Cherry Tops (Yangoon, Burma)

Cherry Tops – First impressions – The streets of Yangon – Taboo conversations – Gestapo arrives – Wake-up call

“Cherry tops.”

At first I didn’t understand what my Irish friend meant.  It took me a few seconds to translate his cockney rhyming slang, but then I got it: Cherry tops was slang for Cops, referring to the two well-dressed, quiet Burmese men who just sat down next to us.  My smile instantly vanished from my face.

I gulped.  My mind started racing, reviewing the last twenty minutes of my conversation with the four young Burmese guys to my right.  What political topics had we discussed?  How loud had we been talking?  Who could have overheard our conversation?  Did an informer report us to the Myanmar Police?  If so, what danger are we in?  Jail?  Exile?  And what could happen to our new Burmese friends?  Surely our embassies could fight for us, but who can stand up for them?

The fear that hung over Yangon like a black cloud had finally reached us.  The first part of the day had been a blissful introduction to this strange anachronism of a country.  As our plane descended towards Yangon’s airport and sailed over rice patties and wooden ramshackle houses, the flight attendant had told us to set our watches back half an hour; we were entering Burma.  She should have told us to set them back half a century.

Signs of the nation’s isolation were evident from the moment we touched the tarmac.  We alighted at Yangon International Airport, a tiny airstrip smaller than San Diego’s commuter terminal.  Yet this was Yangon, Burma’s biggest city and – until 2005 – the country’s capital.  Since then, the government had relocated the capitol to Naywypidaw.  But despite its diminished political significance, shouldn’t the airport be a tad bit bigger?

I passed through customs in minutes and was immediately accosted by a man who simultaneously tried to book me a hotel room, exchange my US dollars into the local kyat, and sell me a taxi ride into the city.

No, no and yes, I’ll take a taxi ride. 

I hopped in the taxi and absorbed my first impressions of Burma:

To start, the taxi was a British-style right-hand drive car that must have been twenty or thirty years old – but all the cars drive on the right-hand side of the road, American-style.  I found out later that the government spontaneously changed the rules of the road in 1970 – a fortune teller told General Ne Win that the left side of the road was unlucky so he adapted accordingly.

I stared out the taxi window and soaked up the sights.  Men and women walked the dirty streets in ankle-length cloth sashes called lungis, others hung off the back of overcrowded pick-up trucks.  The public buses were older than I, some sputtering along anemically while a few were collapsed against the red and white curbs as their drivers emptied bottles of water into their engines in an attempt to revive the ancient machines.  There were no new cars in sight, just these dilapidated automobiles struggling down the road.  Our taxi driver said the government banned import and Burma produces no automobiles of her own, so there are no new cars in Yangon.

Within fifteen minutes I was in downtown Yangon.  The city center is a two-mile grid stretching along the Yangon River, laid out in the 1920s and ‘30s during the last days of the short-lived British rule.  Today, the magnificent colonial buildings are crumbling from neglect and reflect the economic and cultural decline Burma has endured in the last half-century.

I walked to the roof of my guesthouse and admired the panoramic view of the city.  The air was a dark grey, thick with a pollution that coated your lungs with filth.  Like the sky, the city was a drab grey intermixed with splotches of orange, green and red from the peeling paint of the colonial buildings.  The skyscrapers of multinational corporations were conspicuously absent from the skyline; the highest buildings were golden Buddhist stupas and a handful of modern high-rises built by the military government.  Burma is stagnating.

I could barely wait to explore the city and meet the people of Burma.  I dropped my bags and rushed out the door.

My first walk down the street was overpowering.  A vibrant culture effused from the decrepit buildings and filled the street with smiling men and women, naked children, and robed monks. Despite the gloomy skies, the people of Burma were happy.  Life seems tough, but perseverance was in the air.

The street was loud, blasting my ears with the chug chug chug of the janky buses sputtering into gear as their drivers yelled their destinations out the windows: Dagon, Dagon, Daaaagggooooon!!! The sidewalk was covered in gasoline-powered generators that gurgled water onto the ground and belched smoke into my face.  The government rations electricity, allotting each neighborhood with a few hours of power each night.  So the people buy their own generators and compensate for their government’s incompetence.


I passed dozens of street vendors with their wares spread across the sidewalk on large white cloths.  They sold cassette tapes here, not MP3s like Thailand.  I don’t think the iPod has caught on yet in Burma.

But they sold plenty of DVDs, albeit not many Western ones.  In fact, there were very few traces of the West at all: no 7-11s, no chain stores, not even any Western automobiles (save the occasional WWII Jeep).  Burma is wedged between China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh, and the presence of these cultures is more readily felt.

In many ways Yangon reminds me of a backwards version of Bombay.  The colonial architecture is of the same Victorian style, but it is in far worse shape.  Some of the British government buildings still have their old signs, notably the Telegraph Office.  Who the heck uses telegraphs nowadays?

Besides the shared border, there are other reasons for India’s strong presence here.  The British brought many Indian civil servants here during colonial times, as they did with the Chinese to stimulate trade.

For a moment I felt like I was back in India. The streets were stained red from expectorations of paan chewers.  Men gathered around small tables, sitting on tiny plastic chairs and drinking Indian-style masala tea.  Women operated sugarcane presses, manually spinning their large red wheels to crush the cane into a sweet brown juice.  The smell of tea, sugarcane, betel juice, samosas and biryani restaurants made me hungry…until I saw the large cauldrons of boiled pig intestines. How many days could I resist my curiosity before I ate one?

I walked all day and only ran into a half dozen tourists.  I wandered into the nicest hotel in Burma only to find six people gathered around the hotel bar…during happy hour on a Friday.  Tourism is barely visible and foreign investment is absent: it seems that even the expatriates have repatriated themselves.  I’m certainly off the Banana Pancake Trail.

Night fell, and I partnered up with my new Irish friend and searched for a good place to mingle with the local people.  After weeks of anticipation, I was anxious to learn about their culture and my mind was brimming with questions to ask.  We found an alley packed with locals sitting at outdoor tables and drinking pints of the local brew, Myanmar Beer.  I grabbed a table and ordered a round.


Soon enough, we began conversing with four young Burmese guys at the table next to us. The language barrier was substantial, but they were able to make themselves understood and they happily taught me the basic Burmese phrases I would need over the next few weeks.

Then the conversation suddenly shifted to that taboo subject that is legally banned across Burma: politics.  Spurred on by Myanmar Beer, they asked me questions about America, about Barak Obama, about the economic crisis, about our views on their country and on their government.  We waded into troublesome territory.  People started looking at us as our friends got louder and bolder in their conversation, screaming, I love America!  Barak Obama is good!  Our government is bad!  We live under military boot!  The sober one quickly quieted his friend.  This was not the time, the place or the country to talk of such matters.  They whispered to each other nervously, nodded their heads in agreement, paid the bill and quickly left the table.

Then the two guys came and sat down next to us.  Cherry tops.  They sat immediately next to us and spoke not a word to each other.  The waiter approached them, but they ordered no drinks.

Time to go. Check please!

My blissful day suddenly came to a sobering conclusion.  I was not in America, land of the free.  Nor was I in Thailand, they anything-goes party country to our east.  I was wedged between India, China, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh in Burma, land of the military government and home of the secret police.

We walked a few blocks and made sure we weren’t followed.  Jesus, where am I?  The fear had indeed gripped me as well, this paranoia that permeates the streets of Burma.  I walked home in pensive silence, my mind brimming with unanswered questions: Why is your country so economically backwards?  Why do the elite rulers drive BMWs while you ride in thirty year old buses?  Why do they censor the internet?  And why do they keep your resistance leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, locked up in her house instead of allowing free elections?  In short, how much more of this bullshit are you going to take?  The people of Burma are painfully aware of these questions, yet they seem silent and subdued.  As my Burmese friend said, they are living under the military’s boot.

Within moments I had undergone an internal transformation; no longer was I the Obama-t-shirt-wearing goodwill ambassador of America.  Now I was acting like one of the Burmese, constantly looking over my shoulder, talking in hushed voices, watching the crowds for potential informers and Burma’s secret police, the shadowy Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence.

I repaired to my hotel and sat in bed, staring at the ceiling and sweating nervously.  It was only my first day in Burma and I already had attracted unwanted attention to myself and – even worse – possibly endangered four innocent civilians.  Every day on the road is a new lesson, but this one was especially important.  Time to wisen up, Marko, you’re not In Kansas anymore.  You’re in Burma now.


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