Day 66: Shwedagon Pagoda security nab drone


What at first seemed to be a three man job ended up calling for nearly 16 officers to handle the case. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

THAT'S not how birthday presents work, I think as the security at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar take my drone and lead me away from the entrance of the glided complex.

Five minutes ago, I had checked my flip-flops at the the long, wide entrance; a hallway with beautifully carved wooden panels on the high ceiling lined with vendors' stalls packed with wooden and textile handicrafts for tourists, as well as items to be used as offerings. Up ahead, there was a security checkpoint, the type of metal detector door frame to which anyone who flies has become a costumed; a portal to another place in the world. A more secure place, if you believe that they are effective. Either way, it's better to ask forgiveness than permission.

I back tracked, drone awkwardly bulging in my day bag. Outside the entrance, a wide path of white marble stretches up to the main stupa, dozens of shimmering pagoda peek out above the outer wall, yet all are dwarfed by this wonder of the world. Though perhaps it is poor form to borrow another writer's images, there is in fact a pleasant irony in doing so with regards to the Shwedagon Pagoda: is that not what the British had in mind as the conquered the world, shipping golden images studded with jewels back to their own little island?

“Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in 1889. “It explained in the first place why we took Rangoon [now Yangoon], and in the second why we pushed on to see what more of rich or rare the land held. Up till that sight my uninstructed eyes could not see that the land differed much in appearance from the Sundarbans.”

Plates of gold line a large section of the pagoda, while golden leaf is pressed in along the base and a 76 karat diamond crowns the tip. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

It was this glistening splendor that I wanted to capture from above, unaware at the time that the Pagoda was the most sacred place in Myanmar – home to the relics of four Buddhas – and that not even airplanes were allowed to fly over it. I was also unaware that around the entrances, just not the one I had used, there were black and white signs showing pictures of drones, forbidding their use in or around the complex.

It did seem odd that there was so little aerial footage of the extraordinary complex. Nonetheless, the desire to fly the drone up close, filming the 2,317 rubies and 5,448 diamonds on the crown as they catch the light of the full noon sun mesmerized me, as did the idea of sweeping in even closer to snap photos of the 76 karat diamond bud at the very top.

And so, outside on the flagstones, I position myself both in the open (for the sake of the drone), but also in a place where the newspapers covering the back window of a nearby security box shield me from those inside.

The drone is up.

It banks left, away from me and parallel to the pagoda. I'm not sure what setting it's on, but it has a mind of its own, fighting against my manual controls and refusing to stay still.

After a couple minutes of wrestling with the flying contraption, a pair of men in light blue uniforms appear. They don't appear unkind, but its time to land the drone, which is easier said than done in its current possessed state.

It hovers just out of reach, wanting to zip sideways over a parking lot and into some trees. There is a brief moment where it seems as if I'm taunting the pair of security guards.

I'm not, but it surely seems that way to a handful of onlookers.

Finally, the drone lands.

One of the guards picks up the flying machine, but is too hesitant to take the remote from out of my hands.

“Follow us,” he says.

Smiling, I follow the men. Actually, I follow one of them, while the other walks behind me.

They are awkwardly official, as if unsure exactly what's going on, but doing their best to fulfill their roles in the little play that is about to unfold.

I, for my part, play the role of the village idiot: lots of eye contact, little understanding and a gaping grin that seems unfitting for someone who is about to have their 600 dollar toy taken away from them on their birthday.

“Don't worry, you're not in trouble,” one of the guards whispers to me, which is comforting, if not entirely true.

We go through a different entrance than the first one I used; this one is mostly for staff.

No, there is no need for me to go through the metal detector the guard says as we walk around the empty frame to the elevator. At this moment, one of the guards takes the remote from me.

Silently, we rise, floor by floor, until the bell dings and the doors slide open.

We're somewhere within the complex now. A carpet has been laid out on this particular walkway. A dozen small stupas, glistening gold in the sun are out in front of us – these are pawns in this dazzling the complex, yet if they were put out in the jungle or the rice paddies they would evoke awe. Here, however, they are lost in the greater picture; details, brush strokes only appreciated by those who stop long enough to let their eyes settle on the golden peaks beauty.

We don't stop to appreciate them. Instead, we make a sharp turn. I'm led into an awkwardly designed office space. It's mostly empty with the exception of some police academy graduation photos showing the class of one year or the other up on the walls. There are two desks, cluttered with papers and binders containing who knows what in piles behind them.

It reminds me of the Thai police stations that I've seen in countless photos that crossed my desk at the Phuket Gazette.

Drones are apparently not allowed. Photos: Isaac Stone Simoenlli

The drone and remote are put on the desk of a man who appears to be Bamar – the majority ethnicity in Myanmr. He lowers his bifocals to look at me.

“What's your name?” he asks.

To avoid the painful process of spelling it all out, I reach into my wallet and pullout my Thai driver's license. I hand it to him. He takes down the information.

“Did you take any pictures?”

“No,” I say, which is true.

Nonetheless, they want to check the drone's memory card – though if I had the pictures they would already be backed up on my phone. I pop the micro SD card out and hand it over to an officer, who disappears through a doorway somewhere behind me.

“Do you have a passport?”

I don't. It's at the hotel.

“Hold on,” he says. He wanders off.

A translator is located from an office down a hallway.

She introduces herself as May.

She's a round-faced, mild mannered woman. Probably in her early thirties. Her short black hair is sprouting from her scalp like the quills on a hedgehog. She gives me a lovely, professional smile with thin lips painted light pink.

More officers come in.

There are now eight men working the case. The eight soon doubles to 16. It's hard to know what agencies they are from, though it's clear some are tourist police, while others are security. Others, wearing t-shirts and longi, don't appear to have any affiliation, yet are asking the same questions that all of them are asking: what's my nationality, name, age and so on... It's as if each officer is conducting his own report. Camera phones snap, taking pictures of the drone ID, the drone, my ID and me.

The circus continues for some time. Though I'm mostly ignored as they snap their photos, my eyes scan their faces, my face breaking into a giant grin when I catch their eyes. It's a grin that get's a smile in return.

May and I are getting along swimmingly at this point. She has recently gotten out of a monastery, where her head was completely shaved, as she was a nun. She's now working as a VIP tour guide and a representative of the pagoda's board of trusties.

“We will have to keep it [the drone] for two weeks,” she says. “We need to present it to the board before we can return it to you.”

With a hundred photos of the the drone from all angles, I can't imagine why they need to hang on to the actual device.

“But I won't be here in two weeks,” I say, fearful of losing the opportunity to capture the wonders of Bagan from above.

I fudge the truth about when I'll be leaving Myanmar – not willing to dive into the Dice Travels concept or admit that I'll still be in the country in two weeks time. Of course, the heart of the matter is true, it would be a bad situation for me to have to return to Yangon just to pick up the drone after two weeks.

We talk about my travel plans in broken English, with me being as vague as possible while still being emphatic about needing the drone back asap.

“I don't know. I'll see what I can do,” she says.

May leaves the room. She returns a few minutes later.

I've spent more than an hour in the office already.

“Have you eaten lunch?” May kindly asks.

“No,” I say.

“Oh, okay. Would you like coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

Even on the brink of losing my drone, I'm filled with a warmth from this kind of hospitality. The tenor of her voice and the minuet details in her expression reveal how genuinely concerned she is about me having not eaten yet.

May returns with a piping hot cup of coffee (3-1 actually) and a saucer with three mooncakes and other local-style cookies on it.

“Thank you,” I say, before timidly sipping at the hot beverage.

May is waiting for a response from above. We wait together, chatting. She wants to come to America in the next couple of years for a holiday. I jot down my email and Facebook account name for her so she can track me down when she does come.

“Okay, you must not do this again,” May says.

I promptly agree.

“I trust you,” shes says.

A blank piece of paper appears on the desk. An officer starts writing up a confession for me to sign, as well as a promise not to come back and do it again. It's all in the beautiful circular letters of the Burmese language.

May provides a verbal translation of what it basically says, which I can mostly follow. However, whether or not they are returning the drone to me seems a bit vague, which is worrying.

I sign at the bottom.

“Okay, can you make in English?” she asks.

It's an adorable request; I write up my own police record document in English.

“MR SIMONELLI, ISAA [sic, yes, apparently I misspelled my own first name] STONE was found operating a W.A.V at the Southern gate. He was approached by security, which confiscated the drone. After reviewing the rules and regulations established by the Board of Trustees, MR SIMONELLI agrred to refrain from operating the W.A.V. Within the Pogoda [sic] area (114 acres). Below is his signed agreement. Upon signing, security returned the W.A.V and controller to the AMERICAN citizen.”

Documents are drawn up in Burmese and English. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

The last part I added to clarify that the drone would be returned. It seems nearly impossible that I would be able to turn around and use it against them if they didn't want to give the drone back, but we all signed it, so it's as good as their document, I figure.

With everything signed and taken care of, I stand and grab the drone.

I'm asked to sit back down. We're not done yet.

I need to screw the propellers back on the drone; I had taken them off in an attempt to pack the device.

Four or five officers spread out in front of me, phones out, as another officer picks up the drone. We stand, smiling at the cameras as he returns the drone to me.

It's classic Thai police work – apparently training that expands beyond Thailand. I had of course hoped that some of the men in longi where in fact reporters and I would find my picture in some Burmese newspaper. However, I'd already been told that wasn't the case.

I fish my phone out of my pocket and hand it over to the chief officer, whose desk I've been sitting at, so he can take pictures for me as well. My enthusiasm gets a few smiles and even a couple soft laughs – we all know what's going on.

With the final moments of the case captured, I say my goodbyes and am escorted back out of the complex by the guards who had taken me into custody.

The elevator goes down to the bottom floor. The doors open.

They walk me to the front door, where my red sandals are waiting for me.

My drone and I are free to go. No bribes, no fees, no penalties – what an extraordinary start to being 31 years old.

The drone is returned to me. Photo: Shwedagon Pagoda Security

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