musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Yangon’

Thailand’s Migrant Trials

The big news in Thailand this past week, as well as in Myanmar, was the announcement that a Thai court had found two migrant workers from Myanmar guilty of the murder last year of two young British tourists on the island of Koh Tao. The two men were sentenced to death by a curiously “unnamed” Thai judge.

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The verdict has been viewed as a dubious one by people familiar with the case, and has resulted in mass protests by outraged Myanmar citizens outside the Thai Embassy in Yangon and at towns straddling the border of both countries the past two days. Several organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Migrant Worker Rights Network have called for the court’s ruling to be reviewed.

Anyone who has followed this trial from the outset is well aware of the inconsistencies in the case, not to mention the sloppy way that the Thai authorities handled, collected, and processed the evidence. You can read elsewhere about these issues, suffice to say it raises a lot of doubts.

If was only after two weeks of investigation, missteps, and mounting pressure to find those guilty of the murders that the police officers on the tiny island of Koh Tao amazingly decided that these two workers from Myanmar had committed the crimes. I have no idea if these two young men (who are both 22 years of age) are guilty or not. But based on the “evidence” divulged in the media, and factoring in the accusations that the two suspects were beaten and tortured by police during interrogations, and you have a lot of room for doubt about what really happened.

But one thing of which there is no doubt is there are serious problems with the way that migrant workers are treated in Thailand’s criminal justice system. The operative strategy seems to be: when in doubt, blame the foreigner. I think it’s safe to say that virtually the entire Myanmar migrant community believes that these two men are innocent, and were made scapegoats and framed for the murders. Based on their experiences in Thailand and the way they have been mistreated by police officers and authorities in the past, most migrant workers from Myanmar are inclined to believe that this is another example of one of their own being blamed for something that they didn’t do.

In yet another recent case, highlighted in Sunday’s edition of the Bangkok Post, four young men from Myanmar have been accused of murdering a 17-year-old Thai woman in Ranong three months ago. Once again, there are allegations that Thai police used “brutal and intimidating tactics” to force confessions from the Myanmar migrant workers, two of whom are believed to be underage, having lied about their age in order to get the coveted work permits.

And so it goes. And unfortunately it still does.

 

Rainy Days and Good Friends

It’s been a wet and wild week here in Bangkok. It’s raining nearly every day, sometimes two or three showers each day. Raining cats and dogs … not to mention rats and cockroaches. Yeah, it’s a wild city.

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In the midst of all this precipitation, a flurry of good friends has arrived in Bangkok for visits, ranging from a few days to a few weeks. Now that is the sort of storm that I enjoy! Last week heralded the arrival of Ma Thanegi and Myriam Grest, both from Yangon, and hot on their not-so-high heels was ex-Bangkok resident Janet Brown, now living in Seattle. I met those three charming women for several good meals around town, including lunch at the brand new Broccoli Revolution, a vegetarian restaurant at the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 49. It’s run by Naya, the same Thai woman who helped start the popular Monsoon Restaurant in Yangon.

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That same week I had yet another visit from a Burmese friend, this time Ko Soe Moe from Mandalay, who was making his very first trip to Thailand. Soe Moe is a freelance tour guide and translator and took advantage of the annual September lull to visit our fair kingdom. He spent most of his time up north, in and around Chiang Mai and Chiangrai, but also visited Ayutthaya. He took the overnight train to Bangkok from Chiang Mai and spent his last morning at my bookshop and then headed out for a quick tour of the riverside temples before making tracks to the airport for an early evening flight back to Myanmar. Soe Moe told me that he was very impressed with Thailand and plans to return next year, bringing his son with him.

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And they still keep coming. This week, by old Orlando buddy B.T. arrived for another extended stay in Thailand (Pathum Thani, for the most part), after spending most of the summer back in Florida, tacking on a few weeks in Berlin. My final visitor is Richard from Texas, who arrived this week for his annual Thailand sojourn. He’ll be here for almost a full month before flying back to celebrate Halloween in Dallas. Dinner this week? Why not!

It’s been fun to see everyone again, for however brief or long period of time they are here. Janet will also be in town for most of the month, and we are planning further meals in Saphan Khwai at the long-running Abu Ibrahim Indian restaurant and of course some Thai treats at Ton Khrueng, further down Soi 49. I think I’ll have to put off my plan to go on a diet for yet another month!

 

Fast Food Freedom in Myanmar

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Thanks to various reforms that the Myanmar government has enacted in the past two years — not to mention the elimination of Western sanctions — many Western companies are now eager to do business in the long-isolated country. Yes, plane-loads of get-rich-quick capitalists are practically having orgasms at the thought of access to a new untapped market. Coca-Cola has opened a new bottling plant, car manufacturers are eyeing the country, there is a bidding war going on for lucrative telecommunications concessions, and credit card behemoths such as Visa and MasterCard are belatedly making their presence known. It’s all both exciting and frightening. How will the humble people in Myanmar deal with all these sudden big changes?

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As you would expect, in the wake of such new commerce, we will be sure to witness the arrival of Western fast food franchises. An article in the Myanmar Times last month announced that Kentucky Fried Chicken would be opening up outlets in Myanmar this year. Just think: Colonel Sanders rubbing shoulders with Aung San Suu Kyi. On second thought, let’s not think too much about that. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t rank KFC on any list of fine dining establishments. And yet, based on the write-up about KFC in the Myanmar Times, you would think they were reviewing an upscale restaurant. Here is what the very excited writer for the newspaper had to say: 

“This time it’s the real thing, not a lookalike like the place that recently sprang up in Dagon township. To set local mouths watering on May 11, KFC held a tasting session at Inya Lake Hotel.

My friends and I arrived at 4pm, which just happens to be the time we normally stop work for a snack. So after listening to the welcoming speech of the vice president and chief marketing officer of Yum Restaurants International, Vipul Chawla, we were ready to sample the goods.

First I went for the original recipe: attractively aromatic, crispy without excess oil. From my first bite I found it pleasingly crunchy on the outside and juicy and moist within. But it was quite salty, so I think it will go well with rice.

Then I turned to the hot and spicy version. I believe many Myanmar will find this most palatable, along with other similar dishes on the menu, though perhaps the original recipe is preferable for children.

In other countries, KFC adapts its fare to local taste. In Thailand, for instance, you can get chicken with rice and green sauce. Here in Myanmar, they are already busily researching local eating habits to craft a product aimed at Myanmar taste buds.

When KFC does officially open, their menu will feature fried chicken, sandwiches and salads, along with various drinks.

This month’s tasting session represents KFC’s first attempt to survey local demand and assess consumer needs in Myanmar. Now they are going to decide where, when and how many KFC outlets they will open.”

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Well, obviously someone is excited about the advent of KFC coming to town. And I suppose when you’ve been denied such treats your entire life, discovering the Colonel and his buckets of crispy chicken breasts must seem terribly unique and exotic. This news brings back memories of the KFCC outlet that opened in Mandalay about three or four years ago. Yes, K, F and a double C. As you would suspect, it was a total KFC ripoff, complete with a Colonel Sanders logo on their sign. Alas, it didn’t last more than a year or so. Perhaps the pizza they were plugging didn’t captivate the local diners.

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I have no doubt that the younger generation of Myanmar consumers will be drawn to Western fast food franchises like KFC, judging by the popularity of donut shops and local attempts at fast food that have sprung up in shopping malls in Yangon and Mandalay in the past decade. Who needs Kentucky Fried Chicken when you have Tokyo Fried Chicken!  But I can see the younger generation in Myanmar forsaking local institutions such as the Burmese teashop, in favor of shiny and mesmerizing fast food joints. Some people would say that it’s all about choice — freedom to choose, baby! — and that you can’t deny people the right to eat where they want. Yeah, that’s true. But in a country that has gone for so many decades without the blight of Western fast food franchises, it saddens me to see such “progress” spoiling things. Then again if Pizza Hut opens and offers a Pickled Tea Leaf topping, I’ll be first in line to try it.

http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/lifestyle/dining/6829-kentucky-fried-chicken-comes-to-town.html

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Soccer Monks

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I’m back in Shan State today (at least in my cyber state of mind) with the novice monks from the Tat Ein Monastery. Like most men and boys in Myanmar, these guys are total football fanatics. When not studying their Buddhist texts, they are more than willing to kick around a football — what’s called a soccer ball back in the USA — either inside or outside the monastery. Unlike at some more well-to-do monasteries in Myanmar, the monks at Tat Ein don’t have access to a TV, their football cravings are confined to actually playing the game.

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Before I arrived in Nyaungshwe this time, I bought the monks a new football in Yangon. It wasn’t that expensive but it was certainly of much better quality than the beat-up ball they had been using. They might be novice monks, but that shouldn’t prevent them from playing a little football once in a while. And as you can see from these photos, they certainly get a kick out of doing just that!

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We Are Family

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I was in Mandalay last week, cycling down 83rd Street, passing the busy 27th Street intersection near the Silver Star Hotel, when I heard someone shout: “Hey, Brother!”

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I glanced to my right, being careful not to swerve into the perilous lanes of converging traffic — cars, motorcycles, trucks, bicycles, ox carts, 3-wheeled rigs; it’s a dizzying transport stew — and noticed a man waving at me. It was Maung Lwin, a trishaw driver I’ve used many times. I found a safe point to turn around, hopped off my bike and walked over to talk with Maung Lwin. “Brother, be thwa ma le?” he asked me, a big grin plastered on his dark, weathered face. “Brother, where are you going?” Just a typical greeting, but I get a kick out of the way the locals call you brother, or uncle (you know you’re getting “up there” in age when you hear more of the latter) in either English or Burmese.

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I’ve met many friendly locals like Maung Lwin while traveling around Myanmar. In addition to conversation and camaraderie, they invite you into their homes, cook elaborate meals for you, buy you little presents as tokens of friendship, and above all, they treat you like you are someone special to them. It feels nice to be accepted like that, almost like you’re part of the family.

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I hope it doesn’t sound like a cliché, but I truly feel a special bond with many of the locals I’ve meet around Myanmar. From small villages in Shan State and the dry zone of Yenangyaung, to the bustling cities of Yangon and Mandalay; the people are all gold. I return to the same places again and again, so I’m always guaranteed to run into someone I’ve met during previous trips.

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In hotels and restaurants, schools and monasteries, teashops and on the street; the locals really make you feel at home. It’s a bond that I cherish, and I look forward to reconnecting with my friends, and meeting new ones, each time I’m in Myanmar. We are family indeed!

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Shwedagon Unplugged

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Wi-fi is now available at Yangon’s sacred Shwedagon Pagoda? Say, it isn’t so, Soe Moe! But according to a somewhat tardy news bulletin that I stumbled upon last week, the news is true. Here is an excerpt from one online article that I read:

Tourists visiting Shwedagon Pagoda will be provided with free Wi-Fi access as of 15 August, Mizzima reported, citing a member of pagoda board of trustee. The official said Crystal Shine Company offered the board to provide free Wi-Fi service—30 minutes per head—to foreigners on 1 July. “Wi-Fi password will be provided to foreigners visiting once they have paid five FECs or dollars as usual at foreign guest counter at southern arch,” U Win Kyaing, head of BOT office, was quoted as saying by Mizzima. The service at the most famous pagoda in Myanmar is currently destined for the tourists and its service period will be extended later. Signboards will be erected on the pagoda precinct to let the visitors know the Wi-Fi access is available from 4 am to 10 pm.

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I’ve mentioned this latest wi-fi news to other friends, both Westerners who have visited Yangon and natives of Myanmar, and everyone’s puzzled reaction runs along the lines of: What’s the point of offering wi-fi at a pagoda? Why are they doing this? Why indeed. Why do tourists need to access wi-fi while visiting the country’s most hallowed pagoda? They can’t wait till they get back to their hotel or an internet café? To me, offering wi-fi at Shwedagon borders on sacrilege. Yet the local authorities seem to have no qualms about initiating this so-called “service.” I have visions (okay, nightmares) of laptop-toting tourists sprawled on the grounds of Shwedagon (which is actually more than one famous pagoda, but a large complex of shrines and pagodas, including that famous “big one”), tapping away on their keyboards, oblivious to the worshippers around them. This is just … wrong.

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And it’s also yet another disturbing sign of the increasing sense of entitlement that seems to have become the norm nowadays amongst the tech-savvy generation. These youngsters have practically grown-up online and feel like they need to be — and are entitled to be — connected around the clock, no matter where they wander. I was shocked to see a “Wi-Fi available” sign at a teashop in Myanmar last year, but this Shwedagon sighting it an outrage of a different magnitude. It seems to me that there needs to be a line drawn at some point, leaving some places — such as Shwedagon — off limits to such electronic distractions.

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I remain puzzled at the plethora of businesses and even non-commercial entities that now offer free wi-fi to their customers or the general public. Why? Do they really think these weasels are going to spend more money because wi-fi is being offered? Everything I’ve noticed says that the opposite is happening. I see this new generation of freeloaders and slackers and I don’t see any of them spending any money whatsoever … except to buy the latest shiny new gadget. From free downloads and Google searches to various phone apps and Skype, people nowadays want instant information and instant access, and they don’t want to pay for any of it. It’s what they now expect. And that’s quite sad.

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Wi-fi at Shwedagon? It’s the end of the world as we know it.

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21 Shots: Remembering Myanmar

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I’m thinking a lot about Myanmar lately, as I begin planning my next trip over there. As the days fly by I realize my departure date is less than two months away. Holy monhinga … time to start picking out which longyis, in my ever-growing collection, to wear. All this trip preparation reminds me that I still have a bunch of photos leftover from my last trip that I haven’t posted yet. So, on that note, here we go: 21 more reasons to remember Myanmar.

 

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Making morning treats at a small neighborhood teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay.

 

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Novice monks bring water for the primary school at Tat Ein village in Shan State.

 

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Students at a village school near Inle Lake play games during their lunch break.

 

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Early morning cyclist on a muddy street in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Tapping and blowing out a tune in Shan State!

 

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Students at Tat Ein’s primary school peek under the partition to check out what I’m teaching in the other class.

 

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Ko Maw Hsi and his daughter in Mandalay.

 

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Zin Ko shows off his tasty new key chain in Amarapura.

 

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Drying out chili peppers outside a monastery near Nyaungshwe.

 

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Even monks enjoy a game of late afternoon football!

 

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A student in a pretty hat poses in front of a pretty plant at a temple near Pindaya.

 

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Nyaungshwe traffic jam!

 

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Taking aim while playing the shoe game at a pagoda in Amarapura.

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A little afternoon street corner guitar serenade in Yangon.

 

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A monk in Mandalay during his morning meditation walk.

 

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Checking out the tunes at the teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay.

 

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Ko Maw Hsi bangs a gong in Mandalay.

 

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Novice monk with his alms bowl outside the monastery at Tat Ein village in Shan State.

 

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Dancing the day away in Amarapura.

 

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Students at a village school near Inle Lake play on the slide during their lunch break.

 

Myanmar’s Tourism Dilemma

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It’s often said, “Be careful what you wish for,” and in the case of Myanmar’s burgeoning tourism industry, no truer words were ever spoken.

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In the past year or so, there have been incredible changes in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest, ran for election and won a seat in Myanmar’s parliament; the country’s president has engaged in various reforms and freed political prisoners; media restrictions have been lifted … and well, the world was watching all of these amazing developments, and all of a sudden many travelers want to visit the country. Perhaps too many.

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Due to this sudden spike in tourist arrivals, the country’s tourism industry is fraying at the seams. You can safely assume that all hotels in Myanmar have raised their rates compared to a year ago, but many have gone beyond simple seasonal rate hikes and have doubled or tripled the cost of a night’s stay. One reason for this rate ugliness is the simple fact that there is a shortage of hotel rooms. Supply and demand, don’t you know. If you are planning on visiting in the next month or two, but haven’t booked a room yet, well … good luck. You’re gonna need it. There may be no room at the inn for you, your spouse, and 2.5 kids.

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And it’s not only hotel rooms that are at a premium. Airplane flights, seats on boats, buses, and trains may also be hard to come by … and more expensive. Thinking of hiring a private car and driver to get from one town to another, or maybe the services of a tour guide who can speak your language with some competency? Once again, if you haven’t made those arrangements already, it’s probably too late. If nothing else, the good ones are taken.

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And what about, uh, eating? Most people have to do that at least a couple of times each day. But where will you eat? And much will it cost? I was talking to a woman who owns a restaurant in Yangon earlier this week and I mentioned that business must be very good lately. She let out a big sigh, and confirmed that yes, her place was very busy, but because there were so many tour groups descending on her place, it was placing extra demands on her staff; from cooks to waiters and managers. When you are used to serving a certain number of customers each night and all of a sudden that number triples, how will you handle it? Plus, the fact that tour groups comprise the majority of customers at her restaurant, many independent travelers found themselves either being turned away or having to wait a very long time to be served. Such is the price of success.

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Thus, I fear that anyone visiting Myanmar for the first time this year, or in the coming months, but not come away with the most positive of impressions. I’m sure they will be pleased by the friendliness and politeness of the locals, plus the fact that it’s an extremely safe country to visit, but it’s no longer a particularly affordable travel destination, and the quality of lodging and meals may not live up the standards of many veteran travelers. Also, there are still troublesome money issues: credit cards are not widely accepted, ATMs are just in the planning stages, and any US bank notes you wish to exchange must be in immaculate condition or they will be refused.

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Hopefully, this new wave of tourists will be very patient and considerate, realizing that they are visiting a country that is still getting its sea legs. But if they give Myanmar a chance, they may end up loving it.

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Politicians, Friends, and other Delights

Blink and you missed it. Barack Obama made a whirlwind tour of the region earlier in the week, spending a half-day in Bangkok, about six hours in Yangon, and the better part of two days at an ASEAN summit meeting in Phnom Penh. Hillary Clinton also put in an appearance at each location, but then had to fly off to the crazy lands — The Middle East — in an attempt to pacify the Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and possibly other aggrieved nationalities. Does that woman ever get any sleep?

 

It would be an understatement to say that Obama’s visits to Thailand and Myanmar were met with great excitement — and approval — from the populace in each country. People in Asia really like him. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a great smile. Obama himself appeared to be delighted by the warm reception, and looked like he was enjoying the visits. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck “I Love Democracy” Shinawatra couldn’t keep from beaming in every photo that I saw, looking like a schoolgirl getting to meet a famous pop star. And then there were several photos of Obama in Yangon, hugging and kissing Aung San Suu Kyi … uh, rather fervently. The Lady appeared a bit taken back from such an overt display of affection from Barry, but hey, it’ll certainly sell more newspapers in Yangon and give the fellows in the teashops something to talk about. And it sure beats having some creepy overweight dude, wearing a snorkel and flippers and carrying a bible, showing up on your doorstep late one night, dripping lake water and asking to spend the night. That’s one incident — and in case you missed it, yes, it really happened — that I’d love to know more details about.

 

Obama made visits to such sacred sites as Wat Pho in Bangkok and Shwedagon in Yangon, but by contrast, once he arrived in Phnom Penh he didn’t stop for any temple tours, but headed straight to the ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where serious business was discussed. The tone was set when Obama greeted Hun Sen — Cambodia’s Prime-Minister-for-Life and don’t you dare think otherwise — with a firm handshake, absent of any back slapping or pleasantries. Even if it was “Give a Thug a Hug” week, I don’t think Obama would have lowered himself to embrace Hun Sen. And good for him. Hun Sen is one of the creepiest “leaders” in the region and it’s about time people started standing up to him. By all accounts, the meeting with Hun Sen was “tense,” Obama giving the old Khmer Rouge foot soldier a dressing down on the subject of land seizures, human rights, freedom of speech, and other such sticky issues that the Cambodian government brushes under the bamboo mat. Despite the millions of dollars in foreign aid money that floods into Cambodia each year — it reportedly receives the highest percentage of any country in Asia — poverty in the country is still rampant and infrastructure well behind that of Thailand. It’s the same old broken record: the rich get richer … and they drive SUVs and get away with…

 

On another Cambodian note, I’ve been flooded with phone calls from friends there this week. The subject of Hun Sen and/or Obama never came up, however. Nowadays, my Cambodian friends have more important things to worry about; like paying school tuition, paying hospital bills, and affording to eat. I talked to three of the Tri brothers, and also Chamrong in Siem Reap. His wife just gave birth to their first child, a boy, but the baby was born one month premature, necessitating a multi-week stay in the hospital for mother and child. Rong took off from his job at the airport for over a full week to help take care of them. Happily, they are all home now and Rong is back at work. Another friend, So Pengthai has also had to help his wife and children recuperate from various illnesses. Blame it on the rainy season, which thankfully, now appears to have run its course.

 

Yet another Cambodian friend from Siem Reap, Chiet, has been calling me almost every day … from Thailand! He’s working in another province as a welder, trying to earn some extra money, Hell, trying to earn any money at all. He’s had a problem finding steady work this year in Siem Reap, so somehow he got hooked up with a job broker that brought him to Thailand. I don’t think he has legal working papers, which makes him one of thousands (perhaps the number runs into five or six figures … or more?) of Cambodians and Burmese who are working in Thailand without proper documents. Not exactly slave labor, but don’t think these people are getting paid a fair wage either. Whatever the case, Chiet is working every day of the week — no days off — and is quite tired, but in pretty good spirits overall. There is another Cambodian working with him, but the rest of the workers, I gather, are Thai. He’s obviously lonely, being away from friends and family, so I’m one of his few daily social contacts, albeit one that’s on the phone. If I can figure out exactly where he’s working — trying to get him to distinguish Sakhon from Nakorn and Pathom from Phanom and other similar words is a difficult task — I may visit him next month. He plans to work here until mid-April, the annual Khmer — and Thai — water festival period, before going back to Siem Reap. In the meantime, we talk each night, which is helping to improve my rusty Khmer skills; word and phrases I haven’t used in years are coming back to me. We joke about eating grilled dog for dinner, plus he’s learning some Thai words too, which he is thrilled to impress me with. I only hope he doesn’t fall into any bad habits — drinking and drugs come to mind — during his exhausting labor stint in a different country. It ain’t an easy life for people like him.

 

Mr. Obama goes to Myanmar

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!

 

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