28.09.2016 - 25.10.2016 32 °C
On our first trip to Myanmar, we visited Yangon, Bagan, Inle and Mandalay http://spicechronicles.travellerspoint.com/co/144/. While we were able to take advantage of the full one month visa on arrival, it still felt way too short. So this time we're looking to explore some of the regions making headlines since Aung San Suu Kyi led her democratic party (NLD) to a majority win. The change from a military regime to a (somewhat) democratic state (the military still retains formidable control) has made the country more attractive for tourism, but it has also exposed the kinks in its political fabric.
We arrive in September to a completely different climate. It's so humid, plants are growing on the concrete facades; free vertical landscaping!
Yangon is changing as quickly as the political climate. Trendy cafes, restaurants and shops have sprouted next to traditional tea houses, markets and temples.
It's a heady combination of old and new, dirty and cleaner. You can smell change, though you still need to keep your eyes down to navigate the uneven pavement made even more treacherous now during the monsoon. Repeatedly, heavy clouds move across the sky, stopping briefly to burst above our heads, before moving on.
Retaurant Black Hat intrigues us with its decor and A/C. The staff is so welcoming, we decide to give it a try. Within minutes, we're sipping ice cold cocktails and grooving to our favorite 70's playlist. The walls are covered with movie and music paraphernalia and the crowd is a mix of tourists and upscale locals.
We spend a couple of days meeting journalists to figure out what regions we can gain access to and the stories we might be able to tell. The editor of a local newspaper puts us in touch with a fixer; someone who can arrange things for us. We meet him in a shopping mall near our hotel and run through a list of possible subjects finally settling on the Rohingya, the Muslim minority persecuted by the Buddhist majority who consider them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It turns out this young man is Muslim and he's got the connections to get us into the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps outside of Sittwe in the country's most western Rakhine State.
Two days later, we fly to Sittwe with our guide. We are the only foreigners on the 40 seater jet. There isn't much of an airport in Sittwe and baggage claim consists of handing your ticket to one of the guys waiting on the tarmac to fetch your bag from the hold.
Hotel Shwe Myint is a dump for a scandalous $35/night.
At check-in we all show our passports. The receptionist asks to see our guide's national ID card. He fumbles around long enough for the man to just take the number down without seeing the actual card. Later, our guide explains that national ID cards indicate religion. As a Muslim, he could have easily been denied entry.
When our van pulls in to a nice restaurant in town for lunch, a lady rushes to escort me from the car blocking the sun with an umbrella. After lunch, I'm again escorted back to the vehicle like a princess.
The photos of the Rohingya story recently won a prestigious photo contest, but one of the rules is that they cannot be published anywhere until the official results have been announced. I will eventually add them to the following text, but in the meantime, just imagine...
We drive a few kilometers out of town, turn off on a dirt road and park out of sight. A few minutes later, an unmarked van with tinted windows pulls up and we switch vehicles. The driver is a Rohingya who has special privileges with the guards at the camps. The gate opens immediately when we approach. As we pass a second gate, the driver waves to the police and nonchalantly tosses a pack of cigarettes to them; payment included. As we drive along the bumpy dirt road, it looks like any rural village with people coming and going, kids playing ball, small stalls selling provisions, etc. Only the barbed wire fences and military installations suggest otherwise.
There are over 38 camps on the perimeter of Sittwe. After the particularly brutal events of June 2012 referred to as "the conflict" in which Rohingyas were murdered, raped, their homes and mosques burned, approximately 140,000 Rohingya were herded into this sector. Those who had the means, built homes in what they call villages, while the less fortunate are housed in a variety of makeshift structures in camps where they rely solely on humanitarian aid. No matter where they live, they cannot pass the main gate without special permission and the accompanying bribe. Even if they do get out, Rohingyas, stripped of citizenship, cannot work or study, are refused medical care and are fearful of everyone. The hostility towards them is so profound, the slightest incident can spark trouble.
Our van stops in the center of one camp that is laid out in a grid with rows of shacks. About 660 families (4600 people) live here. There are no trees, no electricity or running water. We're directed to a few plastic chairs and within minutes surrounded by a large group of men. Only one or two speak English. I race to write down everything they say knowing that the most we can do is tell their story. I force myself to stay focused because as I look around, I'm overwhelmed with guilt knowing that I can just get in the car and drive out of here. The picture is grim. They simply have no rights whatsoever. Living quarters are cramped and stifling. Medical services are paltry. Anything more than a cold here can be fatal. Médecins Sans Frontiers was asked to leave in 2014 when the (Buddhist) majority decided that they were favoring the Rohingya people. NGOs bring provisions like rice, but few can afford the wood to cook it. It just goes on and on. When our fixer announces that it's time to leave for today, I'm ashamed to admit, I feel relieved.
The first order of business in Sittwe the next morning is to switch hotels. Hotel Noble for just $10 more is antiquated but still a leap in comfort and cleanliness. The hotel faces the Museum of Rakhine Culture that showcases the traditions, dress and lifestyle of the Rakhine people. There is no mention of the Rohingya, who claim to be indigenous to the area and can prove their origins as one man we interviewed demonstrated. An open window on the 3rd floor offers a good view of the heavily guarded ruins of the mosque next door; one of many destroyed in Sittwe.
We go back 2 more days to the camps. Each time switching cars discreetly and keeping a low profile once inside. On one occasion, our driver stops in a small cafe in a village inside the compound where we have lunch. Everyone stops breathing when a few officers enter the lean-to. Luckily, our driver knows them and they simply acknowledge us, take a bribe and move on.
Inside the camp, we're invited into homes to see how people live. The mud dwellings have 2 empty rooms. Large families crowd together on the damp floor. Water leaks through the gaps in the thatched roofs. The ceilings are so low, one man cannot hold his head straight to talk to us. Every story is heartbreaking. Each told with fear. Highly influential people including Kofi Annan have visited the camps and some who have spoken out have been punished by the police after.
There is a school which goes up to 5th grade. The teachers are Rohingya volunteers with not much more education.
At the edge of the camp near what used to be a prawn farming lake, sits the temporary madrasa (Islamic school). Hundreds of girls and boys under 10 are reciting the day's lesson. When they see us the volume surges to show us what good students they are.
For adult men, praying at the mosque 5 times a day is their only activity.
Over the last few years, in desperation, some people fled by boats to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Many died, or were abandoned at sea by unscrupulous human traffickers. Of the ones who survived, many are stuck in camps in these countries with no more rights than here, or working in slave like conditions to pay off debts to the traffickers The disastrous outcome for so many of the boat people as they're also known has deterred those here from even attempting it. So they wait and hope. It's been 4 years...
As we walk down one lane, we spot a board with tonight's televised football matches: Manchester United vs Stoke City 5:30, Burnley vs Arsenal 7:45. We almost believe it until someone points out that it's fake: just something the kids do for fun.
By the end of the third day, when it's time to say goodbye, my heart is heavy with despair for these people who are now clinging to the hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will save them. Regretfully, as I write this entry many months later, the news headlines indicate that the situation is deteriorating.
It's hard to reconcile, daily life in Sittwe with the plight of the Rohingya just a few kilmoters away.
We walk through the morning market in town trying to identify things then past the fishmongers and the butchers to the dock where small boats carry people to and from larger boats with their purchases.
We look for a tailor in the market, miming the act of sewing and a man has us follow him thru the hot, narrow alleys of small stalls. People smile. They don't get many tourists here. One man hands me a tiny package and says, "my gift to you". It's a set of sewing needles.
The boat to Mrauk U high is a modern, high speed ferry with comfortable seats in an A/C cabin.
Hotel Nawarat is way above our means, but with virtually no tourists at this time of year they offer us a big discount ($35 with breakfast). This is the 2nd hotel in Myanmar where the hot water is in the middle...
It is still raining every day and the roads are treacherous. We almost roll the rickshaw in the potted muddy excuse they call a road on the way to the Koe Thaung Pagoda and decide to walk the rest of the way.
We hire a guide, car and driver to take us to visit the Chin people where the elder women are known for their unique facial tattoos. It's a 2 hour boat ride on the Lemro River to reach the first of 3 villages.
This unusual custom dates back to the 9th century established to dissuade the local kings who were taking beautiful women from the villages as wives. It was also a way of deterring women from marrying into other tribes. The practice started when girls were 10 years old and took 1.5 days to complete. The women (all around 70) we talk to remember it as if it were yesterday.
There are only a few tattooed women left in each village as the practice was abolished by the military regime about 50 years ago and like all minorities in the country, fear of the police overrules tradition. 15-20 years from now there will no longer be any women with web-like designs on their faces.
The 20 hour bus ride to Bagan where we are meeting a friend from Paris is surprisingly comfortable. We check back into the clean, comfortable Northern Breeze Guesthouse ($36/night with breakfast) and pick up a couple of electric scooters. The ambiance in Bagan is completely different in this month of October. The rains have transformed the dusty plains we remember with a layer of thick green vegetation. And the face of Bagan has changed since a powerful earthquake hit in August 2016 damaging hundreds of temples. Bright orange tarps hang over some of the facades and many temples are inaccessible for the time being. Still, Bagan remains a captivating site.
We head to Lake Inle for the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival that takes place in Sep/Oct depending on the Moon.
Over three weeks, 4 of the 5 famous gold Buddhas of the temple are paraded on an extravagant golden barge, towed by boats powered by men rowing with one leg, from one village to another, stopping for a day or two in monasteries to be worshipped by local pilgrims.
Hundreds of long boats with tourists and locals line the parade route and crowds race to land to revere the objects as they are brought ashore.
The festival ends with boat races showcasing this unique rowing style.
About a 3 hour drive from Lake Inle is the spectacular Kakku Pagoda, a mesmerizing, densly packed grid of about 2000 stupas; creation of the Pa-Oh minority. The oldest structures date back to the 12th century. Some are crumbling, while others stand unscathed, many with Buddha images and colorful frescoes inside. The tops of the pagodas are decorated with the intricate umbrella-shaped spires typical of Myanmar.
Our final stop on this visit is to Loikaw in what is now called the Kayah State to visit several villages in the region of Pam Pet famous for the long neck women.
Like the tattooed Chin women, most of the women wearing stacks of brass rings are older. Although we do encounter a few young girls with their first rings, this to is a dying custom. With our guide, we visit 4 villages, meeting women and listening to their stories. They wear the rings, because they believe that their female ancestor was a dragon, a legend that originated in 8th century BC Mongolia.
The women we meet have been wearing their rings since the age of 6 or 7 some even earlier. Around 12 - 15 years old they add a few more rings. At 25, they switch to longer coils, changing 5 times as they grow up with a maximum of 28-30 rings. This minority also suffered persecution by the Burmese military regime and during the many years of civil unrest, many fled to northern Thailand where they lived in camps and became a tourist attraction. Today, they live more peacefully here, but many continue to work with Thai brokers earning decent salaries as this region only recently opened to tourism. Most astonishing are the few elderly women who also wear brass rings on their arms and legs adding 10-15 kilos to their tiny physiques.
We have met several of Burma's ethnic minorities each more or less repressed by decades of harsh military rule. The resilience and resourcefulness of these people in the face of endless civil unrest and abhorrent human rights violations is a testament to their unwavering sense of hope that life will somehow get better. Change is in the air, but it will likely be a very long and painful process for many. Nonetheless, Myanmar (Burma) is a fascinating destination.