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The original world nomad "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." - Confucius.

Hello. Goodbye. One Chat

MYANMAR | Friday, 10 June 2011 | Views [3468]

The little girl must have been perhaps four years old, was wearing what looked suspiciously like an old sack converted into a dress with no underwear let alone shoes, and was rolling around the rusted deck of the old river ferry excitedly screaming "hello, goodbye, one chat" in delightful glee. Actually, like all delightfully scruffy and barefoot vagabonds in much of Asia it wasn't a chat she was after but a Kyat, which is the local Burmese currency.

This was on the very last day of our stay in the country in early 1997 but remains a vivid memory among many on that particular trip in a country full of wonderful people.

Is it just me or do other older travellers look back on their experiences and wonder what happened to some of these characters? 

This particular nameless little girl was perhaps 6 years old then ... now she'd be a young woman of about 21 or so, maybe with a family of her own, assuming of course she survived cyclone Nargis in 2009, and didn't contract malaria or malnutrition, and didn't get conscripted into the slave labor by the military junta here, and survived any number of other things that generally stop such people ever reaching adulthood.

We might even have walked past her once more. We'll never know.

Now it's the start of 2011 and not much has really changed in the intervening 14 years. Less people wear the traditional Longyi (the wrap around sarong-like woven cloth) in favour of the world's uniform: jeans. People do actually seem a little better fed, even in the smaller villages we manage with difficulty to visit, but I wonder if the statistics back this up or is it just an illusion? 

Last time we were here, fuel was in short supply and the taxi's were ancient and literally falling to pieces: the one we took to the airport when we were leaving had pieces dropping off it and we ended up helping the driver push us there, but nothing seems quite so decrepit on this visit. Given Myanmar is the worlds longest surviving military dictatorship, I guess I'm surprised by just how well the people seem to survive, in spite of not because of them. Maybe the Generals have done just enough to stop people completely rising up in anger - but it is tragic that this country has so much potential and should be thriving.

Some thing are noticeably different however.

Something we take very much for granted in our modern lives, does seem less reliable than previously: power. Either supply hasn't increased with demand, or its actually decreased, or infrastructure is less reliable its hard to say, but whatever the reason, from hotels to fruit sellers on the side of the roads, everyone now has their own generators and the power fails several times a day. Everyone seems to take this in their stride and business adapts however: not much you can do when the authorities will shoot you or put you in prison if you complain too much.

Cash is king here, and with international sanctions still in effect, credit cards are pretty but worthless pieces of plastic that you can't use anywhere and neither can you use that older form of stored value: travellers cheques. So you have to navigate the black money market, which is actually more straightforward than anywhere else I've ever been and it's sobering to note that 15 years ago the Euro didn't exist, the US dollar was the only currency anyone was interested in and trying to change Australian dollars was like trying to turn water into wine. Today, because of the resources boom, the black market money changers in the downtown Yangon market are desperate for AUD, believing it will appreciate, and even the Euro is in demand. The once mighty USD is still accepted, but now that it's a depreciating currency, people are quite ambivalent, preferring even the local kyat to the USD, which is pretty extraordinary.

The actual mechanics of travel around the country are little changed: buses and boats will take as long as ever they did. And although today we choose to fly, for sheer convenience particularly with children in tow, it also means you miss some of those wonderful travel stories and anecdotes.

"But we bought delux bus tickets ..."

It was 04:30am in the morning and the words were barely out of my mouth as the realisation dawned - this was the deluxe mini bus! It was a clapped out motorbike taxi, at least 40 years old, with an oversize pannier welded onto the back for 6 people to perch on with luggage on the roof. The seats were even numbered one to six ... but we all froze at that time of the morning with it barely a few degrees above zero. I don't remember much about the journey to Inle Lake except we didn't arrive, shaken and dusty, until well after dark. It wasn't possible to fly back then.

Bagan, the famous plain full of ancient temples was as delightful a place to cycle around as ever it was, although the intervening years have been used rebuilding many or most of the temples. I'm ambivalent about this since although you get a better sense of the temples as they would have been, there was something rather authentic about clambering around piles of bricks, unchanged for hundreds of years. It's lost something of it's authenticity, although how this is any different to Angkor Wat (also re-built) I'm not really sure.

It is now at least possible to explore new areas of the country are open such as the far south down near Myeik or the border areas over near Mrauk U or even explore off-the-beaten-path wandering near and around typical tourist areas like Inle Lake or Mandalay without the likelyhood of getting turned back or arrested just for being there. 

This sort of travel is somewhere between difficult and impossible with two young children in tow but if you don't have have a sense for adventure, the country reminds us more than ever of Vietnam 20 years ago - part of an Asia that is rapidly disappearing.

In the few months between this visit and the writing of this, the 'Arab Spring' has blossomed across much of the middle east, fuelled in large part by access to technology, particularly Social Media and the ability to self-organise. My view is that China or say Vietnam actually has less to fear from dissent, particularly online dissent, because they have at least delivered significant benefits to their population, whereas authoritarian Arabian dictators were both ruthless, incompetent and delivered just poverty and ignorance to their populations. Burma has plenty of state censorship: Google is OK but YouTube isn't. The Guardian is OK but Lonely Planet isn't. Twitter is OK but Flickr isn't. (Sorry, I didn't try Facebook). 

Despite being prepared to cut internet access entirely to their country when forced to, these technologies will hopefully assist people to force change for the better.

As with Syria at the present however, I very much doubt its going to be a peaceful transition.

Tags: burma, kyat, memories, travel with children

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