Well, I didn’t end up in Sittwe or Mrauk U like I had expected. The airport landed in Thandwe, a tiny airstrip in sweltering heat, and I exited, quite a bit disoriented actually. In the Lonely Planet, it says that to get from Thandwe to Sittwe, the jumping off point Mrauk U, you either go on a horrible overnight boat ride, or fly. But, I had enquired at several places in Bagan that insisted that I would be able to take a boat on the same day from Thandwe to Sittwe and it would only take a few hours. Optimist and willingly gullible, I decided to try my luck. So I landed, and within seconds, it seemed, the other tourists disappeared into fancy resort vehicles. A man wearing a Univeristy of Sittwe shirt came to the airport area, and I asked him if he was from Sittwe, hoping that he would say yes, and that he would be able to tell me how I could get to Sittwe that day. He laughed and said he was from Thandwe. He actually worked for a travel agency so I asked him for information about getting to Sittwe, and he tossed his head back laughing, saying there is no boat, it goes from Taunggok on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. So I would have to spend two nights, either in Taunggok or Thandwe, and the boat would be USD50. I checked about flights to Sittwe, and the one for the day had left 20 minutes prior, so the earliest I could go would be the next day. After much pitiful laughter and whining, I decided to stay in Ngapali for the night and fly to Sittwe the next day.
I’ve never been into beach holidays, and I’m always itching to get under the water if I am at the ocean. I also feel horrible if I’m laying in the sun doing nothing, so although many would have loved to have had this detour, I was not thrilled. But, you deal with the situation and make the best of it. I was fortunate to be able to stay in one of the cheaper places, which even then was about 5 times the price of what I had been paying for the past 2 weeks, but considering my situation, it wasn’t that bad. I decided to stop being grumpy and enjoy the day of rest and relaxation. It was my first taste of Rakhaing State, and the Arakan people.
Ngapali Beach was named as such (supposedly) by an Italian who claimed it resembled his hometown of Napoli (Naples) – Ngapali is the closest Burmese alliteration of it. Just as in many other countries, the feel of the place is so different when you’re right on the water. People are able to subsist partly on the sea, and the fishing villages have a lot less to worry about than some of the inland farmers. There is a slower, laid-back feel, and the gigantic palm trees rising out of the sand shooting into the deep blue sky were absolutely gorgeous. For years, the Burmese government has been trying to promote Ngapali Beach as an alternative to the high-end beach resorts in Thailand, luring in big-spending Europeans, mainly from Germany, Italy, and France, to spend a week soaking up rays, eating delicious fresh seafood, and generally not doing much else. They’re pretty successful, and I must have been the youngest person there by at least a decade, and there were plenty of pretty sarongs, bikinis (or not! The tops, at least) and scaly orange bronze skin that looked like orange peels that had been left out in the sun.
The Arakan people from Rakhaing State are one of the many dozens of ethnic groups in Myanmar. It is debated where they originate from, but it is believed that they are mixed with people from across the border in Bangladesh; the government has never really been able to control the Arakanese, and they are indeed different in their behavior – they are said to be more outspoken, more free-minded, and friendlier (is that even possible in Burma?!) It’s been written about that if you’re going to hear anybody defaming the government, it will be in Rakhaing State. They are still angry about losing power illegitimately centuries ago, and strongly believe that they should be granted independence from Burma. The Arakanese language is slightly different from Burmese, although they are written the same, the pronunciations are different.
So after lazing about, I started to speak with one of the girls working at the hotel where I was staying. Her English was very good, and in fact she had studied Japanese in both high school and university so she was quite eager to practice. I hadn’t spoken to anyone all day and was happy to have someone to speak to as well. She was, like all the staff at the hotel, beautifully dressed and made up. Her tamein was woven in a floral pink, yellow, and orange pattern, and her tanakha was carefully applied. Something about her set her aside from the others though; there was a raw fire, an energy that emanated in her. She seemed obedient and submissive but when she laughed, there was a sliver of mischievousness in her eyes that made you think you didn’t really know what was going on inside her head.
We chatted a bit then I went on the main road to get some dinner. The seafood in Ngapali is raved about by most tourists that have been there, especially considering the dire gastronomic situation elsewhere in the country. Government rice quotas, in which farmers must give up their livestock to the government if they don’t match the ridiculously high quotas, have drastically hurt the quotidian food of the general population. It is quite a conspicuous absence, walking into a market and not seeing any freshly butchered animals on sale. So, being on the water in Ngapali, the variety and availability were wonderfully refreshing. I had fire-grilled king prawns, and it was simply divine. I had forgotten my headlamp so walked back in the dark along the road with potholes everywhere.
When I arrived back at the resort, it was very quiet. The girl I had been speaking to earlier was still there and we started talking again. The news was on TV, and it seemed the perfect way to segue into what we both had on our minds. On the television screen, a military officer in a starched white collared shirt with a army green trousers and military boots entered a school classroom. The children looked to be about 7 or 8 years old, and they all wore starched white shirts, and dark green longyis and tameins. They had brand new shiny schoolbooks, sharpened pencils, and were all clean – in fact, everything about the scene was impeccable. The girl translated for me, that they were saying how this year they were reaching record highs in enrollment, and the reading and maths levels of children were significantly higher than previous years. I laughed at the absurdity, considering the schoolkids I had seen in the south and east of the country, and she giggled too, and said “only good news.” And in fact that’s how it is. There were images of a brand new shiny metal bridge that had been completed, suspiciously only saying that it was in the ‘north’ of the country – hmm, where? Marketplaces full of meat and fresh vegetables, new cars on the roads (due to the U.S. ban on trade with Burma, and other factors, it is rare to see a car in Burma that has been made within the last decade – except, of course, near military compounds).
I was cautious about what to say and how, because I really didn’t want this girl to get in trouble. In Burma, over the past 2 decades, since the 1988 popular uprising, hundreds of people have mysteriously disappeared at night, others have been incarcerated, and there is a general climate of fear. Who is watching, listening, telling?
It turned out, however, that my companion just wanted to let it all out. We talked about the education system – when she was in university, classes were held one month every year, and it cost somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 kyat (currently the exchange rate is about 1200 kyat to 1USD). She was in university only 5 years ago, but now the price is 200,000 kyat. For children to go to school, it is technically free but only if you can provide the school supplies and pay for the uniforms. She told me that it is about 2500 kyat a month for supplies. Her father used to be the village leader, and in 2004 he was taken to Sittwe with other village leaders around Rakhaing State and forced to sign a document swearing that he wouldn't meet with Aung San Suu Kyi when she came to give talks. He went anyway. In the past few years, her father has had to have surgery twice, on his eyes and stomach. He had to pay for everything, right down to the cotton swabs, disinfectant, and bandages. At her hotel, it is required that a portion of her salary goes to the government, but she said that her boss pays it instead of taking it out of her salary. In Ngapali, at present there are no government owned enterprises. However, this new taxation of 10% or more on privately owned hotels and resorts means that the government can benefit from the tourist presence without directly investing. The girl’s starting salary was 10,000 kyat a month. Every year, she receives a raise of about 5,000 kyat a month – just over 4USD. She makes 60,000 kyat a month now, because her boss understands that the cost of living is rising due to inflation and so has added extra raises to help the staff. Just 5 years ago, the exchange rate was 500 kyat to 1USD. She remembers 1988 although she was just a child. Her father went in hiding for the whole period of time after August 8 when the large protests in Mandalay and Rangoon, now known as Yangon, took place. We talked about forced labor, where people get paid about 500 kyat a day for hard labor in treacherous conditions. She works 7am to 9pm everyday except in the rainy season, and she doesn’t get paid during this period lasting 6 months. This means that her annual income is 60,000 kyat for 6 months, which is about 300USD.
We talked until 9pm when her father came to pick her up. It was with reluctance that we separated, but it was excellent to have had that conversation with her. I had finally gotten a glimpse into the parallel reality that exists in Burma.
In the morning on the 6th, I was absolutely sick of being at the beach so instead I taught the girl from the previous night how to do some origami. Within minutes I had most of the staff gathered around me, anxiously looking around to see where their boss was. I told them they shouldn't worry, that they were taking care of me, a guest, so it was fine. Everyone laughed and agreed, and indeed the boss came down a few minutes afterwards and joined in for a few minutes. It amazes me how much the people of Myanmar love origami. It captivates them, and they sit there, unmoving, watching me, trying to memorize every fold. I suppose for a country where many have never seen anything on TV or have any sort of access to light-hearted entertainment, the act of making a crane or box out of a sheet of paper is something akin to magic.
I stayed until I had to leave for the airport, and realized that a day earlier, I was disappointed that I had had to go to Ngapali, and in less than 24 hours, I wished I could stay longer. That’s the thing about Myanmar – every place just sucks you in and makes you wish you could stay forever, or leave and take all the people with you.