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Myanmar on My Mind

I’m no fan of Monday mornings, and the disheartening news from Myanmar made for an unhappy start to the week; it felt almost like a punch to the gut. Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government had been overthrown by the Tatmadaw (the armed forces) just one day before its members of parliament would have been sworn in. It seems that Myanmar’s feudal generals have succeeded where Trump and his die-hard Republican supporters could not; they have constantly peddled unfounded allegations of widespread fraud since the deeply unpopular Union Solidarity and Development Party, which the military itself controls, was humiliated at the polls in November. The Tatmadaw claims it will allow “free and fair elections” after their year-long state of emergency is lifted, but hardly anyone believes the power-hungry generals will make good on that promise.

Here in Indonesia – the world’s third-largest democracy (after India and the U.S.) – there’s a great deal of sympathy for the everyday Burmese who have had their future suddenly ripped out from under their feet. It was only in 1998 that an economic meltdown and large-scale student protests triggered the fall of Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for more than three decades under a U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Suharto did not tolerate dissent; activists and dissidents were disappeared, outspoken journalists detained without trial, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s greatest modern author, was exiled to a prison camp on the remote island of Buru. His brilliant novels were banned by the government even though they did not openly criticize Suharto or his cronies. More than 20 years later, the legacy of that time still lives on through a series of major problems – including widespread corruption, a general lack of critical thought (the public education system has long emphasized the authority of teachers), and the close alignment between security forces and powerful business interests.

Since last Monday, I’ve been thinking a lot about Myanmar and my own experience of the country back in 2015, when Bama and I spent 17 unforgettable days there as part of our six-month Spice Odyssey. Like many other first-timers, we chose the classic route starting out in Yangon, the former capital and largest city, whose downtown area is filled with proud British colonial buildings in various states of disrepair. From there, a series of domestic flights took us to Inle Lake, Bagan, and Mandalay. Bama and I left barely a week before the general election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) pull off a landslide victory in Myanmar’s first free election in decades. I recall the excited chatter of talk shows broadcast on local TV channels and a sense of optimism that permeated the air, redolent with the possibility that the Tatmadaw was finally loosening its iron grip on the country. In Mandalay, our final stop, we had dinner at a beer garden called Shwe Let Yar, where the staff members all wore identical T-shirts with the NLD logo and each table had bright red stickers encouraging people to vote for the long-standing opposition.

Late afternoon traffic and British colonial buildings on Strand Road, Yangon

Pedestrians with umbrellas outside Yangon City Hall

The balconies of a colonial-era apartment block built in 1923, near Yangon’s Sule Pagoda

Decay on the clock tower of the former High Court Building, a landmark completed in 1911

Diners at a Yangon food stall run by a thanakha-wearing vendor.

The entrance of Sule Pagoda; phaluda at Shake café in Chinatown

Campaign vehicles of the military-backed USDP; inside Yangon’s Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue

Pilgrims below the gilded 112-meter stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda

A few years before the trip, my father took our family to dinner with Mary, the relative of a friend and retired work colleague – a Myanmar-born Englishman with a dash of Burmese ancestry – he’d known for decades. Mary had been given a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in Hong Kong; her eloquence and quiet confidence instantly made an impression. Over plates of regional Chinese fare, she told us she was most impressed with the university’s high-tech learning resources and the fact that, unlike her hometown of Yangon, the power supply was always reliable.

I don’t recall much else of the conversation, but one anecdote that has remained etched into my memory concerns Cyclone Nargis – a devastating Category 4 storm that hit Myanmar in 2008 – and the old Parliament Building left by the British, which had been abandoned since the Tatmadaw moved the capital to the newly built city of Naypidaw near the country’s geographic heart. Nargis, Mary recalled, blew down the large trees that had obscured the stately red-brick structure from view, allowing ordinary residents of Yangon to see it for the first time in decades. “Maybe it was a sign,” she said hopefully. We did not need any further elaboration to know exactly what Mary meant.

My father himself had traveled to Myanmar on a business trip in the early 2000s, and after returning he showed me personal albums of his photos shot on film. I marveled at these images that captured perfect sunsets over Inle Lake and the plain of Bagan, the glass mosaic–clad hallways of a temple atop Mandalay Hill, and the enormous shimmering stupa of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda. The dominant colors of each place seemed to be gold and an earthy reddish-brown, warm and radiant beneath untainted blue skies. “Myanmar is even more beautiful than its neighbors,” my father declared. “It has this quality of light you don’t really find in Thailand.”

Water and sky meet at Inle Lake, Shan State’s best-known tourist destination

Pickled tea leaf salad (laphet thoke) at an overwater restaurant on Inle Lake

A candy vendor in the markets of Nyaung Shwe, the gateway to Inle Lake

Fish and mutton curry with dried fish and a platter of fresh vegetables, Nyaung Shwe

Boat pilots waiting for their passengers by a handicrafts market on Inle Lake

Sculptures from the 12th-13th century at Shwe Indein Pagoda, Inle Lake

These two Pa’O women at Shwe Indein asked to have their picture taken

Deep-fried sweet treats piled high at the market in Nyaung Shwe

The sun beginning to set over Inle Lake

So, when Bama and I began planning our Spice Odyssey from Indonesia to India, it made sense to spend at least two weeks in Myanmar. Bama had only managed to visit Yangon for a few short days in 2012; he reported that the city then felt like a time capsule. But the Yangon we experienced was awash with signs of newfound prosperity and foreign investment. We spotted a branch of a Singaporean café chain inside a brand-new mall in the downtown area. Coca-Cola had only arrived in Myanmar earlier that year; on TV it was being marketed as a gift for close family. Down on Strand Road, a wide avenue near the Yangon River, a grand old colonnaded courthouse was being transformed into a luxury hotel. The influx of imported cars from Japan, Korea, and Europe fueled rush-hour traffic jams that were noticeably absent during Bama’s previous sojourn.

On our third day in town, while taking pictures from a pedestrian footbridge in the Indian Quarter, we met 27-year-old Thaku, who had spotted our cameras and wanted to practice his English. In a way, he was the face of the young, modern Myanmar: instead of a traditional longyi, the Burmese sarong, our new friend wore tight-fitting jeans (this made sense because he sold denim trousers); the back of Thaku’s black punk T-shirt was almost entirely taken up by a large skull. His hair had been spiked up with gel and an earring dangled from his pierced left earlobe. All this was juxtaposed with the quintessentially Burmese thanakha – a paste made from pounded tree bark – rubbed on his face and arms. “I put on thanakha because sun very strong,” Thaku explained. “If you wear long time, skin become more white.”

When he realized we were looking for a refreshing sweet drink called phaluda, Thaku offered to take us to a recommended place in neighboring Chinatown. He was easily the fastest walker I’d seen in Yangon, and we followed closely behind as he zipped down pavements thronged with vendors selling stacks of fresh fruit, home accessories, noodles, fried snacks and vats of pork offal hotpot.

Eventually Thaku brought us into the air-conditioned interior of Shake, a simple café of whitewashed walls and square tables topped with laminated timber. Burmese phaluda is closely related to Indian falooda but far less cloying; I loved the more balanced blend of rose syrup and milk, with strands and little beads of agar-agar jelly in vibrant colors. The version served at Shake featured luscious egg custard, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and Taiwanese tapioca pearls (a.k.a. boba). We bought Thaku a large phaluda to repay his kindness, and he in turn thanked us for the drink before disappearing back into the crowds.

Today, I wonder how Thaku and Mary are doing. I wonder how their lives have played out in the last few years, and if they are among the thousands who have joined peaceful street protests in Yangon or the chorus of residents banging their pots and pans every night in a show of collective anger. Myanmar’s myopic, egotistical generals have rolled back five years of democratic progress, however flawed it may have been, and I can only hope that the people will triumph against this latest act of repression.

Inside Bagan’s Thambula temple; the ruined stupas of Shwe Indein by Inle Lake

Teak carvings at Shwenandaw Monastery, Mandalay; novice monks studying outside Nyaung Shwe

An archway at Bagan’s Shwezigon Pagoda; Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest in Bagan

Dhammayangyi as seen from a terrace at Shwesandaw Pagoda

A devotee kneels before a Buddha image inside Dhammayangyi Temple

The fabulous avocado thoke (salad) at New Bagan’s Black Rose 2 Restaurant

Another look at the great gilded stupa of Shwezigon, which dates to the late 11th century

The gleaming Irrawaddy River and several ancient temples as seen from Shwesandaw Pagoda

Molimiya, a popular street food snack, being sold in Mandalay

46 Comments Post a comment
  1. It seems to me to be one of those places almost too beautiful to exist, James. Sad that strife has come again.

    February 7, 2021
    • Indeed, Sue – I haven’t met anyone who has been to Myanmar and hasn’t come back raving about it. This current situation feels all too familiar… we can only hope for justice to prevail.

      February 7, 2021
  2. It feels particularly painful when bad news comes out of a place we’ve been to and have a lot of fond memories of. Just like when I learned about the blast in Beirut and immediately thought of the people we met and the places we explored in the city, when I read about the military coup in Myanmar I was instantly reminded of the good things we encountered in this country and how much of that is in peril due to the recent circumstances. Myanmar, which was long isolated from the rest of world, has been brimming with optimism as it’s gradually reintegrating itself to the global community. I hope democracy will eventually prevail so the progress the country has made in the past decade won’t end up as a shattered dream.

    February 7, 2021
    • Me too, Bama. Liberal democracy seems to be on the decline here in Southeast Asia and around the world; I would hate for other countries to look at authoritarian regimes like those of China and make the assumption that those political systems are better.

      February 7, 2021
  3. Beautiful post James, almost an ode to a land and people that deserve better. Democracy seems under attack everywhere. It is certainly teetering on the edge here in India.

    But how does one make democracy work alongside intense bigotry? How can we expect to get away with wanting freedom for us and discrimination for the other? They – we – will never be truly free, will never deserve the freedom we seek until we seek it for all. I’m finding it increasingly hard to hope in a divided world.

    February 7, 2021
    • Thank you for the wise and thoughtful words, Madhu. They ring true for the situation in every democratic-leaning country, whether it is the U.S., India, Myanmar, or Indonesia. We have our share of bigots here as well, though we take some comfort in the fact that no single political party can truly dominate the legislature. I must admit that I haven’t been following the news out of India too closely these days, but it is rather perplexing to see the BJP (and their staunch supporters) up in arms over tweets by the likes of Rihanna and Greta Thunberg!

      February 7, 2021
      • I can’t quite decide whether to laugh or cry at their shenanigans James. Opting for the former just to be able to stay sane. How any right thinking person can support them is beyond me. Sadly too many from my own community do, just as many from the same community in the US believed in Trump! The reason for my occasional rants on Facebook 🙂

        February 11, 2021
  4. I have little to add but wanted to comment just so you would know the post was read and my “like” was not just a reflex action.
    I worked in the George H. W. Bush administration in the U.S. It was such a hopeful time with the fall of the U.S.S.R and new democracies springing up everywhere. But I think you and your commentators have struck the right key. Democracy cannot last without protection for minority views, otherwise the rule of the majority becomes the rule of the mob and the demagogues who lead them. Trump is the horrible example of this, but those in the Democratic party have steadily whittled away at those protections for minority views over the last three decades as well while all the time proclaiming they were looking out for minorities; the key lies in the fact that their focus was only on ethnic and racial minorities, not political minorities. But I am old enough to remember other bad times as well and hope that this too shall pass.

    February 7, 2021
    • Thank you for adding your thoughts and views to the discussion. I agree that it is important to respect and accommodate dissenting voices, and I think democracy in its most ideal form should be built on compromise and consensus. The political polarization we’ve seen around the world in the past decade or so has made it so difficult for different sides to engage with each other in a positive way. The two-party system of the U.S. does not help things either. I have a dear friend in Missouri who has time and again expressed her dissatisfaction with the way things are – she has always voted independent and believes there should be more diversity in politics to accurately reflect the range of views and values on the ground.

      February 7, 2021
      • Only after I posted did I realize how political it was: I meant we should all try to be tolerant of others. One should not personally tolerate hateful speech, but one should tolerate it as long as it is a truthful expression of opinion. Back to politics: one voice, no mater how many parties there are, should not try to oppress opposing voices. That is the route to dictatorship whether it be communist, socialist, fascist, or just that of an oligarchy.

        February 8, 2021
  5. This place has too many hidden jewels and sad to think that because of unrest and chaos it bears a burdensome charm. I understand the pain behind your words . Thank you for showing us the beauty of the streets and landscape of Myanmar behind the dark clouds.
    Love that sunset photo!

    February 7, 2021
    • Thanks! I really do hope for a peaceful end to this brazen coup – the people of Myanmar have endured far too much hardship and suffering in the past century.

      February 7, 2021
  6. I have fond memories of Myanmar and it’s people from my own personal and business trips there. I could sense their new sense of hope for a better future under a democratically elected government which they support wholeheartedly. I hope international pressure would force the military to back down.

    February 7, 2021
    • I feel the same way, Edwin. But it will be difficult to pressure the military especially through the UN Security Council, since Russia and China may use their veto power to vote down any legally binding resolutions on Myanmar.

      February 7, 2021
  7. We’ve been thinking a lot of the people of Myanmar this past week too. I agree with your dad, they are some of the kindest people we’ve met even though they have nothing. Maggie

    February 8, 2021
    • Absolutely, Maggie. I was also going to mention the kindness we encountered in Bagan when our e-scooter ran out of batteries, stranding us on the side of a dusty road miles from the nearest hotel. A man in a passing truck stopped to help us and quickly realized what was wrong, so he called the rental garage to send a fully charged two-wheeler. We were so grateful that he spotted us and decided to help.

      February 8, 2021
  8. A wonderful, reflective post with beautiful pictures. We were there that year for two weeks and followed a similar route just after the election. What a wonderful, optimistic time it was. Everyone seemed excited and happy. It’s sad to say but I don’t find much to be optimistic about these days.

    February 8, 2021
    • Much appreciated, Steven – and thank you for sharing your own happy experience of the country. I can just imagine the incredible joy the people of Myanmar felt at the time. It will take at least a couple more months before the global health situation improves… and that’s assuming all the vaccination programs go to plan!

      February 8, 2021
  9. This made me so sad for Myanmar 😦
    We had 3 weeks there in 2012 so would have seen in Yangon much the same as Bama saw on his earlier visit. Even then people talked to us that one day they would have their own elections. They were so proud of it. We loved Myanmar. For me it’s one of the highlights of all our travels. And now this. Toxic men and their need for power 😦
    But! Your photos are wonderful as usual and took me right back in a good way!

    February 8, 2021
    • Thank you, Alison! I do remember going through the posts from your own trip and dreaming of the time I’d finally go. I’ve been planning to share more photos from Myanmar at some point – it’s a shame it took such bad news to make it happen.

      Wouldn’t the world be a better place if there were more women in leadership? I suppose it is no coincidence that many of the countries that have mounted the best responses to Covid-19 have women at the helm. Just off the top of my head, I can think of New Zealand, Taiwan, Iceland, Germany and Denmark… I’m sure there are more out there I’ve missed.

      February 8, 2021
      • I saw a brief clip on FB a few days back showing all the female national leaders. The list stunned me. So many countries now are led by women: Nepal, Bangladesh, Norway, Scotland, Namibia, Estonia, Serbia, Singapore, Iceland, Ethiopia, Georgia, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Iceland, Slovakia, Moldova, Greece, Lithuania, Gabon, and the ones you mentioned. I was totally blown away. And it made me so hopeful.

        February 9, 2021
  10. When I heard about the news what’s happening in Myanmar , my heart sank, although I haven’t been in Myanmar yet, it’s been on my wish list to travel to for so many years and I have read so many books about Myanmar, that it kind of feels like my spiritual soul has a longing to go there and also that I might have been there in m past life, that’s how strong my heart goes out to what’s happening there right now.

    February 8, 2021
    • I completely understand, Cornelia. Sometimes we develop an affection for a place or country long before we actually go there. Fingers crossed you’ll have the opportunity to finally visit Myanmar after the pandemic is over and the military relinquishes its rule.

      February 8, 2021
  11. It is indeed a sad day for Myanmar, James. I also wonder what is happening to the lovely people I met during my visit. It is one of those countries one can never forget, not just for its wonderful food and beautiful buildings, but the incredible resilience of its people.

    February 8, 2021
    • I wholeheartedly agree, Jolandi. The Burmese have been through so much hardship and suffering in the past 60 years, and yet they never fail to be kind and so hospitable to strangers – to foreign travelers like us. It angers me that the generals never seem to learn their lesson. Time and again they have ignored the will of the people and stalled the country’s economic progress just to hold on to their power.

      February 9, 2021
      • Exactly, James, and as a consequence it is the people without that power that suffers.

        February 11, 2021
  12. Wonderful post, and your experience was similar to mine, keeping in mind that I visited a year after you. Not everyone spoke English, but a few spared the time to chat with me. I especially remember the discussions about the politics of the time just before and after the first election, the sense of precariousness. It was easy enough to see the enormous influence that Tatmadaw still had. With the internal ethnic disparities very clear to visitors, I had the feeling that democracy would have to work really hard. Sometimes a democratic republic can last for a century even with such divisions, but in Myanmar they deepened. Still, it was hard to see a coup coming. Terrible.

    February 9, 2021
    • Thank you for sharing your own experiences, I.J., and for mentioning the ethnic disparities as well. I suspect a lot of leisure travelers would not have picked up on that while in Myanmar – the only ethnic conflict that has consistently made international headlines seems to be that in Rakhine state. Your words make me think of Indonesia’s own democratic transition back in 1998. Bama tells me there was chaos and the central government didn’t really have a handle on what was going on in the provinces, so there was a fear that the country would go the way of Yugoslavia. And yet it somehow all held together despite the many differences between ethnic and sectarian groups.

      February 9, 2021
  13. Same like Bama, I only spent a couple of days in Yangon when I went to Myanmar for the first time in 2017. I met a fellow Couchsurfing member and his friends, wearing tight-fitting jeans just like any regular teenagers here in Indonesia.
    Few years before, when I took part at the Asia-Africa Carnival in Bandung, I saw a male delegates from Myanmar, a handsome faired-skin guy with a late-arrival smartphone. A scene I’ve never expected from a Burmese guy.

    So, may the democracy finds its own way back and we can still see how Myanmar peacefully welcome the world whilst keeping their culture.

    February 9, 2021
    • That’s interesting, Nugie. In 2015 I spotted a couple people in jeans here and there while walking around Yangon, but the longyi was still far more dominant. I’ve read an article by a British journalist who suggests that Indonesia is an obvious choice to lead a UN-backed deal to restore civilian rule in Myanmar, because of its status in ASEAN and its thriving democratic system.

      February 9, 2021
      • Ah yes, those guys I met in Yangon are also Christians 😂 Unfortunately foreigners are not allowed to stay at a local.

        Yes, Indonesia as one of the biggest democracy country (despite its decreasing democracy index, reported by a related organization) would be the right helper for Myanmar.

        February 9, 2021
  14. We need more posts like this and more bloggers talking about the coup on wordpress. Facebook and Twitter are now only accessible here via a VPN, but WordPress is still unblocked. Thanks James, if any of your followers are reading this post, it would be great if you could post a little something on your own sites in solidarity and perhaps reach out to Myanmar bloggers – it’s not a huge community, but they are there.

    February 9, 2021
    • It’s wonderful to hear from someone inside Myanmar, Lucas. Thank you for commenting and sharing your suggestions for everyone here, and do stay safe!

      February 9, 2021
  15. An Asian country I have yet to visit, and under its current rule, will probably avoid the opportunity.

    February 10, 2021
    • I do hope the combination of growing nationwide protests and consistent international pressure will have their desired effect… the military have already done so much damage to Myanmar over the past half-century.

      February 10, 2021
  16. Ahhh, another country I missed my shot at pre-pandemic, and now … who knows if/when I might get there. I’ve always found photos of Myanmar to exhibit that amazing light your father mentioned, and your interweaving of his trip, your visit with Bama, and your previous contacts make for a compelling post! Like many, I was saddened to read of recent developments; although the just-ousted government had not lived up to my expectations, it was still on the right track, and this new regime moves it that much farther off. Very discouraging.

    February 10, 2021
    • Thank you for the kind words, Lex – this post was unusual for me in that it materialized very, very quickly… over the course of a day and a half, to be exact! You must know how it is when a whole flood of thoughts and words just seem to pour onto the page. I attribute it to a mixture of outrage and nostalgia and hope. Something tells me you will eventually get to Myanmar. Beyond the classic circuit, I hear there is some amazing trekking to be had in the far north where the mountains rise to meet the Eastern Himalayas.

      February 10, 2021
  17. I too am saddened by what’s happening in Myanmar. While such news is always troubling to read, for me it hits even harder when it’s places that I’ve visited and I think about how it impacts the people I’ve met along the way—like your ponderings about Thaku. It’s bittersweet, isn’t it? You have those wonderful memories from your 2015 and are filled with optimism (well, cautious optimism) about the future of the country, and then you see it all go to hell. This makes me think back to my trip to Egypt immediately following the 2011 Revolution where I witnessed the elevation of people, only to turn to despair shortly thereafter. I’ve only ever read glowing reviews of travels to Myanmar. I’m glad you got to visit.

    February 10, 2021
    • I briefly saw your post on Egypt, but haven’t yet gone through it properly! I share those exact same sentiments… the fact that these events happen in places we know (and often love) from our travels makes it all the more tangible and confronting. Bama mentioned in his comment about the Beirut explosion, and how hard it was to stomach the terrible news then. It was heartbreaking to know that historic buildings lining the streets we’d walked just a year earlier had turned to rubble, and that the disaster had wrecked a fabulous art museum where we spent a rainy afternoon. And there was no way of knowing if all the wonderful, hospitable people we encountered in Beirut were safe.

      February 10, 2021
      • I can totally relate to Bama’s and your comments about your feelings when you learned about the Beirut explosion. Mike and I were in Sri Lanka just a few weeks before the terrorist bombings there in April 2019.

        February 12, 2021
  18. Although we have not visited Myanmar, we too were saddened to hear of the events. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and giving voice to what is happening along with the beauty of the country and its people.

    February 13, 2021
    • Thanks in turn for reading and commenting, Sue. It has been inspiring to see hundreds of thousands of Burmese people from all walks of life standing up to the military regime in a peaceful civil disobedience movement. I hope the international community punishes and takes concrete action against those power-hungry generals behind the coup.

      February 13, 2021
  19. It is unsettling to hear what’s going on over there in Myanmar. I read your post with interest and it was lovely to hear your dad visited Myanmar too many years ago. It sounded like the people he knew there were lovely, ambitous and hardworking. You and Bama seemed to have made a good choice to stop over in 2012. Interesting to hear Coca-cola was introduced to the country not too long ago – a point when it was opening up to the rest of the world. I hope you and Bama got to exchange a nice conversation with Thaku. He sounded nice, genuine and down-to-earth. So lovely of the two of you to have treated Thau to a drink. Hopefully he and Mary are doing well. Stunning photography all round and wonderful showcase of the country.

    February 16, 2021
    • Much appreciated, Mabel – Myanmar is achingly beautiful and I completely understood what my father meant about the unique quality of light there. We went at a very special time too; Bama could barely believe the pace of change within three short years of his first visit in 2012.

      February 27, 2021

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