Myanmar has been isolated for a long time with hardly any tourists coming to the country. The former pariah state that has preserved its originality through its isolation now opens up. In the land of a thousand pagodas there is a feeling of optimism – even for the small gay scene.

The Moustache Brothers tell their favourite story again as a farewell present. It takes place in the margins of a summit attended by the world leaders. “Even if an American has no legs he can still climb Mount Everest” the President of the United States states proudly. “A Russian can swim across the Arctic Ocean to Alaska even if he has no arms” copposes his counterpart from Moscow. In which country of the world even the impossible is possible? “In my country” boasts the general from Myanmar” headless men can rule the country. For years!”

The jesting has almost cost the men with the mighty moustaches and the pronounced laughter lines their heads a few times by now. The government was not amused and sentenced the cabaret artists to several years of prison. Nonetheless they told their favourite story again and again. But I think it’s been told for last time today.

Myanmar – a changing country

It is a mild summer evening in Mandalay, the old royal city in northern Myanmar. The Moustache Brothers bid their audience farewell into the night. With green Burmese cigars turned by hand in the country, the actors sit together, surrounded by a collection of grim masks and glittering puppets. They sip tea with milk and sugar, which helps them think. Since the kind of play on the political stage has changed in recent years they will now also modify their programme.

The old military forces have handed power over to a civilian government. Although the generals continue to pull the strings behind the scene censorship has been eased step by step. Most political prisoners have been released. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for the end of the year. “For decades we have hoped for change” the artists say. “The country is finally changing.”

The long isolated country opens up, even in distinct areas. During my first visit, more than 15 years ago, no rickshaw driver in Mandalay dared to drive me to the House of Artists. Those who knew the way to the stonemasons and silversmiths and who could describe exactly how to cycle from the Shwenandaw monastery carved entirely of wood to the nylon ice cream café fell silent when the name “Moustache Brothers” fell It was better not pronounced too openly. You even had to get off two junctions before the right one to avoid putting the drivers in danger. By now the tourists are flowing in and even the guides are risking an ear, although it is still not clear whether a Burmese is supposed to listen or not.
On a wall in the shop around the corner where girls with powdered fingers cut wafer-thin gold leaf so that it can be stuck on the city’s big Buddha’s thighs hang the pictures of national hero Aung San and of his daughter, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. That would have caused a lot of trouble in the past.

Down the Irrawaddy

Between Mandalay and the Temple Mount of Sagaing, a few kilometres downstream, the meandering Irrawaddy River broadens. Thousands of monks meditate in hundreds of monasteries here. The oxen queue up on the sandy riverbanks to plough. Beans grow here as do peanuts until the next load of fertile mud settles during the next rainy season. Burma’s military government, along with its powerful neighbour China, had planned to use a dam to restrain Burma’s lifeline to generate electricity. This was unpopular with the people, and to the surprise of many the new government withdrew from the agreement. “I jumped for joy when I heard that,” beams Myo Lwin, captain of the Road to Mandalay. He steers the more than 100-meter-long former Rhine ship that originally belonged to “Köln-Düsseldorfer” shipping company. The Belmond Hotel Group has transformed it into a chic hotel steamer that travels from Mandalay to Bhamo in direction of the Chinese border. It also pays a visit to the south,to the temple city of Bagan. Myo Lwin only used to chat about what a challenge it is to navigate the constantly changing river, because there sometimes is only a hand of water under the keel. Now politics is also a topic. “A few years ago I’d rather have bitten my tongue. Now you can talk openly.”

As the old leadership sealed off he country and did not want any contact with the Western world, former Burma was isolated for decades. In addition, the US and the EU imposed sanctions against the country. That’s why there were hardly any visitors from abroad. Established tour operators often avoided the country renamed Myanmar by the military junta in 1989. Anyone who set off to explore it individually as a backpacker even had to exchange 300 dollars for “Foreign Exchange Certificates”: toy money that was not worth a cent elsewhere. With the political change Myanmar is now experiencing a boom: “Due to its long isolation, the country has retained its originality. Nowhere else in Asia can Buddhism be experienced like here. Everything is real, not folklore,” says Manuel Rose, owner of Rose Travel Consulting. His company is located at Lake Tegernsee, but the specialist for Asia organises individual trips to Myanmar for customers in all of Germany. For three years now, the number of inquiries has been increasing: “Everyone wants to go there.”

Myanmar becomes more tolerant – also for gays

There is a lot to see and experience. You can explore the temple city of Bagan or the mystical Mrauk U on the border to Bangladesh, meet the leg rowers from Lake Inle, and return to the time before colonisation in the old royal city of Mandalay with its monasteries, temples and all kinds of craftsmen. Many Asian cities were not able to preserve their old flair, the historical buildings gave way to progress. Yangon, formerly the capital of Myanmar, is different: at every turn you come across restored, sometimes still crumbling colonial architecture. Historic hotels such as the “Strand” have survived the winds of change: white marble, dark wood, heavy carpets, strong drinks, in the library the works of George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling.

Unfortunately, the British did not take their penal code with them when they left in 1948. Some of the regulations date from 1860, but still apply in Myanmar today. In theory, “unnatural behaviour” could be punished with up to ten years imprisonment, whereby half the country would have to be imprisoned for sodomy: not only homosexuality is illegal, but also anal and oral sex among heterosexuals. But the paragraph is no longer being applied in practice and lobby organisations are working hard to have it completely removed.

“Myanmar is a traditional country. But this law is not our law: it was passed by the British. People here are becoming more open and tolerant,” says Hla Myat Tun of the Colors Rainbow group, which publishes an LGBT magazine and holds educational events throughout the country. Since Myanmar has changed, Yangon and Mandalay have queer cafes and parties. A gay couple publicly celebrated their tenth anniversary without the authorities interfering – and in the press the party was described rhapsodicly Myanmar’s first gay marriage.

Even deeply religious Burmese apparently have no problem accepting otherness anyway – otherwise they would mess with the spirits. Everywhere in the land there are transgender people who make contact with the invisible beings who decide upon weal and woe, invoke and summon them. With their wild dances, performances and excesses, the ghost festivals are something like the Burmese gay prides – colourful events that have existed there for centuries.

Text and photos: Helge Bendl

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