The smuggler, the revolutionary and the hotel manager
U Ngwe explains that in Myanmar during the 1980’s (under the Ne Win socialist regime) there were shortages of everything and in particular anything from the west. On one of these smuggling raids he was caught on the streets of Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand) by the local police. With no visa and only his Burmese identity card he was arrested as an illegal immigrant and taken to the lock up. The local Police commander interviewed U Ngwe extensively at first speaking in Thai however this proved too difficult so the interview proceeded in English. Many Shan people and ethnic groups that make up the Shan nation can speak English, courtesy of the English occupation from 1883 until 1948. An offer was made, pay a fine of 3000 Baht and go free or serve six months jail. He only had a small amount of cash and it was Burmese currency, useless in Thailand so no choice, it was off to jail.
Surprisingly his time in prison proved to be a rewarding experience. The Police commander took a shine to him, enjoying the opportunity to converse in English; they even went beer drinking on occasions outside the prison walls. U Ngwe became the gardener at the goal, watering and tending the plants and he remembered this time fondly. His only complaint was not enough food. A Po Oo man is from mountain country and can eat three plates of rice at one sitting – instead he had to be satisfied with just one plate.
When the six month sentence was completed the Police Commander provided a car and accompanied U Ngwe to the Burmese border where he waved goodbye to his Po Oo friend and as a parting gesture gave him 3000 Baht – the original fine that U Ngwe could not afford.
The arduous journey across mountain ravines and wild rivers was undertaken to his village in the mountains near Inle Lake. On his return he found his people at war with the central government so he joined the resistance fighters and spent years in the jungle, constantly on the move, harassing government forces where they could and at the same time trying to avoid capture. The cycle of fighting, pausing and resting continued until 1990 when a truce between the Po Oo and the Government was hammered out. Up until 1992 Inle lake had been off limits to Burmese travellers and there was definitely no opportunity if you were a foreigner. As part of the armistice the Po Oo were offered a Ruby mine lease and from the profits of this mine the local people were able to construct the first hotel on Inle lake in 1996. U Ngwe became the manager.
This decision proved to be a triumph in forward thinking as now in 2014 Inle Lake is arguably the highlight of any visit to Myanmar. A pristine environment, the lake is home to many ethnic groups who row their boats with one leg wrapped around an oar, a conical shaped fish trap in their hand. They grow tomatoes on ‘floating islands’ and in a good season take out 50 tonnes a day. Around the lake there are stupas and pagodas, their ringed spires with dangling bells always present. The hotel also offers opportunities for Po Oo students to study tourism and hospitality, similar to a training centre. Here students can gain a skill and move around the country to work in the fast growing tourism industry.
U Ngwe’s remarkable story is a testament to his will and resolve, a desire for peace and a better life. In an interesting life so far U Ngwe has been a smuggler, a revolutionary fighter and now a hotel manager. I ask him what’s next and he just gives me that wizened smile – enough I think, time to rest.
The Thangyan Water Festival celebrates the Burmese New Year
It symbolizes the end of the old and beginning of the new. During the ‘Tet’ New Year festival in Vietnam a family will visit a Pagoda after midnight to remember their ancestors. Australians go to parties and watch the Sydney Harbour Bridge go off in millions of dollars worth of fireworks. And the Burmese, well, they just throw water at each other! This ‘dampening’ process symbolizes cleansing of the soul or washing away the sins of the past year so that an individual can move into the New Year with a clear conscience. It is April sixteen, and I find myself in Yangon along with my fellow travellers and it is New Years Eve. We were about to experience the water festival close up, on the back of a flat top truck to be precise, crammed aboard, along with three Burmese locals and a large tank filled with water. Each of us is armed with a brightly coloured plastic cup. None of us had any idea of what to expect, what to do or how to behave. The answer came quickly as one of our Burmese ‘helpers’ pours water on my head and it’s on! Our truck pulls away from the Strand Hotel and immediately across the road is a temporary grandstand, especially erected for the celebrations, adorned in ‘Happy New Year’ banners, music blaring from gigantic speakers and full of young Burmese revellers all with hoses squirting mega litres of water onto the trucks which line up like lambs to the slaughter.
We join the queue of trucks full of gyrating, fancy dressed and face painted locals and soon enough we are being drenched in torrents of water. In your face, in your back, on your head, there is nothing you can do and nowhere to hide. This is not the ideal place to be if you have just had your hair done or your pants neatly creased, everything is immediately wet through. The truck pauses while the laughing faces holding a variety of hoses pick their targets and give us a thorough wetting before we are told to move on by an equally wet policeman. The streets of Yangon are full of New Years parties. Groups of men and women, old and young, boys and girls, piled onto the backs of trucks, jeeps, buses and taxis. Some streets are closed off, the crowd is colourful, everyone waving, smiling, banging drums, strange musical sounds everywhere. Blowing whistles, shouting and screaming, everyone seems to be in a catatonic state of happiness.
We learn to give as good as we get, soaking people with our plastic cups, excitedly dipping into our tank scooping up water to toss on anybody within range. Their are cheers of triumph as we develop techniques for tossing the water, finding our targets with great hilarity and growing precision. The locals are pleased to be wet in such a way, it gives merit to receive a dowsing and for them quite a novelty from a bunch of westerners who just got off the plane from Singapore! Everyone wants to say hello to us, they wave smiling and cheerful, they ask us in stilted English “Are you Happy?” We are, and they definitely are.
We stop for a Myanmar beer or two at a local place, even the proprietor seems to have had the odd drink, his glazed but smiling eyes welcoming us to his modest café. The beer tastes good and the adrenalin is rushing. The temperature on this day is around 33 degrees so by the time we struggle aboard our vehicle we are just about dry. This state of normality is brief as we are hosed, buckets of water tossed at us, people cheering and shouting as they dowse us. Eventually we find ourselves at another ‘Grandstand’ the traffic is congested and the going is slow. We pause next to other vehicles where we can chat with the locals and throw water on them; we are well equipped with our strategic tank, unlike some others who just have the odd water bottle. Here we have the opportunity to do the hosing as we climb the podium stairs and let fly on the passing cars and people. A sweet revenge for some!
By this time the afternoon is well passed and we have been wet though for the last three hours. We head back to Strand Road, hurtling along beside the Yangon River. Our driver cannot resist one more dowsing so he pulls over at a water station where the locals go berserk throwing water on us. Here we get dowsed with ice cold water, you certainly know about it then! There is a collective grown from our vehicle as the icy water finds its mark. Back to the Strand Hotel and we are a bedraggled, soaked and exhausted lot. We hang around outside to dry off but the hotel staff encourage us inside and provide soft white towels for us to use. This is the Thangyan Water Festival, the end of the year, everyone is wet so don’t worry about it. We don’t and tumble into the hotel slightly numbed, welcome to Myanmar (Burma)!
A taxi ride in Yangon
A taxi ride from Scotts Market, downtown Yangon, to the Governors Residence Hotel at 35 Taw Win Road, is a short ride through leafy streets – or at least it should be. After spending a few kyats (that’s Burmese local currency) on some t-shirts and sandalwood Buddha images I decide to head back to my hotel. There are about 20 taxis to choose from, but for some reason I find myself in a 1970’s Toyota that sounds like a tank! Inside the interior is falling to bits and it is messy with empty drink bottles strewn everywhere, but I am in, so I am off. There is an elderly gentlemen driving and he looks as disheveled as his cab. He clutches a piece of paper with Burmese writing and has a hazy, beetlenut-induced look in his eye. The men of Myanmar constantly chew the beetlenut, crushed into small pieces, pasted with lime and wrapped in green leaf. They toss the whole package into their mouths and chew, never swallowing, and periodically spitting out the red juice with a flurry and little consideration of their public surroundings. The effect of constant chewing gives the men a red tooth smile and whatever is in that beetlenut seems to have an analgesic effect, which accounts for the bleary eyes. There is a plastic bag tied to the steering wheel and I suspect it contains everything in the world that is important to my taxi-driving friend. “Taw Win Road” I say. He nods, so off we go.
I have taken taxis many times from Scotts Market where you can buy jade Buddhas, ruby bracelets, gold rings and necklaces, silver ear rings and bolts of cloth. Tall and dark longyi-clad men will sidle up to you as you browse the shops asking you to change money. Smiling Burmese merchants will call you into their shop with the promise of a cheap price, hoping for the first sale of the day. If you buy something they will take your crisp US dollars or fistful of kyat and brush it across their display cabinets, muttering to themselves ‘lucky money’. If you have been travelling around Burma for a month and missed out on buying that treasured item en route, you can usually make up for it at Scotts Market.
We are rattling along Inya Road, heading north, so I ask him to stop by waving my arms and pulling all sorts of faces. He gets the message and we pull up next to a couple of young lads out for a stroll. Many Yangon residents can speak English, particularly the younger ones, so I take my chances and show them the hotel card. They indicate to the driver we are going the wrong way so we turn around, my blind and illiterate taxi driver doing his best to reassure me that we are now on the right track. At no stage was I really that concerned about my safety or even the intentions of my taxi driver – Myanmar is a safe place and Yangon is a safe city, at least when compared with some other cities in the world. We head back down Inya Road and come to the turn where the Savoy Hotel is, and that’s enough for me. I suggest we call it quits and I pay him 2000 kyat for his trouble – this is about $2 and the standard price for a fare just about anywhere around Yangon. I say thanks, but he has got no idea. I wonder afterwards where he thought he was taking me – maybe just for a drive so he could get some money. I don’t think so. There is a hotel on the Inya Road built by the Russians in the mid-eighties and still popular with tourists; I had even stayed there on my first visit many years ago. So I resolve that this was probably the only hotel he knew, and in the absence of not being able to read, with very average sight and just about being deaf, I probably did well to make it as far as I did!
I ask the door staff at the Savoy Hotel to get me a cab to the Governors Residence Hotel and twenty minutes later I am in my room.