Monday, August 22, 2011

Day 72 - Conversations with Students

It has intermittenly rained throughout my travels in SE Asia, but it has finally poured here in Myanmar. Most of the early day was spent indoors, escaping the rain and planning the day.

I would take a walking tour of Downtown Yangon in the afternoon, guided by my Lonely Planet, which was one of the few Myanmar travel guides I could find in the book store back home. There were different routes you could take around the country, depending on how adventurous you were, how much money you wanted to spend, how long you were in the country, and whether or not you cared about supporting the government with your money.

I initially decided to try to avoid as many governmental fees as I could, but as I looked through the guidebook and travel resources online, I found it difficult to avoid some of the fees when you visited some of the bigger cities with some of the more exciting things to see. We'll see as I go further along on this trip since everything is slightly unplanned at the moment.

The first stop on the tour was the over 2,000 year old Sule Paya (Pagoda) right smack in the middle of downtown Yangon. The temple was recommended by Lonely Planet as an alternative to the most famous temple in Yangon, the Shwedagon Paya, which required a $5 governmental entrance fee. Upon entrance, I was asked to donate money when I took off my shoes to enter. I asked if the money went directly to the restoration and maintenance of the temple or to the government. It was hard to understand them, so I only contributed 200 kyat ($0.25). This made me think whether I would have to second guess every single payment I made to see anything here...

Walking around the temple, I met with three university students who were on vacation from school. They had just come from an orphanage they were volunteering at and were exploring the city as well. I told them that I was from the United States and they immediately told me how lucky I was... They each had different majors, and I asked them what they would do after they finished university. They said they'd have a hard time finding a job afterwards. One of them wanted to be a journalist in Chiang Mai, but knew he'd probably have to work as a taxi driver after university. To be a journalist would mean that he would have to escape across the border to Chiang Mai, instead of being a pseudo-journalist (or propagandist) in Myanmar. I asked why they would spend so much money on an education if it would be hard to find a job anyways, and they said it was because it interested them to be educated, despite the difficulties afterwards. The fees for them were 30,000 kyat ($40 USD) per month.

We decided to meet for beers after I took a tour of the city. I asked them if I could take a picture of them, and they refused, saying that they were part of the September 2007 monk protests and were afraid of the repercussions if the government saw the pictures or that they were speaking with me. Some of them showed me their scars, which they got after being hit by police batons during the protests.

I walked through the city for the next couple hours, stopping by a catholic church, mosque, and Hindu temple. You could really tell how diverse this city was because of this. All of these religious centers were all within walking distance of each other in the middle of the city.

I stopped by the Strand Hotel, which was a luxury hotel with British Colonial elements throughout the hotel. At the front of the hotel were little kids trying to sell postcards. I ended up purchasiing 10 of them. The little kids asked me what my name was, how old I was, and where I was from. Upon answering that I was from America, they would each recite the same thing to be at different times. “Oh? America? Basketball. Michael Jordan.” I think they have a little spiel everytime they meet people from different countries. They told me they were hungry, and I joked that I was hungry too. I decided to buy three of them a meal, but instead of the meal, they wanted ice cream! I told them it was not healthy and that they should eat vegetables, but they insisted on ice cream, so we went to the local grocery shop and they chose their ice creams.

At the end of the tour, I went back to meet with the students and we stopped by a local restaurant to have dinner and beers. They told me a lot of interesting tidbits about the political climate and history of Myanmar (They don't call the country “Burma” themselves).

The country itself was ruled by the British until 1948, when the country gained independence. The military took control of the country in 1962 and had continued to take control of the country until recently, when the country held elections and is now a so-called “democracy.” The students believe that the country is slowly headed in the right direction, and hope to see more changed in the coming years.

I asked them why the rate of exchange of the USD was so low, and they associated it with the Chinese bringing in USD to buy gemstones recently. I also asked about how they felt about me trying to dodge the governmental fees to visit some of the sites in the country. They told me that the money that the government receives from tourism is so small compared to the dirty money they collect from selling gemstones, that it didn't really matter if I did contribute to the government. They appreciated the thought, but told me that it would be fine to pay some of the fees if I came across them.

The three of them were also arrested during the September 2007 monk protests, which initially began due to the sudden increase in prices of local transportation and food, among other things. The government gave no explanation for these increases. They served terms ranging from a couple months to a couple years, one of which worked in the rice fields. They also told me stories of the torture tactics of the government, including water droplet torture, where the prisoner sits as a single droplet of water drips on their head for hours. I didn't think this was torture, but they explained that you could get incredible migrains from this type of torture.

I also asked if there was still forced labor in the country, and they explained that there was, and most of them were prisoners, but stometimes, the government take people from the streets at night, which is one of the reasons why people are home by 10pm. Such an enlightening, but intense conversation to end the night! I was surprised they were so open to speak to me about it, but maybe things really will change for the better.

Sule Paya

"Water Fountains" throughout the city

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