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Nats, moustaches and generals

Tom Spender finds
celebration and
a dose of laughter
even under the
repressive military
junta in Myanmar
Our pick-up bowls through a
patchwork countryside of green
rice-paddy fields criss-crossed by
small waterways. About 20 people
are crammed into the back, sit-
ting on narrow wooden benches.
A further 10, myself included, are
sitting cross-legged on the roof,
cheerfully chewing betel nut and
spitting jets of crimson saliva over
the side.
We are on our way to a nat festi-
val – a week-long party celebrating
a folk religion that predates Bud-
dhism in Myanmar and contin-
ues to exist alongside it today. Nat
spirits are divided between the 37
Great Nats, the spirits of human
beings who met a violent death,
and the rest, the spirits of trees,
water and other parts of nature.
We turn off the main route out of
Mandalay and on to a road where
the two lanes are separated by a
small canal. Children are waiting
by the roadside in a state of excite-
ment; as soon as our pick-up comes
near they begin to run alongside it,
yelling as passengers toss out a few
tiny-denomination notes of kyat,
Myanmar’s currency. Very few of
the kids catch any money and as
we rattle past they give up and look
for the next vehicle or jump into
the canal. They know many more
people will be passing this way.
We arrive at the festival village of
Taungbyone, disembark and enter The huge gold-covered and jewel-encrusted Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is a site of pilgrimage for Burmese Buddhists. Photos by Tom Spender for The National
a sprawling market. Pretty girls
sit on raised platforms with trays
of Burmese sweets in their hands.
Stalls sell CDs of Myanmar’s dis-
chamber to make their offerings to
the nat said to reside there.
across 42 square kilometres on
the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy
night in their house. We are among
a gaggle of tourists taking seats in
house arrest at her Yangon home,
and carried on ruling. Before you go
tinctive pop music, lightly syrupy In the temple, the nats are repre- River (formerly known as the their front room, where the walls The junta’s reign has also been
songs with perky guitar riffs, as sented by the figures of a man and ­Irrawaddy). are adorned with puppets and marked by a long-running conflict Myanmar does not have an em-
well as piles of smallish logs that a woman with golden faces that are The bus proves much tougher photographs of Aung San Suu Kyi, between the junta’s 350,000-strong bassy in the UAE so the best way
are used for thanaka, the tradition- much smaller than the carvings of than its appearance might suggest the pro-democracy leader who has army, the Tatmadaw, and the gue- to get a visa is at its embassy in
al makeup of golden cream made Buddha that are on display in My- and it needs to be – most of the spent about 14 of the past 20 years rilla forces of the various ethnic Bangkok, which can issue a 28-day
from bark that Burmese women anmar’s Buddhist temples. As the country is not linked by highways under house arrest. The broth- groups that live in Myanmar and tourist visa in about three days for
smear on their cheeks. Crowds Burmese squeeze in to pray, hands or even paved roads and our route ers never intended to be political, harbour dreams of regional auton- about US$75 (Dh275), although
throng past, men stripped to the holding big plants clasped in front takes us along bumpy dirt tracks. says Lu Maw, one of the brothers, omy. As part of its ongoing cam- prices may vary depending on your
waist climb bamboo scaffolding of their faces, specially employed At one point we seem to be stuck but in the 1970s as the military re- paign to crush opposition forces, nationality. The embassy (0066
to put the finishing touches on men take the fruit from the plat- in the middle of a small river, but gime proved unable to provide the the Tatmadaw has been accused 2 233 2237) is at 132 Sathorn Nua
a big thatched hall. As the stalls ters and distribute them around when I look outside I see the driv- people with basic services such as by rights groups of press ganging Road. Travel agents in Bangkok
segue into village streets, we see the two nat figurines. There is no er’s assistant is simply taking the electricity, it became a natural tar- children into its forces, carrying can also arrange the visa on your
homes with raised and covered way this can carry on much longer opportunity to throw water onto get for jokes. out summary executions, destroy- behalf for an extra fee of about
outdoor lounging areas contain- before the figurines are buried in the diesel engine to cool it down. Myanmar achieved independence ing villages and relocating their $15 (Dh55). No airlines fly directly
ing twin effigies with faces made fruit, I think, but somehow the The driver guns the engine and we from the British Empire in 1948, populations and using villagers as to Yangon from the UAE, so the
of gold-coloured plastic or metal, piles around them don’t seem to surge out of the river and push on. when it was known as Burma, and forced labour. best route into Myanmar is to fly to
the residents snoozing on nearby grow despite the deluge of offer- While Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is was a democratic republic until But western-led economic sanc- Bangkok and then buy a flight on
cushions. ings. Red-robed Buddhist monks undoubtedly more famous, Bagan 1962, when General Ne Win seized tions against Myanmar, intensi- the low-cost airlines Air Asia (www.
However, while it is obvious that and pink-clad nuns are among the is also among of the top Buddhist power in a coup d’etat and kicked fied after Suu Kyi was sentenced to; ) or Bangkok Airways
some major cultural event must be worshippers, while outside chil- temple sites in South-east Asia and off a period of military rule marked yet more time under house arrest (, which sells
happening here, we don’t know ex- dren hurl flowers around amid is around a thousand years old. by economic stultification and hu- in August this year, have proved return tickets that cost from $134
actly what, or where, it is. “Where peals of laughter. You can simply wander from tem- man rights abuses that continues ineffective in the face of the re- (Dh494) including taxes. Inside
is the nat?” I ask, ready for the As we leave at sundown, exploit- ple to temple, the larger ones con- to this day. After another coup in gional appetite for the country’s Myanmar, the most convenient
blank looks that sometimes fol- ing our status as foreign curiosi- taining huge gold-painted statues 1988, the new military junta in 1990 gas, timber and gemstones. In a way to get around is to take the
low a question that no local person ties to attract attention and beg a of the Buddha. held elections that were won con- major shift, the US in September reasonably priced internal flights
would ever pose. But a man under- lift in a lorry, a bright rainbow arcs Before leaving Mandalay for Ba- vincingly by the National League said it would start talking to the on local airlines such as Air Bagan.
stands and takes us to a temple over the rice paddies and Burmese gan, we visit the Moustache Broth- for Democracy (NLD) party under Burmese regime. Suu Kyi, who had Tickets can be easily arranged
complex where girls are selling from all over the country continue ers, a troupe of three dissident co- the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, supported a boycott of the regime at your hotel or through travel
bunches of flowers and families to arrive on bicycles, tractors and medians. Their response to being the daughter of General Aung San, – including preventing the regime agents. A return flight from Yangon
are sprawled all over the floor. The pick-ups for celebrations that will banned from performing to their who many years before negotiated from receiving money from tour- to Mandalay costs about $160
enclosed space is full of Burmese continue for days. fellow Burmese or holding any the country’s independence from ism through a travel boycott – has (Dh588). There are also sleeper
carrying huge platters of bananas, From Mandalay we travel by bus kind of performance outside their the British. Unwilling to cede pow- also said she is willing to see sanc- train services. The cheapest option
coconuts and flowers and all at- to Bagan, a vast collection of about modest home has been to stage a er, the junta simply annulled the tions lifted if it helps movement is to take the long-haul buses.
tempting to gain entry to a small 4,400 Buddhist temples scattered folk opera entirely in English each election results, put Suu Kyi under towards political reconciliation. Myanmar’s road network, however,
Back in the Moustache Brothers’ is abysmal, meaning a journey of
Mandalay home, I ask Lu why he a few hundred kilometres can take

Myanmar and his brothers continue to defy

the authorities. It is, after all, a se-
most of a day. Some of the more
luxurious hotels in Myanmar, such
rious matter; his two brothers were as the Sedona Hotel in Yangon,
150km sentenced to seven years’ hard la- are run by the junta and revenues
bour in 1996 for telling political from their operations go into the
jokes. “We are dead meat already” regime’s coffers. Many guidebooks
INDIA is his response. The brothers hope refuse to list government-run
that as long as they remain popu- hotels. Generally, staying at smaller
CHINA lar with tourists they will not be guesthouses, though more humble,
­arrested. ensures that you do not directly
Theirs is a slapstick show spliced support the regime, although it will
with displays of old-style Burmese extract some of what you spend
clothing and other traditions, but on almost anything in the country
Mandalay for me the highlight is the tradi- through heavy taxation. Because
MYANMAR (BURMA) tional dancing by Lu Maw’s wife, there are no ATMs in Myanmar, visi-
Ni Ni Lin, who is obviously a mas- tors must bring all the money they
Nay Pyi Taw ter of her art. In the dance she is need with them in US dollars. Trav-
transformed, and her forceful but ellers should budget at least $25
nuanced movements speak of a (Dh92) per day. Hotels can be paid
Yangon cultural depth to Myanmar that I in dollars. Some of the top-end
Bengal (Rangoon) for one was unaware of until visit- hotels in Yangon may accept credit
ing, so little did I know about this cards. Most transactions require
closed country. using the local currency, the kyat.
Andaman For many Burmese, the opposite is International mobile networks such
Sea true. They know a world exists out- as Etisalat have no coverage inside
side Myanmar but have little chance Myanmar. International calls can be
of getting permission to see it from made from kiosks but are expen-
the authorities. Many in the impov- sive. Internet cafes abound but
erished country would not be able connections are extremely slow.
to afford to travel anyway, but they The weather is best between No-
long for the opportunity. vember and February; spring is hot,
“We can’t do anything, so we just while the rainy season from May to
try to cultivate a positive mental at- October brings torrential rain alter-
Ni Ni Lin, the wife of Lu Maw, a member of the dissident Burmese comedian troupe the Moustache Brothers, performs a titude and hope things will get bet- nating with very hot sunshine.
tradtional Burmese dance routine for tourists at the family’s home in Mandalay. Source: Graphic News ter,” said one man.

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