THE MYSTERIOUS MR. MAUNG
My fixer wouldn’t email me. I wasn’t going to Myanmar without a fixer and this one already reeked of mystery. After one email asking about dates and times, he disappeared. He knew racist demagogue monks. He flew into a rage at a reporter because they asked him to drive, a task he felt was beneath him. He didn’t live in Yangon, the big city with bars and Westernisms and gastropubs and The Strand Hotel with a butler on each floor.
He lived in Mandalay, the dusty imperial capital Kipling invoked as the ideal of the Orient’s pleasures.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me; For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the Temple-bells they say: "Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Kipling had never been to Mandalay, by the way, making him even more full of shit than I already thought he was. He never had to go there and wouldn’t have to.
The night before my flight I checked my email and found nothing. I was going to Myanmar to watch the game of chinlone, the sort of unofficial/official national game. Mr. Maung might be there to meet me, or he might not. He might be selling jade to Chinese billionaires, funneling arms to Karin insurgents or fixing cellphone tower contracts deep in the jungles of Chin State over a table of rice wine, Johnny Walker Blue and a thousand cigarettes. He might be meeting with monks in a political strategy meeting or setting up a bed and breakfast in Katha so Orwell-philes could stare at the sagging remnants of the British colonial clubhouse there.
If he wasn’t doing all this, someone was. They were most likely doing it by the light of a flashlight or generator. Flying in from Seoul, I can trace the blasting lights of industrial eastern China, then clearly spot Ho Chi Minh City before a stretch of deep black nothing that is Laos, and then spot the blinking lights of Thailand. It’s easy to see when you cross into Burma. Everything goes piteously, completely dark.
Or Burma. Or Myanmar. A country of 70 million people lodged in the long, geographically dramatic drain-sluice between India, China and Thailand who don’t really care which name you use unless they work for the government. (And even then, they will likely understand.) Dotted with ancient pagodas and temples, deeply Buddhist and diverse to the point of causing structural problems with how and who runs the country. Himalayan to the north, tropical to the south and with a lot of green, rice-paddy territory in between.
Occupied by the British in the late 19th century. They left hulking colonial buildings made of Manchester tiles and British steel in the middle of jungles, mountain forests and dusty tropical flatlands, and also brought over enough Indians and Nepalis to make a well-built samosa a pretty common teatime snack in Myanmar. Currently run by the military, now slightly less evil after 53 years of some of the most maniacally evil government on the planet. Possibly liberalizing since 2011, though doing so gradually and with no set plan besides holding elections this November. Those elections could be moved at any time, because of the part about there being no transparency or set plan.
Cursed with abundant, coveted and easily extracted natural resources and a set of shadowy oligarchs who "manage" them. Obsessed with betel nut, a carcinogenic stimulant chewed to attain a pleasant, fleeting high while staining the teeth red, dotting the sidewalks with orange-crimson splatter patterns and destroying the teeth, stomach and liver. Currently living on about three dollars a day, fond of EPL soccer and unsure of its new political freedoms even as they begin to freely and chaotically exercise them.
Wearing a traditional skirt worn by men and women known as a longyi. Somewhere between optimism and pessimism about the trajectory of their future. Holding a rattan ball 8.8 ounces in weight and five inches across. Asking you to kick it to them, and doing it very, very politely.
"Is it Myanmar, or Burma?" The woman said I could call it what I liked. The word was still Burma in the Burmese language, but the country — under the management of a military junta for the better part of 50 years — became known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. That decision came suddenly in 1989, and without much discussion.
This is a pattern. The car I rode in was a right-drive taxi, poking along and over a bridge, and down the long industrial stretch outside Yangon. (Or Rangoon, until 1989 when the generals changed that, too.) Under British colonial rule until 1948, the country was a left-hand drive nation until General Ne Win decided Burma would become a right-hand drive country. This, along with handing the keys to Burma’s significant natural resources solely to the military and occasionally deciding to make up imaginary cities in the jungle, would help Burma move forward as a nation.
My driver handled it well. Driving in a right-hand drive car on left-hand drive roads isn’t really a problem until you have to make a turn, at which point you realize how insanely dangerous it is to make an obstructed turn with traffic while exposing your passengers to certain doom.
"This is why we call the front seat ‘the death seat,’" the woman said, cackling.
Sitting in the death seat, we drove out and away from Yangon. Downtown Yangon is every bit the time warp every single travel guide promises. Derelict British colonial buildings wobble next to featureless poured concrete Chinese crapbox apartment buildings. The gimpy old British telegraph building now has a giant cellphone tower perched precariously on one corner.
Generators sit out on the sidewalks, and roar to life during brownouts. The covered gutters double as sidewalks, often with disastrous consequences when the concrete panels break underfoot, or when someone misses one in the very dark, unlit streets at night and breaks an ankle. Strings with bags on the ends hang down from apartment balconies. When the power goes out, you pull the string to get someone’s attention if you need to see them, and get the apartment key out of the lowered bag if you need to get into the building.
Anything older than 20 years begins growing trees and vines out of it, or hosts them as they slowly engulf the building. No motorcycles are allowed after a possibly mythical assassination attempt on a general scared the old regime off the vehicle completely. The swarm of cars and the limited roads out of town mean pedestrians often make better time at rush hour. I know this, because I saw someone get to Shwedegon Temple walking before I got there in a cab.
My hosts drive me away from downtown, and across the broad brown stripe of the Yangon River over to Da Lat. The factories sit in a line: a hot sauce concern, a textiles sweatshop, another textiles sweatshop. Little houses made of rattan, bamboo poles, the universal blue utility tarp and bits of advertising banners bordered the long drainage ditch between the factories and the improvised houses. Most ran some kind of roadside business out of the front, with the proprietors sleeping in the back.
"That’s a tire repair shop. That is a betel nut stand. That is a car wash."
She points to the stagnant pools behind and under some of the houses, the same water the roadsiders bathed in and most likely shat into on a daily basis.
"You imagine? You want them to wash your car with that water?"
On the way back into town, I see two more things in an order they shouldn’t ever, ever be viewed in:
a.) Two shirtless Burmese men in longyis standing on the bottom crosspiece of a power pole, 20 feet off the ground and working on the wires with no visible safety equipment in the blazing sun. A crew of men and boys stared up at them, waiting for something very bad or very good to happen.
b.) A $4 million Bugatti Veyron parked in the driveway of jade baron and U.S. sanctions list member Tay Za, a car that can go 262 miles per hour with tires that cost $30,000 to change. (In France, where you have to send it to get them changed.)
She gave me a tub of mangoes to eat at the hotel. They were a lurid shade of orange, and smelled like every flower on the earth inhaled at once. I walked out into the street for dinner, and the humidity sat so thick in the air that it was hard to not get a sensation of floating down the road.
Before bed, I checked my email and my messages. My fixer, Mr. Maung, was nowhere in sight.
It is a simple game that no one wins. The traditional game of Burma, chinlone involves keeping a woven rattan ball off the ground without using your hands. There is no set number of players. There may be as few as two, or as many as six or seven, but the aim is the same: keep the ball aloft, and do so in as stylish and skilled a manner as possible while doing it.
Watch some videos of it and it’s hard to see how Myanmar isn’t cranking out half the midfielders in international soccer. The ball is caught on the instep of the foot, and then flipped to the knee before a quick bounce to the opposite foot for a backheel to the next player. The ball is spun around the foot, or popped aloft with a strike resembling a scorpion kick. The best players play-fake nearly every shot, lunging with the right before popping the left foot around, or simply whipping the entire foot around the ball in flight before lofting it back into the air. The best moves take a second for the viewer to process.
When the ball hits the ground, play stops until someone restarts the game. There can be sets of rules for competitive chinlone. One variation works a lot like figure skating, with a mandatory set of elements each player must demonstrate. Another is played with a net, and works a lot like sepak tekraw, the Indonesian game that looks like volleyball played with the feet.
Most chinlone you’ll see is the basic round-robin kickfest with no set endpoint. If it sounds like hacky-sack, well, it should also sound like keepy-uppy, or jianzi, the Chinese variation with a shuttlecock, or any of the other games recognized as being the basis of what became, among other games, what we know as soccer. It is the coelacanth of kick-sports, a horseshoe crab on the move, an alligator of a game that has survived thousands of years of human history.
It is something you would normally have to see on a temple wall and animate in your head. In Myanmar, you just have to wait around until people get off work for the day, or hang out in front of the Yangon Fire Department until a game erupts out of nowhere.
At night, even under a full moon, Yangon gets country-dark. Sidewalks roll and pitch and sometimes disappear completely. Missing gutter covers leave gaping, ankle-snapping booby traps waiting for drunken pedestrians to step into. Dogs roam confidently, even belligerently. The main streets are fine. Walk down a residential street, though, and you’re stepping off the map of illuminated humanity.
I’m walking with Chili, whose fault this all is. He’s an architect and standup comedian, a combination that means he has played standup shows in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. ("Not a great show, but not the worst.") He has been in Myanmar for two years because there is a lot of work to do here, and not just because the government decided to build an entire new capital city out of nothing a few years ago. There is a building boom, although one with arcane rules, requirements and the occasional deference to a lurking but still present authority. For example: No building in Yangon could be taller than Shwedagon Pagoda, but most building proposals have to also show the pagoda General Ne Win constructed nearby to stave off an almost certain turn in Buddhist hellfire and rebirth as an earthworm.
I tell him that there is still no sign of Mr. Maung. Chili said he’d come through. Maung could be an asshole, and difficult even by the standards of difficult, but he knew his shit when it came to fixing. I was worrying too much, and hey: there were Burmese rappers at the bar that night.
This bar that was definitely not open past 11 p.m. no matter what the clock said. The 11 p.m. closing time was the arbitrary time the police had set following the recent sexual assault of an American woman by a local. It says something very good and very bad about Yangon that it is often hard to find a place that doesn’t have a happy hour, and that the drinks are served in huge volume as a rule.
It also says something that from time to time, certain liquors and beers still randomly fail to show up in shipments, but the bars never run out of locally brewed Mandalay beer. It’s honestly not bad on a general curve, save for the very particular crowning headache it leaves if you drink more than four of them in a sitting. (I never consumed less than four in a sitting, and neither will you.) Chorizo for the tacos disappeared, and wines could become contraband, as valued as hard drugs in certain months. Somewhere in Yangon in a calendar year, there is a hushed meeting in an apartment between expats and a shadowy wine pusher, whispering, "Yo…I got that Shiraz, if you’re willing to pay."
The bar is relatively new, but the building is not. In 1987, on the advice of his astrologers, the dictator Ne Win declared a new currency based on the number nine, with major large bills withdrawn from the monetary system completely. Ne Win wiped out a huge chunk of Burmese savings overnight, and housed the presses for the new money in what was now the spot where I sat chugging two-for-one Mandalay beers.
The manager pleaded gently with the rappers, including Kiki, who is to Yangon what Kendrick Lamar is to Compton. Chili yelled across the bar at them:
"I’M IN LOVE WITH THE COCOOOOOOOOO"
Without giggling or pausing, they all smiled and hollered back: "I GOT IT FOR THE LOWWWWWW LOWWWWWW—"
We leave to get a drink at the Shangri-La, since hotels are exempt from curfews, and because jetlag has destroyed any sense of time or space I might have. Expats drink here, but so do the locals, in addition to smoking and chewing betel nut. There aren’t many residential exteriors in certain neighborhoods without a Mandalay Rum or Myanmar Beer banner. (Myanmar Beer is owned in part by the Myanmar military’s business arm.)
Since 2011, a wave of economic liberalization welcomed more foreign capital into Myanmar than at any point since colonialism. The Sule Shangri-La, owned and run by a Hong Kong-based conglomerate, is a case in point. The bar has streaming wireless, wood paneling and blasting air-conditioning. Its lobby hosts a stream of rotating expats, NGO-looking types, obvious international businessmen of ill repute and the occasional backpacker rolling in for a night or two of air conditioning, steady internet and the indulgence of a $22 breakfast with real bacon. It is not Myanmar at all.
"This," I point around us, "is a lie."
Chili nods. "I know. That’s why I like it here."
The next morning, the day before I’m supposed to go to Mandalay, I checked my email. Mr. Maung was silent, meaning I was here in the spot I didn’t want to be in: let loose in the Farthest of Easts, now dependent on a mysterious local with the most shadowy connections to the most shadowy and foreign of powers.
I was to meet Mr. Maung in Mandalay. And with every second he did not let me know he was alive, he became more and more the cliched exotic mystery I did not want Burma, or these people, or chinlone, to be. I did not want to imagine Mr. Maung driving by me in Tay Za’s Bugatti Veyron, laughing and shooting a middle finger in the sky as they passed me on the way to a $3000 a night chalet nestled in the Himalayan foothills. (Which Tay Za really has.) I did not want to imagine him brokering a teak deal under the light of the full moon in Taunggyi, or shuttling Chinese military VIPs around Lashio as they shopped for rubies and diamonds for their wives and mistresses. I didn’t want that but that was where I was.
I walk around the corner to see the new KFC on day one, the first American fast food restaurant in the country. It looks like a bank run in a country where fried chicken is used as currency, with lines out the door and gawkers stopping to take pictures with their cellphones. Just down the street, squatting on the sidewalk, two old men in longyis played chess with a battered set of pieces on the sidewalk.
He’s dead now, so let’s talk about Ne Win. Burma has had many, many, many horrendous leaders. The last King of Burma, Thibaw, started his reign by having rivals in his predecessor’s court slaughtered. The women were strangled. The men were sewn into velvet bags and then beaten with paddles, and their bodies trampled into trenches by elephants. He later tossed the British out of his palace in Mandalay for refusing to take their shoes off, and they returned with an army. (That last part isn’t the worst call; I cannot imagine the filth on a colonial British soldier’s boot in Burma in the 19th century.)
Ne Win, though. Ne Win ruled Burma formally from 1962 to 1988, but dominated the country politically for much longer than that behind the scenes. (Some think he was behind the assassination of Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father and the first leader of independent Burma, in 1947.) He dragged the country into isolation, putting up "the Bamboo Curtain," nationalizing private industry and placing it in the hands of the military, and creating a prison state where dissent was met unapologetically and openly with bullets, truncheons, imprisonment, and disappearances.
Ne Win was also insane. It is hard to parse out just what may be real and what may be rumor about Ne Win and his devotion to astrology, numerology, and superstition. There is no line between what Ne Win definitely did, and what it’s said he did. When confronted with the implausible as a reality, everything then becomes equally probable. With Ne Win, every story is totally possible.
For instance: to prevent assassination attempts, he would stomp on a piece of bloody meat while firing into a mirror. Other times, he was advised to prepare for future bloodshed by standing in a vat of pig’s blood. He rode a wooden horse on a military plane as it circled his birthplace; if he visited a town, he ordered all stray dogs in that town to be slaughtered, as dogs were considered bad luck, especially those with crooked tails. He stepped backwards onto bridges.
Ne Win might have switched the nation from left-hand driving to right-hand driving because an astrologer told him the country had drifted too far to the left. He might have bathed in dolphin’s blood in an effort to stay young. He definitely did this. These are the same sentence. There are all the same insane sentences.
The madness spread to his protegés. His eventual successor, Than Shwe, started moving the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005 at exactly 6:37 a.m., taking a convoy of trucks, files, employees, and everything but the old buildings with them. Prior to construction starting in 2002, Naypyidaw was uninhabited scrubland. It’s now a largely empty capital with broad, carless interstates flowing into and out of it. When Top Gear visited the country, the cast played soccer in the middle of one of them—safely, and without interruption.
The government blockaded foreign aid from reaching the areas of the country nearly destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, imprisoned a huge chunk of its own population over the course of over fifty years of rule, and as recently as 2007 fired on its own people in street demonstrations. Myanmar’s per capita income dropped by an estimated 66% under military rule. Ne Win died under house arrest in December of 2002, confined after his son was allegedly caught plotting a coup. The reaction around Myanmar, per State Department cables, was summed up in one word: "Finally."
A VISIT TO THE MUSEUM OF DRUG ERADICATION; A MYSTERIOUS EMAIL ARRIVES
There’s nothing but weeds and a dry fountain in the yard of the Myanmar Drug Elimination Museum in Yangon. There is one car waiting in the drive — it’s clearly a family member or friend of someone who works here, and not another tourist. The museum closes at 5 p.m. It is 4:30 p.m., and all the lights are already off.
The building itself is the ugliest shitpile of brutalist architecture I have ever seen, like a cinder block someone haphazardly blasted holes into with a screwdriver. The museum was built in 2001, but the doomed green tin roof is already showing red streaks of rust. It gives the impression of something designed to fall down halfway in 20 years, and then stand half-ruined for another three centuries.
The clerk laughs when I say I want to see it. He actually shakes his head, takes my money, and hands me a ticket and yells back into its depths. A few female voices reply in annoyed Burmese.
The lights come on, but the cancerous fluorescence only makes things worse. The museum is three floors of dusty, moldering dioramas detailing the Burmese government’s tireless efforts to subdue the drug trade with titles like "SHAN STATE MOBILIZATION PLAN #5" with sad little villages spread around miniature hillsides. Photos of generals and other military types engaged in sincere, anti-narcotic discussions with locals surround the displays. Some of the officers’ portraits line the walls adjacent to each display. Blank spots on the wall mark a general who, unfortunately, may not have taken the anti-drug agenda of the Burmese government as seriously as he should have.
Real drugs labeled "hallucinogens" and "narcotics" sit in insecure boxes on the wall. If you did not know what heroin looked like and were interested in learning, the Drug Elimination Museum could go a long way towards helping you correctly spot the real thing on the street. You might be able to take the stuff on the wall, actually, and with it a pretty good knowledge of the precursors one needs to make methamphetamine. There’s a whole display on that, too, labeled clearly: "NO PRECURSORS."
There is no one near me, as the staff have given up completely for the day, and will shut the door and run the minute I finish. Collapse and die in a corner, and your corpse might not be found for weeks.
I reach the third floor — the clear payoff floor, with Reefer Madness dioramas of youth in decline, paintings of skeletons gesturing dramatically over wasted mannequin junkies, and a multimedia children’s section where none of the A/V equipment works. There is standing water in the corners. A godlike rat pounding around the ceiling is the only sound in the place besides my footsteps.
I am the only person in the place, and the only visitor for the day.
Myanmar built the museum as a gesture to the international community. Look, we are so serious about combatting drugs that we have built this Chinese-designed crime against architecture and filled it with featureless dioramas, it says. In 2014 the second largest supplier of heroin and opium in the world was Myanmar, with methamphetamine making a roaring start in the polls in third place.
Go to the North, and it’s allegedly possible to ask the locals to go camping. The campsite is usually a village where you get opium. From there, it’s up to you where it goes, though that seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through for something you can get wholesale from any number of known cultivation sites where the local military and police have been politely bought off by growers.
If nothing else works, finds someone who works at the North Korean embassy. Diplomats are forced to sell methamphetamine by the DPRK, with $300,000 a month in sales per person as their quota. They smuggle it into the country in diplomatic pouches.
I read about an exhibit where a plastic skeleton hand jumps out of a wall to grab you, but by the time I got to the first floor the women were mostly gone, and the guy behind the counter looked to be on the verge of a casual but very serious breakdown. I left.
The next morning, while throwing everything into a backpack and running for the airport, I checked my email one last time. There, sandwiched between two work emails, was a terse unread message.
Dear Spencer, Look forward to seeing you on 2nd July. Warmest regards, Maung
And under the name, a phone number.
Maung was real. He was waiting in Mandalay, presumably only after cleaning up at the tables of a Cambodian casino, evading bandits on his exit and using his winnings to found a new telecom company to bring 4G cellphone service to the Golden Triangle. He would, in his precious spare time, tell me about chinlone.
MANDALAY, THE OKLAHOMA CITY OF MYANMAR
Mandalay. Kipling never went here, but he never went to Oklahoma City, either, so he wouldn’t understand it when you say the two have the same weather in the summer. There’s a hot wind that kind of blows everything sideways. The humidity clings like a fart in a poorly air-conditioned elevator. The sun is right there, all the time, three inches from your eyeballs. It is super-religious, and dotted with huge buildings devoted to that religiosity.
I’m staying at the Hotel Amazing Mandalay, which will be known from this point forward as THE HOTEL AMAZING. THE HOTEL AMAZING has passable stuttering wi-fi, a breakfast with omelets, rooms with high ceilings and satellite television backed up by a generator to level out the hiccups of the Burmese power grid. Sure, the Chinese are damming up rivers to generate hydroelectric power, but not for Burma. Rolling blackouts are the norm.
I get into THE HOTEL AMAZING in the early afternoon and call Mr. Maung. Or: I hand my room key, which is the size of an iPhone, to the bellboy, who then hands it to the manager, who then takes the number and dials it for me, and then begins the conversation in Burmese for me. Which is fine — the general attitude towards you the further you get away from Yangon is that you have no idea what you are doing, and need several layers of assistance at all times, which I do.
A voice on the other end.
"Mr. Hall. Welcome…
[a dramatic pause way, way longer than it probably was in real life]
Mr. Maung said he would be there at 4 p.m., a promising indicator that he was a.) real, and b.) that I’d actually get to see the thing I came here for, and not waste time, 16,000 miles worth of air travel, and all those pills I got over-the-counter at the pharmacy in Yangon that you can’t get in the United States. I went back to my hotel room to watch Batman Begins with Burmese subtitles on Sky Net, which is the actual name of the satellite TV service in Myanmar.
When 4 p.m rolled around, I listened to the polite beeps outside from the traffic on 78th street. Horns in Myanmar aren’t alerts, but work instead like a little "pardon me," letting you know that, "hey, I’m here on your right, and passing," or maybe "hello small child, wandering haphazardly into the street, be advised that me and my two-stroke engine farm cart are plowing toward you at a safe but still dangerous speed, and you should move." When I lived in Taiwan, drivers accelerated into brick walls, hit the brake when they meant gas, and occasionally crashed giant chemical trucks at warp speed into toll booths resulting in apocalyptic hell fire. In Myanmar no one can really go fast enough in traffic to cause much trouble. The little "scuse me" honks and glacially slow merging takes care of the rest. It’s very disordered, but it seems to work well enough and get no one hurt. It’s just different, like the different perception of time Mr. Maung and I have. Be more Burmese about this, I say. You’re here. Be here, man.
It’s 4:30 p.m. Batman is now Batman and Wayne Manor has burned to the ground and there is no Mr. Maung. I make myself busy by dropping off my laundry, walking around the block, and then taking my second or third shower of the day. I’ve lost track, to be honest, but it can’t be a bad thing given the two to three shirt a day pace I’m keeping here. Maybe something important came up, and he had to take care of it immediately. A district official has been kidnapped by the Karin rebels, and he must negotiate for his release; a crony billionaire has spied an especially fetching marble Buddha on the streets, and must have several tons of stone transported to his home on the lake in Yangon immediately. I decide to finish Burmese Days.
At 5 p.m., Mr. Maung answers the phone. He apologizes but he had a meeting with a local district official that ran late. Oh, my god, he really did have to put out a political fire with a mysterious upperling, I think. That’s fine, I say, let’s just start again tomorrow and reboot and then this will all work. We’ll go watch chinlone and this will all work. How about 9 a.m.? Yes, 9 a.m. "See you then," he says with the voice I am definitely not going to say sounds over the phone precisely like a feared international hit man of infinite and terrifying renown.
I get a taxi to dinner at a Shan restaurant. It’s a buffet. The owner points at the food and bellows out the meats to me. "CHICKEN!" "FISH. THIS IS FISH." I nod, but he seems unconvinced. CHICKEN. I ate alone off of one of those universal Indian subcontinental tin thali trays while the kids working as bus boys in the restaurant nervously watched me eat. I thought about how everything looks 10 times more dismal under fluorescent lights.
I spent the rest of the night finishing up Burmese Days at THE HOTEL AMAZING. Orwell based so much of it on his own experiences in the Burmese Colonial Police that his publisher feared a libel suit. The protagonist, Flory, aka "Morge Gorgewell," understands colonialism for what it really is, and despises it despite being so much a part of it that he has lost the ability to live anywhere else.
It has spectacularly accurate descriptions of Myanmar’s weather, flora and fauna and several Burmese customs and mannerisms. Otherwise, it’s kind of flat, shrill and two-dimensional in the way a first novel usually is. It ends with Flory shooting his dog, and then, in turn, himself. Don’t read this right before you go to bed, and especially not if you’ve taken Doxycycline.
I had dreams of people playing tennis in the jungle, in British club whites, in shimmering heat, with a dead man laying on the court in full view of everyone, his brains spilled on the grass with flies everywhere and no one paying attention. Then I was running through a jungle clearing for what felt like hours, and when I stopped there was a Lexus on the road, and I knocked on the window. The glass rolled down. A general was in the passenger seat, and was playing a game on his phone, and wouldn’t look at me no matter how loud I yelled.
Chinlone doesn’t ever really end. You just pause it, and resume later. The Waso Chinlone Festival, for instance, has 30 teams a day. Not total: in one day. Each team gets 30 minutes to display their skills. With 30 teams a day, starting at 9 a.m. and going until midnight, that’s 15 hours of straight chinlone, set over a lunar month.
The Burmese do this kind of marathon entertainment all the time. They do not, as a culture, like brevity in their diversions. Traditional Burmese operas — sprawling vaudeville extravaganzas of puppetry, traditional music and theater — start at 5 p.m. and often last for two days straight. The youth don’t want to stay for the whole thing, so they squeeze rock bands into the schedule now and then, too.
But even by this scale, the Waso Chinlone Festival is something else entirely. The Wimbledon match between Isner and Mahut lasted 11 hours, and spanned two days. Andy Bowen and Jack Burke boxed for seven hours and 19 minutes. It might take someone 72 hours to complete the 136 mile Badwater Marathon through Death Valley, while the Dakar Rally stretches over two weeks.
These are all singular events with much, much different parameters, yet consider that if one were to sit down and watch the entirety of the Waso Chinlone Festival, that bleary, hallucinating soul would acquire a fierce betel nut habit and also end up seeing 450 hours of straight chinlone. Cut every NFL game down to only live snaps, and you would run out of footage just before the beginning of the Waso Chinlone Festival’s third day. Their eyes would gleam with the madness of pure Burman geometry; their ears, totally destroyed by a solid month of clanging traditional music, would bleed at the reedy croak of the Burmese oboe, the hne.
The Waso Chinlone Festival might the longest sporting event in the world, and the only equipment required for it is a woven rattan ball five inches in diameter. The betel nut and five piece Burmese band are optional, but preferred.
"I AM NOT MR. MAUNG"
The next morning the phone by my bed rang.
"The man is here."
I walked into the lobby. Maung was sitting in a chair, and rose to meet me. He wore a darkly patterned longyi, a light short-sleeved button down shirt, and sandals. He smiled, nodded, and walked over apologetically.
"Mr. Spencer, it’s nice to meet you."
"Mr. Maung, it’s nice to meet you, too."
He smiled again.
"Mr. Spencer, I am not Mr. Maung."
A note: if this misdirection seems out of order, it shouldn’t. There’s all kinds of misdirections going on here. Consider Tay Za, who may be a real life Bond villain, or at least a prominent secondary figure and key plot rung on the way up to the head of SPECTRE. He may, or may not be, related by marriage to the insane Ne Win. (He denies it.) His net worth may be just over a billion dollars, or less, or much, much more, depending who you talk to, or depending on what month it is, or depending on who’s asking. If it is someone from the United States government, he is worth much, much less than people believe.
Tay Za made his initial fortune in timber extraction. Tay Za moved into jade later, shoveling as much of the greenish, nearly translucent stone into the Chinese market as they could take. Huge blocks of it sit along the driveway of his villa in Yangon, because…well, because fuck you, world. Tay Za is rich enough that he can leave giant cubes of unrefined jade just laying around like lawn sculptures. The mines in northern Burma around the town of Hpakant, meanwhile, are an environmental disaster.
He owns an airline, multiple hotels, a soccer team and a bank, and is personally sanctioned by the European Union. He bought arms from Russia for the Burmese government, announced the discovery of uranium in 2014, and survived a helicopter crash on a barren Himalayan mountainside by huddling under a rocky outcropping for three days until help arrived. He is described as a generous boss to his employees, and hired Burma’s first female pilot for his airline. Despite the Bond villain trappings and a reputation for partying, he is also one of the most giving charitable donors in the country through the Htoo Foundation.
He is the most prominent — willfully so — of the crony capitalists closely associated with the regime that kept Burma’s neck under its bootsoles, going as far as brokering arms deals with Russia for the Myanmar government. Yet, when Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San and democracy advocate placed under house arrest for over 20 years, was initially on the run, she hid in different homes around Yangon to avoid the military. Tay Za’s claim that his family’s house was one of them is unsubstantiated. His offer of free domestic flights for life for the democracy leader, though, is completely legitimate, and accepted by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2013.
They live not far from each other in Yangon.
The man standing in the lobby is not Mr. Maung.
This man’s name is Htoo. He has been dispatched to serve as my translator and chinlone procurer. Mr. Maung is somewhere else, doing the kinds of things I want him to be doing as the abstract shadow figure I want him to be in my imagination. He texted Htoo from an ultralight surveying betel nut fields to get me, or at least that’s what I will believe. He landed, congratulated himself on his delegation and management skills, and jumped into a waiting Toyota Hilux to attend an important pye somewhere in the Kachin hills. There would definitely not be an opium baron there.
"I hope you don’t mind a motorcycle."
Htoo is not Mr. Maung, and this is not really a motorcycle, either. This is a 75cc scooter, the kind with bizarre English names like "HAPPY, THE SCOOTER" or "URBAN, A MIGHTY WAINSCOT".* It’s the kind of scooter my huge American ass almost broke when, in a moment of confusion the day before, I told a motocabbie to take me to Mandalay Hill. He read this as "up" Mandalay Hill. A third of the way up the bike just stopped, and I had to beg the man to stop and let me off before he and the bike both died of exhaustion.
*I made that one up, but just barely.
They move on flat land well enough, though. With the exception of the Hill, Mandalay is pancake flat, and Htoo (who weirdly insisted I be "safe" and wear "a helmet") ripped off into traffic, nudging along with little pardon-me beeps. Turning left across traffic usually means carving your own turn lane, rather than following one static arc across an intersection. Htoo cuts one about two feet into a busy intersection, weaving mid-path around a slow moving bus. In another, he dive-bombs wide and deep through a cluster of fart-engined scooters. The path clears at the last second; Htoo, like a quarterback throwing into coverage, saw it the whole time.
He does this all with 200 pounds of overfed American crushing the shocks over his back wheel.
We speed past the various faceless pixellated heads of Buddhas on Marble Street and hang a sharp right into the temple complex. To one side, there’s a weedy park shaggy from the rainy season. There are a few guys laying under trees in the manner of the Universal Guy In Parks Who Probably Does Drugs. The Maha Muni Temple is ahead, where you can pay about three bucks for a thin sheet of gold to apply to their ever blingier Buddha. His calves are huge and luminescently gilded. Monks in crimson robes, mostly young and with shaved heads and wary expressions, shuffle in and out of the gates.
There is an octagonal building to the right. Htoo parks his scooter, gives an attendant 100 kyat or so. Tiers of concrete bleachers surround an oval about 15 feet wide. Sponsor banners festoon the rafters and the support poles. They are for a sports drink called "SPONSOR," which is not a typo.
A half-capacity crowd sits on the concrete, chewing betel nut and politely spitting into plastic sandwich bags to avoid staining the floor. Some are obviously city guys with fresh shirts and bigger, shinier cellphones they ogle. Some are younger, rougher-looking Burmese kids, wearing longyis matched with a lot of horrorcore t-shirts Juicy J wore in 1998. There are a few old guys in button-downs, smoking green cheroots and occasionally nodding with expressions of deep but subtle approval.
A traditional Burmese band is playing, cordoned off from the rest of the stands by an ornate wooden screen to make their own bandstand. They play a looped riff of gonging, squealing, hammering beats and hne riffs with no real set beginning or end, and at earsplitting volumes. The hne playing over the xylophone of gongs and drums is sonic battery, like Ornette Coleman playing a 45-minute solo over the sounds of a crashing bar fight between Tibetan monks.
Htoo points to the seats directly in front of them.
"We will not sit there."
In the ring, five men are circling counter-clockwise at an unhurried pace. They wear what look like blue soccer kits. Some wear a simple canvas shoe, while others play barefoot. An announcer seated in what looks like a miniature lifeguard’s chair narrates in blared, rapid-fire Burmese over an ancient PA system. He is smoking, and has a focused but dead serious expression like an air traffic controller guiding in a plane with an engine fire.
A rattan ball floats in neat parabolas between the players, sometimes off a hip, sometimes off a knee, and mostly off feet. They scorpion kick passes to each other, curling the leg fully up and over their back. They lob passes off the instep of their foot, or off the side, or fake one way and then whip their foot around the ball in a 360 before soft-pedaling a punt to a teammate.
The announcer crackles over the PA: "MANDALA!"
No one looks like an athlete, or at least a steady kind of athlete. There’s one guy who is clearly a dad, another who might be an older runner-type, a guy who looks like a realtor. There is one man who has grandchildren, and in two minutes executes no fewer than four moves that would snap an average human being’s hamstring, ACL, achilles or all three. When the ball gets kicked into the audience or dropped, the player groans and smiles, and they pick up the ball and start again. When they pull off feather delicate pieces of sorcery, the audience claps and goes "OHHHHHHH" with approval.
At the end of 30 minutes a bell rings, and the team takes a bow and exits the ring. One of them ducks behind a partition, and emerges in a fresh business shirt and with a giant fresh betel nut in his mouth. The band takes what seems to be a much, much shorter break than they should need after playing 25 minutes, and I sit there with the blasted and giddy expression of someone who has no idea what they just watched.
Htoo points to the sign hanging above the SPONSOR signs in curlicued Burmese.
"That says: ‘This is the 87th Waso Chinlone festival.’"
THE PROSAIC, BORING DETAILS AND YES, THE EXOTIC AND ETHEREAL EXPERIENCE OF WATCHING CHINLONE
There are gritty, practical and decidedly non-metaphysical details first. They will be explained where most explicable things in Myanmar get explained — at the table of a teashop a chinlone’s throw out of the arena. There is a low table, some foot-high red and blue plastic stools and teacups sitting in a bucket of mystery water. An older guy takes a cup from it and pours me some tea and I drink it because I am too polite to refuse, and too stupid to remember that this is the rainy season, and that standing water is a bad, bad thing for intestinal health in these conditions.
Much of this is explained to me by Burmese men, old guys in longyis with betel-stained teeth. They go from stone-faced to animated the minute Mr. Htoo mentions chinlone. At one point, three or four men speak in hurried Burmese at once, gesturing to various and highly specific points on their feet and legs to show precisely where the chinlone strike in question must be made. Once we start talking chinlone, tea appears, along with some peanuts and a few inscrutable snack foods. Someone offers me a cheroot. I decline politely, making a gesture somewhere between "I do not smoke" and "I have demons that occupy my lungs rent-free." No one seems offended, and the chinlone dads barrel right through the social misstep and through an explanation of the proceedings, including asking me if I know the other foreigners who know about chinlone.
One man grabs my arm very seriously. "Do you know…Greg?" He most likely means Greg Hamilton, the Canadian chinlone acolyte and documentarian, but in the heat and the static of the moment I assume he means … Greg, any Greg whatsoever. I nod, as I know at least three of them, and also do not want to ruin my hosts’ day by not knowing their prized Greg.
He seems relieved. "Good. We like him. He likes chinlone."
The Waso Chinlone festival starts at the beginning of the Burmese lunar month of Waso, corresponding roughly with July. It accepts an $1,800 entrance fee from somewhere around 900 teams total. There is no limit to the number of time an individual may enter on multiple teams, and no set minimum or maximum to the number of players on a team, though the small space of the ring sets a kind of natural limit. More than five people playing at once greatly increases the possibility of someone getting kicked hard in the face. There is solo chinlone, but it is reserved for women.
The entrance fees go to the Maha Muni Temple. Teams win nothing, and do not compete against each other. No one wins, and no one loses, though teams do have an incentive to show out their best chinlone here. Mandalay is to chinlone what Rucker Park is to street ball, and the Waso Chinlone Festival in particular is a showcase where teams can get noticed. Get noticed, and you can get expenses paid plus a small sum (something like 30,000 Burmese kyat, or around 30 bucks) to play on the temple festival circuit and get paid for something most players here do for free. In a country where most people live on three bucks a day, that is not an insubstantial sum.
The band gets paid, and there’s some contribution from SPONSOR. Otherwise, all of this is done for nothing. There’s not even a way to gamble on chinlone, at least not one that doesn’t involve some secret spiritual mathematics. Teams play for 30 minutes each, with an unaccompanied warmup period, and then with the band blasting away behind them. The music tries to push the tempo of the game, or slow it down, or sometimes roars along over the action on some mission completely tangential to the game. Players do rotate in and out, with the younger musicians taking shifts on the drums.
Most learn from family, or from friends in town. There are teachers, but few if any take any pay. The 89-year-old competing in the 2015 festival taught his grandson, who played for the national selection for the 2013 Southeast Asian Games. That instruction teaches the 200 or 300 major moves in chinlone — a number no one seems to be too intent on clarifying. The moves range from basic ("side kick, front kick") to the more elaborate and metaphysical ("Riding the horse," for example, where a player brings their heel behind and around one leg for a strike that looks a lot like someone spurring horse.)
The players mostly come in from around Mandalay, but some make the trip from Yangon, or even from the far north of Kachin. The Kachin team I watched was representative of a lot of what you’ll see on a chinlone team. There’s one younger player, usually just out of high school, a few middle-aged guys and usually one or maybe even two men who the spectator might worry about until they start moving like people 20 years their junior. There were university students, and there was a local jade baron. There were stringy high schoolers, and a guy on the Kachin team who could have played forward on Myanmar’s rugby team.
Chinlone has no set body type or age. Roll a ball out in a town, and everyone from the grandmother in a headscarf to the cabbie sleeping in his car might play. Unless someone is in a wheelchair or limited by a recent amputation, you have no idea what a chinlone player looks like or doesn’t — and even then it could be a stretch to count the amputee out, provided he’s good with his headers.
On Aug. 1, the festival ends, the lunar calendar rolls from the month of Waso into the month of Waguang, and the band goes home to sleep for a year.
Burma doesn’t have much of a sporting culture, at least not in comparison to its neighbors. It’s not the poverty: India, another former colonial nation with serious poverty, obsesses over cricket, has a pretty substantial soccer problem and goes various levels of apeshit over kabbadi, chess and field hockey. To the east, muay thai is so popular that towns grind to a halt during big fights, and soccer and golf take up serious headspace in the national consciousness. The upstairs neighbors in China are hardcore converts to the NBA, and will occasionally fight you over a game of table tennis.
Since the advent of satellite TV — brought to you by local satellite provider and our eventual world ruler SKY NET — soccer has taken off, but that remains a relatively recent phenomenon even counting the British colonial introduction of the sport. (Not so recent that most young men’s scooter seats don’t have Manchester United or Chelsea logos emblazoned on them, but still.) Other than the native kickboxing form, lethwei, chinlone stands as the most popular and specifically Burmese national game.
In 1962, the term "Orwellian" came home to Burma in one of the most complete and sunless takeovers of the public space in human history. The military metastasized and invaded every single major organ of the public body, banning all political parties other than itself, erasing the free press, closing the borders, nationalizing industries and reacting with a sense of overkill that would be comical if it didn’t involve real people on the wrong end of high-powered explosives and guns.
From the start, their reactions were literal, blunt and hamhandedly overpowered. When students at Yangon University protested against the military’s power grab on July 7, 1962, the regime responded by blowing up the entire student union. When the ’88 demonstrations started, Ne Win resigned, and then simultaneously warned "When the army shoots, it shoots to hit." That’s the leader of the country openly threatening to gun down demonstrators in the street — which, in fact, they did in appalling numbers. The wounded were taken to Yangon General Hospital. The military, in response, fired directly into the hospital.
The world grew small and spare. And when things grow small and spare, things die. At least the Soviets (and later, the Chinese) sponsored brutal Olympic sports programs to show the world the manifest supremacy of their way of life. Burma’s generals didn’t even have that much imagination, commitment or concern for what the rest of the world might have thought in the first place. Burma’s bustling cinema, the biggest in postwar Southeast Asia, shriveled to nothing. Sports, in the modern sense of teams, leagues and the attendant froth of media, networks and rabid fanbases, were stillborn.
The one game that could survive was chinlone. Why? It would be theoretically convenient to say it was a moment of silent resistance so simple not even the police and the Tatmadaw (the regime’s name for the army) could erase it. That would be too doctrinaire, though; the last thing most chinlone players talk about is thinking. The 43-year-old mother I watched kicking rings around men 20 years her junior said herself that the only thing she was thinking about was the next move, and how to make it as good as she could. Otherwise, she was as blank as the game’s script itself, completely absorbed in the game.
Another could be that under the Sauron’s eye of the regime, chinlone was too small to consider a threat, and too uniquely Burmese to consign as treason. It required little in the way of resources, an important point in a place where even now, under an increasingly free free-market economy, the daily wage barely covers the cost of rice and cooking oil for a family. It had been around forever, and never attracted crowds of the size that might be suspicious to a regime so paranoid it banned "ballroom dancing, horse racing, gambling and beauty pageants."
In fact, before the Ne Win years blotted out the sun completely, the nation’s early nation-builders embraced chinlone, and even tried to codify its moves into something like a canon. In the effort to define Burma’s identity, chinlone emerged as something distinctly Burmese, with Burmese claims on the sport’s soul going back to the 13th century and beyond. The early postcolonial governments went as far as building chinlone courts on school grounds as part of a national identity.
There’s another theory: Chinlone might have been too simple to die, even under the worst circumstances imaginable. It is Burma’s own devoted and special sporting tardigrade, the creature that could survive being shot into the cold space of the world’s most sustained horrible dictatorship, and be brought back to earth with no ill effect. It is perfectly adapted for survival here, right down to the metaphorical parallels you don’t want to make but do: that Burma’s own game is the beautiful one that no one wins, and one that works beautifully when people work together, and disastrously when they do not. It looks simple, and then reveals a stubborn complexity.
That complexity lives under the pressure of gravity and the player’s limited reflexes, with circumstances so fluid that improvisation is not an option, but is the only option. That improvisation lives only in the physical knowledge passed down through practice and survival, of 200 or 300 moves passed down from hand to hand across centuries. A chinlone player in the throes of a run burns in the fire of gravity and superior odds and will lose, but that’s not the point. That’s never, ever the point.
There one more theory: Chinlone is just a game, floating randomly from one point in history to the next.
It’s a little before 6:30 p.m. in Mandalay. The heat starts to break a little bit, just a degree or two, making it just a little less hateful than it might otherwise be out in the sun. There are stages to watching chinlone, and I have gone through all four by this point:
Zero to five minutes: Disorientation. Why’s this band playing? JESUS THAT BAND IS LOUD. They’re going to play the whole time, aren’t they? This is just circular vegan cruelty-free hacky sack. Oh, god, I came all this way to watch vegan hacky sack. Is that man 80? Am I about to watch a man die, because it is 90 degrees in here, and a man could die from standing up too quickly. Please don’t let me watch a man die playing vegan hacky sack in a country on the other side of the world.
Five minutes to 20 minutes: Clarity and mild interest. OK, there’s something else here. This seems difficult in an entertaining way. This is something I cannot do, ever, but that’s OK because that man just bounced a ball off his ass and onto his head and then over to his friend, who then jump-kick-dribbled it 47 times in a row without apparent effort. This is neat. I have officially decided on this being neat.
20 minutes to 45 minutes: Boredom. Wait, they’re serious about this not stopping for a month. Dead serious. Religiously serious, even. I’ve seen that kick before, and that one. Oh, god, that fear is back: that I’ve come all this way for nothing, and that vegan hacky sack was all this way, and that hne player has the lungs of an abalone diver, doesn’t he? As in he will never, ever stop playing, and will follow me back to the HOTEL AMAZING, and will climb in bed with me as I Skype with my family in America, all the while ruining our conversation by playing the whole time and giving me an enthusiastic thumbs-up while doing it.
45 minutes and beyond to an unspecified point in time not found by this research: Jacked into the abstract neural net of the universe itself. Colors have become three-dimensional; mild heatstroke has rendered time irrelevant. Shapes begin tracing their own geometries through space. Players begin speaking a physical language superior to barking primitive words; when taking the ball for extended turns in the center, they speak only to gravity and gravity’s manager, making absurd requests of the universe in rapid-fire succession, having them granted and then immediately reloading the docket with a whole new stack of impossibilities. Your ass goes numb, possibly from sitting on a concrete seat for seven hours, but maybe for spiritual reasons, too.
People have by this hour quietly filled the stands, bringing their kids, with their faces still daubed with traces of thanaka, wearing baseball caps emblazoned with the names of their primary schools, sitting in their dads’ laps and happily chewing on candy. There are, believe it or not, a few people there from the morning shift. An older man next to me nudges my shoulder and points. Watch.
The selection team begins. They wear gold and red kits save for the woman, who wears shorts and a high-collared mandarin top in an ornate pink print pattern, and the one guy in a green Myanmar national jersey. He is tall, and built like an underfed American football safety, an obvious utility athlete prototype who could play anything he liked. He starts in the middle. The other national selection member is less obvious, a dark kid who looks like he could almost be Tamil. He has the big legs of a frequent chinlone player, but little else hinting at athleticism. He parries around the edge, waiting for his turn.
The big guy in green opens with a reel of baffling juggles, striking the ball upwards with the top of his foot and spinning a 360 between each strike, coming full circle at the exact instant the ball falls back to his foot. He does nine or 10 of these in a row before losing control, watching his teammates save an errant shot, and then starting again on a whole new run.
For a moment, no one clearly takes the point, and the ball is volleyed around the circle off hips, knees, heels, and in a dire moment, a forehead until the second selection member takes over and moves to the center of the circle. He playfully refuses the ball, booting easily handled passes back to teammates with insanely difficult twisting kicks where his body faces full right, but the leg is torqued nearly backwards. His juggling is obviously different to watch, a series of passes from foot to foot, then from foot to foot between the legs, then a transfer of the ball through the legs and back to a whipping backheel somehow brought around in time to keep the run alive.
A third teammate, a skinny college-aged kid with blonde highlights, rotates in, catching the ball on his forehead, balancing it, and then seamlessly dropping it to his ankle, where he cradles it before popping it to his knee, and then his other knee, and then dropping again to drag his leg beneath him and kick with his opposite foot up, and then back to his head. If it’s hard to visualize it should be. Mr. Htoo clarifies each move’s specifics after they happen, since my eyes misses much of what’s happening. Sometimes only the applause lets you know that something, a legitimate, sleight-of-foot something, has happened.
The crowd’s tenor changes. The music speeds up, and the teenage kids working the rhythm section start wailing the hell out of their drums. There’s more applause than usual, more open "OHHHHS," more strangled chatter from the guy with the Burmese oboe. The girl takes her turn, cradling the ball in the crook of her ankle between her foot and shin, then juggles out to the big dude in the green selection jersey. The music rages up to a point where it sounds less like a Burmese orchestra, and more like a Burmese orchestra playing while their bus races downhill in a mountainside bus crash.
The kid in green starts speeding up, passing the ball between his feet in figure-eights, and then in other shapes the eye can’t really keep up with after a few turns. He is absurdly light on his feet, spinning in between each strike with his head craned a full 70 degrees up to track the ball in flight. His teammates circle, periodically spotting the ball back to him while he solos, but mostly they sneak glances at his moves while keeping an eye on the ball, and on keeping the run alive.
Finally, the kid gets tired of his own ability to break off the same dazzling trick 20 times in a row, squats and attempts a wild catch of the ball between his knees. He was probably going to try and boot the ball up with his feet pressed together at the soles, or something like that, but he misses, and the chinlone lands and rolls lazily out of the ring. The crowd applauds the daring. It’s one thing to keep a ball in the air for 30 minutes straight. It’s another to drop it because you were trying to do something dazzling, even if the consequences in the end mean inevitable failure.
And then they pick the ball up and start again until the bell rings, and the crowd applauds.
Burmese street merchants sell monk-related memorabilia, including something that looks a lot like trading cards for monks. U Wirathu is represented well, and easy to spot. He has a downturned mouth, big, super-serious eyes with thick eyebrows, and if you understand Burmese, is the one arguing that Islam is "a mad dog" and calling the UN’s envoy to Myanmar a "bitch" and a "whore."
He’s also been one of the big advocates for the government’s attempts to push the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in the southeastern state of Rakhine, out of the country. The government had already clamped down on the citizenship status and rights of the Rohingya, but U Wirathu and the "969" movement amped up the unrest in the newly liberalized political environment after 2011. In 2012, riots erupted over an alleged gang rape in Rakhine State, with over 90,000 ending up displaced by the fighting. Many believed U Wirathu and the 969 movement contributed to that violence, and made a bad situation much, much worse than it already was.
The idea of a monk associating himself with violence at all is odd to an outsider. It should be, but consider how odd the moment is: a country that, in 2011, suddenly found itself ever so slightly adrift on a puddle of freedom it had never known, and then out a bit to something like a shallow pond of freedom, and ever further out to depths unknown to almost anyone living in the country. The boot of the military is still there, sure, but now Myanmar functions like an open and ugly oligarchy. Some of them happen to wear military fatigues. Some of them, on the political side at least, wear saffron robes of the monastery.
Walking the cordoned-off bit of Myanmar you are allowed to see it is really, really easy to get overly excited about the country’s prospects. The people clearly love all the new things even a smidgen of freedom affords them, right down to the cellphones the young stay glued to constantly. They love being able to watch Premier League soccer whenever they want, and being able to travel outside their village, even if only to Yangon or Mandalay or Bagan or wherever the night bus will take them.
There’s all that, and then there’s the creeping sense of how wrong this could all go, too. There’s always been a question of how much of a country it actually is, or how much the government really controls at any given moment. A different Karin rebel group might start up a flash-war at any given moment in the east. In the North, where there is definitely not opium being produced, and definitely not trucks full of jade being smuggled tax-free into China, you can’t even travel much without permits. There was a shadowy border conflict with Chinese-backed rebels in the northeast as recently as February 2015. Sometimes bombs go off randomly, and sometimes those bombs reach Yangon.
There is also the wild card of the clergy in a heavily Buddhist country, a clergy with no central authority figure and a lot of disagreement on how to function politically. Monks fearlessly threw themselves into anti-government protests against the military regime in the past. Some of them also endorse pushing Muslims into the sea to the south, and were influential in getting a New Zealand bar manager a two and a half year sentence of hard labor for using a Buddha image in a Facebook post. There are allegedly stickers in English reading "The Brothers Are Watching" up in certain parts of Yangon favored by foreigners. No one I talked to could personally vouch for their existence, though.
And in the face of that, the reaction is generally one of silence. Not even Aung San Suu Kyi, the most powerful non-military figure in the country, has come to the Rohingya’s defense. There are elections in November, and even though she is constitutionally barred from holding the Presidency, she plans to lead her party’s attempts to win seats in parliament. She has said that the issue should be handled "carefully." In the meantime, there are boats full of Muslims headed to wherever they can go: Malaysia, Indonesia and beyond.
It could go so well, or it could go so, so badly. The ingredients for either are all here. Myanmar could run unchained into a headlong rush for prosperity, or devour itself and run to any number of new demagogueries and tyrannies. Alternately, it could take an even more ambiguous path. Myanmar might just crank along at half-wattage, living in a state of a persistent and bejeweled rolling blackout. It might keep poking the issue of national identity, claiming a game like chinlone with one hand as something surely Burmese, and openly swatting "outsiders" like the Rohingya out of the country with the other. When the Indians and Chinese were told to leave, it wasn’t subtle, either. They found out they weren’t going to be part of the future when bricks flew through the windshields of their cars.
When the lights are on, you can see the luxury cars sitting in the driveways of Yangon, and the occasional hydroelectric-powered palace, and the long tentacles of Chinese capital stringing road and new railways through the jungle. When the lights are off, you only hear the dogs in the streets, or the puttering of generators cranking to life in the dark for those who can afford them. That is another way this could go. Even with the threats of violent-minded monks and an economy threatening to throw everyone in charge clear off the saddle, nothing much at all happening is always an option. Nothing much has happened before here.
Htoo and I watched a few more teams that night, but none of them approach the selection team’s brilliance. We left, and rode on the back of his scooter again, flying through half-lit streets and past the walls of the Imperial Palace. A giant sign at one gate read: TATMADAW AND THE PEOPLE COOPERATE AND CRUSH ALL THOSE HARMING THE UNION.
I told Htoo to go back and tell Mr. Maung I didn’t need him the next day. I wanted to get out of Mandalay, and away from the dust and the half-carved Buddhas. I’d seen enough chinlone, or thought I had seen enough. I still honestly can’t say whether watching five minutes of the game or five days’ would be enough. It was hard to say you’d even seen it, or that it was even you seeing it. Something kind of terrifying happened if you watched enough chinlone: there was nothing, a perfect blankness between annihilation and calm.
I wasn’t alone. Players confessed to feeling nothing, if anything when they played. They could see a horizon that ended at the next move, the next kick, the next pass. Some of them couldn’t even see that far, or at least did not have what they called a conscious grip on what was happening to them. One of the national selection team members said he didn’t even think when he played, not even about the next move. He smiled through red-stained teeth, spat, and said he just focused on his breathing and the ball. Chinlone didn’t explain anything about Myanmar.
Htoo took me back to the hotel that night on the back of his motorcycle. The city hummed half-lit and full of traffic and the wind blew through my hair. For a minute or two I wasn’t there. You are there one moment, thinking about the swaying weight of your body on the bike, and the ebbing and rising tide of traffic around you, the hot wind getting slightly tepid in the night, and whether your passport had fallen out of your pocket.
Then something shifts and you disappear. Maybe you notice your breathing, or the lean of a guy in a doorway, or the sickly blue-green tinge of a fluorescent light flickering out of a restaurant, and you evaporate into something else, a passenger without will or volition. Your mind drifts and suddenly other things carry you along, push you from one point to the next, and all you can do is put your face into the wind and hope you see the next turn coming, or at least stop caring if it doesn’t. There’s not much of a you to worry about it, anyway, just nerves and flesh flying along on the back of a two-wheeled farting land-skiff processing light waves and noting the ones and zeroes of the world.
I woke up the next morning and hired a car and went out seven miles from Mandalay to the U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak span. There are no handrails, and no safety measures. It is 163 years old, three-quarters of a mile long, and made of the scraps of a royal palace in Inwa destroyed by an earthquake. Royal palaces in Myanmar have an elaborate and consistent history of being destroyed in grandiose fashion.
The boards sag as you step on them. When the wind kicks up and the water moves with it, the bridge kind of breathes a little as you walk on it. I walked the full length of the bridge and back. There are pilings completely unattached to the lake bed, simply floating in place with the rest of the bridge’s superstructure. A family offered to take pictures and print them for passing tourists at the covered rest stops on the bridge. The setup is simple, but effective: a battered laser printer, a camera, a few cords and all of it connected to a live car battery.
The greatest prize the brain offers, you’re told, is consciousness, the ability to say "I am here, and in control of X." Yet the happiest moments in any game come when the brain turns off to its lowest setting, when you take the mind, fold it into a little paper boat, and set it off into an ocean of dark matter and unconscious reflex and Brownian motion. The highest functions of the gigantic human brain are happily trashed daily by kicking a ball, or simply putting the body in motion and daring the slow-footed mind to keep up with it.
Yet halfway across the bridge, staring at the boats on the water, something sneaks up on me. I’m suspended in the air, 20 feet over the lake, blowing ever so slightly back and forth on the thinnest of improvised frameworks. It’s a sensation somewhere between falling and flying.
It terrifies me how good that felt.
Postscript at the time of publish: Two weeks ago, Cyclone Komen hit Myanmar, and the nation is still recovering from the flooding and storm damage. No method of donation to relief organizations in Myanmar is foolproof, but to give to the most vulnerable populations at risk — particularly those in Rakhine, home to large Muslim populations already living under a police state — the International Rescue Committee is a solid bet.
The International Rescue Committee is assisting thousands of people affected by the devastating monsoon rains triggered by Cyclone Komen, which swept across Myanmar last week after making landfall in Bangladesh. The powerful storm caused severe flooding and landslides in four areas of Myanmar (also known as Burma) that its government has declared disaster zones. More than 200,000 people are in need of emergency assistance, with that number expected to rise in the coming days.
Editors: Elena Bergeron, Brian Floyd, Kurt Mensching, Ryan Nanni Design: Dylan Lathrop GIFs: Jon BoisDevelopment: Graham MacAree