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Sunday, December 30, 2007


A little subtle Myanmar propaganda across from the U.S. Embassy

I loved driving through Bulgaria in 1969, and not just the bit that was on the "Hippie Trail" between Nis and Istanbul. I took the better part of a month and drove from Sofia to the Black Sea, met up with some fun-loving Bulgarians and drove all over the country with them. Earlier I had decided I liked Budapest more than Vienna; it seemed freer and more... romantic, less uptight and stuffy. I was blind to the oppression and tyranny in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria even though it pervaded these places. I just didn't notice. Years later I was living in West Berlin. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the wall dividing the city was coming down. There were already holes in it and most of the guards looked the other way-- at least when West Germans went back and forth. I persuaded some West German friends to take me across one night. It didn't look free and romantic; the oppression, tyranny and decrepitude were apparent and tangible... and chilling. It scared and repulsed me. I was happy to get back to West Berlin.

A few hours ago, decades later, I just returned from a place like that, a place you read about in books by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: Myanmar.

Myanmar was Burma when I was a small boy (and avid stamp collector). I remember there were military coups when I was in elementary school. It was one of those closed off places-- exotic, mysterious, impenetrable, vaguely dangerous, like Albania, Mongolia, North Korea... places no one ever went. In the 80s the military junta took the name SLORC (an unfortunate-sounding acronym for State Law and Order Restoration Council). It sounds like something from a James Bond movie. For the people there, I just discovered, it doesn't feel like a movie. It feels like a nightmare that never ends. Paid Republican lobbyists and operatives in DC got the military dictators to ditch the SLORC moniker for SPDC (State Peace and Development Council, which sounds far less ominous-- like Bush's Clear Skies Act).

One of the first things I noticed is that the oppressive, paranoid tyranny in Myanmar exists in a parallel world next to a beautiful traditional Buddhist culture. The gentle people, predisposed to kindness, seem a little nervous-- hundreds of beloved and revered monks were brutally and ruthlessly murdered by the regime a few weeks ago after peaceful demonstrations-- but when you shoot anyone (except some of the soldiers) a mengalaba (hello) their wariness invariably breaks down and they smile. They are friendly and the reserve often vanishes quickly and, at least in Yangon, more of them spoke English than anywhere else in Southeast Asia I've ever been.

The whole city seems to be rotting and breaking down, although it may also be a work in progress of sorts. The city is immense-- but kind of slow and quiet... kind of left behind as the rest of the region rushes headlong into the 21st Century and globalization. Roland says Yangon reminds him of Havana in many ways.

It is easy, fast and cheap to get a visa directly from the visa section of the consulate in Washington, DC-- way smoother, quicker and far less expensive than working with the outsourced visa company India now forces you to work with to get a visa for that country. We flew Air Asia from Bangkok, a kind of Southwest Airlines for SE Asia. It is cheap and only takes an hour and a 15 minutes. (The flight back was delayed for a few hours and they gave us a signed chit so that we can get our money back, an Air Asia policy for flights that are delayed for over 3 hours. (The guy who runs it, Tony Fernandes, was the head of our Malaysian company when I worked at Warner Brothers. He learned a lot more about customer service than most music industry execs ever did.)

The currency exchange system in Myanmar is a real mess. If there even is an "official rate" it's around 500 kyats for a dollar. But dollars are the preferred currency in Yangon-- as long as the bills are new and crisp and have no marks or tears-- and even taxi fares can be paid with them. The street rates of exchange vary between 1,000 and 1,500 per dollar (depending on your bargaining ability)-- a very wide disparity. The whole thing is kind of shady and bizarre and, for a normal tourist probably pretty disorienting. Few places accept credit cards and the ones that do, charge an exorbitant fee. When you leave the country you pay a $10 airport exit tax. They want it in dollars. If you insist on paying it in worthless kyats (which can't be exchanged outside the country for any real currencies), they charge you 16,000-- not just far more than the "official rate," but more than the best black market rate!

On the other hand, we found the December weather absolutely fantastic-- warmer than Delhi and cooler than Bangkok. Bangkok is hot and steamy, never under 90 with lots of humidity. Yangon is dry and in the 80's. It gets hot in the sun in the afternoons but it's pretty comfortable and without the hellish man-made weather of Bangkok.

Part II next time I get to a computer.

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