01 July 2009

A Day of Dissent in Mandalay - Part 1: Down on the Docks

If you don't know, and you might not – Myanmar (Burma) is the largest country in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh, and is ruled by a brutal military junta with no peep of protest from the UN Security Council. There is no free speech (except for one comedy troupe who I will get to in Part 2), no free elections and no justice. Yet more and more backpackers are headed there each year, despite some activist's calls for a ban on tourism. Sean and I headed to Burma (we insist on calling it the name preferred by it's people) with open minds and one mission: that the government would get as little of our money as possible.This is actually a bit harder than it seems. Right off the bat we had to hand nearly 30 dollars each to Than Shwe's corrupt empire in visa fees – and we were still in Bangkok.

Myanmar was once a Communist country (one that has slowly fallen into the ruinous fascist state that it is in today) and as such the government seems to control everything – until the mid nineties you could not come here without paying hefty fees, but things have changed. Slightly. Private Sector tourism is now begrudgingly allowed, and instead of staying at government run hotels, taking government run trains and flights and participating in mandatory government run tours, you can contribute to small businesses and meet local people. But still, entry fees to some “Must See” sights in Myanmar directly end up in the General's pockets - but we knew that if we were careful we could get around at least some of them. So, no internet (taxed heavily) no Myanmar beer (joint enterprise with the state) no trains and no guest houses named after the town that they are in.A few things could not reasonably be relented on without destroying the purpose of the trip – the stunning Shwedagon Paya in Yangon (Rangoon) is 5 bucks, the ancient cities of Mandalay and the ruins of Bagan are each 10, and Inle Lake is 3 dollars. Without these “Big 4” Burma would still be interesting, but missing it's key points of interest. So we lucked out when we met Toom Toom.

On the morning that we arrived to Mandalay, tired and confused after a 14 hour night bus from Yangon, Toom Toom met us at the station holding a sign with the name of the hotel at which we wanted to stay. On the long ride we had become friendly with a German couple – Holga and Julia, as well as a fellow Canadian named Justin, and we all wanted to head to the Royal Guesthouse. Toom Toom took us there, and proposed a day long itinerary that would include the sights of Mandalay proper as well as the 2 nearby ancient villages of Sagiang and Amarapura – with an added bonus. He knew all of the tricks and alternate sights to visit that would get us around paying the 10 dollars to the government. We agreed to his somewhat hefty fee and spent the day dodging ticket checkers, climbing to majestic technicolour hilltop temples and eating in a small village with locals. It was a beautiful and hectic experience.

The next morning, feeling high from the previous day's trickery, we set out to hire a boat to take us to Mingun, an ancient village famed for its gigantic unfinished stupa an hour's trip away. Usually the only way to get there was to take the government ferry at 3 dollars a head but we were resolute in our decision to deprive the Generals of our kyat. We picked up a new traveller, an American named Dan, and we headed down to the jetty.

As we marched our way along the slum covered banks of the river we passed many boats big and small, yet no one seemed eager to help us. We found one man, a portly fellow in a lungyi and no shirt, and he grunted to us that we could hire one of his 4 huge boats. We checked it out and it seemed good, and so we started to board when from the MTT (Myanmar Tourism Office) emerged a man wearing a dress shirt tucked into a checked lungyi, his mouth full of watery red betel juice as he spoke to us. Despite his silly fisherman's hat I recognized a weasel-y quality about him that made me instantly balk when he suggested that we head into his office to finalize the booking.“Yessss, Yessss, head this way. In my office pleasssssse. Need to see one passssssport and Myanmar vissssssa, pleasssse. You pay money to me, and then you take hisssss boat.” We all paused. One of the problems of traveling in a group of near strangers is that certain decisions can take a long time to reach, as no one wants to step on each other's toes. We discussed quickly, and decided that we wanted to get away from this strange government official in the Gilligan hat.

We headed down river, looking plaintively for a small boat to ferry us – a job that we were surprised no one was jumping at as it would bring twice the average daily wage to the captain.We finally found a man who seemed excited at the prospect. His eyes lit up and he grabbed his youngest son and popped him on his shoulder and then he began to lead us....back down the beach to the MTT office. “No! No!” We shouted. “We want to deal with you. Pay money to you. Not to office. OK?” The boat owner either did not understand us or had no choice as he led us back up to the sneering government official. A heated argument in Burmese ensued, and the man and his baby were turned away. He raised his eyes dejectedly to us and plodded back to the beach.

The MTT official pointed to the smooth fat ball of a man in the lungyi, the man who owned 4 boats whom we had first spoken to.We headed up the stairs to the office to see what that actual situation was. “You go with him. You pay me the money.” When we had qualms about the price, he laughed at us and shrugged. “This isssss price. Boat or no boat? Fixed price.” His eyes danced, very well aware that if we wanted to go to Mingun we had no choice than to deal with him. All of the sudden I decided that this was where it ended. Sure, maybe this was a collective (many cities have taxi or rickshaw unions) and everything was on the up and up, but to me it seemed like the government helping the rich while collecting a fat commission and pushing out the little guys. That was why no one seemed excited to help us – they were powerless, having been told to stay away from tourists. We headed back down the stairs to discuss.

Just as I was about to voice a loud 'NO' a skinny rail of a man with a slim moustache practically grazed us and whispered. “This boat very expensive. Man takes 10,000 kyat (10 bucks) as commission. Bad man. I find you boat, family boat, only 20,000 kyat. Meet me in the teashop in 5 minutes.” We looked on in amazement – here was our way around the dreaded government.

Sitting at the teashop, our covert friend arrived. He seemed galled that the government office dare charge us such a huge commission – he even seemed galled that the teashop was charging us 10 cents more for a cup of tea. “You see, down there is some trees? Jetty called “Nyaung U.” You go to the trees and meet me there – I arrange family boat to take you to Mingun. Maybe walk around the block first so that this man does not see you. OK? I see you there.” We all thanked him happily, paid for our slightly inflated tea and headed down the road.

Twenty minutes later, we were still walking down that road, a vague cloud of suspicion that we were going the wrong way starting to form over our heads. Though a few boats here and there were still anchored at the shore, there did not seem to be an active jetty for quite a ways away. We passed dusty shacks, open air beer gardens and piles of garbage and debris – our laughing and joking petering out as we walked further and further in the stifling muggy heat.“Nyaung U?” We asked every person we met. “Boat to Mingun?” Each person smiled and pointed back in the direction of the MTT office, exactly where we didn't want to be heading. Sighing, we would keep trudging, saying hello to all of the children running out to see us and looking for the elusive jetty that the slim man had directed us to.

After one hour we reached the Bagan Jetty, the industrial dock where the big ferries left for the long slow trip to the ancient plateau of ruins around Bagan. We all sat down on the curb, knowing definitively that something had gone terribly wrong. We started the long slow shuffle back to the teashop.

As our blistered, sore feet approached the main hub near the MTT office the slim moustachioed man came running out into the road. “Whaaaaa? Where you have been?!” Dejectedly we pointed down the long road. Holger filled him in. “We walked to the Bagan Jetty – we could not find this Nyaung U dock?” Our friend clapped himself on the forehead. “It is right there.” He said, and pointed with one long finger to a clutch of trees, not 200 metres away, not even 100 metres away – less than 50 metres from where we were standing. “This is Nyaung U Jetty!” We exchanged dumbfounded looks – and all began to laugh. “You still want boat to go Mingun?” He asked us. “Yes!” I said. “But can we still go?” It was nearing 3pm, and I knew that the small family run ferries would be leaving Mingun on the last run of the day at 5pm, which would not give us very much time to see the sights. “Yes, no problem. You walk around this block, meet me right here in 5 minutes. Only this block!” He replied with a twinkle in his eye. When we returned half an hour later after getting lost once more in the maze of small streets and markets he was still laughing, but now more worried.“Better you get private boat. Then you have for all evening.” We all agreed, and followed our tattooed friend...back toward the MTT office.

S looked at me. “What do you want to do?” He asked, knowing that I wanted to avoid the government boats at all costs. After a few minutes of thought I answered tersely. “Well, now if we don't go we make the price so much higher for everyone else, and if the government is going to get the money anyway than we might as well....” But we had worried too soon - it was now almost 4pm, all of the MTT staff had gone home for the day and we were free to take our pick of the local boats without paying a cent to the official office.

Finally we got on our way to Mingun. It was a beautiful place, well worth the agonizing process it took to get there. Our guide was now happy that he could show us around and personally prevent us from wandering away and getting lost, and he led us to a good local restaurant where we ate a very late lunch. We viewed a unique white pagoda that looked as if Gaudi had had a hand in its design, climbed a monolithic unfinished stupa and watched young monks playing joyfully on a motorbike below and visited a home for family-less Burmese seniors. We were all just giddy that we had finally gotten away with screwing the already corrupt system.

Using the back paths and routes that our guide led us on we managed to avoid the 3 dollar Mingun fee that we were supposed to have paid at the dock in Mandalay, the ticket checkers having all gone home as well. We congratulated ourselves, but as we headed back to the boat we were ambushed by a man on a bicycle. He began yelling at our slim friend, and a heated argument broke out. Our friend had divulged to us that he used to be a Muay Thai fighter, and it was apparent as he balled his fists and advanced at the other man. Their arguing continued and after a few tense moments he came over to us, head down. “I am very shame, I am so sorry but now you must pay to this man 3 dollars a person.” We quickly rushed to comfort him. “It's no problem - you tried!” I said to him as we made our way to the booth to pay the fee. He brightened.“Yes, and this ticket good for 5 days – you give to other tourists and government gets no more money! Ha!” We all agreed to pass them on.

On the boatride back to Mandalay I turned to look at S. “Well, I think we did pretty good! We managed to see all of the sights in Mandalay and we only paid 3 bucks each to the regime.” He agreed. “And we almost got away with it completely!”

In other countries, in other situations I would be appalled to see a Westerner trying to avoid paltry fees to see amazing things, but in Burma it felt like the right thing to do. Though tourism dollars are a small way that the corrupt Myanmar Generals make their fortunes - it is a portion nonetheless. I believe that you vote with your dollars even in situations where you are only spending a few at a time, and this is one place where the guesthouse employees, the impromptu guides and the small business owners need them more than than Than Shwe does. He clearly doesn't use the money on infrastructure and social programming. It's not even used on roads, schools, hospitals – not even on maintaining the sites themselves. He instead uses his vast ill-gotten fortune to pay for his daughter's wedding at which the gifts alone were valued at 50 million US.It had been a long, tiring day and now that we were filled with subversive glee it was time to go and pay a visit to The Moustache Brothers.

To Be Continued in Part 2.....

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