Taxi Burma – A day in Myanmar
An animated travel essay by Francesco Ciccolella.

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Francesco Ciccolella is an illustrator.
Come visit his website or say hello.

Concept & Art: Francesco Ciccolella
Development: Francesco Ciccolella & Leonard Weydemann

Special Thanks: Christoph Abbrederis, Luna Al-Mousli, Marc Damm, Philipp Daun, Sabine Dreher, Jana Frantal, Stephan Göschl, Michael Huber, Gerhard Jordan, Oliver Kartak, Elisabeth Kopf, Eike König, Benedikt Meixl, Katharina Uschan, Jan Rancke

Music & Sounds:
“Mosquito” by Heatfuse
“Quasi Motion” by Kevin MacLeod
“Conspiring Cowards” by Free Stock Music
“Rain“ by PacDV
“Thunder” by bone666138
“Burmese Song” by Thaton Ba Thein
“Mysteries” by Fullscore/FSM
“Construction” by PacDV
“Whistle” by GRSites
“Indian summer” by Free Stock Music
“Eastminster” by Kevin MacLeod
“In the wild” by Free Stock Music
“Animals” by GR Sites
“Gymnopédie No.1” by Erik Satie/Peter Johnston

© Francesco Ciccolella, 2015
If you were to ask me why I came to Bagan I’d answer honestly: “It’s still untouched by tourism.” And that’s exactly what every other tourist here would say.
The ancient city in the heart of Myanmar is often praised as one of South East Asia’s most authentic travel destinations.
However, the huge archeological site, comprising more than 2,500 Buddhist monuments, is emerging as one of the country’s booming tourism hotspots.
The owner of my hotel, an elderly woman with a Burmese cigar dangling from her lips, recommends taking a bus to Mt. Popa, a pilgrimage site close to Bagan.
This I choose to do; only, the bus station turns out to be a taxi stand and, completely unbidden, I’m swamped with offers for a ride.
Considering my backpacker budget and an intense yearning for, well, an authentic bus ride, I continue looking for the public bus.
A guide appears and, with the warmest smile I’ve seen in my life, he introduces himself as Win.
When I tell him about my plans, the inevitable happens: he suggests a taxi ride.
I give up and we head back to the so-called bus station.
I hire Win and a driver – a friend of his – and our journey to Mt. Popa begins.
A military base, I presume, since neither Win nor the driver answered, when I asked what lay beyond the fence.
I’ve rarely met anyone willing to talk about the military during my three-week Myanmar trip.
We’re pulled over by a group of soldiers, but, as soon as they notice me on the backseat, they immediately wave us through.
Burma was ruled by a military regime for more than half a century.
However, in 2010, the very same regime began to implement reforms and installed a semi-civilian government.
After decades of home detention, opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won by-elections and entered parliament in 2012.
The next general election has been scheduled for November 8, 2015 and is considered a crucial next step towards democracy.
Ever since Myanmar’s opening, swarms of tourists have been flocking in to capture the country’s magic, before it starts to fade.
Precisely 791,505 international tourists crossed Myanmar’s borders in 2010.
More than two million came in 2013.
The new government expects 7.5 million tourists in 2020.
“The old government relocated my family to make way for a luxury hotel,” he says.
The booming tourism sector attracts investors from all over the world, first and foremost from China.
Whoever built their hotels within the archeological preservation zone needed a permit and thus good relations with the regime.
U Tay Za, reportedly the country’s richest man and a friend of Myanmar’s former dictator Than Shwe’s, owns Bagan’s most luxurious resort, the Aureum Palace.
New hotels are springing up like mushrooms along the road to Mt. Popa.
Win explains that the construction workers – both men and women – earn less than one dollar in a 12-hour day.
“That is more than before the opening,” he adds. I only later learn that forced labor was a common sight not many years ago.
We reach our destination in the early afternoon; Mt. Popa lies ahead of us.
And so do 777 stairs that I clumsily climb.
Buddhist pilgrims from all over the country and further afield come here, to visit the monastery at the top of the little mountain.
On our way back to Bagan we stop at a tourist restaurant. Win and the driver get a free meal – their commission for bringing me here, I assume.
Unlike the little street food stalls nearby, our restaurant does not appear to be very busy.
There are more than 135 different ethnic groups in Burma, each with its own history, culture, language and, of course, cuisine.
Influences from the cuisines of neighboring countries like Thailand, China and Bangladesh complete the culinary melting pot.
The engine explodes!
We’re stranded in the middle of nowhere.
I’m told that, not far from where we strand, a path leads to a hidden stupa.
While Win and the driver start repairing the car, I take the path and after a while I notice somebody following me.
The heat forces me to take a break and my pursuer sits down next to me.
He’s barely 10 years old and carries something on his shoulders.
It turns out to be a cooling box, brimful with coke and beer.
According to the UN, one third of Myanmar’s children work in agriculture, in construction, in mines, in the military, in prostitution or…
…in tourism. I buy two cans of coke, open both and give one to the boy.
To my surprise he takes just one sip. Then, without spilling a drop, he carefully wraps the can in a piece of cloth.
We turn back at dusk…
…and reach the place where I had started from after almost an hour of walking.
Win and the driver have revived the car’s engine with no tools but their bare hands.
As we drive off, I notice the boy and his family standing next to the road.
It is now that I understand that he carried the coke all the way back to share it with them.
When I tell him what had happened, Win explains that I just paid the boy’s parents’ weekly wage for a can of coke and that’s the reason he had followed me.
Sensing a little anger in his voice, I feel out of place – an alien from another planet.
As we drive through the night, the sympathy I first felt turns into a sense of guilt.
Back at my hotel there’s a blackout.
My room is pitch dark, yet I can’t sleep.
Lying awake I realize that fully embracing Burma’s magic inevitably means stealing parts of it away.