In Myanmar I discovered a whole new world of social etiquette. A whole new world of things I didn’t understand, that I couldn’t comprehend, but I had to abide by.
It started with the Lonely Planet I had bought for my trip. Being a fairly lonely person I used to buy Lonely Planets for affirmation, until, that is, I discovered that they are travel guides. Now at the best of times Lonely Planets are fairly imprecise guides full of unreadable maps, ambiguous hotel reviews and questionable restaurant recommendations but I’ve never read a Lonely Planet that actively judges people for going to a country.
‘Lonely Planet Myanmar/Burma’ is less a list of restaurants and hotels and more a litany of the sins you are liable to commit by daring to go to Myanmar. If you are on a tour package then commission is going to the government and you are complicit in their human rights abuse. If you fly in a plane you may as well be throwing your money at the government-backed cronies who own all the airlines. If you go near Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, you’re a dickhead. If you even think about mentioning politics to a local they will get carted off to prison and it’ll be your fault. YOUR FAULT!
Basically, Lonely Planet Myanmar/Burma can be summed up like this: don’t talk to locals, walk everywhere, buy nothing and come alone.
The pressure exerted on me by the travel guide was compounded by having to grapple with the usual list of cultural considerations when travelling to a predominately Buddhist country. Don’t touch people on their heads or pat them on the back, don’t raise your arms above people’s heads, don’t point your feet at people, take your shoes off when entering temples and don’t walk on a Monk’s shadow
What this added up to was a dizzying amount of social, political and cultural considerations for a hapless idiot who, in his 24 years of existence, has managed only the most tenuous ability to function in what my anthropologist friends would call a ‘Western’ cultural context (note: these friends may have just been the authors of a book called The Idiots Guide to Anthropology).
So there I was in Myanmar, the country formerly known Burma, as my taxi, the car formerly known as roadworthy, drove me through the bustling, pothole scarred streets of Yangon, the city formerly known as Rangoon, formerly known as the capital.
Stuck to the taxi’s windscreen was a flag, three horizontal lines, yellow, green, red with a star in the middle. I pointed at it and made a quizzical sound at my cab driver. “Myanmar Flag,” he said, then added, “formerly this.” He was pointing at another sticker, this one red with a blue section in the top corner and a white image of something that I couldn’t decipher.
“Oh.” I intoned and, switching to the Pidgin English I see as a sufficient substitute for learning the language of non-English speaking countries, asked, “why Flag change?”
The driver looked at me quizzically.
I slowed my words down condescendingly, “Why this flag,” I pointed at the faded flag, “change this flag?” I pointed at the tricolor flag.
A couple of seconds passed before he responded in flawless English, “The military-government, the Junta, decided to change the Myanmar flag in 2008 to accompany the passage of the country’s new constitution.”
But I was no longer listening. I was far more concerned about the fact that the topic of politics had been broached and broached by me. I had committed one of Lonely Planet’s cardinal sins: thou shalt not discuss politics. I offered him an abrupt mea culpa, “I am sorry for talking about politics and I hope you don’t get arrested.” Then went silent for the remainder of the journey.
We pulled up to our destination the majestic golden Shwedagon Pagoda and, as I placed a fistful of scrunched up Kyat in the driver’s hand, I detected a hint of concern. “Look,” I said reassuringly, “don’t be concerned, surely they won’t arrest you for talking politics. If they do I’ll definitely start an online petition, I have a feeling that they always work.”
“I’m not concerned for me,” he paused for a moment, “I’m concerned about you.”
The cab sped off leaving me on the street across from Shwedagon. The balmy air was thick with the sweet pungent aromas of Myanmar street food muddled with diesel fumes. Something like being in a sauna with a boat engine.
I came to the entrance of the pagoda. I went to take my first step but was stopped by a small voice. Beside me, wrapped in immaculate saffron robes was a little Buddhist monk, no older than 11. He pointed at my feet, then pointed at a sign. “Please Remove Shoes.”
Ah of course. I thanked him and went to remove my shoes. I had very stupidly worn lace-up boots and I could not slide out of them. Instead, I lifted one foot up so I could reach it while standing. Then I realized the young Buddhist standing beside me was looking at my foot, the sole of which was pointing directly at him. Lonely Planet screamed (in what I can only imagine was a sanctimonious French accent): “YOU’RE POINTING YOUR FEET AT A MONK, YOU IGNORANT FOOL!”
“Oh sorry, sorry.” I murmured deferentially, swiveling on the spot before realizing I was surrounded by dignified looking monks all making their way into the pagoda. I would like to say I ended up crouching down to undo my laces but I think prostrating myself is a more accurate way of putting it.
Finally shoeless, I began ascending the endless staircase that stretched up to the Pagoda. On both flanks were merchants hawking flowers, jade, Buddhist statues and, bizarrely, toy Kalashnikovs.
“AK47?” (He pulled the trigger making the lights whir)
“No thank you.”
“Thanks but no.”
“Money for cleaning?”
I looked down at a man holding a wet towel in one hand and a wad of Kyat in the other. “Uh, yeah I suppose that’s reasonable.”
I handed him 5000K (USD$5) and continued on up to another flight.
“Money for cleaning?”
“Money fo – ? But I just paid that guy.” I said, thumbing behind me.
The man made a sweeping motion at his cleaning domain. I handed him 5000k and continued on. “Money for cleaning?” 5000k. Continue. Money for. 5000k. Continue. Money. 5000k. Continue. Mo. 5000k. By the time I reached the top I was broke.
But the view was priceless.
Shwedagon’s centerpiece a golden pagoda rumored to house one of Buddha’s teeth and a hair follicle, is mighty enough to make even the most hard bitten, 20-something hipster-atheist reconsider their, i.e. Christopher Hitchens’, views about religion. I stood gazing up at the gleaming structure, admiring the little diamonds and emeralds glinting in the evening sun. A phalanx of broom wielding volunteers passed by, stooped and sweeping. Monks, looking sage, knelt praying and delivering blessings to worshippers.
I began trying to take selfies. After several failed attempts at making my horse-features look taciturn, I noticed a small group of young travellers chattering in French nearby. I went over to them and ask them to take my photo. They obliged. The photo was terrible but I told them that it was perfect. Then, seeing an opportunity to wrangle some company for dinner I asked, “So you are from France?”
An icy silence grasped us. One of them made an offended “tsk” sound and spat, “Belgium.”
“Oh sorry, yes, of course there are other French speaking countries on Earth.” I chuckled apologetically and seriously considered prostrating myself before these people too. The one who had taken my photo rolled her eyes and muttered something in French to her companions. I scrambled “Yes. I’ve been to Belgium. Um, I, to Brussels, yeah Brussels. I mean the train station at least. And. Uh. So where do you come from?”
What did she just call me?
“Oh Ghent. Is that Flemish or the other one?”
“Ze ozzer one?” Her eyes narrowed in disgust, “You mean Wallonian?” Before I could say anything my photographer put her hand up and began tirading, “Please. First you say zat we are from France now you call Wallonia ‘ze ozzer one’ my family are Wallonian.”
I went to apologize and ask if they wanted to have dinner with me but before I could the group turned and stormed off in a black fury. Feeling hot from embarrassment I retreated to sit beneath a nearby Bodhi tree from where I watched the world play out despite me.
Monks made a slow and careful procession around the edge of the giant pagoda checking it for damage, worshippers lit candles and said prayers, the phalanx of sweepers made another pass and, as I watched Myanmar’s languid orange sun slip away behind Yangon’s dilapidated metropolis, I realized that I was alone.