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Welcome to Marlboro Country

By Stephen Brookes in Mandalay
for Asia Times

It was high noon, and a hot, dusty wind was blowing down the streets of Mandalay. I shook the tumbleweeds out of my spurs and had a look around: A few durian stalls, a couple of girls selling flowers, the red walls of Mandalay Palace in the distance. The usual cowboy town.

Then I spotted what I'd come for: the Texas Bar and Grill.

cigar_sq_2WEB.jpg
                                                                                    Sara Heinrichs
Now, the Texas, as the cowpokes of Mandalay all agree, is the hippest place to hang in Upper Myanmar. From the longhorn skulls on the walls to the beer-keg stools, it's knee-deep in frontier fashion. There's a wagon wheel in the window and sawdust on the floor, and way too many Marlboro posters. They even have Clint Black playing on the stereo.

So it seemed like a promising place to stop in and pick up on the zeitgeist of the New Myanmar. But when I pushed open the saloon doors and looked around for some New Myanmars to talk with, there were only two -- and one was asleep under a poster that said, "Wanted: $20,000 Reward". So I ordered a Pepsi from the bartender and complimented her on her cowboy hat. She stared at me for a minute, then ran off to wake up the waiter, who brought me a menu with a huge cheeseburger on the cover.

Now, cowboy culture isn't unique to Myanmar, by a long shot. Karaoke and Wild West bars are the two great cultural plagues of modern Asia. At last count, there were more Western bars in Tokyo than in Montana. Taipei has almost a dozen of them, and Bangkok lost track a long time ago. They've clearly emerged as an indicator of cultural progress. So why not in Myanmar -- where, after 26 years of socialism, people are starting to assert their basic human right to wear goofy clothes, drink overpriced whiskey and sing along in public with Clint Black?

So to those doom-and-gloomers who claim there's no progress in Myanmar, let me note that there are now two -- count 'em, two -- Wild West bars in Myanmar. Down south in Yangon there's the Rodeo Bar and Grill, a favorite with journalists since it's just a few doors down from the Information Ministry. And after a visit to the Information Ministry -- where you sit on a hard chair while a nervous teenaged soldier guards you with an automatic rifle -- the Rodeo is a comforting place to repair to.

Besides, as an American, I felt an obligation to drop in to the Rodeo and salute the flag. But it was an odd sensation. There were all these Myanmar waiters in checked shirts and ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots, looking like they'd just ridden in from Wyoming. And then there was me -- the paleface in sneakers and khakis and a dumb shirt with a little polo player on it.

"infants bum cheroots off their grandmothers and puff away
like little marlboro men"

What can I say? I'm not the Marlboro Man -- I'm an American. We're all bland and domesticated. We don't smoke anymore -- in fact, we sold all our cigarettes to Asia and spent the money on NordicTracks. We drink in moderation, if at all. We don't have weatherbeaten faces. We slather on sunblock when we go outdoors, and then we huddle under umbrellas with our dermatologists. Riding horses? Forget about it -- the animal rights people would shoot us. Besides, if we want to get somewhere, we jog.

So I felt a little out of place in the Rodeo, although the plastic log cabin walls and miniature Indian heads give it a homey feel. And the owner is a guy named Zaw Htet, who can usually be found there wearing a Guns 'n Roses t-shirt and singing a passable whiskey-voiced blues.

I like Zaw Htet, because when I asked him why he'd opened a cowboy bar in one of the most distinctly Asian countries on earth, he said, "Well, I have a degree in philosophy from Yangon University," and just left it at that.

But the thing is, Myanmar really is Marlboro Country. It has the wide open spaces, the rough edge, the emphasis on law and order. Everybody is weatherbeaten to within an inch of their lives. And everybody smokes. I mean it -- men, women, even small children. Infants bum cheroots off their grandmothers and puff away like little Marlboro Men.

In fact, Myanmar even has rodeos. Actually, they're more like bullock cart races. In fact, they really are bullock cart races. And they're taken very seriously, as an expression of national culture. And as luck would have it, I happened to be in Mandalay last February during the semifinals of the national "Bullock Cart Trotting Skills Grace and Elegance Contest."

Now, appreciating the grace and elegance of a running bullock is an esoteric skill. I watched for a while as two bullock carts would jockey into position and then take off in a riot, trotting hell-for-leather up the track with the drivers flailing their whips and screaming like banshees. And then, after they crossed the finish line, there would be a few moments of silence -- followed by an announcement that both racers had been disqualified.

This kept happening, in race after race after race. Mandalay was starting to fill up with bitter, dejected-looking bullocks. So I finally went up to the announcer, a charming woman who asked me to call her "Emerald", to find out what was going on.

Emerald explained that there were four key rules that absolutely had to be obeyed: no deviating from the lane, no falling off the cart, no "bumping down fences," and no breaking of any of the equipment.

But then she brought out a list of other bullock-type transgressions, and this went on, literally, for ten pages. The guidelines for "elegance" were especially complex and a bit confusing. A bullock was not allowed to run, for example,  "with legs spread all at once, hence lacking in coordination." My personal favorite was the prohibition against "jumping with both or all feet together, thereby giving itself a hopping appearance of a bird."

Actually, a hopping bullock contest seemed like something I would pay real money to see. But maybe that's just because I'm an American.

So it wasn't surprising that so many contestants were getting disqualified. But after a while I couldn't take the brutal Darwinism of it anymore and left, thinking: "Let the most graceful bullock win." So I can't tell you the name of whoever finally took the First Prize. But I imagine that, whoever it was, they had a big celebration that night -- down at the Texas Bar and Grill, no doubt.


Posted on Wednesday, April 19, 2006 at 04:46PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

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    stephen brookes - essays - Welcome to Marlboro Country

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