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August 27, 2009

The Road to Burma –Part 2

Tom McLaughlin

[Editor’s Note: This is the second of six reports on Tom McLaughlin’s recent trip to Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, a nation controlled by its military.]


I had many preconceptions about Rangoon before arrival. After reading Internet sites, travelers tales and newspaper reports, I expected an impoverished, starving nation devoid of western goods.


The worldwide economic boycott was supposed to have a strangle hold on the nation as nobody was supposed to trade with this country. I expected starving people, masses of beggars and huge areas like in the movie “Slum Dog Millionaire.”


Each wide main avenue was well paved and maintained. Old cars and trucks and motor scooters moved in each direction producing choking smog. Bicycles darted in and out of the traffic. The frequent rains washed the air clean, a true blessing.


Between the curb and spilling onto the sidewalk, narrowing it considerably, vendors line all the major roads. The amount of food was beyond belief. Tropical fruits and vegetables, woks bubbling and frying, and live and cleaned chickens were all crammed into this small space. Sellers dipped rice out of baskets or 100kg sacks. This scene stretched on and on, kilometer after kilometer.


Intermixed, a cobbler could repair ones’ shoes. Vendors had selections of thousands of pirated films from all over the world, sold from rickety tables. Six different kinds of newspapers were intermingled with local magazines and laid out on plastic tarps. Sellers of bottled water and colorful juices did a brisk business.


On the crumbly sidewalk, pedestrians walked hurriedly forward, not unlike others in any big city. The men were dressed in short sleeve shirts and lon gyi, a sarong. Ladies wore colorful dresses. I stood, out of the way watching and when someone glanced up at me they looked back down and then did a double take. It was obvious that they had not seen too many westerners.


The individual shops along the sidewalk were well stocked. Some were automotive selling car batteries. Appliance stores had refrigerators, stoves and microwaves. Pharmacies had boxes of western prescription medicines in their glass cases. Eyewear sold at fraction of what it cost in the states.


I wandered into a grocery store. Colgate toothpaste, Gillette Fusion razors and blades, Smuckers jelly and other American products were available cheaper than I could purchase them in Kuching. Cases of Coke products, American cosmetics and men’s after shave and lotions were all abundant.


I wandered into one café where a soccer match was being televised. The usual cheering and groans of any sports event in any nation stopped suddenly as everyone looked at me for a quiet 15 seconds before going back to the game. I ordered a Coke. It came cold, but there is no ice any where in Burma. The electricity went out, the television screen blanked and the crowd left, leaving me alone, with a smiling waiter.


The restaurants were also heaped with food. Shan establishments sold grilled meats; huge chunks of chicken, mutton or beef laced around a stick were grilled. All types of fish waited to be cooked. Small cloves of garlic, vegetables and other greens I did not recognize waited the fire.


Burmese establishments sold all types of curries with thick chunks of meats. I especially liked the pork curry. The flavor was milder and not the hot chili taste prevalent in Malaysia and Thailand.


Chinese, Italian and other restaurants served large portions of food at minor prices. And everywhere there was Coca Cola.


The huge buildings built by the British during colonial days stood gutted, just a shell. There were no new structures, or those that were constructed in the past 10-12 years were in disrepair. Blocks of white shop houses, covered in black mold and algae hugged crumbly streets off the main avenues. On the street level, shop houses sold items with living quarters climbing five and six stories above.


Most businesses had generators as the electricity was spotty at best. It would be on, and then off again, disrupting business and damaging electrical appliances. Telephones on stands, again in the area between the street curb and sidewalk, were under trees or tarps, connected to the over head wires where people could make a call.


What was missing were the large ticket items. Cars, trucks, construction and road building equipment were all absent. Women crushed stone with hammers to build a road bed, then hauled a bucket of hot black tar between them on a pole. This was poured and then hand smoothed in the blazing sun.


It is quite obvious the world-wide boycott on smaller items is not working. The resourceful people of Burma have found ways around it with the cooperation of the multinational corporations. I did not see any locals drink a Coke and they are genetically lucky they don’t have to shave. These items must have been for the tourists.


…life is good


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