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K.G. – A tri-shaw driver and his teashop, Mandalay, Myanmar

The wisdom of a Burmese tri-shaw driver.

A tri-shaw is a bike with pedals and a sidecar. The wheels wobble, it creaks, the tyres are normally cracked and bald. The bikes are of the old ‘schoolteacher’ variety, normally well rusted and heavily patched up with crude welding. Sensible saddles. The sidecar seats one facing forward and one-ish facing backwards. It can also be used to carry large quantities of cement, rice, livestock (dead pigs) and piping.

Being a tri-shaw driver is deemed as a job for poor people, lowly people and little respect given to the chaps who sweat and toil on a daily basis under the baking Burmese sun. In Myanmar hard physical work is deemed a burden, handed to you by karma and past life mishaps. There are many problems in Myanmar (Burma), the tri-shaws keep it all moving, admittedly at a slow pace.

K.G. (unfortunately putting his full name or photo here could lead to problems) is a tri-shaw driver in the centre of Mandalay. His tri-shaw is very different from the rest, well maintained, smart polished red passenger seat, freshly painted cart and oiled wheels. This is a man who does things well. You can see he takes pride in his life and actions. He canvasses for clients under a bridge, close to the main market, beside the giant Burmese billboards advertising weight loss powders, bridal dresses and spirulina beer. He offers to drive me to a tea shop and buy me a tea, he has some English grammar questions that he needs clarifying. He informs me of the latest European Champions League scores, Tottenham drew with AC Milan at the San Siro. He stayed up until 5am to watch it and is an Arsenal fan. I immediately warm to K.G.

There are throngs of other tri-shaw drivers under that bridge, wearing palm leaf hats and bright red/black grins. Betel nut stained teeth are all the rage with Burmese men, accompanied by a lungi. Betel has the flavour of sweet cardoman matured in battery acid. The foul habit migrated here with Indian workers at the time of the raj and turns all public areas into one big spittoon. Streets and pavements splattered with stinking blood-red mouth juice. The lungis normally have a tartan looking pattern of vivid blues, greens and reds. It’s tied at the front with a big knot and the guys regularly untie it and wander around with it held loosely around them, then a swift, expert knot. Comfy, like a summer kilt. Add a smart white cotton shirt, sandals, warm grin and that’s it. The Burmese national dress.

The women wear thickly applied yellow paste-like make up on their faces. In abstract shapes and swirls. Named tilak, it protects from the sun. They are normally elegantly wrapped in a traditional dresses. The Burmese are a distinct looking bunch. K.G. doesn’t chew betel. Likes his teeth white. They stand around chatting and laughing for most of the days, picking up the odd job for an average fair of 15 pence or less. Just enough for a cup of sweet tea, or a samosa.

Tourists are the key to survival and there are precious few to be shared between him and the others under the bridge. Tourists don’t seem to appreciate oppressive military juntas. The government aren’t interested in developing tourism (or infrastructure, or education, or healthcare, or sanitation etc.etc.), they make billions a year from natural gas and what amounts to peanuts from foreigners nosing around the place. Tourists are more of a nuisance to the regime and I am tightly restricted and monitored in my movements around Myanmar.

Anyway, most tourist fear these guys, they are a rag-tag bunch at the best of times and can intimidate with their enthusiasm and energy. Give them cutlasses and a galleon, they’d terrorise the Bay of Bengal. They chant ‘mingalaba!’ (hello) or ‘peyitana meshibabu!’ (no problems) as I pass by. I love the sound of Burmese. Written down it resembles a mysterious alien text beamed down from the sombrero galaxy. Unique shapes, an intergalactic conundrum. Most gringos give them a wide berth, opting for buses of chinese origin and an operator who pays bribes to the military government honchos and other wicked fat cats (the worst of sorts).

Burma hits me like no other land. I regularly feel a rage and deep sadness building when I hear of the sheer injustice and suffering created by these evil men. This sadness can sometimes be felt in the people, when they momentarily let their shiny, happy guard down or when they talk of the future. These odious men, the military junta or the ‘State Peace and Development Council’ (the propaganda here must be seen to be believed) AKA General Than Shwe (Gangster No. 1), his cronies and a cadre of Generals. Utterly corrupt, inhumane, fascists. Running their country and their people into the ground, killing and torturing them on the way.

You won’t hear much of this in the news, I cannot even talk of them in this tea shop. There is no freedom of press here, foreign journalists are barred. Although John Simpson of the BBC did sneak in recently for an interview). I must ignore their existence for fear of putting my friends and myself in danger. This is democratic, progressive Myanmar. Welcome to Orwell’s ‘1984′. The People’s Republic.

Welcome to their self-confessed ‘living hell’.

I wonder with the people of the Arab world rising, will Myanmar follow suit. The main problem I see is, the Burmese are just too nice. Really the nicest people. They’ve had the fight knocked out of them by years of complete autocratic control and military oppression.

They are also divided by many tribal differences, a common language being the main stumbling block. Burmese is rarely spoken in regions outside of the main cities. Myanmar is a culturally diverse land with tribal roots tracing back to India, Tibet, China and beyond. The main groups Kachin, Chan, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Arakan, Chin live in peace, but there are constant secret wars being waged on one group or another. Thousands have already died. Exact numbers may never be known. In the north I witnessed whole villages of Chan moved from their ancestral lands and now being forced to rent their land back from the military. Renting your own land?! They had also turned the entire area into an artillery range. Shooting over and around the village regularly.

In Myanmar oppression and murder has touched the entire populous and in a land where your neighbor of 20 years could one day inform on you, trust is a rare commodity. The Thought Police are everywhere. This all leads to a lack of cohesion within any social movements, especially opposition to the military rule. Not that any form of opposition exists outside of Aung San Suu Ki’s National League for Democracy (whose name I must whisper or not mention at all).

ASSK has just been released from house arrest, ‘swapping a small prison for a big prison’ in her words. After ASSK urged western countries to enforce the trade embargo with Myanmar, primarily due to the recent rigged ‘democratic’ election, Than Shwe threatened her with a grisly demise in comments made to the world press. The Burmese have seen this, and much more, many times before.

The military junta rules with an iron fist and will indiscriminately kill, imprison and torture all who oppose. Their network of intelligence runs deep, unlike their actual intelligence. They are currently bleeding the country dry of natural resources, you can witness this on ‘the’ main road from Mandalay to Yangoon (north to south). Heavy duty trucks are in convoy carting off minerals and teak. The irony is they need ASSK, they are attempting to become more in touch with the rest of the world (and its markets), this is the only reason ASSK was released.

The problem is, they have no idea about diplomacy and foreign affairs. Their only tacit partner in crime is unsurprisingly, China (although surprisingly India offers little condemnation of the regime). A recent protest by a Swiss gentleman lasted all of 20 minutes, just enough time to unravel his banner in Yangoon, then he was hauled off and deported. If the people rose up, the military would make Libya look tame by comparison. The streets would be covered in real blood, instead of that bloody awful betel juice. But there is something that still burns here, its deep and in us all. It’s the human spirit that cannot be trampled on by these big boots. Hope for a better future is still burning bright. It’s beyond physical oppression and fear. This is truly inspiring. K.G. and ASSK are not afraid of the big boys. That’s for sure.

K.G and I sit for a long time in a local tea house, the steam rising from large bashed metal teapots and pans of simmering milk. Street dogs do battle between the throng of traffic. An old man sifts through rubbish floating on a street side drain, looking for tin cans to sell as scrap amongst the detritus. He wears rags, but he has the demeanour of a university professor. A circle of men laugh, playing rattan ball, kicking it high in the air with deft flicks and great agility.

In the alley opposite, a Muslim man sits with a voluminous beard, thin wire frame glasses perched on the end of his nose, reading the daily newspaper. Behind him shoppers peruse his wares, banana flavoured condoms and a wide selection of vibrators. The Burmese are very literate and you will see many street vendors flicking through journals or doing crosswords and puzzles.

Burmese crossword

Men elaborately prepare the small cups of dark, strong orange tea. Pouring and stretching milk from a height, like flair cocktail barmen on a busy Saturday night in Hoxton Square. The tea arrives just how you like it, normally with a plate of meat samosas or fried long donut sticks for dipping. The donuts and most food in Myanmar, is fried in thick palm oil in massive street side woks. Most people drink tea with a hefty dollop of condensed milk at the bottom. Tea is always served with more tea, a large flask of green tea sits atop each small table with a bowl of glasses. The tables remind me of something from a child’s tea party with tiny plastic chairs that require a considerable leap of faith to get perched on, knees up round your face. You need to be supple to drink tea in this town.

The tea shop is the heart of the Burmese society and this one in particular is alive with chatter, arm waving and a whole host of characters gesticulating. It’s not just a male zone either, like many other cultures, here women also sit, chat and munch. During our conversation, the table opposite is frequented by two rotund old merchant sorts, puffing on cheroots (hand rolled cigars) and stroking their ample gut behind stretched string vests.

A man struts in looking like an extra from the Thriller video, with a shiny perm. Grandmaster Flash’s younger brother maybe. I sense he is aching to burst into a moonwalk at any moment. He wears a shiny red plastic jacket, with an oversize, sparkly cap and tight black trousers and sequined baseball boots. He would look out-of-place and time, but Myanmar is living in the past. Then a man looking in a bad way, on another plain, glides in. He has a wizened look, wild hair and bleary eyes. Like a desperate ascetic who has lost the thread. He is stick thin and toothless, lips stained black and no shoes on his feet. He strokes his matted goaty beard and contemplates the samosas with great intent.

The waiters’ ages range from 10 to 12 and although full of enthusiasm to serve they are unable to carry a cup of tea without spilling most in the saucer. However this seems to be a national trait, as sipping the cold tea loudly from the saucer is savoured in the same manner as a fresh oyster in Brittany.

K.G. is really bright, speaks excellent English, which he learned from the odd talk with tourists and watching illegal hollywood movies. I am astounded by this. He speaks with excellent vocabulary which would put most English people to shame. He uses the word ‘acquiesce’ which I really appreciated. Most Burmese kids receive a very basic education at best. Learning mostly propaganda, how to repeat nationalistic slogans and nothing of their rich history. K.G. is curious about the world and how we live, he gets little ‘real’ news here, just military propaganda in the ‘Light of Myanmar’ newspaper which denounces the BBC in each edition for spreading ‘hateful’ lies about the regime.

At this stage two of K.G’s pals join us and sit either side of him, they stare at me with blank expressions and mouths slightly open for over an hour. Silent and watchful. They then stand bolt upright and leave. They were both called Kway-Kway (Jo-Jo). K.G. continues to quiz me about English grammar in-depth, which I muddle through, ending up ruining several paper napkins with elaborate explanations. I talk with faltering conviction and K.G. nods politely. Thankfully the questions soon end.

He tells me that he’s happy just to live every day. Wakes with a smile. He knows that the people in the West have lost their direction and I agree with his outlook. I talk of a Burmese friend, Kophyo, down south in Bago. He moved to Ireland to study and to marry his flame-haired sweetheart Kate, but couldn’t understand the lack of joy in people. He returned home after 1 year to drive a tuk tuk and guide tourists around local pagodas and giant reclining Buddhas. Scraping a life together one kyat (chat) at a time. He also couldn’t stand the weather. What a happy chap he seemed.

K.G. supports one wife and a little daughter. He is 25 years old but looks 18, the trials and tribulations of Myanmar life seem to wash over him. He’s one of those born survivors, who sees the light side. They live around 10 km outside of Mandalay centre, in one room without electricity or water. Just a room for sleeping he says. They moved here from a small village, near Shan state, where the land could not sustain the family. I want to tell you about K.G. because to me he is like my brother. I have only known him for a short time, but he is a very special man, as are many of his compatriots. Take him as a shining example of a populace of truly lovely people.

K.G. asks me to ask him anything about the regime and he’ll tell me the truth. Something you rarely encounter here. I’m shocked. I’ve been in Myanmar for nearly a month and most people’s faces drain of blood with the merest mention of politics. Nervy glances over the shoulder follow and mumbled excuses made, then a swift exit. K.G. is either brave or naive. Maybe both. But I see fire in his eyes and a sense of purpose that could exact change in others if applied. He could be a great leader of the people, a spokesman of sorts. This guy has bags of potential, I cant help but imagining what he’d achieve in a country like England. Much. He’d be a success in any country where he could break the noose of poverty.

This is a frustrating constant when travelling the world, the realisation that most live in poverty, that a few greedy men rule as always and so many shining people, much better than I, are left to struggle to survive. If we reminded ourselves of the global situation, people in England and the ‘West’ would be much more content with what they have and not what they could have. We are all oppressed to an extent, but this is truly scary.

K.G. moves on to Buddha and why he seems to need so much money? I totally agree. Was Buddha really a big, golden palace type guy? Myanmar is covered with golden stupas and Buddhas. Below them people struggle to put food on the table. He loves Myanmar and would never move away, even if the opportunity arose. But where is the wealth going? Myanmar is the most naturally rich country in the region with vast reserves of oil, natural gas, teak, opium. The Burmese military is the largest producer of ecstasy pills in the world! Where is it all going (probably Hoxton Square actually)? Into who’s pockets and who’s banks? If Mubarak is worth 70 billion, these guys can match that easy.

A little goes a long way here, a house will cost you a couple of hundred dollars to build. There are no roads outside the new military capital, Napyidaw (more a fortress for the paranoid generals to hide in), non that you could class as a road anyway. Dusty, unsurfaced tracks. Yangoon and Mandalay both have their streetlights turned off regularly to save money. I could go on and on…. Myanmar is the poorest country in South East Asia when it should be the richest.

K.G. picks me up in the evening at my hotel and we head off for my last tri-shaw ride in Burma. Past bales of putrid drying fish and groups of people sleeping on the streets, in the shadows. I’m heading to the 14 hour Yangoon night bus and then a plane ride to Bangkok. A different world. The bus station is some 8 km away but K.G. insisted on pedalling me there. I feel lost in a melancholy mood. I get out the guitarlele to clear my head and we sing ‘La Bamba’ flying at a fair rate through the gnarled traffic, regularly accompanied by passengers in beat-up trucks and on mopeds. I couldn’t think of a better way to leave Myanmar. Singing and smiling.

We stop for a few quick Dagon extra strong beers, which was a mistake. K.G. became tipsy, he doesn’t normally drink and the last 2 kms were a lottery of pothole exploration and near head-on collisions. Time is the master and I arrive at the bus with approximately one minute to spare. Saying goodbye to K.G. was especially difficult, I say many goodbyes at the moment, but I felt like I was leaving him behind. To his karma, his tri-shaw and the gang of pirates. I know he felt sorry for me, wandering around without my family or a wife and kids.

One day I promised to return and this time, we’d drink champagne on the street corners of Mandalay, not dirty Dagon. Toasting a free Myanmar. Change in Myanmar is going to take even more patience, resilience and an army of K.G.’s. As he said to me, ‘one day it rains, the next is sunny, wiping away all memories of dark skies.’ Good man. Twarameh brother!

Lee Watson

Lee left England as a 8 year old and has never felt normal since. He spends his days with books, guitars, coconuts and updating his blog.