China 1982

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

China 1982

Burma, or as it is officially known, the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, is a VERY different country from Thailand (understatement!).  It is an almost unknown entity these days, having been closed off from the outside world under military control for several decades.  With foreign journalists largely prohibited from entering the country and almost no tourism, the country is a true enigma, often being referred to as “the Albania of the Orient”.

We left Bangkok this morning on a Thai International Douglas DC-8 (registration HS-TGT), and arrived in Rangoon at about 3:30pm local time.  Burma is half an hour behind Thailand, although our guide in Bangkok (a Thai) says it is 30 years and half an hour behind.  We had magnificent views of the rice padis coming in, together with small, regularly spaced villages within the wide meanders of the Irrawaddy River.  It was fairly hazy, however.  The temperature when we arrived was a very humid 36°C, and it hasn’t changed much by 10:00pm this evening.

Upon arrival at Mingaladon Airport, which is out of Rangoon to the north, we were herded into the international terminal, built by the British (or, more accurately, the Calcutta metropolitan Airports Authority) just after World War II.  There was no air conditioning despite the extreme heat and humidity, and we mingled with local people and others awaiting departure.  We had to wait in that area for about 45 minutes – there were no seats – while some formalities (bribes, I think, of Johnnie Walker Red Label whiskey and cartons of “555” cigarettes) were cleared up.  At one stage, the rumour buzzing through the terminal was that we might be refused entry into the country.

However, after the several long forms that each of us had had to complete while on the plane had been processed, we were moved into the customs area.  Burma seems to run a fairly tight economy as we had to declare cameras, jewellery, rings, clocks, currencies and credit cards.  It helped being in a group; only two bags were searched, and we left the airport at 5:00pm.  Apparently, we were very lucky; we were told that usually the procedures at Rangoon Airport take about three hours.

Even leaving aside the airport experience, Burma is immediately different from Thailand.  The people dress more traditionally, and for example, the men wear wrap-around skirt-like cloths called longyis), and the people we have met so far seem more intense and less easy-going.  Initial impressions are that almost every second young man seems to be in the army – I couldn’t help but notice the khaki-clad 14 year old (or so) guarding the airport entrance with a large machine gun as we left the building.

The military are evident everywhere – entering Burma is a bit like entering an army base.  The land around Rangoon is considerably hillier than the land surrounding Bangkok, and this makes the scenery more interesting.  The village houses are smaller and not as sturdily constructed as those in Thailand, and the people we have seen so far seem much poorer economically – no refrigerators or TV sets in the houses here!

The government-run Soviet-built hotel where we are staying, the Inya Lake Hotel, is quite close to the airport – about 6 kilometres south of the airport, which still makes it about 6 kilometres north of Rangoon city.  In other words, as I write this, I still haven’t seen the city of Rangoon.  Behind the staff at the reception desk a sign reads “If you don’t see us smiling, try smiling to us first”.

The hotel was built by the Russians in 1952, and has not seen any maintenance since then.  The Ritz it is not!  I have grasshoppers in the room, furniture that sways, no light fittings over bare light bulbs (the room next door just has bare wires), telephone sets where the case comes off when you lift the receiver, leaving the guts of the telephone sitting on the table, tiles fallen off the bathroom walls, toilet seat not connected to the bowl and just resting there loose, five light switches but only two lights, one of which doesn’t work, no mowing of lawns for years, and so on.

Dinner tonight began at 7:30pm.  At 8:25pm we received our warm soda water and bread roll, at 9:05pm we received our main course of a slice of roast water buffalo with Yorkshire pudding plus potato chips, and at 9:30pm we received a dessert (a type of trifle).  I didn’t wait for coffee, but decided to return to my room for a shower, as the water in the rooms is never turned on until 8:00pm.

Tomorrow’s program seems to be very full, starting at 7:30am and continuing into the night.  Therefore, I decided to go for a stroll before dinner tonight to get some photos of the area near the hotel.  I had to be back by 7:00pm because that is when curfew begins, and I was told that you get shot if you’re out after that time.

There was not as much to photograph here as in Bangkok because the hotel is so far out of the city, but as I was walking along the roadway, together with the villagers who were going home from their work, the only thing that got stared at more than me was my camera.  I hope I still have it when (if?) I leave the country.  Tourists are obviously very scarce in Burma – after decades of military rule under what is called “the Burmese Way to Socialism”, I can understand that.  Ever since we arrived, we have been stared at as though we are from another planet.  Even when you look at people in the eye and smile, they just stare right back, expressionless.

It was an eventful day for one of my fellow travellers who had made arrangements to visit a war cemetery tomorrow south of Rangoon where her father is buried; she was wanting to plant some rosemary.  Despite receiving approval eight months ago, she was told at the airport that the plane to that location was fully booked and no seat was available for her.  She pressed the matter as was told that actually no planes were flying there until Wednesday (the day we were to leave for China).  The officials refused to give permission to travel by road or boat on the (quite reasonable) grounds of insufficient time, so in desperation she phoned the Australian Embassy to see if they could arrange a consular car for her.  However, the Embassy advised her not to go because the whole district was not under effective government control, and members of the Karen separatist movement regularly shoot up cars in that area.  As you can imagine, she was very disappointed.

I finally got my shower late at night – well after 8pm.  When the water finally came on, it was only the cold water.  But at least the cold water from the hot tap was not black and full of “bits” like the cold water from the cold tap.  Still, cold showers are quite refreshing in this heat.  Interesting point about the bathroom décor – I thought it was clever how they managed match the colour of the green mould on the wall with the old green lino on the floor.

Day 4

Rangoon, Burma


5 April 1982