On my last day in Myanmar, I decided to look up an art gallery I had read about in Smithsonian. The article outlined a series of artists who made art that skirted government censorship; artists who made paintings of women trapped in spiderwebs and lied about the meaning to officials. So, curious to see what kind of subversive art I could find, I headed over to New Zero Art Gallery.
Climbing up a set of stairs which seems to be leading to an apartment, I tentatively knock on a black door. No one answered for a second and I thought for a moment that I had the wrong place, but then the door opened up a crack and an old man looked out at me.
Unable to think of a way to ask where I was in Burmese, I blurted, “Hi. I’m looking for the New Zero Art Gallery and I think I have the right address, but I’m not sure where it is exactly. I read about it in a magazine. Smithsonian. Can you direct me to the right place?”
He opened up the door wider and let me in. The gallery was about the size of a one bedroom apartment and was completely dark except for the projection on one of the walls of a woman writhing around a tree. As soon as the door closed, the guy running the projector looked up at me and the 12 or so young adults in the audience turned around. Then he continued.
Explaining the significance of the video in English, he moved on to another few short pieces. I forgot the contents of those videos (I was busy trying to find a chair and not trip over anything), but right after he called for a break. Turns out I had stumbled upon a performance art workshop.
The next 2 hours were spent with 12 young artists: making strange movements in front of a camera, talking on end about ourselves to an absolutely silent audience, discussing Abramovic’s work at MoMA. It was amazing. To see these artists express themselves in what they perceived to be a safer environment, to see them cry, scream, joke, write, contort their bodies and just let it all out, was just an incredible view into a country known for its propagandist newspapers and adults who refuse to talk politics.
When it was my turn, I shook a bit as I nervously talked in English about my home and my job. I talked about my favorite museums and about the boundaries I felt I was staying within in my own life choices. Then I unrolled some toilet paper I was carrying on the floor, took off my shoes and socks, and stomped on stale crackers from my bag. I’m not sure how much of it they understood. I’m not sure if they understood any more than I understood of their Burmese stories. But, as Dadanube shyly told me she liked my cracker stomping over lunch and asked to be my facebook friend, I felt I had made an unlikely connection. I hope these 12 never stop creating and expressing themselves.
I had to wait until I got out of Myanmar to post this without getting prematurely deported or thrown in jail. I got a small rush writing this while still in the country, but I didn’t want to take my chances before leaving Myanmar for good (as if posting this in China or North Korea is any better).
It’s funny that among the locals, the name “Aung San Suu Kyi” in Myanmar has the same effect as saying the name “Voldemort.” Like “He Who Must Not Be Named/You Know Who,” the Burmese refer to her instead as “The Lady.” But unlike the Dark Lord, Aung San Suu Kyi represents the other side of the fear spectrum.
For those of you who don’t know, “The Lady” is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a revered figurehead in Myanmar whose father was a national hero for securing Myanmar’s independence. Representing the opposition party to the military junta, she won the national elections to lead Myanmar but was summarily arrested by the military who feared her influence (i.e. threat) on their reign. She was placed under house arrest 3 times for 14 years (out of the last 20) before some random U.S. tourist named John Yettaw swam in a lake to spend a night at her house, which compelled the government to add even more years to her sentence (there are some theories among locals that John Yettaw was paid by the government to keep her under house arrest for longer). She was eventually released in February 2011 and has since been laying low, traveling around the country with her son.
The celebrated father of Aung San Suu Kyi, General Suu Kyi
The is the closest I could get to the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, where she spent 14 years under house arrest. The road to her house is otherwise closed.
Before you even finish saying the words “Aung San Suu..” the people around you will immediately put a finger to their lips and dart their eyes back and forth. “There are spies everywhere” they say, “you can be deported or have your visa revoked for mentioning her. And we can be thrown in jail for 20 years simply by talking about her in public.” So what then? “Refer to her as ‘The Lady,’ but please don’t talk to me about it. Okay?”
And instead of talking about what state-controlled media is like, how about I simply post all the headlines that was found in a single “New Light of Myanmar” newspaper? They hand it out everywhere; especially on domestic flights that mostly foreigners use. I think there might be a pretty obvious trend; just take a look and compare the articles about Myanmar vs. the articles about countries outside Myanmar:
World Breast Feeding Week and Nutrition Promotion Month commence
World Breast Feeding Week and Nutrition Promotion commemorative ceremony held (yes these are 2 separate articles in the same newspaper)
Matters for improving tourism industry discussed
Myanmar, India eye closer cooperation in health sector
Union Minister meets guests from Republic of Korea
Union Minister meets permanent members of Myanmar Language Commission
Union Minister meets entrepreneurs in Mon State
Union Mines Minister receives guests
Union Agriculture & Iriigation Minister visits genetically modified paddy field of Yezin Agricultural University and Yezin Agricultural Research Department
Myanmar stands 4th in International Judo Open
Breeder groups formed for rural development and poverty alleviation
Hluttaw representives to report to Hluttaw Office, Nay Pyi Taw
Ambassador U Tin Oo concurrently appointed as Ambassador to Mongolia
International/non-Myanmar related articles:
Kurdish rebels kill 3 Turkish soldiers
4 dead in Pakistani suicide blast at hotel
2 killed, 8 wounded in South Philippines motorcycle bomb blast
2 African Union troops die during suicide bomb raid
Malaysia police hold 2 over “Facebook murder.”
Head-on bus collision kills at least 11 in Bangladesh
Indonesia landslide at Freeport gold mind kills 1
Death toll from 2 Philippine storms rises to 70
Investigation of Alaska midair collision continues
1 death, 76 illnesses linked to U.S. ground turkey
Missing U.S. girl’s body found in river near home
10 killed, 8 injured by lightning in eastern India
Suspect arrested in murder of 2 French women in Argentina
Dozens of African migrants found dead in Italy/Lampedusa-bound boat
Japan police raid cult behind 1995 terrorist subway attack
23 wounded in church attack in north Iraq
Minor accident in Indian nuclear plant
Situation between Lebanon, Israel remain calm after exchanging fire
New Zealand tourists injured in Vanuatu plane crash
Indian aviator regulator orders checking of Boieng-777 engines after near accident
United flight diverted to Cuba due to ‘unfamiliar’ odor in plane.
Singapore again refutes human trafficking report released by U.S.
Compared with Europeans, British are more likely to get cancer
Panama police make massive heroin seizure
Mexico, Colombia to step up anti-crime co-op
Britons released from detention in Afghanistan
U.S. to propose ammonium nitriate regulations from bomb-making
U.S. carjacker targeted detective
Small U.S. spending cuts to have little economic impact
Toyota posts big first quarter loss hurt by quake, yen
Barclays profits slide 38%, flags job cutes
Bank of Korea buy gold, as dollar & euro lose clout
China emissions scheme due for rough landing
Official data shows Australia’s housing market continues to weaken
Tropical Storm Emily eyes Puerto Rico, Hipaniola
Heavy flooding swamps Manila, government suspends work
Monsoon interifying over Andaman Sea, Bay of Bengal
Drought-hit bears head to town in Texas
Chavez opts for close-shaved head due to chemo
Indian woman marries cobra
10 tons of U.S. tomatoes used as ammo
U.S. Doctors warn of hot dogs via billboard
Shark trawls near “Sarko” on French Riviera
Kings of Leons cancel rest of U.S. tour dates
U.S. internet archivist seeks one of every book written
Google rolls out experimental Hotel Finder
And everyday, the following “reminders” are printed in big bold font on the front page (ahead of all the headlining articles):
4 political objectives:
Stability of the State, community peace and tranqulity, prevalence of law & order
Strengthening of national solidarity
Building and strengthening of discipline-flourishing democracy system
Building of a new modern developed nation in accord with the Constitutions
4 economic objectives:
Building of modern industrialized nation through the agricultural development, and all-round development of other sectors of the economy
Proper evolution of the market-oriented economic system
Development of the economy inviting participation in terms of technical know-how and investment from sources inside the country and abroad
The initiative to shape the national economy must be kept in the hands of the State and the national peoples
4 Social objectives:
Uplift of the morale and morality of the entire nation
Uplift of national prestige and integrity and preservation and safeguarding of cultural heritage and national character
Flourishing of Union spirit, the true patriotism
Uplift of health, fitness and education standards of the entire nation
It is very important for everyone of the nation regardless of the places he lives to have strong Union Spirit
Only Union Spirit in the true patriotism all nationalities will have to safeguard
Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views
Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
We favor stability
We favor development
Crush all internal and external destructive elements at the common enemy
Wipe out those inciting unrest and violence
Anarchy begs anarchy, not democracy
Riots begets riots, not democracy
Democracy can be introduced only through constitution
VOA, BBC-sowing hatred among the people
RFA, DVB-generating public outrage
Do not allow ourselves to be swayed by killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles
On the bright side, though, you can wear T-shirts printed with obscene language on Burmese TV, which otherwise wouldn’t pass under FCC regulations in the U.S.
I must also mention a chat with a local whom I met in Myanmar. He/she’s lived in the country all hs/her life. Whenever I mention anything about the government, however, he/she brings his/her finger to his/her lips and his/her eyes go dark. “We don’t know who is listening.” Most surprisingly, however, my friend would later admit that he/she him/herself ratted someone else to the government by sending recorded phone-taps (although he/she says it was because he/she wanted to expose someone of incest and child molestation). Everyone has their reasons, I suppose.
The general Burmese population, however, never seem oppressed on the outside; everywhere I look adults go about their business like any other country, children laugh and play with abandon. Had I not known the right questions to ask, I could’ve passed through Myanmar without suspecting if anything was amiss.
But when the topic goes from the harmless “where do you come from” to “tell me about your government,” or “tell me about ‘The Lady'”, facial expressions change like day to night. Eyes dart back and forth, and the once seemingly permanent smiles and perky heads conform to gravity. It’s the fear that someone might be listening; a passer-by or even a friend…you don’t know who to trust in this country as anybody could be reporting to the military junta.
And with that, the conversation always ends there.
- At time of posting in Beijing, it was 30 °C -
Humidity: 78% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: cloudy
The 66m long reclining buddha of Chaukhtatgyi Paya
Traveling to Myanmar is like being in a time warp. Imagine a place untouched by McDonalds and Starbucks, where images of 1960s Southeast Asia become real life here. Cone-hat wearing villagers bike along a dirt road lined with endless rice paddies. This is a place not advertised in your latest issue of the New York Times magazine. Like Bangladesh, you better see it in the raw before it’s too late; before globalization and tourism become the country’s new kind of dictatorship.
If it’s not already playing, press play. And then start reading.
Pretty much any M83 song will do here. The Kyaiktiyo (pronounced: “Chachiyo”) Golden Rock has been a pilgrimage site for thousands of Burmese Buddhists, but for the determined traveler, it’s an immersion in the unreal. There’s a mystical feeling about arriving to this place; it’s not everyday that you come upon a misty, deserted square built around an immense golden rock perched precariously upon a cliff. To many Burmese it’s a holy place of miracles, and you may witness that in the fervor of its pilgrims.
Getting to Kyaiktiyo requires more determination than usual:
1. From Yangon, take a cab up to the Highway Bus Station (5000 kyats, 1 hr.)
2. Find a bus heading in the direction of Kyaikto town (7000 kyats, 5 hrs.)
3. Arrive in Kyaikto (the locals call it “Downtown”) and find a motorbike to take you to Kinpun (1000 kyats, 20 minutes
The view from my motorbike.
4. Enjoy the ride!
5. Find a place to stay in Kinpun.
6. Find a truck heading up to the summit (where the Golden Rock is). The tricky thing is that there’s no timetable…a truck will leave whenever it fills up. So if you’re going during low season, be prepared to wait anywhere from 1 to 3 hours. (1500 kyats, 30 minutes)
7. After a jarring but exhilarating Indiana Jones-style truck ride, you will be dropped off only halfway up the hill. You have to walk the rest up yourself. Be prepared for a paved but very very steep hill (30-45 minutes)
Unless your life depended on it, don't you dare commit this act of cruelty.
8. Pay the Foreigner Ticket Office to enter ($6 USD)
9. Take off your shoes and walk the rest of the way to the Golden Rock (10 minutes)
Certainly a very unique way to get around Kyaiktiyo.
FYI: the last truck heading downhill leaves at 6pm, so if you miss this, you have to either walk 4-6 hours in the dark or book a $45-$60 USD room at the 2 hotels on top of the hill. Neither is recommended.
Once at the top, there’s nothing really to see but the rock itself. But the atmosphere can be surreal if you’re the only foreigner there. And if you’re of the introspective spiritual lot, simply being here and seeing the rock may brew a profound appreciation of your existence. That’s probably because you never have seen anything as enigmatic, and to realize you’ve come all the way to a forbidden kingdom like Myanmar to see something like the Golden Rock can put a lot into perspective.
A closer look
The Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo just got served.
...and then it started to rain really really heavily.
Just enjoy the moment while it lasts. This is what traveling is all about.
- At time of posting in Guanzhou, it was 26 °C -
Humidity: 78% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: drizzle
I present to you, the famous jumping cats of Nga Phe Kyuang!
Or would you fancy a video instead?
Inle Lake is like the big brother of Srinagar’s Dal Lake. It’s simply gorgeous. Except for the jumping cats of Nga Phe Kyuang, it’s not really a place to see anything but rather to explore how life works and revolves around this massive body of water.
So I started the day in Mandalay’s creepily deserted airport:
And before I knew it, I was motorboating into from the “base camp” town of Nyaungshwe into Lake Inle:
The floating villages.
I got to meet some of the villagers:
…including the Padaung “Giraffe women,” who have become famous for wearing brass or iron rings around their necks. They start with about 4-5 rings at age 5, adding about 1 a year until they reach 22-25 rings. They do this for many reasons, including having them as a traditional sign of beauty.
Go ahead and take photos of them (as long as you give money). Just be aware that the joke’s on you when you do — the “long neck” women here are reportedly entrepreneurs who commute from another village far from Inle Lake, just to hang out here looking both “authentic” for your cameras and to make a quick buck off of your cash cow.
And those of you who are quick to judge the rings themselves, ask yourself whether it’s any different from the societal pressures that compelled some girls to undergo Chinese foot-binding, Korean eyelid surgery, or American & European nosejobs/breast implants/constant dieting past the point of anorexia?
Remember the game we used to play when we were young? We’d see a flash of lightning, count the number of seconds before hearing the sound of thunder, and then multiply that number by the speed of sound to find out how far away that lightning strike was? I tried to play that game today, 230m high on the summit of Mandalay Hill, and the number of seconds I got was 0.
The pagoda burns with foul-smelling yellow smoke after getting struck by lightning
Yes, a ray of lightning struck the tip of a pagoda about 15 feet above my head today. I quickly became temporarily deaf in my right ear and my right foot accidentally stepped on a burning piece part of that pagoda that had broken off from the lightning strike. So my foot had felt like it just stepped in scalding water, I could hear the muffled sound of screaming, and my nostrils was filled with smoke. There was pandemonium everywhere, mostly of tourists freaking out and wondering if they all got struck as well.
What did I do? Naturally, I tended to my foot by dousing it in rainwater and then trying to grab photos of the monsoon rain. Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, right?
Let’s backtrack a bit though. The reason why I wanted to come to Mandalay was simply for Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous poem. However, Rudyard Kipling never made it to Mandalay. So I wanted to see if he got this place as accurately as he had dreamed it.
My verdict? Except for the lightning strike, it was just like being in any other sleepy Southeast Asian city with a couple of quirks.
MANDALAY by Rudyard Kipling
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me; For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say: “Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! “ Come you back to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay: Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ? On the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’-fishes play, An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green, An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen, An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot, An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot: Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud! On the road to Mandalay…
When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow, She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo! With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak. Elephints a-pilin’ teak In the sludgy, squdgy creek, Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak! On the road to Mandalay…
But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay; An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells: “If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.” No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else But them spicy garlic smells, An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells; On the road to Mandalay…
I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones, An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones; Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand, An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand? Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and – Law! wot do they understand? I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land! On the road to Mandalay…
Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst; For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea; On the road to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay, With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay! O the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’-fishes play, An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
— Ruyard Kipling
I started the day by eating a Shan-style feast:
I then explored Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery, the center of Mandalay’s 200,000-strong monk population. I was the only foreigner at the monastery, and I wandered about its grounds without being noticed once. It’s quite a peaceful place to get away from the hustle of the rest of the city.
What a nice way to enjoy a cup of tea.
I then went to Mahamuni Paya, which is the “must see” of Mandalay. It’s famous for its Buddha image, which has been Myanmar’s most well known. Unfortunately for women, they aren’t allowed to approach the Buddha closely, as they’re relegated to the back of the temple for prayer (sounds like a familiar mosque…).
The Buddha from the women's section
The Buddha from the men's section
Someone needs to pull a Rosa Parks here!
There was also a few Khmer bronze statues at Mahamuni Paya, which have been looted as war booty from Cambodia’s very own Angkor Wat.
Lots of sleeping families and babies here.
Outside, you'll find an open-air stone buddha factory!
I also went to see Kuthodaw Paya, which boasts to be the “world’s biggest book.” What they really mean is that its 729 pagoda-style enclosures each holds a slab/page of the Tripitaka canon.
A single page.
There were other temples around that I glimpsed, but they cost $10 USD to enter, and which money goes to the military junta. So I just stood outside and took pictures.
Finally, I trekked up 230m to the top of Mandalay Hill. Those of you seeking to attempt this climb, be forewarned: although the ascent consists of conveniently paved staircases, you have to do this climb completely barefoot. There also will be many times when you might think you have reached the top, but hedge your bets that there will be another staircase that leads to a higher part of the hill behind a pagoda somewhere. You haven’t reached the summit until someone comes up to you and charges you 1,000 kyats to use your camera. You can stop looking for the next set of stairs at this point.
Nearing the top, you'll see a huge Buddha pointing as if to remind you to pause and appreciate the views of Mandalay.
One very bizarre display.
If I calculated this correctly, Rs. 500 = $11 USD. Does that mean if I donated $12 USD, I get a sign with my photo on it?
Reaching the top of the hill.
So this climb took me about 20 minutes as I was rushing up to catch the sunset. And as you already know, I caught a lightning strike instead. Narrowly dodging death, I was rewarded with stupendous evidence of nature’s might:
I patiently wait for lightning...
I also made the mistake of being the last and only tourist to stay behind after the lightning strike. That meant I also stayed past sunset and had to navigate down the hill in complete darkness. Luckily, I had my iPod Touch acting as a torch; if I didn’t have that, I would’ve never gotten home.
After surviving lightning on the hill, I grabbed a delicious chapati + mutton combo at Mandalay’s famous Chapati Stand and headed to watch the Moustache Brothers.
The Moustache Bros. are a comedy duo that makes no excuses in making fun of their military-run government. They became famous for being arrested and serving served six years of hard labour (they were mentioned in the film About a Boy) for their social and civil disobedience. In other words, their performances were so influential that the government feared their influence. Although they were released in 2002 and briefly jailed again in 2007, they continue to perform at their home in Mandalay, and have been allowed to do so as long as they carry out their performances in any language other than Burmese.
Most unfortunately, however, the monsoonal rains I had witnessed (to great awe) on the top of Mandalay Hill also ended up flooding the home of the Moustache Bros. Thus, the show got cancelled, and I instead hung out with one of the brothers as I ate my chapati.
I highly recommend anyone passing through Mandalay to check out their performances and supporting their satire-laden “demonstrations.” Just ask any taxi or trishaw driver where they are, and they’ll take you there. Their shows run nightly at 8:30pm.
So my one day adventure in Mandalay was pretty enlightening (ha ha no pun intended). Next: the calmness of Lake Inle!
- At time of posting in Inle Lake, it was 35 °C -
Humidity: 40% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy