Capitalism Yangon style
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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Peter is a walking encyclopedia and quite surprisingly, Chris could tell me a thing or two about the Anzac campaign. When I look back at weeks gone by, it had been a long time between such indulgences. That was followed by an excellent night's rest on a comfy $3 bed in a well-appointed dorm room. Sensational after pouring good money after bad into dodgy hotels down south.
The first full day in Yangon (formerly Rangoon under British rule) I wandered the streets - my typical way of getting bearings and gaining a feel for a new place. As I walked around the Sule Paya (a monument in the centre of town), through the Mahabandoola Gardens and did a circuit back to the main station, it struck me that contrary to socio-economic patterns in most other countries, it seems as though the urban population in the city is generally less prosperous than their agrarian counterparts in rural areas. Despite the apartment complexes and satellite dishes, poverty and a level of despair is obvious in many parts of Yangon.
Another side of this is the quality of supporting infrastructure such as public transport, roads and sewerage systems etc - it's absolutely abysmal. Many roads look like a tank has repeatedly run over them and you really have to watch your step to avoid falling into open sewers. Basically public assets developed in the first half of the 20th century have rarely been maintained since then. The government has other priorities.
The second striking observation was the extent of capitalism and consumerism - shop fronts and billboards shout the availability of every form of product and service available to the minority who can afford it. This really surprised me, as I'd always had the notion that since Myanmar is considered a totalitarian state that has been isolated by the world for many years, it was likely that the Burmese economy would exhibit communist, command economy characteristics. Beyond the occasional propaganda billboard, nothing could be further from the truth.
Finally, although brands like Coca Cola, Samsung, Colgate and Marlboro are freely available in Myanmar, it seems they are all imported from neighbouring countries - namely Thailand and China. Only local substitute brands are manufactured within the country (often blatanly imitating their western counterparts), as the State stubbornly refuses to allow multinationals to develop any more than a marketing presence here.
This happens across a variety of industries, including consumer disposables and durables, vehicles and even entertainment. It's very common to hear a familiar tune with Burmese lyrics laid over the top, sung nicely by a Burmese music star in a professionally produced video clip. The result is that the imports get crowded out by far cheaper local product and for the most part, the locals prefer their own brands. (And you were right Ains - beyond Kawthoung I haven't seen a Pepsi anywhere, even an imported bottle!)
It is interesting that all of these can be explained by Myanmar's Four Economic Objectives, sourced from The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, as outlined below:
Four Economic Objectives
1) Development of agriculture as the base and all round development of other sectors of the economy as well
2) Proper evolution of the market-based economic system
3) Development of the economy inviting participation in terms of technical know-how and investments from sources inside the country and abroad
4) The initiative to shape the national economy must be kept in the hands of the State and the national peoples
Upsides are that the place is generally a leafy city, that there is a lot of character to the town and its inhabitants, and that despite the odd ignoramus who will shout or just stand there gawping at you, the locals are pretty accepting and friendly towards foreigners. The military presence is pretty heavy, so don't take pictures of anyone in uniform or of strategic State buildings, like the Ministerial Offices, Myanmar Economic Holdings or the Directorate of Hotels and Tourism Services ;-)
The main sights I managed to see here were The Strand Hotel (another in the Raffle's chain of classy colonial five star accommodations), the People's Park, the sparkling Schwedagon Pagoda complex and the Takkyuan WW2 Cemetery. Unfortunately I had more technical issues with my camera, with the result of losing another 100 photos so I can't bring to you images of The Strand or the People's Park. Suffice to say, the Strand is a majestic old hotel with oodles of charm and character, which it should for a base rate of $US450 a room per night. The People's Park was less inspiring as I gazed at it from the from the side of the road bordering the National Assembly. I could just imagine a Cold War style military procession of old, looked down upon approvingly by the ruling Generals as the assembled armed forces paraded by, being held in the vast space between these two inhospitable landmarks.
Schwedagon and the War Cemetery however, I can bring you. Schwedagon Pagoda is the most venerated of all Buddhist temples within the country and a site that all Burmese devotees hope to pilgrimage to at least once in their lives. It is a massive stupa rising more than ninety metres into the air, covered with around 60 tonnes of gold and adorned with thousands of carats of diamonds and other gemstones on the intricate vane at its very apex. The central stupa is surrounded by a multitude of temples housing thousands of Buddha images in most conceivable positions. Huge covered staircases run up the hillside on all four sides of the complex to give access to these places of worship.
Buddhists that do make it here display a reverence and radiance on their faces probably only matched by a pilgrim to Jerusalem or Mecca, despite the overt (and seemingly incongruous) commerce that is transacted at a multitude of stalls within the temple's confines. The monks don't seem to mind this trading either, preferring instead to provide free guidance to tourists in exchange for the opportunity to practice their English. This was how I met and had a long chat with U (Mr) Indriya and three of his friends, as I spent the late afternoon and early evening waiting until the stupa began to glow.
Those sparkling photos I lost, but next day we organised to go to the war cemetery together, which gave rise to an alternate photo opportunity. As I didn't want to pay another $US5 entry fee just to take more photos (and as they get in free), I gave Indriya and his mate a camera each and they went amok taking photos for me. Despite being the first time they had ever held a camera and with little understanding of concepts such as auto-focus or shot composition, they did pretty well. The photos above speak for themselves.
Before that however, I met the guys at their monastery for breakfast and a trip to the cemetery. They had very kindly got up extra early to collect additional food for my meal from the local community. It was great to see them in their natural habitat, and the warmth and friendliness they all showed to this big, ugly and foreign stranger was very kind. Thanks guys.
Note: yes that is me in a skirt. It's actually the local version of a sarong (called a Longyi, pron. 'lonji') and is in effect a piece of material saw together to form a loop. It's worn much like a kilt (which you've also seen me in) and I reckon it has potential as a fashion accessory on the world stage. Either way, it's certainly very handy and comfortable in this climate, if you can work out what to do with your wallet and keys.
Onwards and upwards to Takkyuan, another amazing example of sacrifice by Commonwealth forces in WW2. Although the Brits are extensively represented here, it is the Indians that once again seemed to have copped the most (literal) flak in the Burma and Assam theatres of the war. I'm not sure of the number of headstones there are exactly, but there is a lot in this beautifully landscaped memorial. (The old Lonely Planet says 27,000 however I think that refers to those listed on the walls of the cenotaph, but whose remains were never recovered). An interesting find was a trio of officers (a Colonel, a Major and a Captain) from the 6th Gurkha Rifles who were all killed on the 21st of June 1944. That must have been a serious fight and now these comrades in arms are comrades in death - resting in peace, side by side.
For something completely different and probably a little flippant after such solemn talk - my apologies if anyone takes offence. On the final night in town I ended up at a nightclub called Club Pioneer. Although the drinks were expensive on a backpacker's budget and the music was a bit uptempo and cheesy (happy-hard techno), the place continued the theme of unexpected sophistication for what is in essence a third world city. No doubt frequented by the children of bigwigs from the government, zero camera gear was allowed, but we stayed and enjoyed a few hours of fun so the next morning's hangover made for a tough bus ride north. Oh dear, more on that shortly...
Next entry -> the Road to Mandalay
Myanmar's other Objectives
These accompany the Four Economic Objectives above and are also copied verbatim from The New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
Four Political Objectives
1) Stability of the State, community peace and tranquility, prevalence of law and order.
2) National reconsolidation (authors note: can anyone define 'reconsolidation'?)
3) Emergence of a new enduring State Constitution
4) Building of a new modern developed nation in accord with the new State Constitution
Four Social Objectives
1) Uplft the morale and morality of the entire nation
2) Uplift of national prestige and integrity and preservation and safegaurding of cultural heritage and national character
3) Uplift of dynamism of patriotic spirit
4) Uplift of health, fitness and education standards of the entire nation