Myanmar … brimming with optimism/hope/confidence ? …

Nov. 5-7, 2015 (Yangon/Dallah, Myanmar) :

Downtown Yangon is just too densely populated and congested, which makes it dirty and filthy.  As a significant fraction of the roads/streets have been occupied by the street stalls or hawkers selling all sorts of stuff, their widths are considerably shrunk.  Only on the last day did I realize that just a bit north (~1 mile) of downtown — such as the area around the National Museum or north of the central station, it suddenly looked like a nice suburb area in US that I can even consider living.

As a tourist, it’s just too hot to walk around comfortably. The atmosphere and chaotic street scenes and traffic have reminded me of Bangkok > 18 years ago.  But of course, Bangkok (or anywhere else) then didn’t have 3G (or whatever) data network which was very good in Yangon (as good as in US or Luang Prabang of Laos).

In the first morning, I finished the task of sending a postcard (stamp costing 500 kyat) — an old habit/tradition of mine.  But before I could buy a stamp with kyat, I had to exchange the local currency.  My US$50 was in good enough quality as nobody gave a fuss. The exchange rate for US$100 is 1:1273, only 1:1268 for $50, 1:1253 for $20 or $10 and only 1:1213 for $1 – $5, in the KBZ Bank — one of the biggest banks there.  Somehow they had preferred bigger notes exactly as the tourist guides etc. have stated.  I saw other people carrying passport which I didn’t have.  In the form that they asked me to fill in, they asked for a passport no. and I filled in a no. as much as I could remember — which (after I checked later back in the hotel) turned out to be correct for only the first half of the digits 🙂

1105151644What is shown here was one of the 4 photos at Yangon’s most famous site, Shwedagon Pagoda, taken by a nice girl.  Getting to this Pagoda in late afternoon, it’s like I had achieved my purpose (though maybe meaningless !) of coming to Yangon.  That afternoon, in my heart or mind, I had an internal struggle whether to stay inside the hotel for the air-conditioned comfort or walked under the scorching sun for more than half an hour from my hotel to reach that Pagoda 🙂

Like everybody else, I walked barefoot there as it was a requirement, just like many of the Buddhist places — last year I walked barefoot in the Royal Palace (also of Buddhist nature) in Kandy of Sri Lanka for a couple hours.  It’s worse than Mosque in the sense that I couldn’t even wear socks.  Men also dressed in similar fashion like women — but they are called “longyi” for men.  Of course, there are some men/women in Yangon who dress themselves in more westernized manner.  In any case, these dresses are kind of like a “norm” to me when I have been visiting a different Asian country every year.  They are all slightly different but also kind of the same to me, just some leptons and quarks …… In the photo, my eyes were not really closed, but probably because my eyes are small and I was just tired, they just looked that way.

1106151644The most refreshing bits of my entire Myanmar trip was probably the ferry trips between Dallas and Yangon on my 2nd day.  From the angle in the this photo, Yangon looked quite industrial 😁

It is said this ferry trip should take 10 minutes but it’s more like 6 minutes.  10 minutes probably includes the time to walk out of the terminal.  Foreigners these days needed to pay US$2 each way or $4 return (compared to virtually nothing ~100 kyat for locals).   Nobody (in tourist guides or online) mentioned anything about paying in kyat (for tourists) and when I asked, it turned out to be 5400 kyat — about 6% more than $4.  But since I have too much kyat left, I chose to pay in kyat.  Somehow, they also gave me a 300 ml bottle of purified drinking water.

Probably I seemed to know what I was doing and was very determined in my refusal, nobody in Dallah really chased me for long.  It is said that there was a big contrast between Yangon and Dallah, but to me there wasn’t that much a contrast to me — again, it was due to too high of an expectation value. It’s just city vs rural village, it’s as dirty or filthy on both sides of the river. But just that Yangon has taller houses/buildings, modern development such as a few shopping malls and higher class hotels — I am typing from the most famous one, “The Strand” (not sure since when, I have learnt to make use of the lobbies/reception areas of luxurious hotel to take can rest and enjoy the air-conditioning). The houses in Dallah (that I have seen 10 minutes away from the ferry terminal) are suspended up from the ground by posts as if it is water underneath. I guess there must be substantial flooding … Overall, it’s just poorer than Yangon, not really fundamentally different.

The (short) time spent on the ferry with the breeze was the best part of the journey and actually the most enjoyable moments in my entire Myanmar stay, both spiritually and physically.

By the way, when I reached Dallah, away from the ferry terminal, the data signal was still “H” (HSPA, an enhancement over 3G), the same as in the Yangon side.  Myanmar has just reminded me of Laos 2 years ago that data network has been everywhere which had allowed me to upload to Facebook (and both countries don’t seem to do much censorship, at least not for Facebook, unlike Mainland China !).  I think, due to different frequency spectrum for 4G, my smartphone (LG G2) configured for US could not be used for 4G outside US.  [ 3G doesn’t have this frequency problem and this phone has all 4 frequency bands for me to make phone calls (2G) if I want to. ]

Earlier in the morning, I went to visit the National Museum.  The major exhibit there is said to be the only Lion Throne left, which one could find on the ground floor.  Then, one would encounter all kinds of other exhibits from model statues of various Myanmar ethnic groups and paintings to 40 million years old rocks and even a small piece of rock from the moon (from the Apollo era) given by President Nixon.  There was certainly much space left over for even more exhibits.  I guess the Museum has achieved the purpose of introducing Myanmar but it has given me a feeling that they just tried to fill the space, even just sparsely.  Nevertheless, there were 5 floors which in any case are still a lot to be seen, impressive or not.

The surprise later was that a couple blocks south from the Museum across the Pyay Road, I came across the only modern and multi-story shopping mall “Taw Win Center” in my entire Yangon stay and because of sufficient air-conditioning here, I have physically enjoyed myself much more than in the Museum honestly speaking.  It had  restaurants but I was not that hungry and only bought some cakes in the supermarket at the basement.

1107151335On the last day and afternoon in Yangon, I took the Yangon Circular Railway (Circle Line) which has been said to take 3 hours.  But it actually only needed ~2 hours and 31 minutes, for my experience; but at least I’ve finished reading my novel.  The train goes around the entire Yangon and comes back to the same Yangon central station. On one hand, I’ve got time to kill; on the other hand, I tried imbedding myself among the Yangon people and told myself that this was real travelling and real experience. Though one sometimes got to see some rural green fields, there was just too much trash along the rail track and overall, it was quite boring. I chose the air-conditioned train (even though it was not really strong) to make it slightly more bearable and I didn’t really care of taking photos for the scene outside.  Air-conditioned or not, it’s all US$1 for the entire trip (or even the entire day). It’s obviously not the cleanest but I have only occasionally smelled something 😅

I have typed the above paragraph (in Facebook) from the Sule Shangri La Hotel, not too far away from the train station, enjoying their A/C, toilet, electricity (to recharge phone) etc. I’ve killed a couple hours there before I went over to the East Hotel (just across the Sule Pagoda Road) for dinner as it’s cheaper there and also one of the suggestions of the “The Rough Guide to Myanmar (Burma)” before I headed to the airport for my 1:10 am flight (actually on Nov. 8th).  By chance, the previous night, I also went to one of the Guide’s suggestions, the 999 Shan Noodle Shop, which was even cheaper ~2100 kyat and tasted good enough.  This restaurant was probably run by ethnic Chinese and it’s quite deep into the 34th St. from the main Anawratha Road — ie., if not suggested by the Guide, I’d not have come across it myself.  At the end, I have chosen not to eat street food in Yangon due to the questionable hygiene and the fact that the street food (a lot of frying and oily stuff) didn’t really appeal to my appetite.

Everyday news has shown us bit by bit the election results from Myanmar’s general election which happened a few hours after I left Myanmar. The last day before I left, on the train, I saw in a glimpse one of the few big slogans that I could read (as it’s in English) which said “Myanmar, brimming with ….”. I don’t quite remember the word after “brimming with” …. Maybe, it’s “optimism” or “hope” or “confidence” 🙂  I can write a reason for each …

Let’s hope that the ruling party/army will accept the election results and it certainly looks much more likely than 5 years ago. Among other things, the right to vote in the general election or being able to use facebook is something that the Burmese seem to have but not their neighbors across the northern border. The right to vote may not lead to prosperity or anything and it’s just something which seems more difficult to have than owning iPhone or iPad in some parts of the world. Though my choosing to study physics instead of engineering (or medicine) in college didn’t guarantee any bright future (some people might argue it’s certainly a less prosperous one), it probably gave me my life some meaning as I seemed to choose a path of my own decision instead of my parents’ — which would render my life meaningless. I certainly cherish this right/freedom to choose at that particular juncture even though I never know what’d happen if I had chosen to study engineering or medicine which might be disastrous or might lead to a more financially wealthier life — but for the latter, if they were not my own choosing, I’d sometimes feel that I’d be merely a robot under my parents’ or the government’s super-computerized control. Hehehe … I think even the Chinese novels “家、春、秋” written more or less 80 years ago gave me such a strong emotion in terms of “love” and personal life/choice, when I first read it in early secondary school — I remember that the teacher gave me a “A” for my review — maybe like : if you don’t choose your own lover but only follow your parents’ arrangement for you, life is meaningless 🙂

Interestingly, soon after I left Sri Lanka about a year ago, Sri Lanka also had an important election which made the ruling President Rajapaksa step down in a narrow margin (~51.3% vs 47.6%) . It seemed so unlikely when I was there because I only noticed Raja’s posters in Colombo and nobody else. My Sri Lankan friend/colleague told me that Raja sort of “sold” Sri Lanka to China for his own benefit. Election result is diffiult to predict, especially when you try to do so beforehand 🙂 { Just like many theorists, people like to claim to have “predicted” the unavoidable result afterwards. } The existence of election is certainly interesting than its absence … not the least with the entertainment of Donald Trump. ( I’m very liberal in my voting right … Once you get the voting right, you could vote based on their look, the one sentence they have said or whatever. You only need to bear the consequence of the result collectively, good or bad, such as G. W. Bush or B. Obama et. al. )

The right to vote (in a real election — that people like Donald Trump can try) is probably more “expensive” to get than iPad and iPhone…. And of course, some people don’t care about iPhone or iPad (like me) and some people may not care about the right to vote or the freedom to use facebook 🙂 { What is also interesting is that you can use facebook in Laos and Myanmar — or all the Asian countries that I’ve been in recent years — but not in Mainland China. } These days, I more and more look up to, like and prefer the place that people actually care about the right to vote and I can’t bear with a place that people seem to be satisfied without the genuine right to vote/choose.

I watched the French TV channel in my apartment in Meyrin of Switzerland (near CERN) after the 1995 French Presidential election. Seeing virtually like hundreds of thousands (if not a million) of people around the Arc de Triomphe, it was probably the first time that I suddenly realized and was so moved that people could be so overjoyed by just the sheer existence of an election (somehow I didn’t feel that people were happy whether Chirac had won, but it’s more like people cheering after a successful midnight party). Probably because of language barrier, I didn’t really feel anything about their elections in Myanmar or Sri Lanka when I was there as a tourist. The 2015 Sri Lanka election had the turnout of >80% ! Which is a number that itself just shows a kind of emotion or at least “!” ! { Voting turnout would probably come down after it becomes routine … just like your love for your iPhone would dwindle after the initial excitement. } I’ve long thought that people’s happiness is ~ dX/dt — X can be anything and t is time. You don’t really feel happy or sad just because of the absolute magnitude of X but its change would affect your happiness. Walking down the Champs-Élysées from Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde (even after a few times) is probably still more enjoyable/romantic to me than walking in Yangon downtown (the temperature must be a factor here, too). Nevertheless, if I had a machine to measure happiness, I’m not sure that the richer Parisians (or other richer people in richer cities) are happier than the Burmese. Certainly, at this moment, the Burmese is probably brimming with more “hope” or “optimism” than the Parisians; in other “words”, d(Hope)_Burmese/dt > d(Hope)_Parisian/dt .

Aung San Suu Kyi had created the famous statement before the Nov. 8 election that she would be “above the President” and run the govt. if her party NLD could win enough seats to take over the presidency. The military has written the Constitution to exclude her from the presidency but she can play tricks to get around the Constitution to practically run the govt. That’s probably what the uncertain negotiation before the coming Feb. will be about. Later, if they get enough votes, they may even change the Constitution so that she may be the President herself (rather than having to have a puppet President for the lack of a better term). That’s the obvious path but it seems so far away from now. There are female artists who are called “Goddesses” but Aung San Suu Kyi is the real Goddess in Myanmar and one would find her posters for sales more than anybody else. Some people criticize her for her ignoring the matters of minorities such as the Rohingya people. Nevertheless, her fight against the dictatorial rulers and her toughness to endure her being practically “jailed” at home for ~20 years (instead of staying in her comfortable home in Oxford — also my alma mater — with her kids and husband) has deservedly won her the Goddess status in Myanmar. Though it doesn’t guarantee that she knows how best to run the govt. (as the revolutionaries may not be the best rulers), her greatest contribution/legacy will be her tremendous efforts to lead Myanmar to democracy (esp. if it happens to work).

Last but not the least, 5-6 days after I mailed my postcard from Yangon, my family in Hong Kong received it !  According to my own experience, this is considered fast among all the countries that I’ve visited or compared to Vietnam/Cambodia/Thailand which are not more distant from Hong Kong than Myanmar.  I have used to have the “theory of public transport” (as seen by tourists) to judge how good a country is.   Now, I may have another “theory of communication” to judge a country.  In the public transport aspect, Yangon hasn’t scored well at all.  But for the communication aspect, from the above postcard experience and that of the network data, Myanmar or at least Yangon has left me a very good experience which has somehow made me feel hopeful for their future. Communication is not everything but good communication to the outside world would at least help keep their government honest, among many other benefits.  Maybe, Myanmar is even brimming with confidence as Myanmar is not afraid of letting the outside world see them as they are and at the same time not afraid of their citizens seeing the outside world.


Here, I include a review that I’ve originally written in the for the Best Western Chinatown Hotel (Yangon) :

“To me, compared to the dirty and filthy streets and the unbearably hot weather outside, stepping into this hotel with A/C was a bit like entering heaven from hell 🙂

I have enjoyed the breakfast the most as it has included all sorts of Asian or Chinese stuff such as congee (with salted eggs, preserved egg, fermented bean curb etc.), noodle, fried rice and many other dishes (like lunches!) …these just have just pleased me (if nobody else). There are also pastries and I saw people get omelet cooked for them etc. It’s like the best “free” breakfast ever.

I often felt like staying in the hotel more than walking under the scorching sun. The only imperfection was a few ants that I have seen during the last day.

Including tax, I have paid $210 for 3 days, which was the best deal when I tried to look for hotels in Yangon. The Director of Sales had allowed me to pay by credit card before I arrived such that I could avoid the 2 or 3% fee that they might charge if I paid by credit card after I arrived. Though the room may be small and it’s got only a pair of windows arranged vertically with a width ~slightly more than a foot, the equipment seems modern and there are abundant supplies including sandals, toothbrush and toothpaste, comb, razor, hair-dryer, etc.

The shower should have one more glass door to prevent the water from splashing out.  Nevertheless, they seemed to have done some work such that the water would eventually go down the drain.

The staff have been polite and smiled all the time.  Overall, this is a new place that is definitely worth recommending.”



About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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