Monday, August 20, 2007

Myanmar: Bagan: 4 February 2007 (Written 29 March 2007)

It was 5:30am. I walked into the dark, unlit street, wondering if Kyaw Kyaw was going to show up like he had promised. Would his horse actually comply and walk after a long day with the German tourist?

“Hello!” the voice I had so quickly grown to recognize and feel reassured by called out, and I turned to see the horse cart, whose bright magenta cushions were black in the night. I saw a figure in the cart next to KK, and peered into the same huge smiling eyes of KK. It was his daughter, Bo Bo Wei. I had met an American living in Cambodia, Eric, at the guesthouse and we decided to go to the airport together. The horse struggled with the weight of 4 people and lots of luggage, but soon we were moving along the road as the horizon began to have a bright orange glow. The chill of night which made us wear fleeces and jackets transformed into a scorching heat.

We passed the Military Elementary School, with square glass windows that fitted neatly into the concrete exterior. There was a metal gate with a fresh paint job, and a neatly mowed field. Less than 100m past it was the normal Elementary School. The wooden shack had no windows, and the sea green paint was peeling.

As we continued down the road, minibuses full of European tourists zoomed by us, the sunburned passengers with documents and money around their neck, concealing the “Myanmar” or “Bagan” printed on their cheap, bright, silk-screen shirts, peered out at us.

Arriving at the airport, I had a few minutes with Kyaw Kyaw, and he asked me to write to him whenever I knew someone who was going to Myanmar. He insisted that on my next visit I come to eat at his house. I willed myself to remember everything about my warm experience in Bagan, and walked into the crowded airport.

It was the worst scene I had seen in Myanmar. Why do people wear high heels, mini-skirts, and carry Vuitton bags to see ancient temples? Why must tourists be loud, treat local people as furniture, and clown themselves with makeup and costumes? There is a reference in ASSK’s Letters from Burma about Myanmar being a “Fascist Disneyland.” As I looked around at the Burmese at the airport – all guides, or hotel or airport staff – I saw brand-new longyis, perfect black sandals, tidy tanakha on the women, purses and clipboards that were immaculate. Scurrying around much as you would expect children at Disneyland were Europeans, chattering to fellow tour group members about where they had been, where else they were going, how lovely the sunset at Shwe San Daw was, how Inle Lake is so beautiful. I listened to people speak of how friendly the people of Myanmar are, of how beautiful and undamaged the ruins of Bagan are, how high the quality of tourist infrastructure is, compared to what they had imagined. What they don’t know, what they don’t see, both because of themselves and the government, is what lies underneath – the medical and education system in tatters, the hungry and naked children.

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