Hugged by a Political Prisoner
Myanmar, © 27.Dec.2002 gM
Photos of Myanmar
Introduction to Myanmar
Hugged by a Political Prisoner
The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round
Hope You Brought Your Calculator
On the Move in Myanmar
Wherever I have gone in all my travels, there have always been defining moments which will forever remain in my memory because just one such moment is reward enough for visiting the whole country. In Fiji, it is the countless big smiles and welcoming "Bula!". In New Zealand, it is floating on an inner tube through a cave with thousands of glow worms. In Rio de Janeiro, it is the view from the top of Corcovado. In Guatemala, it is watching the sunrise from temple IV in Tikal. In Cuba, it is listening to its music no matter where you are. In Canada, it is the aurora borealis viewed from a ferry deck on the way from Port Hardy to Bella Coola. In Austria, it happens whenever I have one of my favorite dishes at home. In Egypt, it is the surviving testimony of the grandness of an ancient civilization. In Malaysian Borneo's jungle, it is having a close encounter with wild orangutans. For India, one knows that any journey will be a defining moment, one way or another, but the cultural mix, the colorfulness, the spices, and the overcrowdedness will still hit you when you are at your most unprepared. Defining moments do not have to be unique, although some are. They, however, are always personal, capturing the essence of myself and my environment at that very moment. Myanmar is no exception.

Countless zedis define the skyline of Bagan at dusk
A maze of waterways winds through the floating gardens of Inle Lake
Countless zedis define the skyline of Bagan at dusk and a maze of waterways winds through the floating gardens of Inle Lake / © gM
On one hand, Myanmar offers an enormous number of Buddhist pahtos (temples), zedis (stupas), caves, and kyaungs (monasteries) of any size, shape, and age. Bagan with its hundreds of pahtos and zedis rivals Cambodia's Angkor as the most significant historical site in South-East Asia. On the other hand, Myanmar's scenery can surely compete with that of many other countries. Especially, picturesque Inle Lake and the nearby mountain ranges are ideal for trekking, even though (or because) infrastructure for trekking is still in its infancy. Neither the perfect spiritual nor nature experience, however, will be the defining moment of a visit to Myanmar. Myanmar's people will be.

Visiting a monk
Visiting a monk, Serimingalarroon monastery / © gM
Students from Taunggyi University practice their English with us, give us postcards with their addresses, and we give them our address. A monk in Pyay shows us Shwesandaw Paya, his monastery, and his spartan room with one closet, and one bed with a mosquito net but no mattress. A boat maker at Inle Lake explains to us how wooden boats have been built for centuries while in the back a log is being cut into long boards by two men. One man stands on top of the structure which suspends the log horizontally about three meters above the ground. The other man stands underneath the log. They are cutting the log manually with a two meter long saw, working without interruption for the whole time we are there. The man on top is pulling up and pushing down the saw, while the man at the bottom is pushing up and pulling down the saw. At Kuthodaw Paya, three brothers and sisters of primary school age present to us starfruit seeds and flowers. At Nyaung U, the boy of the shop adjacent to the bus ticket agent sells us bus tickets from Nyaung U to Mandalay because the bus ticket agent happens to be on her lunch break. When she returns, the boy gets in trouble because he sold the tickets to us for the local price, not the foreigner price!

Two duck shepherds try to keep their flocks separate
Intha leg rower catches fish in the evening
Intha leg rower catches fish in the evening
Two duck shepherds try to keep their flocks separate / © gM
Intha leg rowers (left / right) catch fish in the evening/ © gM
Some interactions are one way, from a distance only, like watching leg rowers catch fish or duck shepherds in their boats trying to keep flocks of ducks separate. Other interactions are very disillusioning like noticing a little girl of 1½ to 2 years starting to dance just because I walk past her with my camera in my hand. I hate these situations, do not want to be the cause for them, but know that the mere fact of being there as a traveler may already be enough, know that these situations are an almost unavoidable by-product of traveling the Third World. It is somewhat comforting though that we only come across this one case during our whole time in Myanmar where tourism visibly contributes to undesirable change. Often, the kindness and helpfulness of the Burmese make us feel at home. For example, after a particularly strong bout of travelers' diarrhea, our stomachs can only take steamed rice, plain pasta, or mashed potatoes which is prepared for us - at no charge!

No doubt, Myanmar is an oppressed country even though the people's friendliness can easily let you forget that. Free democratic elections are unheard of, and the opposition has been silenced by years of imprisonment. In many cities, particularly close to trouble spots, huge propaganda billboards praise the government, warn subversive elements not to cooperate with foreign agitators, and declare war against drug trafficking. In reality, the military regime tolerates substantial exports of opium and other drugs from Myanmar's north, leaving the population stuck in cycles of violence and economic dependency. Do not imagine a lot of military or police in the streets of Myanmar, though. We have seen much more during our time in Egypt or Thailand. One reason is that the places in Myanmar with heavy concentration of military or police are also restricted for travel of foreigners. Furthermore, in accessible areas, the military regime is largely maintained by an extensive network of plainclothes government informants spying on the people. Almost everyone is afraid to talk openly, and only does so if certain not to be overheard. In addition, bureaucracy burdens the general population with ridiculous permit requirements. For travel from one state or division to another, locals must apply for a permit to be allowed through the numerous checkpoints. Even cultural events such as traditional pwe performances have to be registered with the authorities, detailing exactly who will be performing. This serves, of course, only one purpose: censorship.

7 fingers symbolize 7 years in prison for Lu Zaw (left) and Par Par Lay (right) because of a political joke
7 fingers symbolize 7 years in prison for Lu Zaw (left) and Par Par Lay (right) because of a political joke / © gM
Continuing the Burmese a-nyeint pwe style of entertainment, the three Moustache Brothers blend satire, slapstick, dance, and music into nightlong performances. Several years ago, Par Par Lay was arrested and jailed for six months for replying to his stage partner's "My hat is so large it protects my head from sun and rain all day long." with "My hat is so large it protects all Myanmar!", refering to the opposition party's symbol, a star-covered hat. Not long after his release during a performance at an opposition gathering, the comedians joked about the military government: "In the past, thieves were called thieves. Now, they are known as cooperative workers!" and, in a skit about a general who demands that a Burmese die if he is hit, "Why should I die if I am right", cleverly playing with the homonymous Burmese words for "hit" and "right". Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw received seven-year jail sentences.

Lu Maw in a performance of the a-nyeint pwe troupe Moustache Brothers
Lu Maw jokes about the harsh aspects of Burmese life
Par Par Lay's eyes tell of years of imprisonment
Lu Maw (left) jokes about the harsh aspects of Burmese life (middle while Par Par Lay's eyes (right) tell of years of imprisonment / © gM
After 5½ years, they were allowed to return to their families mid 2001, possibly only saved by international media coverage of their plight. The worldwide interest in the fate of the Moustache Brothers may have deterred the military regime from doing anything worse but it did not stop it from keeping the comedians in isolation, not even allowing close family members to visit them for their last five years in prison. Now, the reunited Moustache Brothers are allowed to perform, but only out of their home in Mandalay, nevertheless treating their audiences to a true emotional roller coaster. At the same time sad and hopeful, the evening show is unforgettable. It is sad, because great comic talent is stifled into rough English sketches for a few foreigners. All one can think of is that these artists should be performing in their native language in front of a few hundred Burmese. What a waste. Sitting in the audience thinking of Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw's years in prison, one's imagination runs wild. Is Lu Zaw's limp, slightly forward-bent posture, and pain-stricken expression on his face part of his act or is it more than that - an unwelcome shadow of his incarceration? Par Par Lay's deep eyes seem to tell the same story, communicating unspeakable things which must have happened. At the same time, the evening is full of hope and laughter, the Moustache Brothers a towering example of human endurance and determination.

As it is time to say goodbye, I find myself at the receiving end of an unanticipated and heartfelt hug from Par Par Lay. I walk away from the Moustache Brothers' Mandalay home knowing that I have just experienced a defining moment. And, this defining moment is unique since what are the chances of me ever again being hugged by a political prisoner?

Introduction to Myanmar  /  Hugged by a Political Prisoner  /  The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round  /  Hope You Brought Your Calculator  /  On the Move in Myanmar