortune telling palm-readers and dodged careening city buses. I caught a lucky break from a cab driver who laughingly sympathized with my financial plight, seeming to say in a knowing smile, It happens to the best of us!
Back at the hotel, I was now completely out of money, save for the $10 bill I had to pay for airport tax to leave the country—I was not about to part with that much-needed bill. First I walked across the street to try my luck at a residence complex where many expats live while in Yangon. They suggested I go back downtown to try Traders. When I arrived at Traders, I was met with disappointment. I had told my cab driver to wait outside while I withdrew money, but he left without his fare after a frustrating 10 minutes of negotiations. I had borrowed the cell phone of a receptionist, calling two other hotels they thought might be able to help me; no luck. One receptionist’s cell phone out of minutes, I moved onto the next. Now I had the US Embassy on the phone. I was transferred a few times too many, and I was now standing in the lobby tapping my foot and cracking my knuckles nervously. The embassy explained that I could arrange for money to be wired from home direct to their staff, but that it would take 2-3 days. This was not an appealing option. I’ll call you back if I need to.
I got a cab back to the hotel, went inside, and demanded 2,000 kyat for my cab fare from the receptionist: put it on my hotel bill, I said. Now I calmly began to explain to the manager that I was out of money, unable to pay the $80 I owed them. I proceeded to spell out that the only way I could access any money to repay them was to leave the country. How could she trust me to pay? Could the embassy help me? she asked. No, I lied. After an agonizing thirty minutes of debate, back and forth, we agreed I’d give her my Casio watch and aging iPod Nano, in place of my debt. We had arrived at a deal—a bribe that lost me two birthday presents, the combined original worth of which was more than my outstanding debt—but a deal nonetheless. Now, could I please borrow 5,000 kyat to get a taxi to the airport?
Shooed off in shame, I packed my bags and sped to the airport, passing by the cab stand where I had left my driver to Traders unpaid. I looked away hoping to evade his glance: it was a small street, and he could have easily picked me out of a passing cab. Arriving at Yangon International, I hustled through immigration and grinned with relief when the officer stamped my papers and waved me through—smile for the camera! However, I didn’t breath easy and sit back in my seat contentedly until I was in the backseat of a plush, Thai cab in Chiang Mai, heading back to my house. It felt good to be back in Thailand, and not stuck in the kitchen of a pawn shop hotel in Yangon with no money.
¹In a peculiar arrangement of history, the British exiled King Bahadur Zafar Shah II of Delhi to Yangon, Burma, and the last Burmese king, King Thibaw (1878-1885), and the royal family were exiled to Ratnagiri, India, in a sort of British-orchestrated king swap, intended to terminate the monarchy’s seat of power in each colonial state. More can be read at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thibaw_Min> and at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bahadur_Shah_II>.