Reflections on a Journey Part I – Initial Impressions

After 2 1/2 years of studying Burma on a near-full time basis, 15 months of which spent inside Burma or around its borders, I am now back at home. I will continue to research and write about Burma-related issues and will remain active in supporting development work inside the country and I hope to be back soon and often. But, as a major part of my Burma journey comes to an end, it is appropriate to reflect on what I’ve learned and how my perceptions have changed.

I first visited Burma on somewhat of a lark. I had actually been planning on traveling to Vietnam, but visa issues caused me to change my plans at the last minute and had me wandering through the streets of Kunming, China in the pouring rain searching for the Myanmar consulate. At that point I knew only two things about Burma – First, that it was home to the “long-necked” Padaung women that I had marveled over in the pages of National Geographic as a kid; and second, that it was ruled by a military dictatorship. This second point had caused me a small amount of trepidation as I walked into the consulate where I was the only tourist in the building. My initial fears were put to rest as, not only was my visa ready in 3 hours, but the consular officer actually kept the office open late for me so I could get the visa in time to make my flight the next day.

Like many first time visitors to Myanmar, my initial introduction to the country came via Lonley Planet which emphasized the ethical dilemmas inherent in visiting a dictatorship on almost every page. According to that version of Lonely Planet, the nature of the regime was so repressive that customs officials were known to actually confiscate the Lonely Planet book itself. Imagine my surprise when I got off the plane to a glistening airport guarded by fewer soldiers than I had seen on my last trip to Europe and was waved through customs with barely a second look. I was the only westerner on my flight from China and the only guest picked up from the airport by the free shuttle offered by my guesthouse.

My impression of the streets of Yangon were a mixture of the expected and the surprising. There was the familiar Southeast Asian feel of broken sidewalks and ubiquitous street vendors. The silhouette of the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda as well as the dozens of smaller pagodas that we passed on the way from the airport gave a sense of spirituality that I had come to savour in Buddhist countries, while the Thanaka-wearing women and longyi-wearing men gave a feeling of exotic travel. It was, in many ways, like I had stepped into the pages of National Geographic. The most surprising part of that initial view of Yangon, aside from the right-hand drive cars driving on the right side of the road, was the absence of a strong military presence in the streets. If this was truly a brutal military dictatorship, where were the soldiers?

This absence of the expected military presence became a theme I heard repeated by groups of tourists on my following trips to Burma. Even a little time speaking with locals would quickly disabuse a traveler of any notion that stories of a brutal dictatorial regime were overblown. But, as many tourists to Burma travel on package tours in air conditioned coaches from tourist site to tourist site, I began to realize the danger that some might come away with a distorted notion of the realities inside the country.

My first introduction to those realities will be the subject of my next post.


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