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Written on: Friday March 7th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

Despite the amount of times I?ve flown in the past it felt a little weird getting on a plane again, especially on this particular trip. I had a 7:15am flight so left my hotel at 5am to get a taxi to the airport. I?m simply not a very good morning person, I didn?t take well to rising at this time, and things just kept getting worse. For starters Air Asia had a remarkably big checking-in line, and then when I did eventually get to the check-in desk, my bags were so heavy that they charged me thirty something pounds to take all my luggage. After weighing my bags it appears I?m wearing over half my own body weight on the top half of my torso. Almost 40kg worth of baggage ? ridiculous. I?m supposed to be backpacking, but I feel like I?m training to become a Himalayan Sherpa.


Although time was ticking on, I thought I might have time to claim back the tax I had paid on my lap-top at the customs desk. They then told me I had to go to another office, so off I trotted, only leaving my plane ticket and passport at the customs desk. Luckily I realised reasonably quickly and legged it back to find them still there. Then when I got to passport control there was a queue like at Waterstones for the latest copy of Harry Potter. At 7:20am, five minutes after my flight was due to take-off I still hadn?t made it to the front of the line, let alone had my bags checked. Eventually making it through passport control, I unlike any normal passenger who would have sprinted to their departure gate anxious that their plane would not leave without them, instead dragged my bandaged, ailing, gangrenous right foot along with me. If only this were the last worries of my torrid morning, but no, I must be punished more, and was. The gate that I required was of course the furthest gate from  passport control, which meant me walking down the centre aisle, with restaurant upon café upon delicatessen churning out the sumptuous, mouth-watering smells of butter-covered, freshly baked croissants and steaming hot, milky coffee. Forget Hellfire Pass, this was the Valley of Death!


Three hours later and I was sat chomping on two fried eggs, two slices of well buttered and jammed toast and sipping my own, regularly filled cup of coffee. I was in Burma. I was in the Motherland.


You understand I?m sure that the Motherland I was in, was not my country of origin of my people, but merely the name of the guesthouse, and a fine guesthouse it was too, complete with numerous staff who don?t do an awful lot all day, a TV featuring BBC World and enough dodgy DVD?s to keep any film buff content for three weeks. But I was not here to watch movies, so despite the early morning start I dropped off my bags and went off walking around Yangon, the capital of Burma, or as the British called it in their time here, Rangoon. It was the Brits who also called Burma, Burma, because of the Bamar people that were the predominant tribe when the Brits took over Burma in 1885. The ruling military junta have since changed Burma?s name to Myanmar, in an attempt to get rid of the history of colonialism and its impact here. Actually, according to the Union of Myanmar, Yangon isn?t even the capital anymore, although it is the biggest city by far. The capital has now been moved to Naypyidaw in the centre of the country, which egotistically means ?City of Kings?, so that all the government cronies can live in excess in their rich, newly constructed city.


It is with more of an interest in the politics I visit Burma, (or should I call it Myanmar, I?ll flit in between no doubt). I?m sure you all know of the protests that happened last September, when many monks took to the streets of Burma to protest against the oppression of the military rule here. A few days in to the protests the government sent the militia on to the streets to quell the protests, and many of the monks and protesters were forcefully arrested and thrown in to prison. Foreign reporters were urged not to report on the events in Burma and one Japanese photographer was infamously filmed being shot in the back as he fled the onrushing military. It was with these events in mind that I first questioned whether or not I should set foot here in the first place, and then on reading and finding out more about it I had moral questions to ask of myself as to whether I should visit.


Since 1962, when the military took over rule, the people have been oppressed here and there have been a number of uprising protests. One lady in particular who has featured prolifically in her opposition to the junta is the leader and spokeswomen of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now serving her third stint of house arrests since she was first imprisoned in 1989. Back in 1992, when the government launched an initiative to encourage tourists to visit Myanmar, she asked that tourists not come here, for much of the money that was being spent by the tourists was lining the pockets further of the ruling junta. Since then, several Western governments have urged their citizens to boycott Burma, notably Tony Blair back in 2003 and George Bush, whose condemnation of the ruling military in Burma led to all foreign banks leaving Burma a few years ago. With no ATM?s or foreign banks in Burma now, the only way to get any money is by credit-card in one of three hotels in Yangon, that charge between 7 and a half and 20 per cent commission. I thought about these things much for many days and eventually decided that I was going to go, but that I would be extremely careful about where I spent my money, maximising the amount that would go to the local people and minimising as much as I possibly could the amount that went to the government, by only staying in locally run private guesthouses and by using private buses to travel all over the country instead of government run trains and planes.


My first impressions of Yangon didn?t appear to show this persecution and oppression that was reportedly so rife within Burma. It certainly didn?t appear dangerous. Far from it, the people in the street were smiling and apparently content with their lives. It was much like many of the other cities I had visited with South East Asia, but with a noticeable influence of Indian tribes and people. I took on a short walking tour of the city and ended up at Sule Paya, one of the many Buddhist temples here in Burma, this one sitting smack bang in the middle of a roundabout.


You?re required to remove your shoes before going in to any temples and so I was set upon by a gaggle of Burmese women who rushed to take my flip-flops from me, then loaded my arms with flowers and white Buddhist parasols, demanded 2000 khat from me (about a pound) and then stared at my badly bandaged toe, probably wondering if I should be allowed in to a holy place of worship after all. I was beckoned up the stairs to where the central golden stupa or zedi as they are called in Burma sits. These zedis are said to contain sacred relics from either Buddha himself, or lesser important zedis have ashes of important people within them. Sule Paya?s 48m tall zedi is supposed to contain one of the hairs of Buddha, so it?s a very important shrine. I however felt a tad bit embarrassed and uncomfortable as here I was looking like a chain of Beryl?s Florist Shop, cradling a number of unknown brightly coloured flowers. My savior appeared in the form of a young, cleanly shaven headed man in bright orange robes. A monk no less. He very politely in reasonably good English introduced himself as Indavonsha and asked me what day I was born on. I considered this quite an usual start to a conversation but I nevertheless obliged and told him I was a Thursday born. At this point he took me by my non-flower holding wrist and led me around to a Buddhist shrine, with a golden Buddha sitting comfortably in the Lotus position with Erawan, the elephant sitting in front of him. He instructed me to place my flowers behind the Buddha as an offering and pour 30 cups of water over the shrine, one more than my age, and then 7 cups over Erawan, for seven is a lucky number here. Respectfully I did so. Indawonsha then invited me to join him and a fellow elderly monk and so we sat at the edge of the paya and chatted for about an hour or so about Buddhism and the impact that the protests had had on the country since September. Indawonsha?s own monastery had had 30 monks serving there prior to September, now there are only 11, despite the government?s assurances that almost all the prisoners that were arrested have been released.


I met many other Burmese people that day who were only too happy to talk with me on this subject, a topic that is strikingly and obviously very close to their hearts and minds. One man named William Myatwunna, owns a travel company in Yangon and was particularly informative on his country?s past and current issues. An extremely eloquent English speaker, William told me that the people here appear so content because Buddhism teaches them to be that way. They have a hard, poor, oppressed life now because of some bad they have done in a previous life. Now though, if they put up with this hard life and continue to worship Buddha and take note of the Buddhist teachings they will be reincarnated in to a much better life when they eventually leave this body. This notion appears to serve so well as a weapon for the government.


I met up with a  Spanish and a French guy that evening back at the Motherland, and while watching a movie we verged off passionately, but after sharing a bottle of Burmese whisky, rather drunkenly on a debate about Burma, the ensuing problems here and how the three of us could put an end to it. Unrealistic, but well intentioned you understand.


With the plan that I could see the ret of Yangon when I arrived back here later in the month I booked my first bus for the following day for the 432 mile journey north on the road to Mandalay.



From Tom Grundy on Apr 5th, 2008

Simon, I've something I wish to email to you - what's your address? Cheers... Tom (Hong Kong fella)