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August 26, 2009

The Road to Burma Part 1

Tom McLaughlin

[Editor’s Note: Tom McLaughlin recently spent several days in Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, a nation controlled by its military. Over the next six publication days, Tom will relate his experiences in a style all his own.]


The plane landed in Rangoon. Yangoon, the military government calls it. Nervous during the one hour flight, I had thought about the murders, human rights violations and the forced labor wrought on the people by the horrible government.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a few days earlier, had blasted the leaders during a meeting of Southeast Asian nations in South Thailand. The verdict in the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi was to be handed down very soon. And, I was an American, a stooge the Burma dictators call us, traveling to this land of horror.


Being a scientist, I was skeptical of all the reports I had heard about Burma. I wanted to see the place for myself. I wanted to experience my own sights, sounds and experiences in this land where the government berated Americans. I had planned to travel with my daughter Christine to Burma in January. I wanted to make sure it was safe for her.


Several acres of empty cement stretched to the runways. The terminal, small and low, had about six docking ports for passengers to walk from the building to the planes. I had expected to just walk to the terminal but, inexplicably, a bus came and we sat or stood the short distance to the arrival hall.


I passed through immigration; my hands holding the passport open to the visa page we obtained in Bangkok. The white uniformed immigration officials carefully examined the documents and an ink smeared incomprehensible stamp was pounded next to the visa. I couldn’t see any computers anywhere. The airport officials did everything by hand. I glanced at the arrival/departure board and saw only six flights listed, all from Bangkok.


Told through the traveler’s tales on the Internet to declare all valuables, I wrote down my camera and a jade stone I had purchased in Bangkok for my daughter. The customs lady said I could not bring the green gem into the country. We marched off to the office where she told me the stone will be held until my departure. Why importing one small jade stone would be problem to a country that has mountains of the stuff was beyond me.


The blue skirted, white bloused customs lady was struggling to fill out a form bound in a tear out book with carbon paper between the three pages. We worked together as it was written in both Burmese and English. It wanted to know my address in Burma, I put “hotel” since I had not secured a residence yet. That seemed okay.


The next blank line asked my profession. I suggested tourist. That worked. When we finished, she asked me to sign where it said I had received the stone back and I was departing the country. I gently told her I was arriving and not departing. She had consultation with someone and told me she wanted me to sign the form to indicate I had received a copy of the form. I found a clean space along the side and pointedly asked if there would be okay. She said it was. I received a copy. I knew I was going to have a battle getting it back.


The next step was securing a hotel room. I went to a tourist information desk where the lady spoke excellent English. She handed me a binder with about six or seven brochures encased in plastic. I selected a hotel with a rate of $20 that looked very modern. She relayed my choice to another lady who disappeared. She came back and informed the place was full. I selected another. The message lady vanished again to return and told the telephones were not working. Directed to sit down in plastic chair, 20 minutes passed before the original lady told me she was sending me off to the hotel instead of keeping me waiting for the phones to start working.


The taxi pulled up and I got into a dilapidated crate pieced together from other parts of other cars. There was no radio, air condition or any other sign of comfort. The back seat must have transported at least a million people as it was like sitting on a board. All of the taxis were like that except some had windows that would not crank up, soaking the passengers during the frequent torrential rains.


The phones had obviously started working as I was greeted by name when I walked into the lobby. The front part held a comfortable seating area, clean stone floors and high ceilings except, at the back and along the sides, all of the gift shops with huge windows were empty. A young man, dressed in a powder blue hotel uniform took – and wore – my back pack. I registered to smiling faces and ascended the bubble elevator that overlooked the city and that announced the floors in mechanical English.


I walked down the hall and the porter opened the door to a dump! The place looked like a bunch of high school graduates had occupied it for the past 10 years. There were cigarette burns on the carpet. The calking in the bathroom held mold. The furniture was solid but hadn’t seen polish in years. The under counter fridge was rusty but working. I was proudly shown the television performed and surprisingly carried CNN, two German channels; a French one and an assortment of what I guess were the local Burma stations. But it was clean. The bathroom sparkled, the mold smiled and sheets were crisp and white. I asked for another room but it was worse, but again, very immaculate.


I resigned myself to the previous room and set out to explore the city.


…life is good.


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