It’s official: Barack Obama will visit Myanmar later this month, the first US president to ever visit the country formerly known as Burma. Not surprisingly the trip has been both lauded and criticized, depending on which special interest human rights group or political organization is attempting to make itself heard. Nowadays, of course, a politician just can’t make a trip without people trying to analyze it or condemn it. But I think it’s wonderful that Obama is making this trip. It’s not “premature” or “misguided” — it’s the right thing to do.
The downside to this historic trip is that Obama will most likely spend a grand total of 16 hours in the country — half of that time sleeping — and will no doubt confine his visit solely to Yangon. Which is a shame because he won’t have the opportunity to see more of this beautiful, mesmerizing country, and get to meet more of the people, as opposed to the quick, generic glimpse he’ll be given by his greeters and minders.
In Yangon he is scheduled to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, now an elected member of the opposition party (one of many parties, actually), and reformist Prime Minister Thein Sein. He will most likely make the obligatory visit to Shwedagon, the country’s most famous and most revered pagoda. And after that? Meetings with the new US ambassador, some sort of bland dinner, and off he’ll go. See you later … thanks … take care. Which country is next? Oh, the joy of politics.
It would be really cool if Obama and his entourage dropped by a local restaurant, such as Feel, where my friend That Myo Aung works as a waiter, while he was in Yangon. It’s not far from Shwedagon, so why not? Feel specializes in Burmese cuisine, but they also have Thai and Chinese dishes and some Western food. Something for everyone. Want a cappuccino with your curry? No problem! That Myo Aung is an incredibly attentive waiter, very friendly (as is almost everyone in this country), and has a smile that will light up a dim room. I can just picture him and Obama grinning at one another. That Myo Aung and I will usually go out for dinner together at least once when I am in town. This trip, however, I didn’t have much time in Yangon, so I only saw briefly three times; once when I dropped by for a late breakfast with Ma Thanegi, later the same day when I met Win Thuya for lunch, and on my last day in town when I stopped by for a late afternoon coffee. As usual, That Myo Aung’s waiter radar kicked in and he found me before I could even sit down. I ordered a latte and we chatted for a half hour or so. When it was time to pay the bill, he waved me off; he had already paid for me. What could I say except: Che Zu Tin Ba De (Thank You!). The hospitality in this country never ceases to amaze me.
And on that subject, I’ll give you some more examples. In Mandalay I always drop by Minthiha, a rather large teashop at the corner of 72nd and 28th Streets. Actually, they have several branches in town, but this one has always been my favorite, thanks to a tip from Win Thuya many years ago. After going there so often over the years, most of the waiters know me, and a couple of them always make an extra effort to treat me like royalty, much like Thant Myo Aung in Yangon. At Minthiha, my two regulars are Yan Naing Soe and Yan Zaw Win. I also make a point of taking them out to dinner when I’m in town, and sometimes we’ll go somewhere afterwards, maybe to a local shopping center or one of the Happy World complexes where they have games, silly rides, and a haunted house. Good, cheap fun. During one of my visits, meeting my tour guide friend Ko Soe Moe for breakfast one morning, Yan Naing Soe picked up the tab. And during another visit, Soe Moe paid. It was almost ridiculous; I couldn’t even spend my own money there!
Maybe such bill paying doesn’t seem remarkable to most westerners, but when you think about the fact that most of these guys are earning less than twenty US dollars per month — a month! — working at local restaurants and teashops, that’s an extremely generous thing for them to do. Naturally, I try and tip these waiters well, but I still think that their kindness exceeds the bounds of normal generosity.
But such hospitality is the Myanmar way. Selfish these people are not. I paid for very few meals when I was out with other locals. Ma Thanegi treated me to breakfast; Win Thuya paid the lunch bill; in Nyaungshwe Htein Linn treated me to pizza and beer at the Golden Kite Restaurant one night; also in Nyaungshwe, Ma Pu Sue invited me to her house for dinner another night, and on my final day in Nyaungshwe, another tour guide friend, Malar Htun, drove in from Taunggyi and took me to lunch, and later she handed me a bag of Shan State coffee. And there’s more. The kids at Tat Ein primary school were always offering me candy and any other snacks they had with them. Dirt poor village children and they don’t think twice about sharing what they have. The teachers at that same school made sure I had extra helpings of food at lunch each day or brought me tea and snacks when I was teaching English classes. Whenever I’m at Ko Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay, they never let me pay for anything I eat or drink. At Maw Hsi’s house in Mandalay, more home-cooked meals. Yes, these are my friends, but none of these people are rich and they really don’t need to be paying for my meals and treating me all the time. But that’s just the way they are. They are good people. Proud people.
Why do I keep going back to Myanmar again and again? It’s the people, of course. More than the overwhelming generosity and hospitality, it’s their personality and spirit that impresses me. I only hope that Barack Obama has the chance, in between meetings and briefings and chatting with The Lady, to meet some of the other down-to-earth human jewels that live in Myanmar. You’re in for a treat, Barack!