HOT INFO On The Road

Ben van den Anker
SE Asia: REPORT #11

10th November, Y2K, Yangon, Myanmar

"The New Light of Myanmar"

In Mandalay I take the boat to Mingun, an "ancient city" north on the Irrawaddy riverbanks. The town welcomes me and two other tourists with a signboard "Welcome in Mingun". We instinctively understand that we shouldn't visit the small office underneath it. As we walk past it an official rushes out of the door; "Please wait, let me talk to you!" I say "no", he tries to block our way but we just continue to walk on, he gives up. It doesn't seem a good job to me, many people start to argue with those officials these days. We visit an old people home, the people are visibly happy to see our faces. The large dormitory contains about forty beds, no privacy at all but I guess this is better than living on their own, I suppose their kids can't take care of them. On the background a huge brick monument, it reminds me a bit of Sri Lanka, it's totally different from other Myanmar monuments.

In Nyaungshe I reach some small villages at Inle lake by bike, avoiding the government office down the lake, small numbers of hill tribe people are walking down the streets. I even see some Longneck people, but I guess they are just here for the tourists of a nearby resort. Nothing different from Thailand, I get the impression that these longneck people are the least independent of the hill tribes, everyone tries to make a profit out of them and they seem to cooperate without looking that happy.

Together with some other tourists we rent the car of the son of the guesthouse owner. He brings us to Launggyi, the annual ballooning festival is held there this weekend. I sit in front and the friendly son tells a lot, about the universities that are open for students again after having been closed for almost four years. About the police, they come by in the evening at the guesthouse and demand money for every guest that is staying there. The government ordered last year that the minimum price for a single room was 5$ and for a double 8$, after one month one guesthouse disobeyed, they got an official warning that the government would close the guesthouse down if they didn't obey. Then more guesthouses followed their own direction and now no one cares anymore. It shows once more that the government wants to control everything. "Don't talk about politics when you're on the festival!" he tells me, "They keep an eye on foreign tourists." Later indeed a policeman advised me to leave the open area and sit in the "tourist protection area". "Dangerous fireworks and pickpockets!" Later I realized that he could be right about the fireworks!

Taunggyi is loaded with food stalls, people are selling clothes, coffee and liquor at rock bottom prices. For a bottle of whiskey they charge you 30 dollar cents. There are no streetlights, just the shoplights and the spotlighted temple on the hill make it not totally dark. A big military truck loaded with gun packed soldiers parks at the steps leading to the temple. Among us is Victor Spinelli, a professional photographer and fanatic ballooning man. (His site is worth checking out: We've been warned that these paper mache balloons are dangerous but he tries to stick his nose and photo camera as close to the burner as he can. As one balloon with a big bamboo frame underneath it loaded with fireworks lifts up from the ground the crowd applauds. The fireworks start to explode and suddenly the rockets hit the ground. The crowd start running, scared, we run with them, totally excited. The balloons stay about 30 minutes in the air, then they'll drop down. Everyone keeps his eyes directed to the sky every once in a while, no one will want to tell his friends that his headache originates in a balloon falling on his head.

In Yangon an article out of the "New light of Myanmar" that hangs on the wall of a shop catches my eyes, it says that "Volendam" is 18 points behind "Ajax". These are two Dutch football teams and Volendam must be on the same level like any American small town of 10.000 people football team. This is the news that the people of Myanmar can safely read, it's a shame. No internet is allowed, the government will decide what news the people can read. I wonder how long this can keep going on? The amazingly friendly people of Myanmar have to suffer a lot, they keep their spirits high, despite all.

Almost every man in Myanmar wears a "longyi", they wrap it around their legs and even bath in it. The woman usually wear other clothes but they all bath in these longyis too. Many Burmese dream to get to Thailand, one rickshaw driver in Mandalay tells me about their "visits" to Thailand. When the water of the river is low they just walk across it from Tashilek to Mae Sai. They take care to dress like Thai, knowing about the intensive Thai police controls. The Burmese army let them pass for only 5 baht "If I'd have 10.000 baht I could go permanently to Thailand" he says, I guess everyone has his dreams. This one is only understandable, the people of Myanmar deserve better

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