Posted by: facetothewind | July 5, 2013

48 Hours in Yangon

Being that I love to tell a story in pictures, let me start the story of my 48 hours in Myanmar with this photo:

David Gilmore Yangon

This photo captures the essence of my experience of this poor country. Here’s a woman who has a beautiful face, once probably a very attractive woman who now sits vanquished by the hardship of life here. She fell through Myanmar’s gaping cracks to land on the streets of Yangon too tired to even ask for money. Her eyes closed, she sits crumpled on a footbridge where you can place money in her hand if you gently open her fingers. I stared at her spellbound by her faded elegance.

My best photos from this trip and others are all on view in high resolution on my Flickr Account.

After spending nearly a month in Thailand—the land of smiles, sensual environments, and excellent food—I left for a return trip to Myanmar on a special mission. But I knew something was ill fated about this trip from the moment I stepped onto the Air Bagan flight from Chiang Mai to Yangon (Rangoon). The flight was miserably hot the whole way. And then once in Yangon, I got stuck in rush hour traffic for an hour in stifling tropical heat. I was only going about 6 miles. The cab driver wanted to charge me extra to use the air conditioner. I began to lose that Thailand glow.

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Click to enlarge panorma of Yangon city center.

Yangon is so crowded and poor that it makes Bangkok look like a walk in the park. Streets of post-apocalyptic canyons are teeming with people, dogs, rats and cars. Wires are strung overhead like spider webs.

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This is a country bearing the scars of being conquered and colonized by the British, then 50 years of neglect in the aftermath of the military dictatorship’s takeover from the Brits. The United Nations has reported consistent and systematic human rights violations in the country, including genocide, use of child soldiers, systematic rape, child labour, slavery, human trafficking and a lack of freedom of speech. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized. Its people have a reason to smile and a national sense of pride. (Don’t let me mislead you, Thailand is not perfect. It is still a poor country but it is not seething with squalor like Myanmar.)

David Gilmore in Yangon

The view from my guesthouse balcony.

If this is your whole world, no wonder you can’t muster a smile.

David Gilmore photo in Myanmar

Burma shave?

I have enormous compassion for the plight of the Burmese people. They have been sold downriver and cheated out of the chance to live with dignity. And yet they do their best as humans do, to make something good out of bad circumstance. Children still play. There is a goodness in the people tucked just behind the desperation. They kick balls and cans around in the muddy streets. They take baths with buckets of water on street corners. And they’re willing to help you if you ask. For all its uneven distribution of resources, I’ve never felt unsafe in Yangon toting around a camera and iPhone.

David Gilmore photo Myanmar 6

Muslim men turn the streets into tea shops and serve tea with canned milk to patrons in children’s chairs…

Yangon by David Gilmore

Sixty million people have remained in lockdown in this military dictatorship for over half a century and then something weird happens one year…the country opens the flood gates and allows 28 day tourists visa to anyone who can get to Bangkok to apply. And so these giant sized white creatures begin to appear on the streets eager for a peek behind the curtain of this mysterious country. Such was the case with me dropping into Koko’s life. I met this young man over a year ago in his home town of Bagan where he worked at the hotel I was staying in. We exchanged email addresses and during the course of the year he expressed his desire to see me again and again. I didn’t feel that it was money he was after, but connection. Intrigued by the possibility of connecting with a Burmese person on a deeper level, I answered his call and I went.

Koko has never seen the ocean, never been on a plane, and so I offered to pick him up in Yangon and fly him to the ocean to teach him to swim. It would be a trip of firsts.

David Gilmore photography 1

None of the adventures panned out. We never made it to the ocean as ethnic unrest was brewing on the coast with Muslims and Buddhists fighting. We were advised to stay away. We considered another beach that didn’t have the violence but the only way there was by a painfully long bus ride on the rough mountains and that passage could not be guaranteed due to mudslides from monsoons. Having already suffered through a hideously long and rough bus ride with Sebby last year I decided against a reprise of that. Out of options, I booked the next flight to Thailand which was not for 4 days. So we stayed in Yangon for the 4 days. Grrrrrr. Although there’s no problem with mudslides in Yangon, it’s still monsoon season. It rained heavily day and night for almost 3 days.

David Gilmore photography 6 Myanmar

Old British colonial architecture with nods to Burmese design with pagoda like cupolas.

I was disappointed about not being able to get to the coast, sad for Koko having come all this way for nothing. Feeling like it was a costly misstep, I was in a gloomy mood and my pictures show it.

David Gilmore photography Myanmar 4

I was in no mood to deal with the assault on my senses that is Yangon. We walked around with me grumbling at everything from noisy buses belching out clouds of smoke to the gaping holes in the sidewalk and the low overhang of wires. Do I look up or down? Decent restaurants are really hard to find so there’s no refuge at the end of a hard day of wandering. I slapped on an orange filter and shot black and white photos from the shadows to capture my mood.

David Gilmore photography Myanmar 3

It was hard to get a reading on Koko. He is not an expressive person. I had hoped that traveling with a Burmese native meant he would unlock many of the secrets of his country for me by pointing things out, translating, and helping negotiate the challenges of this foreign culture. But Koko is a shy country boy and was just as overwhelmed by Yangon as I was. He can’t read maps and is too timid to make a plan for the day, arrange travel, and be a helpful guide. He sat silently at the travel agent’s office while I booked my flight out, not suggesting any alternatives even when I asked. We walked the streets (him behind me) getting lost, sat in dingy restaurants with me begging him to speak up and help me translate the menus full of squiggly characters. He would hardly touch his food and as you can see, he is very much in need of nutrition. He seemed inaccessible to me as he got quieter and quieter and I got more frustrated and angry with him.

David Gilmore photography 5

So I realized I was essentially on my own for 3 more days in this hell-on-earth city. Alright, I’m the older person, the foreigner and the one with the money. How was I going to come up with a way to transform this situation? I had some options: 1. Take Xanax for 3 days and stay in the prison cell guesthouse room with no windows and people smoking and yelling outside the thin door; 2. Let my ideals go and try to find something fun to do; 3. Retail therapy; 4. Scream and yell and throw a big tantrum.

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Bogyoke Market in central Yangon where I bought fabric to have a shirt made in Thailand.

Although option 4 was what I felt like doing, I chose options 2 & 3 figuring at least we will get out of the prison cell room (no windows) and meet people. I gave myself the idea that I would look for 1 small piece of lacquerware and 1 small wooden sculpture. I found both in the markets and bought neither considering the space in my luggage and the expense of the items. Prices in Burma have jumped up by 200-300% in a year’s time. Actually my house is too full of crap anyway so what would I do with two more pieces of Asia? Best to leave the sandalwood trees growing in the ground than sitting on my desk cracking in the Arizona dry climate.

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Amazing wood carvings in sandalwood and cedar. Smells great!

Alright go ahead and hate me for this statement: If it were not for shopping and temples, there would be nothing to do in much of Southeast Asia. It’s not that temples aren’t lovely, but how many temples can you see before you’re templed-out? Sebastian and I used to say, “Oh look, a Buddha!” when we were here last year wandering temple after temple, Buddha statue after Buddha statue. I found myself walking around temples reciting that and laughing and thinking how much fun it was with Sebastian because he was an excellent travel companion always with his trusty guidebook in hand to tell us the history of each place we visited. I found myself missing him and his humor and how he would have come up with a great alternative plan immediately.

Buddha panorama Myanmar

Look! A Buddha. A big Buddha: 180 feet long.

One thing that comforts me endlessly in life is taking pictures. Duh. When I’m bored or even upset I find that going into a visual trance is always good medicine. It pulls me out of my funk and gives me a purpose and a sense of accomplishment to return from an outing with a camera full of images. Then I can spend many happy hours editing images.

Myanmar David Gilmore photo

Add this to my pedal powered tuk tuk series. Younger guys here than in Thailand.

Restaurants and tea shops are often staffed by children because they have no child labor laws. Boys swarm around you on the street brandishing menus and begging you to eat in their restaurant.

David Gilmore Myanmar 9

No customers so they take time out to eat their bowl of rice for lunch.

David Gilmore Myanmar 8

The first night’s venture out to Chinatown got rained out. We stood for an hour under an awning with torrential rain pouring down.

David Gilmore photos

Our second night we went to Shwedagon Paya, the greatest holy sight for the Burmese and one of the greatest Buddhist sites in the world sitting atop a hill.

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The stupa is covered with 24 karat gold and houses a number of Buddhist relics. The spire is topped with a 76 karat diamond that sparkles by spotlight at night if you view it from the right place. A couple young students dragged me to that spot to see it and then did the requisite tourist fleecing for a donation. I gave in. They asked for more.

David Gilmore photo Shwedigon Paya

Shwedagon alone is reason enough to come to Yangon. If you only ever see one temple, this would be the one. The rain made it even more spectacular as it gave a reflective quality to the marble floor that surrounds the stupa. Notice the red carpet laid out. I thought it was a nice non-skid touch for the rain. My bare feet thanked all the staff who unrolled it just for me. Wrong! I’m sitting on the steps of a side temple and who goes walking by on the red carpet but the Crown Princess Sirindhorn of Thailand with her entourage and security detail. I recognized her smiling face.

David Gilmore Shwedigon Paya

Click to enlarge panorama.

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Someone is seeing the light.

We took an expensive day trip to Bago, a former kingdom and a Disney like collection of temples and palace replicas. We visited a monastery and school which I found mildly interesting. It would have been very interesting if I hadn’t already been to twelve bazillion monasteries already.

David Gilmore Myanmar 10

I can’t say I recommend Bago as a day trip. It’s 5 hours in a car with the driver pumping the gas and honking and turning the AC on and off, on and off. He was trying to conserve gas by turning off the compressor but would have done a lot better on MPG to not pump the gas pedal. I asked him to stop it being that I was already on my last Burmese nerve and I found the lurching for 5 hours nauseating. He said it was because the road was bad. OK, don’t argue with the driver. He stopped for 2 minutes and then continued. Nothing like being in a small car with a silent companion and a nervous driver who fiddles with everything and pumps the gas pedal. I had to put on my iPod and tune it out.

David Gilmore Myanmar monk

Let sleeping monks lie.

Released from the lurchmobile I took off with my camera. This is the dining hall for the monks and novices. Comfy, huh? Squatting on the floor while eating. Hmmm. I’m afraid something would come out just as something was going in.

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David Gilmore Myanmar 12

David Gilmore Myanmar 11

Click to enlarge panorama of dining hall.

I liked the metal work on the gates at the monastery.

David Gilmore Myanmar 13

During monsoon season the walls and floors get all mossy and so don’t you know I had to slip and fall. You have to be barefoot in temples and monasteries and I lost my footing. I landed on the concrete with my elbow and knee but managed to keep my camera safely in the air! Koko actually finally came to my aid. He held my arm everywhere we went after that. It was sweet. He seemed to enjoy holding my arm in public which surprised me being as timid as he is.

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The monasteries and temples are overrun with dogs because of their convictions not to harm.

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The problem with the dogs is on full display here. Get the gelding scissors.

Finally we were walking around a temple and there was this mother and child wearing the thanaka on her face. So I asked her mother if I could photograph her.

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She grabs the poor girl by the arm and thrusts her in front of my camera. Eeks! I didn’t want to be responsible for causing this girl any traumas of being shoved in front of the tourist’s lens.

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But in the end it’s a pretty good capture of the girl’s adorable face. I hope she doesn’t have a knee-jerk reaction every time she sees someone with a camera.

David Gilmore photo Myanmar

Click to enlarge!

On Thursday morning I put Koko in a cab bound for his long bus ride back to his life in Bagan. And I set off to the airport for my flight back to Thailand. A hug and a wave and our lives unceremoniously diverged.

In the end I felt I have no business poking around with my camera in the “third world.” What good does my nosey presence have on the local people? I don’t pay them to take their pictures. I’m not leaving them better off. And am I better off for having been there? It feels a bit like a circus sideshow for me…yes, look at all the people in despair. And I comfort myself knowing that I can put on my iPod and play soothing music for myself, sleep in my air conditioned room, and ultimately I’ll be on the plane back to my own land of comforts.

Closing-image

It is a difficult dilemma for me. My trips to Myanmar have been the most uncomfortable travel of my life. But they have been more meaningful and caused me to think more than any other place I’ve visited. The third world either wears you out or wears you numb. Neither are desirable states if you are to be of any help to anyone. I concede that I am done with traveling in poverty-stricken nations. It may seem terribly callous of me to say such a thing. On the contrary—I’m too sensitive and it’s too painful to witness this mess of humanity and environmental degradation. I don’t do numb and I can’t just happily look away. The realization that I don’t have the power or money to make any significant difference in the lives of people here for me is defeating and renders poverty gazing as mere entertainment.

And so I must stay away.

* * *

Here’s the video encapsulation of the trip to Myanmar:


Responses

  1. There’s so much misery in the world. I’m with you — I can’t take it, and I feel so lucky — undeservedly so, as we all are — for not being forced to live in it.

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay.

  2. I am very moved by your photos and narrative to the verge of tears. I am once again reminded how lucky I had been to have lived a totally different, in fact relatively privileged, life. I determined many years ago that I would not fare well in any country poorer than Thailand. Hard enough to run into beggars here in Thailand and in the U.S.! Thank you, David.

  3. David, I thought these photos were even more beautiful and evocative than others of your recent photos. You know, I don’t usually respond to visual images, scanning the photos to get to the next bit of text, but your work makes me want to look and look. It’s so beautiful, often, and so original, always: I wish so much I could take photos the way you do, but I can’t. I don’t see the beauty, the grace, the quirky angles the way you do. And so I enjoy your work all the more, and when I’m traveling I try: I think, how would David do this scene?

    And you know already that I admrie and enjoy your writing. This blog entry seems like a draft of a personal essay. I would like to see you expand it, develop it, tighten the language, in other words, edit it as you do your images. It’s a beautiful piece about high hopes, vulnerability, disappointment, love, and loss. I’m so SORRY that you didn’t make it to a beach, and I want to know if you could have taken him to a lake or a pool — I want you to fly him to Thailand with you, next year, for a beautiful beach experience! I want you to keep trying, with him — and were you two lovers? was there sexual communication, even if little conversation? Were there ANY conversations of any depth? I think he was as nervous and apprehensive and unsure as you were — or perhaps much more so, since he was (presumably) your guest the whole time. Why did he want you to come back, and then behave so diffidently? What does he hope for next time (a swimming lesson, perhaps?).
    In short, I want more. I really hope you will keep working with this piec,e not just let it fade into beautiful bloggy history. And then, if you want me to, I’ll be happy to re-read it, and I will encourage you to send it to THE SUN, along with the spectacular photos.

    Love,
    Gillian

  4. P.S. I particularly admire the images of the young monk in between the heavy metal gates — he’s trapped, even though they’re open — and the glistening golden temple. I know what you mean about too many temples, but you’ve obviously turned ennui into originality and art. Encore!

  5. I also really love the view from your guesthouse balcony — I LOVE photos of apartments anywhere, for their tiny glimpses of difference and humanity amongst the cement/gray/stucco/metal/glass squares. This one is particularly colorful, sad, and happy. Thanks. If I weren’t completely broke I’d ask to buy a print. But hey, my birthday is next month! 🙂


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