I didn’t really have much to go on two weeks prior to my departure for Mandalay, except I was going to the mysterious country of Burma, I knew the British had been here many years ago and I also knew I shared birthdays with Daw Aung San Su Kyi.
I had to look up how to spell her name and still had no idea how to pronounce it.
Then a friend of mine had pointed out the country was now called Myanmar, and so I was down to two things I was sure about.
In fact, it wasn’t quite the extent of my total ignorance about Burma. Having identified this problem, I endeavoured to keep up to date with recent events in the country using various news sources and books. But a sound knowledge of current political affairs wasn’t going to help me get around a country itself. I knew Burma had been in the grips of a miliary junta for the last half century, and indeed it still was, but at least now yours truly was allowed to come into the country and have a look around. From reading even more about the country on various travel blogs, I knew a little about Myanmar and it seemed like it would be an interesting adventure in a country freshly opened to travellers such as myself.
For 50 years the word “Burma” had meant different things to different people, most of them negative, but politics don’t make a country, the people of that country do.
In any case, my first days in Burma wouldn’t be concerned with world politics or the history of an oppressed people. It’d be focusing on the business of finding somewhere to stay, finding food that wouldn’t kill me and getting a decent wifi signal.
No, I hadn’t done much preparation for my trip at all.
I’m one of those people who looks at brochures and guidebooks of places they’ve been to, rather than the ones they’re going to. It’s like visiting a friend, looking at the books on their living room shelf and trying to identify the ones you’ve got on your own bookshelf. And I didn’t actually own a bookshelf any more. Not so many books either, come to think of it. OK, so it’s not like that at all, but you get what I mean.
Maybe you don’t. The point is, I’m rubbish at trip preparation and I’d found it hard to change this bad habit of going into a new country without knowing anything about it. I hadn’t prepared for this trip in any way.
Myanmar is a closed economy, and that means that you can’t get any local money from anywhere except once you are actually in it. Another quirky facit to this staggeringly stupid concept, is that you have to bring in crisp US bills to pay for things such as hotels and boat trips and then exchange the rest for the local cash, called Kyat. The money that you were to bring with you had to be so perfect, you’d literally need to be standing next to the printing press and snatch the freshly-minted notes while they were still warm. I had been warned that anything less than a perfect banknote would be rejected by anyone who was interested in annoying the hell out of a freshly arriving tourist.
Thus forewarned and motivated, I had decided to prepare for my arrival very thoroughly. The immigration officials, government bureaucrats and over-zealous hoteliers would have to think twice before they fucked with me.
That was because I had armed myself with a perfectly-sized hardcover notebook and spent considerable effort in obtaining the shiniest, most perfect hundred dollar bills in South East Asia which I placed within its covers, neatly organised with ascending serial numbers. The US hunnies were so new, not even an American would have recognised them. Not only had I obtained these perfect bills, but I had also procured lower denominations as well, so that under no circumstances would I not have the appropriate change for any of the hotel reservations that I had already made.
With a book full of neatly arranged US bills for every occasion, what could possibly go wrong?
A few days before departure, I decided to expand my preparation efforts. Now that I was flush with US cash, I read about other hurdles that prevent stress-free tourism in Myanmar, such as power blackouts, government spies that tailed travellers for their entire stay and even the occasional unavailability of an internet connection. I began to question the wisdom of my visit, and I wasn’t entirely sure that injecting my own tourist dollars into a dictatorship depriving its citizens of life’s most basic essentials was the ethically correct thing to do. Then I remembered that I had just been to China and decided that I could probably live with my decision.
I usually travel light, but I decided to expand my frugal repertoire of travel essentials to include extra toilet paper, some heavy artillery in the anti-mosquito department and a torch. The latter was for the many temples that I would surely visit, and as insurance in case the many rumours about Burma’s power supply turned out to be true.
So now, at least, I had prepared a little bit, but as the departure date drew closer, I still had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I endeavoured to do a little more research, but my computer chose that exact moment to update everything it could think of, locking itself solid as if it just swallowed a sackful of Imodium, and then it crashed. These days, my shitty old laptop had the processing fervour of a German civil servant nearing retirement, and so I gave up and went for a walk instead.
I had intended on a stroll through Bangkok’s streets to leisurely look around a few sights and maybe grab a coffee, but the tens of thousands of protesters there had other ideas, so I joined the festival atmosphere of the blockade instead.
With only a few days before my flight, it was time to organise a visa. Usually, I’d have any such formality settled many weeks in advance, but on this occasion it had been wiser to use the last-minute visa service provided by the Burmese consulate a few days prior to departure. I found the office of the Myanmar consulate in the middle of the city, and there were several hundred people queuing for visas ahead of me. I stood at the end of the line and, whilst filling out the required form detailing my personal details, employment history and sexual preferences, slowly shuffled forward until half an hour later it was my turn to hand over my visa application. In return, I was given a ticket number for the next queue.
I sat down and waited.
On such occasions, when faced with the mind-numbing tedium of dealing with completely unnecessary bureaucratic shit required to travel the world, my mind usually wanders freely to fill the void.
Burma. Myanmar, whatever.
A mysterious country wedged between two of the world’s superpowers, namely India and China, and one which had only opened to western tourists a while ago when the tight political embargo against an oppressive regime had been lifted, and foreigners had been allowed to come in and spend their pristine US cash.
During my all-too-brief research periods, I had found out that those in power in Myanmar for the last half century had spied on their fellow citizens and had kept detailed personal files on individuals of interest and had used the information in any way they saw fit. Many had deplored the way the military had such tight surveillance on its citizens and had said that this would never be tolerated in the west. Thanks to Edward Snowden, it was apparent that this wasn’t the case at all, only the methods were different. Here’s to you, Eddie.
Those in power in Myanmar were also reported to be spending astronomical amounts of money on themselves, building a brand new, multi-billion dollar capital in the middle of the country and squandering even more in ways beyond imagining while the people experienced shortages in power, education and other basic rights. Every purchase made in US dollars in the country would fill the coffers of the so-called cronies, the buddies of the powerful generals that benefited from their direct schmoozing activities with those at the top. Then I thought about the staggering amounts of money being squandered in several, seemingly fruitless building projects in my home city of Berlin. Two sides of the same coin. Billions were being thrown out of the window there too, while shortages persisted in assisting local residents who actually could use a little cash every now and then to put beer and sausages on their table at regular intervals.
Those in power in Myanmar were putting money ahead of any environmental concerns that the local population might have and I’d need a very big piece of paper to list all the countries in the world that were busy doing just that. It would be easier to list the countries in the world that weren’t screwing up the planet for cash at any given moment, and it would be a very short list. Dam building, open cut mining and deforestation were just some of the pleasant activities planned by the government to make extra cash to buy swimming pools and Rolls Royces for the elite, and there were currently over 200 such organisations at the heads of the all the countries of the world doing precisely the same thing.
My mind wandered further still, to those aspects of the country which weren’t so easy to write jokes about. I knew that there were people in Myanmar who still couldn’t speak their mind freely and question the financial activities of the countries leaders. They’d been arrested and had been subjected to much worse than that. I’d probably be next if they read this text, and I imaged myself being hunted down in Myanmar for spreading anti-government propaganda and using bad grammar. They would find me, arrest me and display me on television as a leftist traitor, telling lies to the world about a government that really only had the best interests of its children at heart. They would kick the door down the very moment that I checked into the first hotel in Mandalay, I’d be locked in a padded cell with a sinister general as my interrogator and my number would finally be up.
Suddenly, my number came up and it was my turn to pay for my visa to Myanmar. No generals, no cronies. I was about to go to Myanmar!