Reflections on a Journey — Part II – A Tourist in Burma

My first two trips to Burma were primarily as a tourist. During those trips I fell in love. I took my first trip alone, and during the rainy season, which is the low season for tourism in the country. I cannot recommend strongly enough for first-time visitors to Myanmar to visit during the low season. I was frequently the lone foreigner on buses, on trains, at tourist sites and in tea shops. As the rain poured down, I huddled with locals under cover waiting for the bursts of torrential rain to ease. I waded gingerly with them through the flooded broken sidewalks of Yangon, trading warnings about gaping holes in the ground covered by water that had picked up who-knows-what along the way.

My time as a tourist included trips as far north as Mytchina, Southeast to Hpa-An and Moulymein, northeast to Mandalay, Pynn Oo Lyin and Hsipaw, Inle Lake, and many places in between. I traveled by bus, train, taxi, boat, and air. I stood with throngs of tourists during high season in Amanapura waiting to see the monks eat, and wandered the streets of Katha, where I was literally the only foreigner in town. I made may way up the mountain to see the Golden Rock. I watched gold leaf being pounded and prepared to be placed on a pagoda; I saw more than one reclining Buddha, and hundreds upright or sitting. I explored caves and wandered through rice paddies. I took a touristy boat ride on Inle Lake, which included a stop to see a cat jumping through a hoop and I finally got to see Padaung ladies up close. There are plenty of places to learn more about Myanmar’s sites, so I won’t go into much more detail. Let me just say this: The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is one of the most remarkable experiences in the world. It is worth the trip to Burma alone. Go there. Go many times, at different times of the day. Aside from marveling at the huge gold-covered structure, topped by a crown of jewels, you will see life unfold, as Burmese across class and ethnicity pray, talk, picnic, and canoodle. There is nothing like it.

The People

You would have to make an effort to not meet people in a trip to Burma. After visiting other countries in the region, a fundamental change in attitude in order to get the most out of the experience. Whereas being approached by a local in Thailand or India (especially India) inevitably led to a request to buy something, with minimal exception this doesn’t happen in Burma. As a result, I had a wide range of interactions with people, in tea shops, in taxis, and on the street. As if I was not enough of a curiosity by being a foreigner, traveling alone I was positively an enigma. I was met with a chorus of “Only one?” at almost every stop. While generalizations regarding an entire population of a country are often troubling, I have never encountered a more generous, kind, and helpful group of people anywhere. Whether it was the man who walked 20 minutes out of his way to make sure I got on the right bus or the mother of two who was so horrified that I did not bring food with on an overnight train ride that she both shared her own food with me and bought me snacks every time the train stopped or one of many others who looked out for me in my travels, it was the most uniquely warm experience of my life. As cheesy as it sounds, I constantly felt like I was traveling with an extended family. Moreover, I have never felt safer in a place. At one point, I had to leave my bag at a ticket counter and, as I looked questioningly at my guide about leaving it with the ticket agent, my guide laughed and said, “Don’t worry. This is Myanmar.”

What shocked me most about these interactions was the willingness of people to speak openly about the political situation in the country. A few caveats are in order here, especially if you have not yet visited the country. First, interactions with locals were necessarily limited to people who speak English which creates an obvious self-selecting sample. Second, many Burmese that do speak English have a general understanding of how foreigners view their country and are more likely to express negative opinions about the government. Moreover, I was always very careful never to introduce the subject of the government/democracy/human rights and instead, let the people I spoke with take the lead. There are informers throughout the country and it is crucial never to put people you meet in compromising positions. The worst that will happen to a foreigner is deportation, but local citizens can be subject to harassment after you are long gone. Finally, I was always very cautious never to express my own opinions about the government, even when someone I met raised the subject. I would nod a lot and ask questions, but never spoke outright negatively about the country and I became outright suspicious if a local started a conversation with me by talking about the government or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In that case, I would smile politely and say something innocuous. A bit paranoid? Perhaps, but better to be cautious.

My first wake-up call to life for many in Burma came from my tour guide in Mandalay. As we rode in his trishaw to the palace, which was the home of the last king of Burma, I learned that the beautiful moat surrounding the palace was built by forced labor. The government required every household in Mandalay to provide a worker to dig the moat. The reconstructed palace now contains a military compound inside its walls. I later learned that many of the tourist sites in Burma were similarly built with forced labor, which was one of the primary reasons for the tourism boycott (recently lifted) called by activists and the NLD. That night, because it was the low season, I was one of only three members of the audience for a performance by the Moustache Brothers, living proof of government repression and a wonderful introductions to the realities of Myanmar.

My education continued with every interaction:

  • On a taxi ride from Yangon to Bago, I learned about the prohibitive costs of cars and cell phones, and stopped to speak with a young girl who was picking rice for less than a dollar per day.
  • I sat for hours on the porch of a hotel in Mytchina, listening to tales of fighting between the KIA and the Burmese army from a hotel manager. As a child, the manager could not leave his home at night and often had to hide under buildings to escape from the violence.
  • While walking up the stairs leading to Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda in Sagaing, I spend an hour talking to a monk who was preparing himself for the next Saffron Revolution. The man kept looking over his shoulder and literally began talking about the weather whenever a passerby came withing earshot. When we were alone, he spoke of government repression, improving education in the country, and taking up arms, bows and arrows, if necessary against government soldiers.
  • While exploring the caves surrounding Hpa-An, I learned that the area I was driving through was opened to tourists only recently because of fighting between the Burmese army and the KNLA. In fact, in the days before my arrival, there had been a bombing and a sniper attack in Hpa-An itself.
  • Countless other short conversations covered endless bureaucratic hassles, fear, and resignation. I hardly knew what to say when one man asked me when the Americans were going to come to save them.

It was my interactions with the people that made me fall in love with the country. I was, and continue to be, incredibly inspired by the ability of people to maintain such open hearts in the face of brutal repression. Between my first two trips, I started devoured books about Burma’s history, culture, and political situation. I met with activists here in the U.S. I began to get a picture Burma in my mind. I saw Burma as a case of the weak being exploited by the strong and decided to commit myself to continuing my education while trying to do something to help.

By the time my trips to the region had finished, my perceptions had changed dramatically. As with most things, the situation in Burma was not as simple as it first appeared.

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