Chapter 15 of the Short Travel Stories series, talks about the arrival of our main character to Yangon, Myanmar’s capital city. After some time in Bali, it was time for a new experience in South East Asia.
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Chapter 15: First Day In Myanmar
Yangon is the capital city of Myanmar, known before as Burma. It’s a big city with more than 5 million people in it. Just as the rest of the country, it’s extremely poor, with a huge contrast between the rich and the poor. It’s predominantly Buddhist, full of pagodas and temples, for example, the splendid Shwedagon pagoda and the beautiful Sule pagoda.
I arrived in the morning and took a cab to my hostel. The taxi driver started telling me about how poor his country was and how complicated it had been because of the military dictatorship that had ruled them from 1962 till 2011.
The history of Myanmar is long and complicated, but I’ll briefly explain it to give an idea of what’s going on in there. In 1948 they got independence from the UK, but in 1962 the military forces took power. Until 1990 they didn’t have any popular elections, and that year the party lost against the opposition, the National League of Democracy (NLD), however, they refused to step down from power.
In 2008 there was a referendum that changed the Constitution, and with the new one, they held new elections in 2010. The military party won, however the UN declared the elections as fraudulent, and in 2011 the military party dissolved. They held parliamentary elections the following year, where NLD won the majority of the seats. Finally, in 2015 they had presidential elections, won by NLD, giving place for the first non-military president since 1960.
Back to the cab, he started telling me his life story. At the beginning of the 2000’s he had some Malaysian clients to whom he drove whenever they came to visit. One day they got caught at the airport for trafficking cocaine, and he was also incriminated, ending up in jail.
He was in prison for 16 months. Everyday he was only fed breakfast, so his wife had to bring him food from home so that he wouldn’t starve. He wasn’t working anymore, that meant no income, and therefore they had to sell the house and a small piece of land they had to pay for the lawyers.
He got out, got a job as a taxi driver, and got back to his home, but now he rented it. He has diabetes, can barely pay for the medicines and his diet, consisting mainly of bread and rice (the cheapest) doesn’t help his health. He earns 70 USD a month.
The trip to the hostel cost me 12 USD, but probably only like 2 or 3 went to the driver and the rest for the company.
I was impressed that even thought they were extremely poor their roads were pretty good, at least compared to Costa Rican ones they were amazing. Plus, there were no motorbikes. Apparently the government banned them in the center of the city due to the constant accidents and the chaos.
I finally made to the hostel, which was brand new, looking more like a hotel. There were just a handful of foreigners, the hostel could fit around fifty people, and it was only like ten of us.
It was pouring rain outside, so I just bought a beer to chill: Myanmar Beer, pretty good. There wasn’t anyone to speak to so I just sat with my cellphone, when an old man, in his sixties, approached me.
“What brings you to Yangon?”
I told him I was backpacking around Asia and was really curious about Myanmar, because it had been only a few years since it was declared safe to visit, and I wanted to visit it before it was “ruined” by tourists.
He laughed at my comment, and without me asking he decided to tell me what he was doing there.
“Well, I came to stay. This place will have a tourist boom sooner than later and I want to start a few businesses before it does. For example, this hostel will be a great business soon, as well as bars and restaurants. You see, the locals don’t understand what’s coming, they just recently opened to tourism and that means money, a lot of money. They don’t get it, but I do”, he said.
I just nodded and told him it sounded well. I didn’t want to speak to him anymore, I just wanted to chill with my beer and go for a walk when it stopped raining.
In my head though, I could picture one side of the coin, which was the taxi driver working his ass off day after day for just 70 bucks a month, and the other which was the foreigner that came with his money to take advantage of the uninformed locals.
It stopped raining and I went for a much-needed walk. I came back with sundown and again I met the old man who told me he was heading with a friend of his to the expat area. I gently declined, but two Aussie guys decided to go with the old men.
The next day I woke up and went down for breakfast, where I met the Aussies. I asked them about last night. They told me they didn’t really go to a normal restaurant, but it was something else. It was more of a sketchy venue where there were a lot of militaries and foreigners, all surrounded by “ladies of company”. In fact, the two old men asked two of these ladies to join them for dinner. The Aussies didn’t like the vibe and left after dinner, leaving the old guys with the ladies.
I couldn’t help it but imagine what kind of business the old guy was planning.