Once regal, now rotting, soon receding
Don’t go to Yangon, the biggest city in Myanmar (formerly Burma) if you’re repulsed by spitters, allergic to birds or find right-hand drive cars using the right lane too alarming. Do go if you want to experience a living museum of decaying colonial majesty and streetscapes of never-ending interest. Be quick – all could disappear. Duncan Graham explains:
When the military junta of Than Shwe controlled Myanmar, Reggie Bennett (pictured below) led prayers for the wellbeing of the general’s nemesis, Nobel Peace Prize winner and long-term political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi.
Spies among the congregation at Yangon’s soaring Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity reported the Vicar’s actions and he was visited by men in dark glasses.
“They asked why I spoke about someone who was under house arrest,” he said. “I told them that I also prayed for the generals, and for that I was thanked. Fortunately things have changed. I’m no longer asked to explain.”
Maybe the Dean’s pleas to the Deity had an impact, for the guards walked away from Suu Kyi’s gate in 2010 and a year later the 49-year military dictatorship ended, though the army still retains significant power and influence; State TV looks like TVRI under Soeharto with stone-faced reporting of bamboo broom quotas rather than the allegations of human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority telecast elsewhere.
Suu Kyi can’t stand for president in the 2015 election because her late husband Michael Aris was a foreigner. But her release marked the start of the nation’s transition to some semblance of normality – including tourism.
Visiting Myanmar should be on every journalist’s bucket list as the inspiration for the early work of wordsmith Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) one of the greatest craftsmen of English in the 20th Century.
His novel Burmese Days, based on five years as a police officer in the then British colony, is not so well known as Animal Farm and 1984, the dystopian visions of society that seemed to become reality after the 1962 coup that turned an Asian tiger economy into a skunk state.
Pro-democracy demonstrations were cruelly crushed and the generals retreated into a weird world governed by the sinister State Law and Order Restoration Council. This set about reshaping society and language to form a ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’. Like Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, SLORC warped words to make lies palatable.
In a purge of Western influences, allegedly determined by astrology and numerology, Burma became Myanmar and Rangoon turned to Yangon. A new capital Naypyidaw was built more than 300 kilometers from Yangon. Driving on the left, as in Indonesia, was changed to the right.
Sadly the seers failed to notice that Myanmar gets most vehicles second-hand from Japan, a country that also drives on the left, so cars have steering wheels on the right. The resulting confusion gives passengers a mind-bending experience.
Another is using a zebra crossing. Once the imports arrive they are fitted with a special Pedestrian Pursuit gear. Anyone who believes Buddhists are non-aggressive hasn’t tried to cross a Yangon street.
As in Indonesia the police find good reasons for stopping law-abiding motorists, particularly outside the city where the roads are wide and well-surfaced, but overall there’s a welcoming absence of uniforms. In their place are the scavenging house crows, hastening dusk as they go to roost in black clouds.
Myanmar is mainly Buddhist, so there’s a reluctance to kill wildlife even when nature threatens humans. Yangon has about five million residents, a tenth of the Republic’s population, and probably double that number of flying vermin.
Umbrellas are needed for more than sun and rain protection. Breakfasters at come-and-go sidewalk ‘tea houses’ get their condiments delivered from above. The only logical reason people spit regularly in public is because they glanced skywards with an open mouth.
On the plus side most heavy vehicles are gas powered, so trucks and busses belching black smoke are rare. But the most refreshing regulation bans motorbikes from the city. Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama could seek the Yangon authorities’ advice on how to exterminate the two-wheeled pests, and he could tell them how to purge the pigeons. Answer: Give kampong kids slingshots.
Guano may be a great fertiliser but it corrodes and stains, leaving the ancient buildings of Yangon’s Chinatown with a patina of grey to match the sky. Decades of neglect have done the rest, and it’s these once grand blocks of shuttered rooms leading onto tiny balconies that are now close to collapse.
Not because they are overcrowded or foundations insecure, but because international developers heading armies of architects are invading with plans for apartments, hotels and golf courses.
There’s some hope; A Yangon Heritage Trust formed in 2012 runs 2.5 hour walking tours for US$30 [Rp 370.000]. It’s also assembled a list of buildings worth preserving, though no laws underpin the idea. Myanmar is perceived as even more corrupt than Indonesia so slowing ‘progress’ will be a tough task.
Unless the government accepts that discerning tourists want more than a five-star hotel pool Yangon could become metropolis anywhere, bland as an airport restroom; a once gracious city of elegance will have all the faux charisma of a shopping mall.
Glance down some streets in Yangon and you could be in Jakarta facing an avenue of plate glass. Posters of European lovelies draped in branded luxuries above the facades of gold shops could be Jalan Thamrin. Make a half turn and there’s the imposing fortress of the Maha Bandoola Road Mosque with headscarfed women trading in its shade. Yangon has 12 mosques, Sunni and Shiite.
A further 90 degree twist and behold - the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue run by trustee Moses Samuels to serve just eight families, descendants of traders from Iraq who arrived with the British.
Nearby is the Shri Kali Hindu Temple, built by Tamils brought from India as laborers by the British. Churches [the most knock-out impressive is the Catholic Cathedral of St Mary](right), temples and the synagogue welcome strangers, whatever their faith.
And everywhere else – gold-painted Buddhist places of worship, with the city dominated by the Shewdagon Pagoda’s 99-meter high stupa. Unfortunately the fleece-the-foreigner policy is taking hold, as with some ‘tourism objects’ in Indonesia.
Visitors keen to know more about the teachings of the Enlightened One, admire the sometimes kitsch, often inspiring and altogether overwhelming architecture, or pray have to pay.
White skins attract US$8 [Rp 100,000] entrance fees, as do cameras $US5 [Rp 65,000]. For that money a tourist can hire a cab, cruise the city and have a nourishing meal at a pigeon-proof restaurant with air conditioning – though the power could fail at any moment.
The US dollar is widely accepted and buys about 1,000 kyats. English is rare among the young after years of educational neglect. At one stage all universities were closed for two years.
Like Bali, Yangon is being corrupted by tourist development. The locals seem indifferent, cautiously friendly, wondering if the changes are real. Waking from a half century nightmare of totalitarian rule takes some adjustment. Myanmar still needs the Reverend Bennett’s prayers.
Direct flights from Singapore take under three hours.
Public transport is hard to comprehend for outsiders. Taxis don’t have meters. Fees are generally cheaper than Indonesia, though gas prices are almost the same.
Hotel costs are far higher than other Southeast Asian nations apart from Singapore.
The wet season is the reverse of Indonesia’s, so it’s now dry till May.
(First published in J Plus 28 December 2014)