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  • Writer's pictureKaren Selk

Lucky Strikes and Jack Daniels got us into Burma - Part 1

The April 4, 2019 blog introduced The Asian Journal, writings we published in the Treenway newsletter from 1989 to 2011. We will continue with Burma where we travelled in May 1986 in search of silk, dyes and textiles.

March 1989 – Treenway Silks – Mainly Silk News and Views

Our last Asian Journal told of my travels in Thailand in 1986 with my sister-in-law. The day after we returned to Bangkok, my friend, Michele Wipplinger, from Seattle flew in to join me for the remainder of the trip to Burma, Hong Kong and China.

When Michele and I were initially informed Burma held exquisite silks, we searched the library for some insight into a country we had only vague notions about. We learned Burma was under British rule until the late 1940’s. After the upheaval of the Japanese invasion during World War II and the internal struggles that ensued, their doors were closed to foreign travel until the 1960’s and then only seven-day visas were permitted.

Travelling in Burma is for hardy and adventuresome folk. The Burmese people are gentle, easy souls, however the branch of the government which controls tourism, Tourist Burma, is reminiscent of “big brother” from George Orwell’s book 1984. There were only three flights per week between Bangkok to Rangoon. While we were still in Thailand, we were informed by other travellers who had just returned from Burma, we needed to prepare for Burmese customs and immigration. Before boarding our flight, we each bought a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a bottle of Jack Daniels whisky and strategically placed them on top of our clothing in our suitcases. Our plane only held about 40 passengers, all of us full of anxious anticipation after the stories we heard from other travellers. Our arrival seemed out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. The terminal was crumbling from the colonial days of British occupation, but still the grandness of thick, peeling white pillars, palm ceiling fans and open walls with a hot breeze flowing through held evidence of better times. We queued up in the oppressive heat from the weather and the officious customs agents for hours while each bag was opened, inspected and closed again minus the Lucky Strikes and Jack Daniels. By the time Michele and I changed some money into Burmese kyat, it was dark outside, and we had to wait for another taxi to arrive. It was all so surreal, the heat, the overbearing officers, the decaying grandeur, the unfamiliar smells, the dark and the random lights that shone purple like strobe lights along the side of the road, that attracted large bugs like grasshoppers. People of all ages gathered under the lights grabbing the insects to take home for dinner.

The drive into Rangoon seemed interminable. As we drove through the dark of Rangoon, lit only by candles on the vendors carts, we had no sense that the streets radiated out like spokes from the Shwedagon pagoda at the centre of the city. It all seemed so shadowy and we could not wait to reach our accommodation, The Garden Guesthouse. Even before we were shown to our room, we knew this was going to be one of the longest nights of our lives.

When we settled in our “dorm” room with a cement floor and two small, hard beds shrouded in holey mosquito nets that were repaired with other traveller’s band aids, we hoped a shower would make us feel better equipped to make it through this night. I stepped into the dim gang style shower first and slide all the way to the other end on the slimy floor. I was grossed out but already in, so rinsed off in the cold water while Michele stood guard in case I slipped and fell. Michele recently had knee surgery, so I went out into the night foraging for water and hopefully some familiar food. With only candle light in the streets and people huddled around carts smoking hand rolled cigarettes, speaking only Burmese, I felt shy and vulnerable to stare into the carts looking for water and food. I roamed aimlessly and lost track of which spoke I came from. With panic in my heart and stomach and a few passes around the huge pagoda, I was relieved to finally see the sign for the Garden Guesthouse. I returned with peanuts, watermelon and water in a glass bottle with a metal cap, like an old-style Coca-Cola bottle. I opened the first bottle with my Swiss Army knife and passed it to Michele. Before I got the second bottle cap off, Michele cried, “I don’t want to die in the Garden Guesthouse.” The water smelled awful and tasted even worse. It was a long and very bazar day. We lay down on the grey, dirty sheets with every stitch of clothing, each with our own somber thoughts and waited for the first light at 6 am. We were two naïve, middle class, white women who plucked up and gathered our wits on this new day. We quickly found the best way to deal with Tourism Burma, the most agreeable food for our palates and stomachs, better water and accommodation, and how to deal on the black market in the back seat of a taxi to change money for a rate twice what the bank was paying. When all was sorted, we went in search of Burmese silk.

Our first day in Rangoon was most fortuitous. We found some very helpful information in a used book store. The fact that Burma is predominantly Buddhist is evident by the numbers of pagodas adorning the cities, villages and countryside. The bookstore proprietor told us many stories which helped us to understand Burma and its people. One of the most memorable is the saying in Burma: their top half is Mongolian, and their bottom half is Indian. This is exemplified by their past Confucian philosophical base and the long skirts known as “longyis” that everyone wears; a borrowed tradition from India.

The next entry will be Lucky Strikes and Jack Daniels got us into Burma – Part 2


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