The Book

The Start of a Long Journey:
From Yangon to Lake Inle in Southern Shan State

My third day in this country is the day of departure, and I look forward to my train ride with excitement. I had a good rest last night despite the heavy and noisy rain showers, a reminder that here in the south the monsoon season is not yet over. In the north, however, the dry season has already begun. The heat and humidity of Yangon have so far not affected my health; I feel well and have a healthy appetite, but I realize that I do not take enough liquids and resolve to drink more Burmese tea and bottled water.

The early morning hours after sunrise, which comes at about six o'clock, are the most pleasant. The cool, fresh morning air lends itself to some leisurely walks around the neighborhood, to watch the children being sent off to school, fathers leaving for work, and mothers cleaning the house and doing a little shopping from the first street vendors of the day. But the stifling midday hours, from 11:30 to 2:30, lend themselves to staying inside and taking a long siesta. Evenings arrive early-the sun sets at about half past five and it is pitch dark by six o'clock. By nine o'clock the streets are empty, and that is also when the last ferry of the day crosses the Yangon River.

My suitcase already packed, I have enough time before going to the train station for a short excursion to the state-controlled Gem Emporium, which houses a gem museum on the top floor and numerous private gem stores on the other three floors. Given that Burma is the world's leading producer of rubies, sapphires, and jade, the stores should offer a great variety of precious stones, but the gem trade is a tricky one anywhere and, here, the miners must sell all high-quality stones to the government, which then auctions many of them off to foreign commercial buyers. Tourists may buy stones only from a licensed dealer and must show the dealer's certificate to customs officers when they leave the country. Some tourists have managed to avoid the government-controlled stores by buying gems from unlicensed sellers or on the black market, only to find out later that their sapphire was an aquamarine or that their ruby was just colored glass. Illegal dealings in precious stones will get a foreigner into a Burmese jail fast, as we will see later when we meet an Iranian man at my hotel in Mandalay.

The sapphires I am shown at the Gem Emporium come in many different sizes, colors, and qualities, with colors ranging from a very light blue, like an aquamarine, to a velvet blue (also known as cornflower blue), to almost black. The velvet blue ones, which seemed to be the most valuable, were priced at US $2,000 for a 3-carat stone. Because I had no way to evaluate price and quality, I concluded that perhaps it is safer to buy Burmese gems from a reputable shop in Bangkok.

Over lunch at the hotel, I read the state-owned and -controlled English newspaper, The Light of Myanmar, which reported the occurrence of a demonstration of some twenty-two thousand people, at which the several speakers vehemently denounced Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for being a foreign agent and accused her of obstructing negotiations on a new constitution, one that would keep the military in power indefinitely. They demanded her expulsion from Burma. The photo showed a well-orchestrated and efficiently organized assembly, with stages, film cameras, lighting, and an advanced loudspeaker system-not what I would call a spontaneous demonstration. As I have mentioned before, this newspaper reports overseas news accurately, but domestic news reporting is propaganda. History does show through that such constant propaganda campaigns do finally sow uncertainty, whether or not there is some truth in all the accusations. Some time later, in another edition of this newspaper, I would find an article about Bertil Lintner written by a Burmese journalist. Mr. Lintner is a highly respected, Bangkok-based Burma expert and journalist who has extensive knowledge of this country and also of the drug trade. But that article about him was one of the most vicious pieces of "journalism" I had ever come across.


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          Part:
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           Part II
           Part III
           Back Matter


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          Chapter 4
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