Thursday, July 30, 2009

Myanmar's Other Side

Myanmar was a country with many contradictions and just plain weirdness. There was a person who had law degree from London selling street food, a cab driver with an MBA trying to earn more than the $10US rent for the cab, and people watching the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) on the street. Everyday you would see hundreds of people eating on little plastic kids tables and chairs on the sidewalks watching TV blasting the sound till midnight and then the streets would be dead silent and empty.

Due to the strict laws and severe punishment in Myanmar walking the streets in the middle of the night was very safe. I also heard a bunch of stories about foreigners losing their purse, iphone, and what not in cabs or other places to have everything returned to them. Of course this was mostly due to the fact that the people were mostly scared in getting caught as many foreigners do get watched by the military government.

Nonetheless, one of the most bizarre and funny thing was a place called Power Light. Imagine a dinner show with a huge stage. Now add in a Miss America pageant, without the judges, and you have Power Light. Alright, let me add some foundation info. (my personal theory). Due to the religious culture there were no public displays of affection between opposite sexes. So from this heavy suppression of kissing or even simple handholding men would normally find other outlets such as strip clubs. However, the military government does not allow strip clubs so the culture developed in a way where Power Light became their version of a naughty club. One of my Guesthouse mates told me about Power Light and decided to take me and another traveler to check it out on evening.

Let me take you through our night out at Power Light. Once we arrived we ordered some food and drinks before the show began. On stage there were three girls dressed in workout gear dancing to a routine you’d see in any US high school dance team. Then all the girls came out one at a time in provocative dress, normal for the rest of the world, and each took turns singing. Meanwhile all the men were gawking at the women drinking, eating, and buying the girls presents.

To show the women affection the men could buy “gifts” which included big fluffy colorful boas, hats, bouquets of flowers, etc. The girls and the club would get a percentage of the money spent, and this is how the girls would make money. On a good night a girl could make upwards of $300US a night. For a country where the average monthly salary is about $50/month is was big money.

The rest of the show consisted of each girl coming out alone to sing, more dancing, and other combinations of the same thing. Of course throughout the entire show the girl’s faces were solid stone, like the emotionless models you see walking down a catwalk. However at one point the DJ, a man, came on stage with his guitar to sing and people bought HIM gifts too! It was hilarious, but he was a good singer I have to admit. And if I had some extra money, I would have bought him a hat.

To us, the rest of the world, this Power Light would be viewed as almost wholesome. For the people of Myanmar it was a seedy underbelly of their culture that the majority of the population didn’t know about.

Yangon Slideshow!


Coming to Yangon you quickly recognize a country that has both Indian and Chinese cultures merged into one. It was really weird and cool at the same time.

One of the first things I discovered was that the entire country of Myanmar had no ATM’s! This was a big problem because I only had some cash and my bankcards. Fortunately, I found one hotel, the Sedona, which would give cash advances on credit cards. My bankcard was also a credit card so I was able to get money through my account on top of the Sedona’s 7.6% fee, ouch.

I also learned that there were three exchange rates. If you changed money at the airport you would receive about 450 kyat per $1US. The official exchange rate was roughly 5 kyat per $1US. Or you could exchange your money on the street for about 1100 kyat per $1US, you do the math. Every other person on the street would ask if you want to exchange money or you could go the safer route and ask your guesthouse.
Another downer that I expected was the internet to be horribly slow and censored. True enough, exactly how I predicted. Obviously, I was able to bypass the security with my geniusness (is that even a word?), but I just couldn’t make the internet go any faster. Surprisingly, I was able to catch some random wifi at my guesthouse, whenever the city’s electricity was operating.

Similar to India, Myanmar had scheduled power outages, and unscheduled blackouts. In Yangon the scheduled electricity time was usually from 5pm – 6am, but these times changed throughout the year.

Soon I started to meet more local expats and even caught up with Curt and Cathy. One of my first social gatherings was at the British Club during a fundraiser for Cyclone Nargis. It was a British Quiz with a dozen sections that lasted four hours. They really took their quizzes seriously. I met another nice couple, Anne and Michael, who were from Finland and Michael worked for an NGO. At the end of the night they invited me to a BBQ the next day and mentioned they had a pool. Now it had been insanely humid/hot since I landed and I was missing BBQ’s big time, so I were so ecstatic when they invited me. Anne and Michael had a beautiful place and it was so nice to be at a family function goofing off with kids.