Imagine, if you will, that you’re a slightly unhinged military dictator with a country’s resources at your fingertips, a hefty dose of paranoia, and an inferiority complex the size of a crater. Your capital city is based on the coast, you’re convinced that US will attack at any minute, and that they’ll come from the sea.
What do you do?
Build a new capital city, of course.
Now first you’re going to need a location. Best to start in the middle of nowhere; fresh start and all that. How about this gigantic tract of virgin rainforest, uninhabited for at least 2,000 years? Labour’s no problem. Just ship in a load of peasants, give them machetes and absolutely no communication with the outside world. Slash and burn, mix some cement, eradicate the mosquito infestation; boom, you’re laughing.
You’ve never done this before, have you? You’ll probably need some architectural and financial assistance, not that we’ll acknowledge either. What about the country that’s always nudging you about cooperation? You know, the one which knows what they’re doing when it comes to magically erecting enormous cities from scratch with no immediate promise of inhabitation? Yeah, China. Get them on board.
Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea
– Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay
Visitors to Myanmar complain bitterly – and not unreasonably – about the country’s accommodation. Overpriced and under-supplied, it’s different from other south-east Asian countries in that reservations are strongly advised, prices are double what you might expect, and the quality half as good. Fearful that we’d end up on the streets if we didn’t book ahead, we temporarily switched tactics and planned our itinerary day-by-day, knuckling down for six hours to research train times and book hotels. For future Myanmar visitors, this is definitely a recommended approach.
Our tendency on this trip has been to intricately plan border crossings, invest our energy into simply arriving legally, and then turn up in the destination town with a sigh of relief and little idea of what to do next.
Hence we found ourselves in Dawei: a town very far off Myanmar’s standard tourist route, and in an area only accessible to foreigners since 2013.
It’s not a whole lot longer since the rest of the country opened itself up to tourism, still less since the anti-government groups gave the ethical go-ahead for people to visit. It’s a complicated situation. Only last November, the first vaguely democratic elections took place, unequivocally voting in the opposition party. But tensions were still running high. A law had been passed by the outgoing military government, effectively denying Aung Sung Su Kyi the opportunity to hold office, and at the time of our visit nobody yet knew what was going to happen next.