Wed, May 10, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Treading carefully on the road to Mandalay

Myanmar's ruling military junta has been widely criticized for committing human rights abuses, but a trip to the country doesn't have to line government coffers

By Joshua Kurlantzich  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

My last evening in Mandalay, I visit a decrepit dirt street to see Myanmar's most famous vaudevillians, who have paid a steep price for their laughs. In an open front room that doubles as a makeshift stage, the Moustache Brothers perform every evening.

Two of the three Brothers were arrested a decade ago for telling jokes critical of the government, and served nearly six years in prison. (Western comedians pressed for their release, and Hugh Grant mentioned them in the movie About a Boy.) Today, the regime allows them to perform only for tourists, and for US$3 a person they stage a bizarre mix of snippets from gorgeous classical Burmese dance, topical political humor, playful banter and attempts to frighten the audience. Indeed, the six people in the crowd around me seem alarmed when Lu Maw, a wiry Brother who mixes stories of government corruption with odes to Jennifer Lopez's booty, jokes that he's running out the back door because the police are coming.

Some of their comedy feels more like tragedy -- at one point, Lu Maw asks me to steal toiletries for him from my hotel -- but the Brothers never waver in poking fun at their rulers. As the evening draws to a close, they invite the audience to pose for photos with them, holding signs warning that the guests will now be under surveillance in Myanmar. "Show this to the police and see what happens," Lu Maw dares me, handing over his business card.

For the time being, and under this government, average Burmese like Lu Maw can only rely on the traditions that have sustained them so long.

STRATEGIES FOR SPENDING JUDICIOUSLY

Before planning a trip, you might want to read up on the country and its political situation so you can make an informed decision on whether to go. The Lonely Planet is the best English-language travel guide to Myanmar, and the Irrawaddy magazine (www.irrawaddy.org), published in Thailand, covers Burmese news online.

Fly to Bangkok or Singapore and continue on from there. From Bangkok, Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com) flies to Yangon; in late April, a mid-May round trip was US$266. From Singapore, Silk Air (www.silkair.com), the regional wing of Singapore Airlines, flies to Yangon; in late April, a mid-May round trip was US$440. Get paper tickets for your flight to and from Myanmar, as the country's airport system is antiquated; e-tickets will prove useless.

Once in Myanmar, stick to Air Mandalay (www.airmandalay.com) if you can for your domestic flights as it has a better safety record than other domestic carriers.

If you want to give as little money as possible to the Myanmar government, you can adopt several strategies. Avoid taking package tours, and make local transport and accommodations arrangements with an independent Burmese travel agent, who will most likely know how to avoid many government-owned shops and other attractions. Travelers' recommendations of local travel agents can be found on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Web site, www.thorntree.lonelyplanet.com. I found an excellent agent and guide there.

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