A Travellerspoint blog

burma undercover 2005


U Bein bridge
South of the Patodawgyi Pagoda a huge teak bridge crosses the shallow Taungthaman Lake. During the dry season the bridge crosses dry land. U Bein was the "mayor" at the time of the shift from Inwa and he wisely salvaged material from the deserted Inwa Palace to build this 1.2km long footbridge - the longest in the world. It has stood the test of time for two centuries.

i almost fell off this bridge. some parts of the bridge had been laid with new wooden planks of a brighter colour. as i walked along the bridge, my mind started to wander far and away. in my dazed state, i thought i should step away from the "bright" planks, and go for the gray colour on the sides (which was actually the colour of the river). if i had done so, i would have fallen into the river.

anyhow, the monks were on day off on this day. and they were friendly, and trying to chat to as many people as possible - to connect with the outside world.







mingun is one of the four ancient cities in mandalay. Mingun is about 6 miles from Mandalay on the left bank of Ayeyarwady River. A pleasant 45 minutes boat trip along the Ayeyarwady River which one can observe part of the life style of the people living by the river. The world's largest Mingun Pagoda was built during the reign of King Bodawpaya but left the construction unfinished when he died in 1819. There is also a gigantic Mingun Bell weighing 90 tons, claimed to be the World's largest hung and ringing untracked bell.

at mingun, i witnessed a squabbling teenage couple. actually only the guy was yelling his lungs out, scolding the girl. he even wanted to punch her. he was berating her in public and she just sat there quietly. i was wondering if this was a typical burmese relationship. later, i was told it's not. after i met ko shwe - a loving husband - i realise that behaviour is unique to every individual.









look who's inside the bell? keke, yours truly. :D

khanh was the highlight of mingun. we met at the river bank. later, we spent a few hours chatting about his aspirations and dreams.

khanh is training to be a licensed guide. he's now earning $30 a month. after school, he told his family in the countryside that he wanted to work as a guide, and not a mat-weaver like all the boys in the village.

"i want to see the world you know. although it's not possible under this government. but at least, speaking with tourists would allow me to connect with the outside world," he said.

"i get euro notes and coins from tourists and i want to show them to my parents. they're from the countryside and have never seen anything like this. i'm sure they will be proud of me," said khanh, unscrewing a box filled with various currencies.

khanh was a loyal son who loved his parents very much. he took out a slip of paper showing his donation of $1 to the temple, on behalf of his parents. he folded the certificate carefully and put it back into his bag.

"you love your parents a lot huh? you missed them?" i asked.

"yes, very much. my mother was crying when i left her. i just wanted to earn well so i could support them you know. i would earn more as a guide than a mat-weaver," he said.

he pointed to his white teeth. "see, i've stopped chewing betel the last three months. i promised a german tourist i would stop chewing. she told me it's bad for my health," he said.

"i agree. you can get mouth cancer if you chew too much. also, you look better without. it's good for business, too. more hygienic, you know," i said.

he nodded his head, agreeing.

khanh later bought two packets of tissues and passed to me "here's a present for you. i don't have much money. unless you want to share my food," he said, taking out his lunchbox.

"that's so kind of you, khanh. no i don't want to eat," i said. i was touched by the simple gesture. i took out two pens and passed them to him. "this is my present to you. you will need these when you're a busy licensed gude next time," i said.

he smiled and nodded his head. "thank you," he said.

taking risks and beating the system
this is ko shwe, motorbike man-turned-friend. he's the highlight of my trip to mandalay. how we met was arranged by god. earlier in the day, i was looking for trishaw to take me to the jetty so i could visit mingun. i just chose one at random, an old man on a green trishaw. the man told me he would pick me up at noon, after my mingun visit.

so, after the visit, i couldn't locate the man. instead, ko shwe arrived on a motorbike, telling me he's been sent by the trishawman who's busy attending to other matters. i thought ko shwe was lying until he spoke to me in Bahasa. ko shwe has worked in a malaysian state for four years and so he was fluent in the language. i had lied to the trishawman, telling him i was malaysian. actually, in burma, i lied about my identity wherever i went. sometimes, i was thai, at other times i was filipina. but most times, i was malaysian. i am very careful about being tracked that's why i adopted various names and nationalities. and i made sure to clear the cache after logging off from the internet.

ko shwe missed speaking with malaysians and was ecstatic to know i was malaysian. but of course, i told him the truth. he wasn't disappointed. in fact, he's excited. and he told me he thought highly of me. "just now, when i came for you, you insisted on finding the trishaw man," he said. and i said "yes, because i promised him that he would take me around. i didn't want to break my promise." and he said "i know, your attitude is very good and i trust you", said the chemistry graduate.

i had lunch with him and opened a can of worms. ko shwe told me many dreadful things about the burmese government. he's a motorbike man because his degree is useless. he said "so what if i'm a graduate. my degree's worthless as there's no work for me" and no way he's going to work with the government.

"you know why there's so much corruption? the government pay civil servants peanuts and that's why they have to turn to bribery to survive," he offered. "this government is crazy, tax people like nobody's business. there's no freedom for us burmese. there's no media, we can't travel outside, and there are so many restrictions."

"government hospitals are corrupt. my mother was ill six months ago and no nurse/doctor attended to her for 10 days. my mother, a seventy something year old lady, was in so much pain that her body was curling like a foetus. i only realised my mother was not receiving treatment until i saw the woman on the next bed who's suffering from same illness being given a different medication. i stormed to the doctor's office and told him "how much do you want?" after i gave him $1,000 only then the staff treated my mother. that's all the money i have. it's expensive these government hospitals. and everyday i buy cakes for the staff, so they would treat my mother well. no compassion at all," he lamented.

"let me tell you another story. i was at the hospital when my wife gave birth, and there's a woman there who had trouble delivering her baby. she lost so much blood and was dying. she looked very poor. so, i told the doctor that i would want to donate my blood to the woman. and guess what, the doctor wanted to charge the woman 2,000Kyats (US$2) for my blood! i was so angry because i was donating for free and the woman was not rich. how could the doctors exploit me and patients like that!" he continued. he mentioned about how some of his friends who're still serving time because they openly opposed the government.

after lunch, ko shwe said that he would help me evade tax. because i looked like a local, he said he would use the "local gates" to get into the attractions, which he said were non-attractions. "there's nothing in the palace but the government charges $10 to foreigners. i'm not going to let the government earn so i'll smuggle you in."

he gave me a burmese name - nila. and told me to play dumb. "don't speak english at all. if the soldiers speak with you, don't say anything. i'll tell them that you're from the Chin state. it's one of the tribes here and you can't speak burmese."

"ko shwe, what would happen to you if we're caught? i'm worried for you!" i asked.

"don't worry. no one could tell you're foreigner," he assured me.

"but what's the worst that could happen?" i asked.

"i'll get sent to jail for a few months i suppose. like some of my friends. but don't worry. i'm confident we wouldn't be discovered," he said.

the city tour was the most heart-thumping experience for me. we went to the palace and a couple of other places of interest, using the back gate. there was a signage "Foreigners are forbidden to enter via this gate" and i wanted to die. sitting behind on his motorbike, ko shwe rode past soldiers and military officers. when they asked where he's going, he said he's meeting a friend, who's a general. i tried to act as cool as i could. i was so nervous.

reaching the places, he told me to enter first while he walked behind me. "you take off your shoes and just walk in confidently. if you hang around too long, they will know you're a foreigner. i'll follow from behind and i'll carry your bag," he instructed.

i did as i was told. i was afraid to take out my canon camera, which obviously looked like a "foreign" product with german wideangle lenses. he told me not to worry. i snapped a shot and quickly placed the camera back into the bag.

one instance, when we were riding out of the gate, ko shwe was stopped. he got down from his motorbike and four generals surrounded him, interrogating him in burmese. in my heart, i went "OH SHIT, i've been discovered!" i saw a soldier walking towards me from a distance and i didn't know what to do. i got down from the motorbike, walked towards the gate and pretended to get bitten by mosquitoes on the legs. i was so nervous.

then, i saw ko shwe making a signal for me. he told me to get out as quickly as possible. so, i quickly went through the gate and walked for 100metres. i was feeling so worried about him. 10 mins later, he emerged.

"what happened!? i asked.

"bah, nothing. they wanted to fine me because i didn't fasten my helmet properly!" he said.

"oh! phew, i thought i had been discovered!" i said.

"i thought so, too. i thought someone had spilled on me because he wanted a share of the profit. well, they wanted to fine me 2,000Kyats just because i didn't fasten my helmet properly, could you believe that! anyway, i argued with them. i told them i had a general friend in the army and would complain to him. so, they let me go," he said.

"ko shwe, you made me so worried! really! i saw the soldier coming towards me and i thought both of us are dead meat!" i said.

"i know. that's why i told you to quickly get out. you see nila... this is what the burmese feels everyday. we look cool on the outside but we are fearful all the time. inside, we worry and feel angry," he said.

anyway, we climbed mandalay hill and talked somemore - about his stint overseas, about his past love who's a malaysian. a muslim lady had fallen in love with him and asked if he would convert from buddhism to islam. he had liked her quite a bit, but to convert his religion was something difficult to do. afterall, theravada buddhists in burma are very religious and pious. the burmese life revolves around the Buddhist faith since the day he was born. obliging as they are, most Buddhist burmese will not compromise in matters concerning religion. why, even during the colonial period, the western lords, like it or not, have to go barefoot in temples. so for many, conversion is perhaps a very tall order.

"no nila, i wouldn't convert for anything. so, i went back home to marry my girlfriend," said ko shwe.

by that time, he shared so much with me he treated me like a friend. he didn't want to charge me anything.

"ko shwe, how much should i pay you?" i asked.

"no need nila. you're now my friend. i charge other foreigners but no i'm not charging you. we're friends now. i want to take you home to see my wife and baby," he said.

we didn't have time for that, unfortunately. but i gave him some money.

at the end of the day, ko shwe passed to me a sweet handwritten note: "nila dear, i will never forget today. keep intouch. far from the eyes, but you're close to my heart."

wonderful, wonderful ko shwe.

i realise many burmese do not make public their emotions. ko shwe, for example, rode to a quiet spot before passing me the note. then he rode to the guesthouse and he showed no emotion. same like Han, the inle trek guide. when he was alone with me, he was emotional, affectionate and expressive. but in front of other people, the relationship was business-like. and they usually felt embarrassed when you gave them presents. most westerners might think it's rude that burmese simply hide your presents in their fists, without opening them. but really, it shows how non-calculating they are. they would only open the presents when you're not around and they appreciate them a lot.






moustache brothers
The Moustache Brothers enjoy a certain amount of notoriety in the West due to the continuing political nature of their humour. The Moustache Brothers perform an interesting blend of music, drama, improvisation, and social commentary/satire known as pwe. Two members of the troupe - Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, Lu Maw's older brother and cousin, respectively - were arrested in 1996 after performing at an NLD gathering and telling jokes about the government and sentenced to seven years in prison, including two months of hard labour in iron shackles.

it was interesting to meet them in the flesh at their home. the trio, their wives and siblings, performed nightly at their home. the blacklisted group is disallowed to perform outside. they earn their keep through tourist dollars. lumaw, the host, was witty and very open talking about the "scandal". we have been told that government people in plainclothes do hang out outside their house whenever performance is ongoing to spy on them or the audience. after the show, i was approached by a stranger, who asked if i needed transport back. he didn't look like a trishaw rider and he sounded a little nervous. suspecting he's a spy, i told him i already had transport. ko shwe also swiftly came over and told the guy that he's sending me back. we quickly left the place.

i was wondering why the spy - if he really was one - would go for me. then i realise, i was the only person in the 10-strong audience who kept snapping photos non-stop. and i asked to buy their tee. also, after the performance, i went up to the trio and whispered to them about my desire to speak in length with them. they said i should come to their house again the next day during daytime. but i had already bought ticket to bagan. that was a pity, really. they said there's no way to telephone or email them, as the government is tracking their moves and tapping their conversations.

(left to right) luzaw, lumaw, and par par lay





personal thoughts & impressionsif i had another day, i would stay in mandalay. there were a few unsettled business - to talk with the moustache brothers and to meet ko shwe's family.

mandalay itself is a messy city and the air's filled with dust. mandalay made me fall sick. but there's a lot of "controversy", "excitement" and "adventure" to be had here - in the form of people and conversations. i had an adventurous time in mandalay.

Posted by jalanjalan 20:05 Archived in Myanmar

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