On the Move in Myanmar
Myanmar, © 27.Dec.2002 gM
Photos of Myanmar
Introduction to Myanmar
Hugged by a Political Prisoner
The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round
Hope You Brought Your Calculator
On the Move in Myanmar
Of course there is room for a few more people
Of course there is room for a few more people / © gM
The contrast could not have been greater - from Lufthansa's lounge at Bangkok's Don Muang International Airport, sipping tea, munching on salted cashew nuts, and reading up on the latest developments reported in Austrian and English newspapers, to Yangon International Airport, three decades back in time. Two immigration officers scrutinize travel documents, one focusing on the approved visa application forms, the other stamping passports; no IT systems in sight. A few steps past immigration, the clerks at the official exchange booths are eagerly awaiting the end of their shifts in order to split up the day's bribes for letting foreigners pass through without having to exchange hard currency into foreign exchange certificates. Twenty meters down the hall, customs officials are still concerned about photo and video cameras as well as laptops, to the point of requiring non-residents to declare these electronic items upon arrival. This does not come as a surprise really, since we are about to travel in a country where the Internet does not exist, because accessing the Internet is still illegal.

The next day we are sitting on a bus going north from Yangon towards Pyay on one of the best roads in Myanmar - so we are told. The bus driver is honking constantly, warning approaching vehicles, vehicles to be overtaken, playing kids, stray dogs, and water buffalo. The asphalt road was recently completed, potholes are still scarce, and in theory, the road even has two lanes. Rice farmers, however, have placed grains to dry on both sides of the road, narrowing down the available traffic lanes to one lane in the middle. Oncoming traffic inevitably forces our bus onto the ribbon of grain and the grains off the road. Villagers seem to have a full-time job watching wheels create new patterns of grain on the road, immediately collecting grains scattered too far, and arranging them back within the farmers' half of the lane. Overtaking other vehicles, especially trucks or buses, poses another challenge. Traffic flows on the right side of the road in Myanmar, but vehicles are imported from countries where the steering wheels are also placed on the right-hand side. The driver's and everybody else's safety depends on the assistant, who is hanging out of the perpetually opened left front door and shouts directions back to the driver at the top of his lungs to be heard over all the honking, the engine's noise, and the blaring tape player. A law 100 percent worthy of its military regime demands Burmese lyrics for each song played on the radio, creating a huge market for cover versions. Each song on the tape sounds familiar, from "Candle in the Wind" to J. C. Mellencamp and Shaggy, from "Seasons in the Sun" to Abba and Celine Dion. Even an instrumental piece by Vangelis is bombarded at us with Burmese lyrics. The Burmese words, however, make it just difficult enough to recognize the original song, resulting in a time-killing game on long bus trips.

A row of volunteers sweeps the floor of Shwedagon Paya
A row of volunteers sweeps the floor of Shwedagon Paya / © gM
The bus stops often at toll booths and often enough for bathroom and snack breaks. Almost each village seems to be in the business of collecting road taxes. We also pass a couple of donation booths, usually set up near a monastery or stupa, and characteristicly consisting of a sound system which easily blows away the combined cacophony of horns, engines, and tape players. Without stopping, the driver and passengers try to throw money out of the window and into watermelon-sized alm's bowls held by volunteers. Most of the money lands on the street. Not donating is equal to tempting fate. Pictures of Buddha cover the top quarter of the bus' front window, auspicious flower garlands decorate rear and side mirrors, and often a bus' first few meters of the day are preceded by an offering of lit incence sticks. In Yangon while driving, taxi drivers pay tribute to the glorious zedi of Shwedagon Paya by reciting a short prayer as soon as and each time the zedi comes into view, no matter how often in a day their business is taking them past Shwedagon Paya. Accumulating merit is important for the people of Myanmar and there are many ways to accomplish this, from supporting monks and monasteries to volunteering for a sweeping session of the floors of Shwedagon Paya.

The bathroom and snack stops offer an opportunity to sample authentic Burmese food which unfortunately may also mean getting in touch with stomach bugs one's digestive system cannot handle. We find ourselves eating mostly Chinese food as it is at least freshly prepared. Typical Burmese food can be excellent though, the problem with it being more of a logistical nature. Dishes are usually prepared once a day and then left sitting in pots without lids with neither refrigeration nor warmers available, thus slowly cooling while flies are buzzing around the food. Enjoying a Burmese meal without unwanted consequences becomes an exercise of right timing: arriving at a restaurant when most dishes have just been prepared and are still steaming hot. There is a choice of chicken, fish, or mutton curries served with rice, chin hin (sour tamarind soup), and many small vegetable dishes. The curries tend to be oilier than Indian or Thai curries. Vegetable dishes are to be mixed with each other, rice, and the curries as desired: bamboo, peanuts, potato with tofu, carrots with peanuts, various chilies, tomato curry, garlic, bitter gourd, roselle, and lemon, but beware that mutton blood may also sneek itself into the vegetarian selections. For breakfast, fish soup is served with mohinga (rice noodles with egg and some meat and mixed with fermented fish or prawn paste).

Two food vendors protect their faces from sunburn with thanakha paste
Two food vendors protect their faces from sunburn with thanakha paste / © gM
From time to time, food vendors board the bus and ride with it for a while, carrying a big plate full of fried chicken parts - no parts wasted! Food vendors are always women, and like most women and children, their faces are covered by thanakha paste to protect them from the relentless sun. More annoying are bus hopping salesmen who, without wasting any time, start yelling at the passengers, praising whatever needs to be sold, but reminding me more of regime propaganda speeches. At least, the honking stops for a while to increase the driver's chances for a bigger cut of the salesmen's earnings.

The road we are on is actually one of the best in Myanmar as we will find out over the next four weeks. On other journeys, the condition of the gravel road and the narrowness of the curves will allow our bus, and most means of transport, only to creep forward so slowly that the assistant can easily jump off the bus, run a few steps ahead, and remove bigger stones and rocks off the road. This is crucial in order to increase the short lifespan of tires. One did not experience travel in Myanmar if one did not wait for a flat tire or broken engine to be fixed. Sometimes the assistant will have to jump off the bus to stop approaching vehicles because the bus takes up the last square centimeter of the road to make it around a particularly sharp curve. Sometimes the assistant will jump off the abruptly stopped bus and be sent under the bus to fix a problem already fixed several times before. There is another significant factor which makes sure that it will take a long time to cover even the shortest travel distance. Even though there are designated bus terminals, no one is using them and the bus may stop anywhere anytime - often every 100 meters in small villages because everyone wants to be dropped off or get on the bus right in front of home. It is convenient, but very time consuming.

The bus we are on is also a very comfortable one although we do not know this yet. Other times, the bus will first be filled with rice bags to get rid of any sort of leg room, then filled to unknown levels with people: people on benches, these are the lucky ones who first wonder how they managed to squeeze into the tiny space between the benches and the rice bags and later just wish to not have any limbs at all; people on little stools in the aisle or seated on rice bags who wish to be sitting on one of those benches; people on top of the roof who wish to be inside the bus, and people hanging off the side or back of the bus who wish to be anywhere else. One did not experience travel in Myanmar if one did not hang off at least one pickup truck for longer than fifteen minutes. There will be times where one's backpack is placed on top of two canisters filled with a sticky, white dairy substance - at first hidden from view but slowly bubbling higher and higher due to the bumpy road and frequent sharp turns until one's backpack will be coverd by the frothy goop and will stink ferociously for ages.

Throughout our time in Myanmar, we avoid paying for government controlled services and choose private services instead, except where no sensible alternatives exist, e.g. entrance fees for museums and archaeological zones and airport departure taxes. Only once, for the ferry from Mandalay to the ancient city of Mingun, we have no choice but to use transportation provided by the government. The person trying to make sure we board the ferry safely acts like a military officer, commanding us around, shouting at us through a megaphone for the n-th time, "Only one person at a time on the board across to the boat! Only one person!" while two laboring Burmese hold up a heavy makeshift handrail for additional support, putting us in an unwanted position of master. This one brief taste of governmental organization is enough to demonstrate such a thorough lack of respect, making me feel simultaneously too unimportant and too important.

Introduction to Myanmar  /  Hugged by a Political Prisoner  /  The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round  /  Hope You Brought Your Calculator  /  On the Move in Myanmar