Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills Satellite Base: Google Maps Experiences from a journey in the Rakhine State, Myanmar, Ann Frances and Bo A Olson, Burma Center, January-February 2009 Contents Spread 3 Yangon 5 Sittwe 8 Mrauk U 13 Chin Hills 16 Ngapali Beach 19 Reasons for visiting Myanmar 22 About Burma Center, the authors and the report Introduction Writing this, on a beautiful deserted beach listening to the sound of the incoming tide from a peaceful Bay of Bengal, you cannot help feeling a bit sad. Turning away from the sea, behind us we find a half-built hotel, obviously abandoned in the middle of construction. Next to it there is another one, and yet another. Other hotels, already completed are barely able to keep going. Small, family-owned restaurants nearby are struggling to make ends meet. And this at the height of the tourist season in Myanmar. Many exile Burmese, supported by foreign activists, are critical to Burma Centers regular journeys in Myanmar. Naturally, they cannot be carried out without supplying the country´s military leaders with a few dollars, but on the whole, it is a dwindling percent of what they get anyway through selling out the country´s natural resources. The contact with the outside world that foreigners provide the “man on the street” cannot be valued in terms of money.Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills To fully understand what is happening in this, one of the most isolatedExperiences from a journey in the Rakhine State, Myanmar,January-February 2009 countries in the world, you cannot just listen to what the government says, or the opposition. One has to go there with open eyes and an objective mind and thenFirst published in April 2009 by: Burma Center International tell the story.P.O. Box 4034, 181 04 Lidingo Sweden The views presented in this report are however the authors and theE-mail: email@example.comWeb page: http://www.burmacenter.org author´s alone. We have throughout the report chosen to call the country by its officialLayout and Illustrations: Burma Center name Myanmar instead of Burma. After all, it is the official name and also whatAll photographs Ann Frances and Bo A.Olson. the Myanmars, the people living there, themselves call their country.Maps Burma Center, Satellite image Google Maps.Copyright: Burma Center International 2009 Ngapali, Februari 2009 Ann Frances and Bo A OlsonISBN 978-91-974357-3-4
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills The Old Banyan Tree Yangon - where it all begins In Yangon there is, in a quiet corner of the ancient Shwe Dagon Pagoda com- pound, a very old banyan tree. Not many visitors find their way to it but for those who do, it is a perfect place for experiencing mental peace and deep meditation. It is also a good starting point for any journey through this tormented nation. On arrival in Myanmar one usually has to stay a couple of days in the for- mer capital Yangon to arrange certain things which cannot be done from abroad. Despite the official capital having been moved a couple of years ago to Nay Pyi Taw, a jungle clearing upcountry, most people don´t even know exactly where it is, Yangon is still the major hub for everything that matters nationwide. Yangon seemed surprisingly pleasant for a brief early January visit. The heat didn´t hit you as it sometimes does and there was no unpleasant humidity. Even the new airport terminal was impressive, far from the traditional havoc in the old one. Customs and immigration procedure was smooth, although there were still two stamp-equipped officials approving your entry - the first sign of Myanmar’s continuing dependence on manual labor. The new system with “visa on arrival” seems to work satisfactorily, but as on some occasions even visitors with these have been denied entry at the airport, we had decided to play it safe and arrange visas through the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok. This proved to be a good precaution as Ann Frances´ visa application was rejected due to the authorities’ current paranoia regarding teachers travelling on British passports. Apparently a couple of female English teachers with tourist visas spent their time “illegally teaching politics” a year or so ago and this now has created obstacles for their countrymen in the same profession. This has also caused another problem for some tourists as it isn´t so easy anymore to get your four weeks visa extended by an extra week or two. But Burma wouldn´t be Burma if a rejected visa application was to be the
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hillsend of the story. A day later a new application was handed in to the Embassy witha less suspicious profession chosen. This, and a few added dollars did the trick andwe could, in the end, depart from Bangkok for Yangon as planned. By now, after numerous visits, we almost look at Yangon as a second hometown. So many familiar streets to walk, places to visit and old friends to meet.Our team was to survey the general situation and bound by a commitment not todiscuss domestic politics with locals. This was not difficult to stick to, as very fewseemed seriously interested in politics at all. Life in the city had not changed muchfrom the year before and, as usual, almost everybody just complained about theeconomic situation in general and their own in particular. Strangely enough, having listened to numerous reports from internationalNGOs stating otherwise, people in general did not seem to be any worse off than Diesel generators step in when ordinaryduring our preceding visits. But then, by now the people have had plenty of time power failsto get used to their situation. Monks do their rounds every morning to “The Lady” was mentioned on a couple of occasions. We got the feeling that collect food for the day. Sometimes youngthe reason was more a way to approach a visitor than any serious concern for the novices even ask for money nowadays.Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, detained in her lakeside residence onUniversity Avenue. Touts and taxi drivers actually offer detours taking you by her as well, is that the large red billboards with government propaganda slogans aregates, which at the time of our visit were not blocked by police or soldiers. Even if gone. They are now replaced by commercial advertising boards which often havecurious visitors are not allowed to stop and take pictures immediately outside, there messages partly in English. Instead of on the billboards, the same old slogans nowis little doubt that “Aung San Suu Kyi Street” is becoming one of the city’s major seem to be restricted to less dominant places like framed boxes in State media andtourist attractions after the top pagodas. Question is how far the authorities will let on title pages of Government sponsored publications.it go before erecting the barbed wire roadblocks again. Most ordinary people you meet in Yangon are welcoming to foreigners. Almost everyone we talked to They are definitely not as shy and watchful as a few years ago and it is a pleasure actually knew about the upcoming elec- to sit down in a tea shop and “chew the fat” with the locals. If you want to meet tions next year, but very few thought that strangers, it is clearly an advantage if you are walking the streets by yourself as much would change afterwards. Police and people have a tendency to avoid contact if you have company. If you are alone and soldiers kept a low profile throughout the stop anywhere, you seldom have to wait long before somebody approaches you in city, apart from one day, when policemen a friendly and helpful way. Either they think that you are lost or they just want to armed with what looked like American practice the little English they know, or as in one case, a man grabbing your arm M16 assault rifles, were stationed at most when he thought you were looking in the wrong direction when crossing the street. of the strategic locations in the city, includ- In any case a smile and a few friendly words exchanged means so much to these ing all entrances to the Shwe Dagon Pa- people. goda. Nowhere did they obstruct our com- ings and goings, and in some instances they You always hate to were even helpful. Gone seemed to be the leave Yangon but it is a old suspiciousness and brusque behavior, big country with plenty not so seldom actually replaced by friendly to study and this journey smiles instead. In some cases you could would take us through the even conduct a pleasant conversation in Rakhine State and then broken English with the soldiers; all this eventually into the Chin rather new to us who have been used to Hills as well. meeting with a considerably rougher atti-The magnificent Shwe Dagon should be admired tude from Myanmar authorities.from a distance at sunrise or as here, at close One very noticeable thing in Yan-hand after nightfall Street commerce, downtown Yangon gon’s cityscape, and in several other towns
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills Waiting for the Oil Sittwe - the China connection Foreigners are not allowed to travel by car from central Myanmar all the way to Sittwe, the capital of the Rakhine State. Even if it were possible, it would not be worthwhile to take so much of the visitor´s precious transit time strug- gling on these cumbersome roads anyway, so our little team purchased one-way air tickets from Yangon to Akyab, the old name for Sittwe which is still the name of the airport. We decided to fly Air Bagan, thus risking additional flak from activists who claim that the company, although private, is owned by someone close to the junta. Actually, there are not so many alternatives if you want to travel safely and reasonably smoothly. You can of course go by boat to Sittwe, but it is a two day trip from Yangon, and the question is whether you actually supply the regime with that much less money anyway. Security checks for domestic airline departures to and from Yangon are rath- er remarkable. In Yangon, the officials have electronic devices but nobody seems to take them seriously. We were checked by two female guards each using a metal detector. The gadgets gave constant sparkling sounds when moved along our belts and pockets but the girls just giggled and waved us through. Smaller airports, such as Akyab and Thandwe do not have electronic con- trols. Both the checked luggage and the carry-on bags were gone through manually by airport staff who were not too careful when fumbling around in our personal be- longings. They did not so much look for weapons or other sharp objects it seemed but for antiques being illegally taken away. At no airport did they seem interested in water bottles, other liquids or creams carried in the hand luggage, not even on the international departures. Sittwe is often considered nothing particularly special and is primarily a base for travelling further into the northern Rakhine State. This is not really fair as it is actually quite an interesting town, partly because of it´s historical background but
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hillsalso because it is a place where often political protests start which later spread to One of the reasons why we choseother parts of the country. It is well worth spending at least a day in town. Not so this part of Myanmar this time, was thatmany attractions to visit maybe, but the townsfolk are rather special and this part it is probably the part of the country mostof Myanmar seems so different from other parts of the country we have travelled likely to change in the near future. Somein. of Myanmar’s major oil and natural gas When walking around in Sittwe, at first you get the impression that virtually finds lie just outside the coast near Sittwe.everyone speaks English. Even in the pitch black before dawn you hear the “hallo” However at the time of our visit there wereand “goodbye” from the people you meet, not necessarily in the right order though. no signs of any tankers, oil still enteringHowever, you soon discover that that is most people’s total foreign vocabulary. the port the traditional way with some of In most places in Myanmar, as here, there is a definite desire to please foreign it being stored in a few rusty old cisternsguests. Visiting restaurants you often get an “English” translation of the menu even near the harbor.if most of the time they could just as well have left you with the one in Burmese. The contract between MyanmarThe words are obviously taken directly from a dictionary, often a rather ancient one and China was signed late last year andat that, but without any English speaker checking the translation. construction of an oil and gas pipeline through Myanmar is expected to start this Often when Rakhine State is mentioned these days, it is in connection with year. Peaceful, rural Sittwe will presum-the Rohingyas fleeing the country in boats and being washed ashore in Thailand ably change into a busy terminal city forand Indonesia. We did not find any distinct signs of the ethnic Rohingya minor- all the gas and oil deliveries and be filledity in or around Sittwe. Obviously, a good part of the local population consists of with construction and rig-workers as well.people with either Bengali or similar ancestry, but when asked about their ethnicity At the time of our visit there were no signsthey all claimed to be “Myanmar Muslims”. We were given the impression that the The Colonial clock Tower, Sittwe at all of any construction work going on,word “Rohingya” was avoided, even by Buddhist Rakhine. nor of any Chinese nationals. There was however, a slight air of anticipation noticeable among the locals, maybe not hope as There are a couple of decent hotels and guest houses in downtown Sittwe yet, but at least the people did not show complete despair as in some other towns.and we decided to stay at the Shwe Thazin on Main Road. It was a bit more expen- You could compare the atmosphere with what we experienced in many parts ofsive than our usual accommodation, but it offered a formidable view from the roof the country after the introduction of Visit Myanmar Year 1996 but before westernterrace of hundreds of large fruit bats resting in the trees in the old University com- economic sanctions and boycotts put an end to their hopes. Hopefully the Chinesepound across the street. There they hang from dawn to dusk, waiting for the night´s involvement will prove more long-lasting for ordinary peoples´ livelihoods.excursion to the islands just off the coast. The roof terrace was the highest point in Even if no signs of large-scale construction were noticable in Sittwe, theretown and on a clear day you also had a nice view of the Lokananda Paya, locally were reports about major work being done on Ramree (Rambree) Island, the larg-known as the “Than Shwe Pa- est island in Myanmar with a population of some hundreds of thousands, situatedgoda” after the junta chief who just off the Rakhine coast between Sittwe and Thandwe.had it built in 1997. Thus, it is not only a question of the Myanmar oil and gas which will affect As in most other Myan- Sittwe when the Chinese pipeline ismar towns, electricity was re- completed. Large tankers will arrivestricted to just a few hours a with oil from the Middle East andday. The use of diesel genera- Africa and unload in ports nearbytors was not as common as in to feed the pipeline. What this willYangon, however, which was do to the local environment in thevery noticeable if you walked near future is an open question.along the main street afterdark. Several shops depended Although Sittwe is a majoron car batteries, charged dur- naval base, there was very littleing the time of day when cur- military activity. A few naval ves-rent through the mains was sels were anchored in the harbor,available and used to give life perhaps a sign that the border is-to some fluorescent tubes. sue with Bangladesh was not quite Fruit bats and distant Lokananda Paya Rush hour on Main Street, Sittwe
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hillssolved yet, but there were no seem not to bother much with peo-soldiers in sight and just a ple and nowhere were we chased bycouple of sleepy policemen a pack of stray dogs as occasionallyprepared to sort out possible happens in some Thai towns.traffic jams on the road aroundthe new clock tower. Sittwe port is the starting There are some memo- point for almost all travel in this partrials still remaining after the of Myanmar. As we were to contin-British, for example the old ue up north to the former Arakanclock tower at the other end of capital Mrauk U (Myohaung) andthe main street, more famous places beyond, we decided it wouldbut now a rusting monu- be a good investment to hire ament over a past colonial era. guide/interpreter; a young RakhineThough considerably more student living in Sittwe. Not thatpicturesque, it is not in use any it was absolutely necessary as theremore and has been replaced by are quite a few guide books in Eng-the new tower with working lish for the area around Mrauk U,clocks, and of similar design but it solved a lot of problems andto new clock towers in many misunderstandings having some-other towns across the country. body on hand who could speak theApparently the old tower was local dialects as well as negotiatelooked upon as a symbol of Dried fish packed for shipping, Sittwe harbour with officials. This is just about acolonialism and thus felt not must if one, as we did, intends toworth repairing. continue the journey into the Chin Potatoes of all sizes, Sittwe market Apart from being a naval base, Sittwe is also a centre for the fishing industry. Hills where all kinds of permits, of- A visit to the local fish market when the fish- ficial as well as unofficial, are required. ing boats arrive and offload the night´s catch There are government ferries as well as private “express” boats trafficking at the docks early in the morning was a must. the waterways to Mrauk U, but not on a daily basis. We decided however to hire a From dawn to dusk the commerce contin- slow-moving private vessel with its skipper and assistant. This way we had no fel- ues, with thousands of small fish lying drying low passengers to consider, and, apart from certain tidal conditions, we felt almost outside on the ground before being packed in complete charge of things when we at daybreak one morning cast loose and set tightly into huge bulky sacks for onward off for the eight-hour journey upstream on the mighty Kaladan River. shipment to Yangon and elsewhere. Much larger fish were hanging, cut into strips, for faster and more thorough drying. Nearby, there was the busy vegetable market common to all Myanmar towns. We were amazed to see the variety of produce on sale, in particular potatoes sorted by size, of which the smallest offered would clearly have been rejected in any European potato harvest. Rice, of varying quality, is still the most common staple in the Myanmar diet, although fast-cooked noodles are becoming increasingly popular.Fish drying in Sittwe harbour Being mainly a Buddhist country, dogs are allowed to room freely everywhere. They Early morning departure from Sittwe Harbour
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills Ancient Mrauk U Historic Rakhine capital on the way to Chin Hills Leaving Sittwe port at the first light of dawn was an adventure in itself. Berths for smaller private craft were scarce, so boats arriving the evening before were tied alongside the others. The biggest ones, Government ferries, closest to the pier and then the others according to status. Thus, to reach our small private boat we had to first scramble over three others. The pleasant boat trip to Mrauk U was estimated to take about eight hours, first following the wide Kaladan River north and then turning northeast on the increasingly narrower Kalabon, Pyaungbya and Chaung Rivers. Departure time from Sittwe was set to coincide with high tide upriver where the water is shallow and the sand banks treacherous. Kaladan River is, if the Indian Government gets it´s way, going to be devel- oped into the major transport route from the Bay of Bengal to the Indian state of Mizoram. This is another reason why Sittwe may change considerably in the future when the work to deepen the river commences and even more so later when goods destined for the Eastern parts of India will be transshipped through Sittwe port. But today, the Kaladan River is still a very peaceful part of the world. Apart from a couple of rusty warships belonging to the Myanmar Navy and one or two smaller freighters, traffic at the river mouth consisted primarily of smaller boats arriving with agricultural products or departing with cargoes aimed for villages further upriver. A short while after having left the harbor, we passed a vessel anchored beside the main river channel. It belonged to the Myanmar Navy, and apparently its pur- pose was to observe the boats passing by and collect customs duties where appli- cable. Crew members followed our passage through binoculars without reacting. For the next couple of hours we met several fishing vessels and smaller boats, heavily loaded with rice and other agricultural produce heading for the market. We
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills also met several long rafts consisting of lic transport passes them by. Thus an teak logs or other timber tied together unannounced visit from westerners on their way downstream to sawmills or was a big event and attracted a lot for export. Further up the rivers these of attention. In one of the villages, A rafts consisted of tall bamboo stems, of- Gyi Taw Ma, the head monk in the ten with a little tent erected on top for monastery had died and preparations the man in charge, who virtually used were being made for a grand farewell the raft as his home until he deposited funeral. Girls were practising tradi- his bamboo load in Sittwe, packed his tional dances to the beat of drums things and hitched a return ride only to and other instruments. The monk start the whole procedure all over again had died in December and it struck with a new bamboo raft. us as remarkable how long a dead hu- In all the rivers here, you can man could be kept in the heat before expect loose timber which has broken cremation, but methods for preserv- away from the rafts and which is a po- ing bodies in this tropical climate ap- tential danger to other boats. However, pear to be quite far advanced. the lookouts also have to be alert all the In these Mro and Kamee vil- time for underwater sandbanks which lages we noted for the first time,Myanmar Navy patrol boat on Kaladan River nearSittwe may change position each tide. The the use of tin vessels to carry water, lookouts usually manage to spot other which actually are native to Bangla-kinds of debris to avoid in good time - in daylight that is. What struck us was, that desh. They are very light comparedapart from pieces of driftwood, the rivers were amazingly clear of floating garbage. to the clay pots used in other parts Fetching water - a woman´s jobEven the riverbanks were fairly clear from plastic bottles and other junk, which one of the country and are much easieris used to seeing along rivers in other parts of the world. to keep clean. Fresh water is collected in dams filled by the rain during the mon- soon season. It is mostly women who collect the water, often young girls who On the way along the upper rivers we took the opportunity to stop at a would manage to carry them on their heads or by hold-couple of Mro and Kamee tribe villages situated near the river. The inhabitants are ing them with one hand against a hip. When filled theseprimarily Buddhists and belong to the Chin nationality, but some are also related to vessels are very heavy indeed and we admired their dex-Bangladeshis. These villages are quite easily accessible from the river but most pub- terity in managing to carry them up the bank, let alone lift them. At no time did we notice a male doing this particular job? These villages are self-sufficient to a high degree. They have, for example, their own schools, a rice mill, and village craftsmen produce much of the equipment needed to carry on with their daily life. Apart from fish- ing, they breed pigs and various kinds of poultry. We were invited to share a meal but politely declined when we noticed the hundreds of flies buzzing round the raw piece of meat on offer. During the last stage of our journey to Mrauk U, the water in the river was so calm that it almost ap- peared not to move at all. This is not always so, espe- cially during the monsoon season. In November 2004 a speedboat was overturned by a cyclone which hit just after dark and five Italian tourists were drowned. Transporting goods up the Kaladan River We arrived in Mrauk U in the late afternoon. Long before arrival, on the narrow, shallow and wind- Lunch anyone?
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hillsing Chaung River, was amazing to see how in the early morningwe could see a num- the stands were overflowing with all kinds ofber of stupas lined fresh fish, meat, vegetables, fruit, and other foodup on the mountain products. It was just as amazing to see how byridge surrounding lunchtime all the fresh food had been sold.the town. Suddenly The market also had sections for all kindsrounding a bend, we of consumer goods, as well as tailoring and dress-noticed several boats making, where women were sitting at their an-tied to a little jetty - cient manual sewing machines all day, mostlythe next stop on our doing alterations but also sewing new clothestrip. to order as well. We very much liked the idea of so much used clothing being offered for sale, For those this was of course due to most people’s poor eco-who are more in- nomic situation, but also to some degree a signterested in genuine of a refreshing new environmental thinking inarcheological sites Myanmar,which was also evident in the fact thatthan easy-to-reach everything was re-used in some way or another,tourist landmarks, thus leaving the garbage collector with very mea- Entering Mrauk UMrauk U is far more gre “pickings”.interesting to visit than, for example, Bagan. There was a certain special feeling, on Although the countryside is so beautiful Tailor shop in Mrauk U marketbeing given an opportunity to explore all these historical sites totally alone, both and there are so many spectacular sights, it wasinteriors and exteriors, in the absence of other tourists. One thing that irritated us almost impossible to get hold of any postcards. If you are lucky enough to find anyin Mrauk U, as with so many other Buddhist temples across the country, was the at all, they usually depict some famous place far away. Not even in the local touristfairly recent custom of surrounding the magnificent golden Buddha images with a office could they supply a postcard showing a local point of interest. Surprising, ashalo of flashing electronic diodes in a variety of colors. It seemed to us an abbera- the mail service from Myanmar nowadays is quite reliable most of the time.tion of an otherwise respectful atmosphere. In Mrauk U as with anywhere else in Myanmar when visiting Buddhist sites, In Mrauk U weapart from being properly dressed, it is completely forbidden to wear anything had booked a semi-de-on your feet. This means no socks either and not only inside the actual buildings tached bungalow in the themselves, as, for example in Thailand, but within very peaceful Vesali lodge, the grounds as well. This can be a bit of a nuisance named after the first Ra- if there is a long hike up a steep slope to a temple. khine capital now only a We found that some antiseptic tissues for cleaning nearby ruin. We had hired one´s feet afterwards and a few band-aids came in a jeep with driver for a few very handy. This strict rule is one of the very few days so it did not mat- in Myanmar that does not just ter much that our lodg- discriminate civilians - military ings were a kilometer or personnel have to follow the “no so from the town center. foot-wearing” rule as well. Some The electrical supply was monasteries do however allow more of a problem with shoes in the grounds although the hotel generator only not inside the buildings. working a couple of hours in the early morning and As in all other towns we then again in the evening. passed through, a visit to the lo- As almost everywhere else cal market was of course a “must”. in these parts there wasMilitary - shoes off as well The market was open and busy no electricity supplied every day except Sunday, and it Buddha Image with the Koe Thaung Pagoda in background through mains.
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills You could easily We also visited a private liquor walk into town, or borrow distillery in one village where some sort a bike from the hotel, but of rice whisky was produced on license we found the jeep very con- from the local authorities. There were venient to use on the rather no counters or work benches, and like rough roads between the most other places we visited to see the ancient monuments, many various kinds of locally manufactured of which lie quite far apart items, the whole procedure was carried from each other and espe- out on the ground. In this case there cially when climbing ridges was only an earthen floor, and the shed to get an overall view or to a very dark and dreary lean-to on the watch the sunset. side of the bamboo family house. The set-up was exactly as we´d imagined the As in so many other old hillbilly moonshine factories to be. parts of the country, there Here too, only women appeared to be were constant road works involved in the distilling process.Road work often manual and by women laborers everywhere, progress is painfully slow as almost It is remarkable how very feweverything is done manually, often by the women with a male supervisor. Not so far intoxicated persons one sees beingfrom our hotel there was a construction site; women were crushing the larger stones aware of the fact that so many people ininto smaller ones, to be used as fill for the new road. The actual crushing was done Myanmar are very poor and supposedlyin an old-fashioned machine which the women fed constantly. We had the oppor- disillusioned as well. Beetlenut chewingtunity to talk to the work crew and they seemed to be happy in their work and to be is common everywhere, though this is to Liqour distillery near Mrauk Ugetting an income from it. It most westerners such a disgusting habit.was however both noisy and It also works as a slight stimulant, leaving users with red-stained lips, gums anddusty in the extreme and there teeth and ugly red blobs of spit everywhere..was no protective clothing or Entertainment, apart from the occasional puppet shows that are so specialfootwear. In fact, nowhere in to Myanmar, consists mainly of watching videos. People do not have their ownMyanmar did we see any type equipment but in most villages there is a sort of movie house, a shed containing anof protective clothing or ear old TV and a video or even a DVD player. The features, often films produced inprotection even in the noisi- Myanmar, are announced on posters nearby.est of places such as at the lo- The daily routine for most people is work from dawn to late afternoon,cal airports. Everywhere flip- seven days a week. After work they spend considerable time washing themselvesflops were the only type of as well as their clothes at home or in the river. Then, after the evening meal, theyfootwear, apart from once in may have a little time to relax with theirYangon, when laborers raking families or friends. We were told thattar on the road were actually the reason why so few men were in-wearing rubber boots. volved around the village was that many As very few tourists of them worked in the fields and oth-come to Mrauk U, there were Village industry making fans ers in various “beautification projects”not many local village indus- commissioned by the authorities.tries left. Those there were produced items needed locally, such as fans and hatsto shield the sun. The people doing the work, mostly women here as well, did not Unknown to us, we had arrived inearn very much as the cost of raw material cut into their profit, not to speak of the Mrauk U a day or so before the Myan-middle men who provided the material and then handled marketing of the finished mar Prime Minister, Number Threeproducts. If you were thinking of buying any souvenirs at all, it seemed to us a good General, Thein Sein, was scheduled toidea to buy directly from the person who makes them. Village cinema near Mrauk U make an official visit. This meant that soldiers were within sight everywhere
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hillsin this otherwise so military-free cal advice on the proper way to restore these ancient temples, many of them datingarea. Wherever you aimed your back to the 15th century and the desperate need for funding to save them for futurecamera, a soldier was bound to generations. We were especially thrilled to be shown a small section of the ancientstep into view which caused a city wall, virtually untouched by human hands, except for some tiny gold leaf of-problem as photographing armed ferings attached by local worshippers.soldiers in Myanmar is taboo. The soldiers were mostly To us, apart from being awakened at four o’clock one morning by an ex-friendly enough and did not stop tremely loud mobile pa-system, the Number Three General’s visit did not interfereus anywhere, not even when pass- much with our own plans. We actually found it rather interesting to observe theing close to the two large con- whole operation. We could have got into trouble the last morning however, whencrete helipads built right next to we were due to leave Mrauk U to return to Sittwe, as the army had started to req-the Dukkhanthein (Htukkant uisition all civilian jeeps in the area, including the drivers. Thus we had to leaveThein) Pagoda, one of the major well before dawn. Our jeep was not equipped with headlights so we drove all thehistorical sites in the area. Of- way to the dock in the pitch black and thus made it aboard our boat well beforeficers looked a bit suspicious, or the military had a chance to intervene. The problem now was that it was a little tooperhaps we should say curious, early for high tide, which was evident an hour later when our boat ran straight intowhen we took a closer look at the the shore in the early morning fog. As if that was not enough, an hour or so afterbright yellow party tent erected at we had managed to dislodge ourselves; our propeller got stuck in a fishing net andanother prominent site, the Koe during the effort to free it, loosened and dropped to the bottom of the muddy river.Thaung Pagoda also known as the Soldier on temple wall, Mrauk U Later we managed to hitch a ride with another riverboat passing downstream. Ap-Ninety Thousand Images Pagoda, parently, such mishaps are more the rule than exception in these parts but, thanksobviously intended to shield worshiping dignitaries from the sun. to mobile telephone availability, scheduled airline departures can be adjusted ac- Most locals seemed to take a positive attitude towards high level visits like cordingly.this. It gave them a chance to sell some more of their produce, not to mention allthe flowers and palm trees that had to be planted along the visitors´ intended path,which meant paid jobs for those hired to do the planting and watering, as well as an extra income for those required to spruce up the surroundings in general. Usually, before important visits like this, one or two of the ancient pago- das are given a little extra attention as far as basic repairs and general tidying up are concerned. Like Bagan, the temples in Mrauk U have suffered considerably over the centuries from earthquakes and other environmental disasters. However, the question is if they have not suffered even more from mod- ern “restoration” in the hands of un- skilled “restorers”. Perhaps fortunately enough the overall economic situation has actually prevented too much work being done on the sites here as yet. We met an official who spoke of the pressing need for expert archaeologi-Welcome to Mrauk U Sunset, Mrauk U
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills “I can see the coconuts” Medicines, school supplies and eye glasses (!) Early one morning we set off from our base in Mrauk U towards our final destination; the Chin Hills. The Chin Hills lie far from any tourist route, not even many Myanmars themselves find their way to these remote vil- lages in this rugged area. This made it even more vital for us to visit some of them and perhaps take with us needed supplies, as well as giving them a brief opportunity for contact with strangers from the outside world. In Mrauk U market we had purchased some medical supplies with money kind people back home had donated. Some of the medicines were officially approved for general ailments such as fevers, headaches, etc, oth- ers were traditional medications widely used for generations, and to be used for various stomach problems and were thus much more trusted locally. We had also brought with us a fair amount of school supplies such as writ- ing books and ball point pens, badly needed in these ill-equipped village schools. We started off by jeep for Nam Gya Village a few very bumpy miles away on the banks of the Lemru River. We were actually on the one and only road connection to Yangon and could quite see why it was not approved for tourists; there were far more potholes than Pharmacy in Mrauk U market
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills We reached the jungle-clad slopes of the Chin Hills early in the afternoon. The river was fairly wide even up here, but very shallow. In some places you could see fishermen stand- ing in the middle of the river with wa- ter up to their knees only, but our skip- per always managed to find a narrow channel through the sandbanks, just deep enough to get us through. We had to walk the final bit to the villages though, as the river was far too low at this time of the year. We left our boat on the river bank, and taking the supplies in our backpacks we set off for the first village. Immediately on ar- rival we were virtually surrounded by all the village children. Later many ofMain road Mrauk U - Yangon the grown-ups joined us as well, and through an interpreter we explainedroad surface. One could only imagine what it would be like in the rainy season. On why we had come and gave directionsleaving town we hit a cow which unexpectedly ran out into the road. As there was for using the medicines.no noticeable injury to the beast or the vehicle we continued without much delay. These villages are unusual and In Nam Gya we hired a boat to take us the long way up the winding river rather special for here you can find, in Chin Lady with traditional tattoo and elongated earsto a couple of Chin villages seldom visited by Westerners, partly because of the their own familiar surroundings, somedistance and partly due to restrictions laid down by the authorities - often local of the few remaining older Chin ladies who still have tattooed faces and elongatedpermits are required, which usually means paying-off some lower ranking officers. earlobes. As among the “long necked” Padaung women in Kayah State with brass Our skipper was a bit reluctant to take us all the way and suggested some rings around their necks, the tattooing of faces among the Chin is a dying traditionother, more conveniently located villages, instead. However, these did get foreign as the young girls prefer not to adhere to this deforming practice any more. Novisitors occasionally, so we insisted on sticking to our initial plans, especially as we doubt the older ladies themselves think they are very pretty. Most of them had ac-had already spent money on supplies intended for these particular villages. There tually never seen their own faces until they saw them on our digital camera screens.was a brief discussion but in the end the crew agreed to take us all the way. We do wonder if they really believed us when we said it really was them. Luckily, greedy tourist “services” have not yet managed to exploit these Chin people, as has been the case among the Padaungs, especially by less scrupulous Thai agents. We were shown the new school being added to for the village children. There was a pile of bricks stacked on one side of a cement wall. The villagers were very proud of it but being a Saturday the teacher was visiting in another village that day. In Western countries we wait until we have financing ready before we start infrastructure projects. Here in Myanmar people realize that they would never get anything at all done if they waited for sufficient funds, so they decide what they want and then they do it bit by bit as money and material become available. The partly finished structures are, in the meantime, used for their intended purpose. In this case the school benches were just moved slightly when another little bit of the roof had been completed. Blackboards, rulers etc were all in place with even an Bamboo shipment on the Lemru River old-fashioned hand bell to summon the children to class.
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin HillsA school being built in a Chin Hills´village. Calling the children to class The writing books and ball point pens we brought were very much ap- Seeing yourself for the first time in a digital camera Navigating the shallow waters of the Lemrupreciated as writing material is much in demand. However we wished we had also River could sometimes be trickybrought colorful magazines, picture calendars or plastic wall illustrations showinglocal crops, fauna and flora etc. Those could be bought in Yangon very cheaply. As we continued downstream, we reminisced over the memorable moments of the day – perhaps the most touching was a meeting with one of the village heads- After having spent some time looking round the first village, we walked men. While handing over the medicines for the grown-ups and Marie bisquitsalong the riverbank to the next one. Here there was actually a small, very basic in- for the children to eat, this old man was squatting quietly nearby on his heels withfirmary, with a young native paramedic to hand over the medicines to. He was also his longyi hitched up, as so many Myanmars do, chewing beetlenut, a quiet smilein charge of the village school and quite pleased to receive more writing materials. on his face. When we had finished reading the labels on the medicines, we ap-As previously, some of the medicines we had brought had printed directions in proached him carefully realizing immediately that he was having difficulty focus-Burmese attached but others, in the category “traditional medicines” for acute diar- sing on the pictures on our digital camera, so we lent him our spectacles just on therhea for example did not need any instructions as they were so well known. off-chance. Having studied the photos once again, a big grin appeared from ear to ear as he pointed upwards to the coconuts and exclaimed ”I can see the coconuts It was late afternoon, and now”. so having achieved what we had set out to do, it was high time to Needless to say, on that special Saturday, we left our spectacles behind in return downstream. Travelling by that remote Chin village. river in the dark is definitely not to be recommended, partly due to shifting sandbanks but more especially because of the timber floats and tied-together bamboo cane rafts which are floated down stream all the way to the sawmills in Sittwe. Sometimes one could make out a flickering light from a small cooking fire on one of them but mostly there was no warn- ing at all. These long bamboo canes are very hard and sharp and could easily damage any ricketyDelivering urgently needed medicines and school supplies wooden boat which might runand popular Marie bisquits in the Chin Hills into them. Sunset on the Lemru River
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills Days in Paradise Wrapping up the journey at Ngapali Beach After a few weeks of struggling in remote areas, the Burma Center´s fact finding teams usually need a short break, before returning to what our western colleagues especially, mean by “civilization”. Thus the two of us decided to spend a couple of days on a beach, relaxing and comparing notes. However, this time we did not choose a place elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but decided to stay on in Myanmar. We considered one of those maritime recre- ation areas which play such an important part in the life in the country and are so well spoken of by Myanmar travellers. This obviously needed some further research as well. Ngapali Beach by the Bay of Bengal in Southern Rakhine State, was sup- posed to be a popular maritime paradise, so we booked a flight from Sittwe to Thandwe, formerly Sandoway, the second largest town in the state. The flight took less than one hour, and from the miniscule Thandwe airport, we took a taxi a couple of miles down to Ngapali Beach, a three-mile stretch of beautifully clean, white sand and with several hotels right on the beach. This particular resort was intended to welcome hoards of Western tourists, and certainly all the facilities are there, but very few tourists come due to tourist boycotts and other occurrences which have scared foreigners away. As the hotel prices are steep for average Myanmars, the place was rather empty. We could count the foreigners on the fingers of one hand and domestic tourists on the other, and that was on a good day. There were actually more locals trying to sell coconut drinks, bananas and handicrafts from little stands on the beach than visitors. We were happy to see too that we were left in peace however and not approached by anyone pressing us to buy. On one occasion a souvenir seller actually had to be woken when we approached her beach stand in the heat of the day with a handful of kyats! Another very positive thing in Ngapali and other Myanmar beach resorts
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hillsis that, unlike facilities where you could enjoy eatingmost other your own catch for a dollar or so.private re- A couple of fishing villages cansorts all over easily be reached from Ngapali Beach,the world, the either walking or by rented bicycle.strip of beach They are filled with activity when thebetween the boats leave in the evening or return withhotels and their catch in the early morning hours.the water is The local fishermen seemed a bit wor-public. This ried as they had noticed a drop in themeans that amount of fish caught in the beginningyou may of 2009 which nobody could explain.swim, walk, There is a souvenir shop by thejog or relax 3 km white sand virtually to yourself road at the north end of the beach whereanywhere you can purchase locally-made handi-along the long sandy beach without fences or other restrictions. Walking or jogging crafts and even postcards, the latter be-was especially nice as the sand closest to the water was soothing for bare feet and ing rather scarce in Myanmar, and all atnot too soft for running. We did not at any time notice any broken glass or other very reasonable prices. Ngapali beach is great for all kinds of fishinggarbage anywhere on the beach. Not even sharp sea shells as they were quicklypicked up by local beachcombers at the turn of the tide and were due to become The closest town is Thandwe,handmade necklaces and other souvenirs. three miles away. Local minibuses, type small pickup trucks, frequent the road Usually, it is much cheaper to book a hotel in advance through Internet behind the hotels at Ngapali Beach and take you to the town market. The mini-than paying the “walk in” rate. Due to the lack of tourists this was not quite true buses are cheap but rather uncomfortable as in addition to plenty of passengersat Ngapali Beach at the time. Rates on rooms normally quoted at around fifty dol- of all sizes you often have to cram in amongst large sacks of rice, oil barrels andlars a night could be negotiated down to just over ten. And many hotels are rather cumbersome household paraphernalia as well. To hang on, standing on the littlecomfortable with hot and cold water, air conditioning and mosquito nets. Electric- narrow step at the back of the bus may actually be more comfortable despite allity supplied by generators both mornings and well into the night was a pleasant the potholes and bumps in the road. The cost for a minibus ride from the beachsurprise, as was an excellent breakfast included in the cost of the room. to Thandwe is a couple of hundred kyat. As the smallest bills you usually use are 500 kyat Apart from swim- we do not know exactly how much we paid. ming and enjoying the To give change to a tourist was not a com- peaceful beach itself, there mon practice in Myanmar when it came to was not much else to do in local services like this. Visitors are considered the vicinity. You could hire extremely wealthy people as they can afford a small fishing boat with to travel so far away from home. skipper for a half or full There was nothing special to see day, taking you out to Pearl in Thandwe either, although just walking Island nearby for snorkel- around enjoying the busy country town, to ing. The corals were rather which people come from all over to sell or disappointing but fish of buy at the market was an experience in it- many kinds were plentiful. self. Do not expect to meet any other tourists You could also try fishing though, and be aware that very few signs are yourself, either with con- in English. From the illustrated signs you can ventional rod and hook or usually figure out where there is a place to eat by spear. Afterwards you and so on. were taken to a tiny island, Otherwise the most popular thing to actually just a sandbank do with your spare time at Ngapali Beach,Fruit vendors, Ngapali Beach at high tide, with cooking Catching the bus to Thandwe both for tourists and Myanmars, was to walk along
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hillsthe road behind the hotels, chatting nings, he was like so many other Myanmar entrepreneurs a “Jack of all trades”. Inwith the friendly locals and choosing daytime he arranged fishing trips and boat excursions on the Bay of Bengal, justa place for your evening meal. a stone´s throw away and his English was good enough to be the guide on these Like in most other places in tours himself.Myanmar, if you go out in the late Tony told us that his father-in-law had previously been the chef in a coupleafternoon, you are advised to bring of luxury hotels along the beach but had now on retirement been talked into open-a flashlight as activities are spontane- ing his own place. His specialty was, despite the name of the place, Myanmar foodous and do seem to carry on into the and then, naturally the seafood caught locally the same morning.evening. Even when taking yourself Tony suggested that we should step in and try the food, something we didback from local restaurants after dark not regret. The slices of barracuda and deep fried giant prawns in curry and coco-a flashlight is recommended. How- nut milk were definitely a culinary hit. To be honest, we wondered if we, at anyever people you meet are not terribly time before, anywhere, had eaten anything fresher or more delicious and definitelyhappy if you accidentally shine yours not at that price. What surprised us though was that we were the only two dinnerin their faces hindering out their own guests. Tony smiled a little nostalgically and agreed that the influx of foreign tour-night vision. Bicycles are not usually ists had not become what he had wished for. “Barber shop quartet”, Ngapali Beachequipped with lights at all, and there are The restaurant looked the same as all the others nearby and we couldn´tno sidewalks, so it is best to be on the lookout at all times. help suggesting that maybe he had just chosen the wrong name. Most foreigners who travel to these faraway places are hardly looking for food they can eat every day Most of the hotels along the beach actually have their own restaurants at home. Maybe he should change the name to something more appropriate to de-although prices can be a bit higher than other local eateries and business hours scribe the delicious traditional marine food being served, so special for Myanmar,more restricted. As tourists we sincerely believe that you should spread your money making a point of the fact that the proprietors were a local family? Tony noddedaround locally and not spend all of it in the same place, and definitely not all at the thoughtfully and we said goodnight and did not think more of it.hotel where you are staying. Just behind the hotel strip there is a road lined with Two days later, on the eve of our departure, we decided to return to Tony´sseveral small restaurants serving excellent food at what seems to be all hours. These place once more. We searched and searched but could not find the big white signrestaurants, mostly privately owned by locals, were established before the political with the text “European Restaurant”. After having walked back and forth a fewconfrontations and natural disasters of the last couple of years scared away foreign times we suddenly recognized Tony´s wife, who had seen us looking, and had comevisitors, and they now struggle on the brink of ruin. But like most other private out onto the road. Then we discovered that the old sign was gone, replaced with ainitiatives in Myanmar, they simply refuse to die. brand new one with the hand painted letters “Myanmar Family Restaurant”, the paint barely dry. It was even nicer to see that the place that evening was just about One evening, walking along the road, we stopped to talk with a young filled with dinner guests.man who was busily chalking the evening menu up on a blackboard in front of his little establishment. “European After having visited Myan- Restaurant” it said on a big white mar again, we were more con- sign, and, like all other eating places vinced than ever that the Myanmar nearby, this was an exotic open air people really need our constructive establishment with a wooden floor support far more than boycotts raised above the ground, a traditional and other political mumbo jumbo. roof on wooden posts and beauti- This could be in the form of ad- fully framed by palms and banana vice or why not some gift items, trees thrusting their leaves in from all easily copied and locally manufac- sides and making it all seem rather tured for the local tourist trade? cozy and inviting. The only sign of It must be so much better to give anything “European” we noticed was people opportunities locally and that of a pizza squeezed in far down good ideas so they can be given a on the handwritten menu. chance to run their own lives and The young man’s name was thus shape their own futures. Tony Tony and apart from managing his and his family at Ngapali BeachTony´s place, Ngapali Beach wife´s family’s restaurant in the eve- Evening view from our bungalow, Ngapali Beach was just one example.
Burma Center Slow Voyage to the Chin Hills “Please, tell Bag Lady I sad” Reasons why you should visit Myanmar For Myanmar 2008 was a disasterous year for tourism. In the beginning westerners still avoided the country because of the unrest in connection with pro- test demonstrations in September of the previous year. Then came the cyclone catastrophe in May with over a hundred thousand people dead or missing. Even if the disaster only devastated the Irrawaddy delta, a region only sparsely visited by tourists anyway, the scare kept foreign visitors away from the country as a whole. Finally, in December when the tourist season normally reaches its peak, and just when it looked as though bookings were picking up again, political unrest in neighboring Thailand resulted in the occupation of Bangkok’s International Air- port, thus closing the main entry route to Myanmar for weeks and causing a vast number of cancellations as visitors played it safe and chose other holiday destina- tions. The situation in Yangon itself was chaotic as well, with hundreds of stranded visitors trying to get out. Many foreigners are interested in visiting Myanmar but they ask themselves if it is morally right to visit a country ruled by such a repressive military dictator- ship. The answer to this question is not entirely simple as opinions are so di- vided. According to the political opposition to the current regime and its support- ers worldwide, you should definitely not visit the country at this time as this only supplies the military regime with money for further repression. At the same time, many experienced Myanmar observers claim that visiting the country does the people considerably more good than harm. Naturally, Burma Center leaves it up to each individual to make their own decision. We do however encourage people to scrutinize the “facts” objectively be- fore making a decision.