Saturday, May 15, 2010

Myanmar Minutea

Here's an informational look into my recent trip to Burma

Some History

The country was ruled by a monarchy based in Mandalay before the British took over from 1824-1886 and made it part of the Indian territory (it was later a separate administrative area). The country became independent in 1948, following WWII, and didn't join the British Commonwealth. General Ne Win took over via military coup in 1962.

Some Econ
The country's primary interest to the British was teak, which was logged in vast quantities and continues to be a main export - though forests are nearly depleted.

Some Religion

The country is primarily Mahayana Buddhist, with some Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities.

It still retains a significant ethnic 'hill tribe' population, mostly in the north and border regions it seems. There are some 70 plus different ethnic groups recognized by the government.

Urbanization & Infrastructure
The country's 40 or so million are relatively urbanized, with about 6 million living in the former capital Yangon and a comparable number in Mandalay. Infrastructure is poor - major highways are 1.5 lanes and not always sealed. We observed quite a bit of road improvement over our 6 hour drive from Bagan to Kalaw. It was almost all being done by hand, and by women. They were laying rock and mixing/heating asphalt in drums b the side of the road. Once in a while there was the odd Komatsu bit of machinery rolling it down. The road was originally constructed by the government, but has since been 'privatized' and we paid tolls for road maintenance several times on our journey.

The rail infrastructure dates to the British, with many trains as slow as 15 km/hour. Large bed trucks transport goods and people - likely of Chinese origin, though we saw some that had been built by hand of wood and homemade engines. Air travel routes have been increasingly developed but are dramatically unaffordable. It's clear that it is hard to move goods in and out: air strips seem unlikely to be able to handle large aircraft form modern fleets - so things would have to be flown somewhere else then transferred to smaller planes.

Connections to the World
People here aren't cut off from the outside world. English is taught in schools from primary school, and there was a surprisingly high level of English. That bodes very well for their future economic development.

Foreign products are available - we see Nivea, Coca-Cola and apparently also European pharmaceuticals. Chinese products are plentiful - plastic goods etc. Motorbikes are increasing outside Yangon, where they're banned. A Chinese motorbike runs $300, and over 5,000 are smuggled into the country a day. Cars cost thousands of dollars to register and motorbikes cost significantly less.

Satellite TV is available (after a hefty government tax) and Korean popstars are visible all over. Imitation hairstyles have ensued. At two weddings, photos of Korean pop stars were decorating the festivities. (Look at top left in this photo).

Internet penetration appears to be advancing. Though there are blocks on sites like and, we have been able to find internet for as little as $0.40 in Yangon and it's relatively fast.

Cell phones are more of a luxury item. The cost of the phone is low, but to get a number you have to pay the government around $2,000. This ensures very few people have their own phone numbers. You can also buy a sim card that gives 1 hour of talk time and expires after 1 month.

When people say that Burma is 'unspoilt', I think it most aptly refers to the disposition of the people towards travelers. I see why they would be compared to Thais 40 years ago. The warmth and friendliness - and curiosity! They're not jaded or interested only in the business of tourism.

There are elections approaching. One person said, "We will all vote, because if you don't you're in trouble. But nothing will change; we know the outcome already." However, another remarked these elections were very important, because the military wasn't allowed to run, and they'd have civilians - though generals can conveniently retire just before elections to run as civilians.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reasons I Love Hanoi

As I have been driving around the city recently, I've been making a mental checklist of the things that are truly, wonderfully Hanoi:

  • Driving home late at night on my motorbike when the roads are empty and the temperature has dropped. Juxtaposed to the busy-ness of the day, it's a thrilling freedom to drive the quiet empty streets.
  • Walking into bun cha smelling air-bubbles as it's being cooked before lunchtime.
  • Looking up and realizing the streets are lined with ancient trees, peacefully rooted in the chaos.
  • Being able to change the iTunes playlist at most of my favorite bars.
  • Running into people I know everywhere I go.
  • Stretching, bobbing women in aerobics classes en masse in the parks.
  • Constant valet parking.
  • The fact that none of the clothes fit me, so I never feel the desire to go shopping.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Day in the Life

A day filled with variety is something tremendously wonderful. Too often our days are filled with monotony - it's the one thing I dread most about leaving Asia and my current life here.

Today, I woke up and turned on my water heater. Then I went downstairs (two flights), and used the electric kettle to boil water. I've stockpiled organic coffee from the USA (ground for a french press). I put a tablespoon of coffee in my Bodum and turned on CNN in the living room for 15 minutes while it brewed.

I left my computer at the office last night, because I went straight to Gaelic football practice and it was raining. So after my shower, I threw a mini-mango (yes, those exist) and a banana in my messenger bag, put on a light down coat - it was high 60's today - and headed over there. On my motorbike.

Putting on a motorbike helmet feels so natural that sometimes I forget I'm wearing one. And a facemask - no joke, after 1.5 years here I notice every motorbike ride I take without one. Air pollution is the #1 reason I want to move back to a developed country - or a less developed one.

I worked on the 'stack' - read powerpoint - for a pitch that I'm finishing for tomorrow. Today being Thursday, I had a standing date for a long lunch with a friend of mine. Just so happens he's an ambassador, so he has a driver and a car. This means getting to see the bustle of the city from a peaceful, climate controlled environment - which is a completely different experience than 90% of my days. It's great.

We take an hour to go to the driving range (ok, not EVERY day is like this. just every once in a while), then have lunch at Don's (he named the restaurant that). I live with the managing editor of a local magazine, and she's constantly over at Don's for tastings and things, and she's introduced me to him. And my friend is a regular, so he meets us at the door.

At this point, I've already spoken 3 languages today (English, Vietnamese, and Spanish). Just for fun, we chat in Portuguese for a while at lunch too. And discuss the fact that he'd like to resume French lessons - I've just started.

After lunch, I'm dropped off a block from the office. I'm ducking into the tailor's to see if my dress, suit and jean skirt are ready yet. No - ngay may. I have to come back tomorrow. No problem.

I run one more errand - I've got 2 government manuals for first aid and their 911 dispatch system. I want to share them with some doctors in the US, so I find a copy shop that will scan them into .pdfs for me. Both'll be done by Saturday - great.

The pitch isn't going to get done before end of business, so I walk back slowly and stop to buy a birthday present for my housemate. I walk serenely down an entirely chaotic street. It's a learned skill. I pass a shoe store - and just to check - go in and ask if they carry women's shoes in a 41. Nope. Not a single one. Eh, it's what I expected, but I thought maybe there was a shot.

I tutor for a bit - we talk about gerunds and infinitives - and then it's off to the Old Quarter to find 'pan street'. I end up making a miserable purchase of 2 baking sheets which both leak in the corners (which I don't realize until later), and head home.

Watching Grey's Anatomy (season 5) on TV while I cook some dinner, I plop down on the couch and chat with a friend visiting from Thailand. And then it's back to work. I'll be up late working on this pitch; it'll need to be in by noon if the Red Cross director's going to have time to look at it before the weekend.