As I try to distill three day’s worth of travel through Burma I get the calming privilege of sitting on a terrace facing the muddy brown waters of the Irawaddy River. I can see a line of foothills across the opposite bank, one hill with the white spire of a paya (stupa) temple atop.
We’re in our landscaped hotel, the Thante River Side, where Reynald and I have decided to kick it for a few days. The hotel management has figured out that we’re exceptional customers of the bar so have assigned a server to sit on terrace level behind us in the shade of a nearby tree, ready to be dispatched up to the main building for some rum and coke as required.
Thirty six countries I’ve veisited, and usually upon entering an entirely new territory there’s some flash back in my mind that creates a correlation to some previous experience. With Burma, or Myanmar as the military junta dictatorship prefer, the puzzling thing to me was that I didn’t get this feeling, even after the first day in Rangoon. That alone, that it can be such a different place, makes this country that much more magical. I finally worked it out last night – it’s a combination of all the best elements of our other favorite places.
We arrived in Rangoon one hot humid morning on June 16th, two days before the Thai prime minister was to make a milestone visit to Burma. There were workers sprucing up all areas of the airport to make it look more presentable for his imminent arrival. Bamboo scaffolding everywhere.
Our plane landed after cruising over lush green jungle, dotted with the white and gold Buddah payas, then the moment we landed and the doors opened we felt the 32*C (94*F) heat hit us at 7:00 a.m. This was the weather of British Burma that Rudyard Kipling so often commented on.
Reynald and I exited the plane and walked across the tarmac to the faux-wood paneled airport terminal and the circa 1940’s immigration posts. The way immigration and customs works is where one immigration agent types your details in the the computer then a second one rewrites any words on your entry documents that weren’t clear. Of course this is done after all of the data has been keyed into the computer. You work it out.
Step two is dealing with the exchange of U.S. dollars into Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs). The military junta’s way of extracting cash from tourists is to force out each visitor to convert US$200 to FECs at a one-t0-0ne ratio. You can use the FECs to pay for plane tickets and hotels but if you try to convert them to the local currency, the kyat, you’ll get a lower exchange rate. Moral of the story is to change as little cash into FECs so you can buy local currency on the black market and reduce your travel cost.
Reynald and I had heard stories about bribing the FEC exchange officer to get out of changing too much, so I thought I’d try. We passed immigration together and I pulled out two US$100 bills, the minimum we could change for one person, and placed that and both passports on the counter. I then played pantomime with the agent and motioned that this was for both of us. She finally said, in English, “If you can help me.” I topped off the passports with a US$20 bill, the smallest I had, and she handed over the $200 now converted to FECs and told us not to tell anyone.
We bundled ourselves into our taxi for the thirty minute ride into Rangoon and instantly we were mezmerized. Everything was so green. Green, green, green, green. England is green, Vermont is green, nothing like Rangoon though. It reminded us both of East Africa more than anywhere else.
There was dense jungle on both sides of the street, palm trees, banana trees, flowers blooming in colors I’d never seen in nature – this was all so incredibly striking. Then we passed through some of the old British areas of town. The old colonial buildings, now worn from fifty years of use since independence still hold theire Imperialist honour. We saw some mansions with absolutely perfectly manicured gardens surrounding a stark whitewashed colonial property. Kipling once again came to mind. God love the British man who was born in India and knew the British colonial holdings better than his motherland. And he got to write to tell us about it!
Both Reynald and I were silent in the car as we rode in. The driver told us some highlights as we drove, I think, but I’m pretty sure neither one of us heard what he was talking about as we were engrossed with our focus of watching the country unfold in front of us.
We took a room in th ehome of this sweet Burmese family, the Three Seasons Hotel, with was $20 a night including breakfast. Since we’re travelling during the rainy season all the prices are down a bit, but admittedly in this climate it rains every day in the morning and the late afternoon around four o’clock.
We had a walk down the main shopping street and I was getting India flashbacks: food being cooked out in the open, fruits and vegetables you can only get in this part of the world for sale on the street . . .