MYANMAR'S ISOLATION MANIFESTS ITSELF IN STRANGE WAYS
No windows, dashboard naked, every electric gone except one noodling ignition cable. In this skeletal, right-hand drive Toyota Hilux, we embarked for Katha - infamous outpost of George Orwell's Burmese Days fame. The driver stopped erratically, making running-repairs with sticks and plastic waste from the roadside.
We took a train for a several hours. From our stop in Na Bar, an hour’s drive over the hill would get us to Katha. Our three-wheeled shared motorcycle taxi struggled with the ascent. Stopping frequently, the driver would douse his engine with water and refill the porous water reserve. The headlamp wavered with engine's splutters. It was like watching a dying old man cough down his last pack of cigarettes.
This three-wheeler was on it’s deathbed, yet it remained the driver's horse and cart - his living.
Modern stories of Myanmar often reference the country’s era of isolation and dislocation. It’s strange how this isolation manifests itself in the most banal of locations - utility vehicles. Kept alive out of necessity, they have grown into vehicular frankensteins. Some look more creature than machine. Wearing strange, human attributes, these vehicles reflect a bizarre, sideways evolution.
A wooden passenger ferry chugged us further up-river to Bhamo. Myanmar is indeed a very large country. Not merely because of its 676,000 square kilometres, but the way in which it feels massive. An isolated city like Bhamo is lonely and disconnected - a quiet part of no-one's country.
And no-one appeared to be here - the whole town was at the carnival. The kind of carnival with markets, rides, cotton candy, and corn on the cob. But also the kind of carnival with two Buddhist pagodas in full session and rows of stores selling plastic replicas of every gun you've ever seen in the movies; AR15s, Kalashnikovs, Glocks, Gold AKs...
We paused in a pop-up tea shop. In the centre of each four-chaired table was a lighter-stand and loose-cigarette holder - smokes for the table, sitting there like salt and pepper - alongside bao-zi (steamed buns) and cups of sweet milk tea.
English premier league football played on the TV ubiquitously. At half time the channel and the mood shifted. An elaborate and ornately-dressed female singer stood on-screen before an enormous crowd, backed by a live band and string ensemble. Someone plugged the TV into a nearby loudspeaker. At high volume, the song was strange and exotic. With false-crescendos and a Spector-esque wall of sound, the vocal melody rose and intensified. A tsunami of emotions was incipient. Things were becoming epic and grandiose - and familiar.
At its climatic entry into the chorus, I lurch up in fist-pumping elation and declared to the entire tea-shop:
"TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART"
During Myanmar’s period of deep isolation, the world’s popular music had few avenues to reach the ears of the people. Hits like Total Eclipse were translated and adapted by Burmese artists. And without widespread popular knowledge of the originals, these artists seemed reticent to mention the basis of their hits, instead revelling in some musical credit that was perhaps a little undue. With no wider public-knowledge of international pop music, the broader social acknowledgement of appropriation ceased to exist. Many popular singers lived in this grey expanse that isolation afforded.
Tea was sipped, smokes were smoked.
Myanmar’s isolation manifests itself in strange ways.