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A Keyhole into Burma - Robbie Williams owes me

On my last afternoon in Bagan, I went in search of a meal that would serve as both lunch and dinner, before boarding my flight to Yangon. I settled on a Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant called Myitzima.

The LP author researching Bagan certainly earned his fee the day he discovered Myitzima, located over 50 meters off the main road, down a decidedly uninviting dirt alley. It seemed impossible that a restaurant could be in such an unlikely place. Even with my LP in hand, I almost retreated thinking that I'd taken a wrong turn. Yet, sure enough, Myitzima appeared, with its pleasingly designed courtyard and open air seating area, decorated with startlingly gifted paintings from local artists. Furthermore, the dish of stir-fry chicken, peanuts and veggies they whipped up for me was the most savory meal I'd had outside Yangon.

In a possible effort to impress me, one of the young guys hanging around the restaurant popped a Robbie Williams CD into the small stereo. The guy was clearly proud, not only to own this non-junta approved music, but because Robbie was name-dropping a Myanmar city in one of his songs ("Road to Mandalay").

The guy's English was exceptional. He explained that he'd purchased the CD purely for the Mandalay tribute, which he loved out of admirable national pride. He went on to describe how he enjoyed all types of Western music, particularly Bob Marley, though he was having trouble acquiring new CDs due to a recent ban on all non-Burmese music.

Eventually, he asked if I would write down the lyrics to "Road to Mandalay" so he could better understand the song. I happily agreed, planning to send Robbie an invoice after I returned to Bangkok.

Deciphering the words wasn't too tough, but trying to interpret the meaning of the song was a disaster. Robbie was in a cryptic mood the day he arbitrarily slapped together those lyrics. Few lines seemed to correspond to any others and I had to explain to the confused Robbie fan that I didn't understand the song and that sometimes songwriters go a little crazy with the metaphors, leaving us listeners to scratch our heads. The guy understood and accepted this, being happy to just have the lyrics on paper, accurately transcribed by a native English speaker.

To cement my legacy, the remainder of my time at the restaurant was devoted to teaching the collected staff numerous, everyday English phrases like "kick ass" and "this sucks!" Learning what I assured them was cutting-edge slang seemed to thrill the staff to no end. I resolved that if I were to ever return to Burma, I'd smuggle in a collection of Western music to give away and perhaps a South Park DVD, purely for sociological observation purposes.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology "To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur's Guide" published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.

Filed under: A Keyhole into Burma

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