Myanmar Part 1: Yin and Yangon

I think I had more fun in Myanmar because I was chasing a story, which in itself  makes me happy. I was mainly there to look into the (turns out very, very quiet) gay scene and quickly realized the bigger story was less of a Vice-esque “I hung out with some Myanmar lady boys and male prostitutes and filmed it” (which I did) but more about their push for constitutionally protected rights.

But while there is that reality of a minority group being unable to enjoy their lives to the fullest  —  in the confines of an emerging democracy and relatively underdeveloped country — you can put that aside in moments to immerse yourself in the breathtaking sights and culture.

The operative word when they tell you Myanmar is slowly opening up is slowly. First off, the embassy is strict with journalists, so you better have a good excuse.

There’s also the laborious process of locking down domestic air tickets and an itinerary, which I wrote about here, so I was very happy that I got to book with a gay-friendly tour agency which sorted a six-day itinerary for me for just over 800 US dollars.

It was a five-hour flight from Hong Kong and the only snag going in was having to wait 40 minutes in line to get through immigrations, equivalent to seven “Coffee Break Espanol” lessons on my iPhone.

More than one elderly expatriate couple, the main tourist demographic as far as I could tell, went all guerrilla, splitting up and betting on two lines instead of one and whispering to each other if it was OK to sneak past the line marked “Seaman.”

Then there is the problem of getting to my hotel without a shuttle service. Which driver do you choose from among the many grinning faces swarming you? Not the guy with a spiffy second-hand Picanto who charges you 12 US dollars and pretends like he knows where you’re going when really, he has to stop and ask for a map from Parkview Hotel. At least the Burmese rock tunes were good and the hired car had A/C.

I stayed at the Beautyland Hotel for two very cozy evenings in which I could pretty much sleep on any of three old, carved wooden beds, and most of all enjoy the pink toilet paper.

Trust that this converted monastery, which still has trappings of its previous occupants’ former life, including a prayer room and the faint scent of old people, will soon be a backpackers’ haven. (There’s very weak WiFi and two charming golden retrievers who promptly sniffed my crotch when I arrived.)

The receptionist, who sleeps and works in a hut just outside the foyer, and who keeps tabs on a whiteboard that lists all the guests they’ll be expecting any given day, grudgingly let me into my room when I barged into the locked gate at 4am.

He was a bit stoic, but perhaps it was more the bulbous growth on his left cheek that made his mouth sag in a frown, but was quietly efficient and helpfully secured me a cab when I slipped away at 4am on my last day there.

A few things you notice from the get-go is that Yangon appears lopsided because it is crumbling on one hand and quickly developing on the other.

On my first day there, I walked around with my affable and skinny tour guide L, who took me through the markets that smelled of dirt and jackfruits, the sidewalk tea shops with plastic miniature furniture where people socialize and gossip over boiled pork knuckles, and the old colonial buildings that are still used as apartments or government offices.

For some, the apartment buildings with peeling paint and the beginnings of mold may seem “quaint” but the guys who live there probably go home every day and think, “What a dump.”

He showed me the government bank, which is apparently the exclusive terrain of businessmen because it’s shunned by distrustful locals.

He walked me through the “bar street,” full of sidewalk notaries and typists, which is probably the world’s last known bastion for typewriters. (Where do they get ink ribbons?) They sit comfortably with a few internet and printing shops that have made the digital leap to Windows 98.

The public payphone.

L, who is en route to Indonesia to study English further, was most excited by the book stalls – all photocopies or vintage editions – which have blossomed in the city after the censors loosened their grip.

Instinctively, tourist touts will flash you copies of George Orwell’s Burmese Days less because they’re smacking colonial excesses in your face and more because they think it’ll make for romantic reading while you’re in Myanmar.

L was really smitten by the novel by Inge Sargent, an American who fell in love with a Burmese prince (without knowing it) and lived as Burmese royalty until her husband was taken away and, likely, executed. My guide said Ms Sargent, now in Colorado, writes the government every year to demand her lover’s whereabouts.

Perhaps my only complaint about Yangon is the growing traffic.

The taxi drivers I spoke to said this was nonexistent six months ago, and as they impatiently stew in the heat, staring at the sea of very old, very 1990s cars before them,  they blame it on the lower import taxes on cars (but never the hordes of tourists who come to ride in some of them). Other modes of public transport — horse carts, crammed buses, refurbished pick-up trucks and even inter-state railways — seem efficient enough.

I depended on these little cabs (some of them close to collapsing) with no meters to get around on my second day there, when I wanted to explore unguided (or misguided!). They charged from 1,500 kyat (pronounced “chet”) to 5,000 kyat, which are negotiable.

It’s useful to have a complete address with you, particularly the street number, because a lot of instructions get lost in translation. I note with some amusement how, almost British-style, drivers prefer zippy little micro-cars like this one.

I went on a gay trail mapped out for me by a source of mine, a lawyer in Thailand, who wrote a list of popular hangouts that ranged from discos to restaurants to the cafe of five-star hotel The Strand and the odd bridge where “money boys” (to this day, I only have a vague idea of what this means) supposedly hang out.

A lot of these spots yielded no insights on this gay culture that I couldn’t seem to find at first. And what was I supposed to do, really? Jump up and interview the first guy wearing Gucci loafers* and skinny jeans who walks through the door and orders a fruity cocktail? That would be discrimination, right? (*I did spot some boutiques declaring they had Louis Vuitton and Gucci, but thank god such a ‘luxury’ market is the exception to the rule, for now.)

At least the search and endless Googling led me to ambush Phone Myat Htoo, a photographer who posted a photo of a Myanmese gay wedding. Pictured here at his studio.

There was a fleeting moment when I was shopping for souvenirs and on the lookout for interesting gay-run beauty salons (no overt ones) at the Aung San Market, when I saw two men hold hands. But I was too slow on the draw.

The market

Among the three memorable “gay spots” I visited was 50th Street Cafe, which is a pretty swanky (as swanky as it gets here) two-floor pub with wood paneling, comfortable booths, a pool table and very discreet flatscreens showing the latest sports games. It’s got great curries and a fine selection of beers – but best of all, it’s got the strongest WiFi signal I encountered in the city, apart from The Strand, which only gives you an hour.

I later met an elderly British gentleman, just retired from his long teaching career, on a flight to Yangon from Bagan (more on this in part 2) who said he was awfully thankful for recommending 50th Street Cafe, because he spent every night of the rest of his stay there.

Prawn curry

Anyone who wants to be sheltered in a Western bubble can either run to The Strand Cafe, where I got to try their exorbitantly overpriced 12 US dollar high tea, or to establishments like the British Club (that is, if you know someone in it), which is a bit run-down like the rest of the city but offers such luxuries as a pool and authentic fish ‘n’ chips.

My ticket to the club was an invitation from the owner of the gay tour agency himself (no names, sadly), a rather nice expat who has carved a comfortable life between Myanmar and Thailand.

Surprisingly, he wasn’t a big fan of Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he says for all her democratic credentials is still part of the elite, owning prime property and refusing to speak about ethnic conflicts right in her backyard. The rest of the country doesn’t seem to agree, as the myriad books, magazines, magnets, T-shirts and mugs that has her face emblazoned on them prove.

We had a nice chat over Myanmar Beers, the nation’s favorite weak lager, and like many in his industry and many outsiders, he expressed fears over Myanmar developing “too fast.”

But judging by the infrastructure and pace of life alone, I don’t think that will happen in earnest any time in the next three or four years or so.

Of course I also explored things less urbane. I was taken to the Chauktatgyi Temple, home of the reclining Buddha, which has had a Michael-Jackson-esque makeover from very masculine and ethnic features to this elaborately painted one.

Here, L told me to ring the metal bell three times for luck, and cheerfully informed me that, based on the day of the week I was born, I was a rat under the Myanmese zodiac.

There is also that mandatory visit to the Shwezigon Pagoda, which was the only time I felt the palpable crush of pink-faced yet smiling tourist hordes from the mainland, Thailand, Japan and Europe.

The complex is massive, and it took a whole afternoon for L to show me the seven corners of the pagoda, each with its sub-complex of smaller shrines with gold-leaf Buddhas surrounded by glass-encrusted pillars, statues of the nats (spirits) and leonine guardians, carvings of the Buddha creation myth, and water fountains where people come to bathe the Buddha icons for wishes.

L ushered me to the rat corner of the temple, where I was to pour water on the Buddha 27 times (my age plus one), again, for luck. I felt sorry for the Buddhists were legitimately coming to pray at the site, because they had to share alone time with their deity with about 500 photo-happy onlookers, including some foreign monks! (The local robes are saffron, so anything heading into traffic cone territory is from elsewhere in Asia.)

Like the hushed silence of the temples, the nightlife in Yangon is subdued (for now). Establishments — including the national museum — have this confounding schedule where they only open on certain days and times during the week.

Even Chinatown seemed subdued when L brought me there one evening. Apart from the Chinese features on sidewalk vendors, the banners declaring Lunar New Year sales and the red boxes of sticky rice cakes, there seems to be nothing so Chinese about the market area.

There are also bars and restaurants in some of the alleyways, but I was stopped from sitting down and having a beer by my guide, who said it wasn’t customary for girls to drink alone, without friends or their boyfriends, in the streets.

It’s a slow, sweaty crawl between the woven baskets of vegetables (like the biggest eggplants I have ever seen) and steaming metal pots and griddles of street food. I can tell it’s going to be a big destination for pickpockets, since tourists  in tight quarters make for easy targets.

I met and helped a hotel guest at Beautyland, a Silicon Valley bigshot on a six-month sabbatical, who came home shell-shocked after he discovered his back pocket devoid of his iPhone. I offered him use of mine, and he was able to get in touch with his girlfriend back in San Francisco.

Heterosexual egg-and-flour snacks that are served one on top of each other like “a couple.”

My one lucky breakthrough in the night scene, however, came just four hours before my flight out of Myanmar. Straight from my mid-week sojourn in Bagan, I had dinner with the partner of the said gay tour agency owner, A.

After a feast of Hainan chicken at Mum’s Cafe, which allows smoking inside the restaurant by the way, I asked him to take me to Mingal Zei, the industrial area with karaoke bars, dance clubs and more importantly, gay discos.

Getting into 9th Floor Disco, however, turned out to be one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had – and that’s coming from a girl who used to frequent the trippy, gothic-themed, drug-and-sex-fueled pleasure palace that is Stadium in Jakarta.

For starters, youths with gelled hair and bowties eye you to make sure you’re not a cop or looking for trouble before escorting to you the establishment that has hired them. Then you’ll head past a crust of security guards, also very wary of troublemakers but quite tolerant of drunk, rambunctious Japanese businessmen, to the dingy lifts.

This paranoia extends to the disco itself, where big banners proclaim that photography and filming are banned, and the burly guards actually fingerprinted A. Below is a short video of the experience, and I’m sorry I couldn’t film my interesting night further for lack of iPhone memory. (Also, my camera died.)

The prostitutes of Mingal Zei.

Inside the club, we saw about 50 staff, all in starched white uniforms, being given a pep talk by the manager. We were hustled to a room and given two plastic cups of beer that would run empty long before they let us out again. After that, we were allowed to sit in a corner of the dance floor, and watch as the club very slowly came to life as young gays trickled in.

In the interim, a phalanx of five wait staff essentially stared at me and A, waiting to freshen up our glasses with beer and smiling uncomfortably. A very boisterous security guard, after some small talk with my companion, called over a pretty 20-year-old, simply dressed prostitute to sit with me “as a friend”.

I bought her a can of Coca-Cola, which she sipped quietly, smiling to mask her lack of English skills, as I made painful conversation whilst panicking that maybe they expected me to bring this girl home.

My evening was saved by the appearance of the laser lights and the DJ, as well as a pair of very naughty, fairly boisterous transvestites, one of whom hilariously showed me the snacks he used to stuff his bra. At this point it was 11pm, and we were the first ones to hit the dance floor and our group had swelled to seven tranny hookers and two male prostitutes, all of whom were delighted to learn the Can Can and the conga line. I may have taught one of them a mean headbang. They were such fun, and oddly so ready to joke about their profession.

They said a lot of their customers were locals, with just a few foreigners, and at this point one of them started moaning sex sounds as joke to make A uncomfortable — “Oooh. Yeah. You’re so big.” A few of them said they’d be safe if they stick together.

Of course such fleeting acquaintances come at a price: A and I had to buy them several rounds of beers, and after they gamely agreed to pose for a photo with me at the parking lot before I left for the airport, they nicely asked if I could shell out some of my kyat.

For showing me this hidden side of Yangon and for welcoming me into their fold (sans the sex), though, it was definitely worth it.

Next: Temple overdose in Bagan

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