Reflections on Three Years in Myanmar

The recent military coup in Myanmar might seem of little importance to many of us – just political trouble in a country most could not find on a map, even if they cared to look.

Not only did I find it, I spent three years living in Naypyidaw, the capital.    

The Return of Democracy

Democracy returned to Myanmar on 8th November 2015 – my 39th birthday.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won with a landslide. The military kept control of key ministries.

Foreign experts, investors and aid agencies were already flooding into the country. I had arrived six months previously.

I was determined to not spend my free time in my room or in hotel bars bragging about which tax haven I banked in as did most of the NGO staff and consultants. I wanted to see what was going on around me.  

Naypyidaw does not have much to offer; the only other major town in the area is Pyinmana, itself notable only as the halfway point on the crucifying 18-hour train journey between Yangon and Mandalay.

Pyinmana Station, 2016

I was somewhat conspicuous as the only foreigner in that small town – more so with my cameras.  

I heard their language’s equivalent of “My god! Come look what’s coming down the street!” approximately once a visit.

Same World, Different Writer

No other place has affected me as much as the community around Pyinmana’s train station.

I had always wondered if any place remained that was culturally isolated from our own. This illusion was only shattered here by a set of prehistoric parcel scales that had been made in Birmingham. Oh, and me.

The station is nothing special, a hundred metres of concrete with a rusted corrugated roof. The biggest difference to the stations you know is this one is home to a community of families. Each family and their worldly possessions fit in a cardboard box on the platform.  

A Family Living on Pyinmana Station, 2017

One Sunday afternoon, I was blundering around there, ineptly taking pictures. The residents were used to me – they knew I was not a military spy.

A lady asked if I would photograph her teenage daughter. I waited as the girl, excited beyond compare, ran off to beautify herself as best she could. Imagine never having seen your own picture.

Having no way of sharing the images digitally, I made prints and took them back to the family. The shock and gratitude on their faces! Life clearly had not and would not give them much, I hope I managed to make that poor child feel good about herself, if only for a second. 

Of course, I had to take more pictures and this started a cycle as more kids arrived to be photographed. My street photographer’s anonymity was gone forever.

Local Children from the Community Around Pyinmana Station, 2017

Sometime later, I went down to the station early one morning whilst it was still dark. The residents were all huddled together in sleep on their platform. Many waiting for trains were awake and chatting. One party even offered to share their rice with me – they had next to nothing and would have freely given half of it to a complete stranger in the early hours.  

Early One Morning, 2017

Opposing the Junta

If you have ever looked at a map of faraway places and wondered who lives there, imagine how much worse it is knowing who does and that they are once more helpless victims of a merciless criminal junta.

Prior to the coup, the community was threatened as there were plans to replace the country’s narrow gauge railways with something more modern. Whilst I suspect the station is safe from any redevelopment plans now as the international backers are likely to withdrawn from the project, the fate of the good people remains just as tenuous and uncertain.

Myanmar people are tough – I’m sure if you can raise a family out of a cardboard box, you can weather the junta. These people, like the country itself, deserve so much better.

The Express, 2017

On Attending a Stranger’s Funeral in Thailand

Thai monks always remind me of Discworld wizards, vaguely comical, and either morbidly obese or so body-horror sinewy you wonder whether their organs are still on the inside.

“My dear, you have black dress?” My heart sank. Nina’s English can be a little cryptic at times. She couldn’t mean did I have a black dress; was she inquiring whether I was clairvoyant enough to know she needed hers? I really wasn’t in the mood for code-breaking. The night, it seemed, obliged us to attend a stranger’s funeral. I hastily donned black shirt and trouser, tried to inhibit my cynicism and dutifully fought my way out into the oven hot Thai night.  

I was to be the token foreigner at the funeral. There was the predictable laugh and joke at my expense when I got to the COVID-19 checkpoint: the bald farang should put antibac on his head! Boing! Silly comedy noise on the soundtrack. Smile. Pretend to be amused and laugh along. I had to bend down so the lady with the temperature scanner could reach the side of my head. I climbed over the mountain of shoes in the doorway that offended my health and safety spider-sense and went inside.

Buddhist temples at night are the oddest places, cheap red garden chairs abound, structural columns painted a faux gold and plastic Buddhas all illuminated by stark white strip lights. No mood lights, no atmosphere just bold naked white lights. Floral tributes to the deceased stood in front of small shrine behind which were several unboxed Beko refrigerators. Music played via a USB plugged into DVD player plugged into a Heath Robinson assemblage of wooden boards and frayed cables covered in decades of grime and dust. Everything was open to the air and there were as many stray dogs present as mourners.

We waited for some time for an even number of monks to arrive; they sat on a raised dais after performing some half-arsed supplications to a lunchbox-quality Buddha image. Thai monks always remind me of Discworld wizards, vaguely comical, and either morbidly obese or so body-horror sinewy you wonder whether their organs are still on the inside. The most rotund had a fold-back clip holding his robes in place. The windows behind them were covered by a hanging carpet and several pink children’s blankets. The call and response chanting began, which was oddly relaxing apart from the distortion everytime the lead monk rocked too close to the microphone. Everybody made the Wai and got into their spiritual groove.   

The deceased’s family sat on heavy wooden chairs in front of the monks through the first set of chanting. The monks held what looked like ceremonial fly swotters in front of their faces. As the number of voices in the spiritual chorus raised to four, ceremonial offerings were placed in front of the monks and four family members got on their hands and knees in devotion.  In contrast to the Hindu cremation Nina and I had spectated at in Kathmandu, there was no wailing, no gnashing of teeth and no deathly pallid hands sticking out comically from under shrouds. The whole event took at most twenty minutes and was conducted with the sort of stiff upper lip reserve my Englishness approves of. Nina said the ceremony was cut short due to the lateness of the hour.

Feeling that this anti-climax lacked the grandeur an anonymous cancer victim deserved, I stood back while the departing mourners, Nina and her work colleagues, took selfies and group photos. The deceased raised no objection to this accounting of his life totalling only a co-worker’s status update. The futility of life, social media and cancer fully-measured, the living went for KFC. 

May your death go viral.