Travel: Driving Through Myanmar-I

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By Pradip Phanjoubam
“Can we help you?” said the front office manager at the hotel in Kalemyo town, our first halt in Myanmar, who looked in his mid 30s approaching me with two young assistants probably in their teens, as I tried to unload my two-piece baggage, one a flexible bag containing clothes and toiletries, and the other my large camera backpack, from the Xylo SUV vehicle I drove from Imphal on the day. “We are new so excuse us if we slip. Let us know how we can improve,” he said politely in not so good English and in local accent. Evident in this apologetic humility was an eagerness to learn. No, eagerness does not convey the complete sense. It was more akin to a hunger of a long famished society to open up and catch up with the rest of the free world. This hunger combined with the visible natural diligence of the people by and large, gives you the sense of a place already on the move and ready to take on anything that comes its way. It is everybody’s speculation today that in another 10 years, Myanmar would join the league of other vibrant South East Asian economies, and rise to unprecedented heights.

For the record, between March 11 and March 22, a total of 68 motor enthusiasts, government officials and a five member strong dance troupe, drove from Guwahati in Assam to Yangon in Myanmar and back in 17 vehicles, as part of an Indo-Myanmar Friendship Car Rally, organised by the  North East Federation of International Trade, NEFIT, and sponsored by the NEC. The rally drew participation of motor sports lovers from all over India, including Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi. There were also four participants from Myanmar.

Myanmar is opening up. There is no doubt about it at all. You can sense this everywhere even as the country today is preparing for by-elections to 46 seats in its two houses of Parliament Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, and two seats in two of its state assemblies on April 1. The country’s famous charismatic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, NLD, has also agreed to participate in these by-elections. Her party boycotted the last general elections causing a split with those eager to participate leaving her and forming the National Democratic Force. The NLD now cannot hope to form the government in the current term even if it wins all the seats in the by-elections, but it now obviously wants a presence in the Parliament in preparation for a contest for state power in the next general elections. It remains to be seen if this party is still as relevant to the popular imagination of Myanmar’s future in the radically changed and continuing altering political and thereby economic environment in the country. But let politics be for the time being. We can only wish the country success, not without any self interest though, for Myanmar rising will have profound significance on the future of Manipur and indeed the entire Northeast region.

Burma strikes you as a deeply religious country. The landscape is littered with Buddhist pagodas of all sizes and age. Each of these is thronged perennially by devotees of all ages. Some of them like the Shwedagon in Yangon, where three strands of the Buddha are said to be preserved, command the grandeur comparable to any of the best architectural marvels of the world. However, what also becomes striking as you move on from one region of the country to another, especially in the great Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River Valley, amidst the universal evidences of immense creativity inspired by what is seemingly an unparalleled religious passion shared by everyone, is the absence of any secular art or architecture worth the name with the sole exception perhaps of the magnificent Mandalay Palace, made famous amongst followers of fiction writing in India by Amitabh Ghosh’s “The Glass Palace”. Every road seems to lead to the Buddha and his way in this country. You cannot help wondering if inherent in this homogenous psychological landscape is a hegemony, one which has flattened variety and dissent in the core of the country and fomented rebellion in the outlying States, home to the country’s numerous of ethnic nationalities. Yes non-Bamar population, most of them non Buddhists, though some like the Shans and Mons are, are referred to as nationalities and not tribals as in India.

But this speculation of underlying politics notwithstanding, the pacifism of Buddhism shows up in many positive and endearing ways. In Mandalay the crime rate is zero we were told. Some think this is inspired by fear and subjugation of half a century under a military junta, but then there are military juntas around the world where crime rates have not dropped – not at least to zero percent. I took a walk after a reception at the swanky Mandalay Hill Resort on one side of the great moat around the Mandalay Palace, at well after midnight to my hotel, Mandalay Swan, on the opposite end of the moat, a distance of about five kilometres, just to see how it feels like to be out alone in the night in a crime free environment. There were very few people on the road, but among those still there, returning home on light large-wheeled, fuel efficient two wheeler vehicles so popular throughout South East Asia, were women and young girls. There were also some policemen on parked motorcycles on the road staring at me as I passed by with bewildered looks, but dropping their eyes when I looked back. The sense is one of absolute security, and I must say there were only few other walks I ever had that I enjoyed as much.

The other thing strange about travelling in Myanmar for a Manipuri, and I could see this was the case of all of us from Manipur in the rally, is that you did not feel you have moved out of Manipur even in the heart of the country. This sense is even more than what I have felt in other South East Asian countries. Not only is this about similarity of faces and features with people there, but also of mannerisms, accents and intonations of language, aromas and flavours. If not for the lungis they wear, it would have been impossible to distinguish many of us from the market crowds there where we went sightseeing and shopping. Interestingly, our local guides notice this too. They eat a lot more meat, in fact you notice more than anywhere else that unlike India where it is so easy to be a vegetarian, it is practically impossible to be one in Myanmar. Vegetarian food here literally means the same non-vegetarian food with the meat pieces removed. Meat, I discovered however, tends to be overcooked making them too soft and almost falling off the bones as you lift them. For those who love to sink their teeth and tear flesh, this is no fun. But then, it would not be fair to pretend to be a good judge of cuisines of a place in just ten days of travel through it.

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