Shwedagon Pagoda

Reflections on Yangon Part I

13.793595 N, 92.890955 E
Bay of Bengal
Sailing just north of the Adaman and Nicobar Islands
En route to Kochi, India, one and a half days out of Yangon…

Looking down from my vantage point ten decks above, at the waters flowing by our ship at the deep sea port of Thilawa, on the Yangon branch of the Irrawaddy River delta, I noticed that they run in swirling striations of blue and brown, in proportions depending on the motions of the large tides that characterize the region… mostly blue when flowing in from the Adaman Sea, muddy brown when ebbing in the other direction.

Irrawaddy River Delta

Irrawaddy River Delta

I found that similar flows and mixings define the cultural, political, and social situation in the country of Myanmar, sitting as it does at a crossroads of diverse cultures, at a time of shifting balances between tradition and modernism, differing views of governance, and things essentially local or global.

The visit we just concluded would not have been possible only a few short years ago… Let me tell you just a little bit about what I saw, heard, and experienced…

Originally a monarchy, then a British colony, Myanmar gained independence in 1948, with a government marked by strongman, socialist, and rather eccentric military rule, in which its back was turned to the world. It opened up to that world in 2010. Elections, generally characterized as fair, were held two years later, and yielded a sweeping victory for the dominant opposition party.

Foreign investments, and the global tourist trade, began to arrive in its wake… but not so rapidly, or so powerfully, as to push earlier times and their ways to the margins, at least not yet.

And so it is a fascinating place, and time, to visit. Like most places of intersection, it is rich with life, and the change and growth that defines life.

Our first evening’s tour guide, on the bumpy 15 mile bus ride over privately built, privately tolled, roads from port to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and back, shared his perspectives on his homeland and peoples, openly, often with a healthy dose of passion, sometimes intense, sometime leavened with a far-off look…

Our Guide

Our Guide

We learned from him about:

  • The many, some rather extraordinary, excesses of the former military ruling regime — from vast deforestation, to radical manipulation of taxes on automobiles, to the choice of mystically inspired currency denominations (based on combinations around the leader’s personal lucky number, nine), to overnight decisions to change the side of the road on which one drives (and how that requires most larger vehicles, the majority of which are imported from Japan with right side drive, to have a second person help the driver navigate the resulting mis-match of road and vehicle).
  • How the locally lagging economy, and traditional Chinese rote-based education system, was creating a brain drain. His brother is making 20x as an engineer in Singapore, compared to what he could make here ($50K vs. $2.5K per year). He expressed whistful hope that this flow could be reversed (“brain drain becomes brain gain”) through more enlightened education and economic reforms.
  • How long-time dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was, in his view, more effective under house arrest, before reforms and the resulting elections allowed her a place in government… and about the bizarre constitution that bars widows with foreign offspring to hold the position of president… a provision blatantly written with her in mind.
  • About the uncertainties of how coming elections (fall, 2015) will play out, given fears of the re-assertion of military power. (Tides reverse regularly after all.)
  • How there are 135 distinct ethnic groups in the country, with generally peaceful co-existance among them, as well as between the followers of many of the world’s major religions (but for an exception near the border with Bangldesh, and its overwhelmingly Muslim population). 80% of the country is Buddhist.
  • How (in great detail) one grows poppy for opium production, how profitable it can be compared to other crops — and how efforts to create counter-incentives designed to curb production have not yet worked. (Without much apparent reservation, he explained that he and his father proposed to join his neighbor, in the “Golden Triangle” region to the north, in such production. His mother forbade it.)
  • How the coming of social media and internet connectivity has been a mixed influence, amplifying ethnic tensions,  previously muted or locally contained. (Smart phones are everywhere.)
  • How the people of Myanmar feel tiny, squeezed in between its giant powerful neighbors of India and China. Commenting on border tensions with the latter, he said a common joke is that “If war with China would ever come, all they would have to do is to get their people to all piss in our direction, and we’d be washed out to sea!”
  • How China is looking to create influence and leverage, not make war, through development assistance. The main bridge from port over the Yangon river was donated by the Chinese.

Continue reading


Oh No!… then Aha!

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve been a committed journal keeper for some time now (daily, since July 2012). I didn’t note there a paired set of related experiences, both on this trip…

With a few days of loosely organized time available to me upon arrival in Singapore, I decided to catch up on some missed entries for the prior week or two. (Usually, I record my thoughts on the day they occur; on occasion, if I’ve missed a day or two, I’ll reach back and fill in those gaps — using my email and calendar to help my memory pull up events and thoughts from those recent days.)

I use Day One as my journal software. Simple, clean, elegant, and with excellent cloud-based sync facilities across devices (Mac, iOS) — it’s a great app.

When I opened it in Singapore, and clicked over to its calendar view, I found that not only were the expected recent gaps present… but a large number of days from earlier periods. Panic. Syncing glitch? Drop Box problem? Operator error?

Day One Calendar

After a hour or so confirming that the gaps were in fact there (not just on my MacBook Air, but on my iPad and iPhone as well)… and settling on a rational hypothesis as to root cause (my erasure of a number of “duplicate” entries reported in a Drop Box warning message a few months ago), I committed myself to the task of, using email, calendar, and fuzzy memory, filling in all of those missing entries — over the past three years.

Several hours later, on a Sunday morning — mission accomplished. No more gaps. (Yes, a few of the back-filled entries were little more than fillers — but no more gaps.)

Fast forward a few days. Now in Thailand. Opened Day One. Gaps. GAPS!!!

Somehow, just then, rational thought pushed its way past my rapidly gathering panic though… with just enough strength for an “Aha” moment…

I was in Thailand, half a world, and as many ticks of the clock, away from California. Day One uses system time on its host to assign posts to days in its database, and its Calendar. When I changed system time  on my devices to reflect my locale, all entries that would have been recorded in an adjacent day if, at the time I wrote them I was then in Thailand — were now showing as if I had. A whole bunch of “Thursday” entries, made within 12 hours of midnight, became “Friday” entries.

If there were no other Thursday entries — gap. Switch system time back to home time — no gap.

As Einstein once said, “It’s all relative.”


"Muslim Village" off of Phuket

Cranky? Paranoid? You be the Judge.

I’ve kept a journal, more or less faithfully, for years now. Here are my entries for the past two days. First…

Tuesday, 17 March
George Town, Malaysia
Ellie tried her best to kill me this day, arranging a walking tour, led by an unknown distant Malay relative of the Marquis de Sade. Tiny little thing. Seemed friendly enough. Wrong. Vicious to the core.

Is she into leather?

The day started with a breathless, interminable, climb of at least 900 feet vertical (seemed double that) in 90 degree, 90% humidity to a temple, Kek Lok Si (which, I think, translates to “house of the smiling new widow”), in the central highlands of George Town…

… then proceeded to two museums, each converted from the homes of their last residents, both Chinese, both owing their wealth to an admixture of speakable and unspeakable ventures in the last century.

Both patriarchs are certainly smiling now, each enjoying their respective glorious and final rewards, at the sight of busloads of tourists sweating in the unrelenting tropical climate, as tales of their business acumen and spectacular accomplishments are related… at… great… never ending… length.


Wednesday,18 March
Phuket, Thailand
Having been unsuccessful in arranging for my demise yesterday in George Town Malaysia, Ellie redoubled her efforts today.

Response to a weather report, optimistically pegged at 94 degrees, 90% relative humidity?

Says Ellie, “Great, let’s take an open-to-the-elements boat trip, bound for sights that would have been spectacular, but for the unfavorable tides… and then go walkabout” on a couple of islands whose most memorable features may just have been the souvenir vendors, all in row (at “James Bond Island”) or in a rabbit warren of stalls (in the floating “Muslim Village”), who, in their torpor, did not even mount an honest effort at peddling their wares.


Next most memorable thing? The tour director emphasizing each opportunity to use a toilet.

A closing observation: it’s interesting how, as one advances beyond the flowering of youth, just how much effort you expend, given hours on a small craft crammed with near contemporaries clad in shorts and tees, trying to find favorable points of comparison between one’s physique and those of shipmates.

Post Post Confession: the history was actually rather interesting on day one, and the scenery spectacular on day two, and I enjoyed both in the end, (much as aficionados of S&M must enjoy their special pleasures).

Finally, I was able to confirm to my great relief that, despite suspicions to the contrary, Ellie has NOT taken out a large life insurance policy on me.

My lonely outpost

A Strategic Decision

Port Klang
Straits of Malacca
Seabourn Sojourn

This is a place with a great deal of turbulent history. It sits at a strategic crossroads of the overlapping and competing trade routes of many empires, as they’ve surged and receded over the millennia.

After a founding period where indigenous peoples, comprising hunter gatherers from the north, who arrived forty some odd thousand years ago, and agrarian cultures from Indonesia, or perhaps Taiwan (by the latest theory), coalesced into the Malay people here… the game was afoot.

Arabs, then Indians, first pushed into the area, attracted by the prospect of a seabourn alternative to the land-based Spice Road (and its Mongol overlords). They were followed by the Portuguese, around the peak of their maritime empire, then by the Dutch, and finally the English — the latter two each with their own East Indian Trading Companies.

Straits of Malacca

Straits of Malacca

All of that economic value passed through these waters, a natural chokepoint in the configuration of land around the confluence of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Those who controlled them had the opportunity to establish a lucrative maritime toll booth… and that’s just what they did… typically in some form of power and revenue-sharing partnership with the local Malay sultanates.

Kuala Lampur (“KL”) was born of the wealth thrown off by this process.

Today’s shore excursion involved a 90 minute bus ride, each way, to visit this most modern make-over of the city with that history behind it. Until recently, it was the home to the world’s tallest buildings, the “other” twin towers.

I decided instead, quite strategically I thought, to defend the port, the ship, and its liquid possesions (in particular), from any possible attack.

I took a high ground position (Deck 9), and prepared to mount a stout defense against all comers. Alas, as of this writing my good friends, they have not arrived. Must have gotten word of my superior position and resolve.


Mission accomplished.

I can now retire to the evening’s festivities, proud in the knowledge that I kept the Straits of Malacca safe, at least for now, for thirsty travelers from all corners of the globe.


At Sea, Evening One

Singapore Straits
Bound for KL

Settled. Suite 1023, Seabourn Sojurn. Home for the next 33 days and a bit.

Our driver from the Singapore Shangri-La added just a bit of adventure to our transit here, first bringing us to the wrong marine terminal (“Seabourn used to dock here…”), and then giving us a tour of a parking garage adjacent to the right terminal, before finding the designated passenger drop area.

No matter. Embarkation was a breeze, we were fortified with a lunch upon arrival, allowed access to our suite, walked through a mandatory emergency drill… and then allowed to attend to the matters at hand. Which we did…

An hour or so later, our things are all stowed in drawers, nooks, and crannies (what exactly is a cranny?) arrayed around this efficiently designed cabin, luggage tucked away under the bed and in odd corners, power, cable, and desk layout arrangements for our devices worked out (my head a minor casualty as a result of impact with an immovable overhead compartment), and WiFi access sorted, if only after some initial frustrations with the ship’s registration system.

Cocktails and dinner await, then an overnight journey in a sweeping right hand turn up the coast to KL, where we arrive 8:00 AM local tomorrow.

The Lion City

I just finished reading Saint Jack by Paul Theroux, the first in a series of novels I selected based on their settings — each of the ports of call on the extended sea journey we are about to undertake. Tomorrow we embark from here, Singapore, eventually to reach Athens, 34 days from now. With ample time between stops, I thought a well-considered reading list might provide perspective, and a narrative thread for our travels.

The protagonist of Theroux’s piece, Jack Fiori (Flowers in the story), is a classic American anti-hero, of the type regularly conjured up in the sixties. A Kerouac from the north side of Boston who, after a minor scrape with the law, heads west, but right on past California, coming to rest and going to ground in Singapore, after a time as a merchant seaman.

Theroux paints a picture of this place, late fifties through early Vietnam days, via Jack’s eyes, memories, and stalled drifter’s sensibilities. The city was still decades away from becoming the globalized hub of today. It was gritty, open, and an end-of-land sort of place, with a bit of Casablanca’s magnetic appeal for souls set adrift for one reason or another from their homes.

Madams and pimps (Jack’s evening profession) and their ladies are prominent, as are ships’ chandlers (provisioners), cops, GIs on leave, local gangsters, and varieties of ex pats caught up and slowed down by the local heat and dead end aspect of this island nation. There’s a death, a kidnapping, and a plot that could have provided Jack with his long dreamed of path to riches — which he aborts in keeping with an ethos of American big heartedness.

So, so far, my plan is working. During this opening chapter of my journey’s story, I’m seeing right past the international business and tourist sets, reflexively checking their mobiles, to the film noir past of this special place… and I’m happy.

Next stop is what the locals call KL, just up and around the coast a bit. Inspector Singh will be showing me the way…

Check back here from time to time over the coming month or so, and you can come along. If you’re into visuals, here’s the place.

In the Lobby Lounge, Shangri-La Hotel

Strange crossings…

…observed when, during some afternoon quiet time on day two of my trip, I stumbled upon a NYT magazine piece by Karl Ove Knausgaard (of “My Struggle” fame) about a trip he recently made, with objectives loosely aligned with those of De Touquiville all those many years ago (finding the true meaning of America).

Shangri-La Hotel

View from my balcony

Taking a break outside to get out of the AC, headphones on, listening to some random Spotify playlist, when on comes a cover version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” with lyrics echoing a similar journey in search of the essence of our country…

Then, back inside, continuing the read, came to a reference to Duluth, MN as Bob Dylan’s home… just as “Things Have Changed” comes around on that same list.

Sometimes you search, and find. Just when he thought he wouldn’t, Knausgaard did. Sometimes you just open up to chance, and memorable moments happen. That’s my plan for this trip.