I was really conflicted about going to Burma at first. Its history of human rights abuse, the ongoing issues with the Rohinga, the lesser known issues with the ongoing civil war between different ethnic groups… there are plenty of reasons to avoid the nation- boycotting it so the government won’t profit from any travel that you do in the area. But there are also so many reasons to visit the country- the people (those who are really suffering, the victims of the government’s choices and rule) benefit from your patronage of their shops, townships and villages, and when you travel to Burma, you have the opportunity to learn about the nation, its tumultuous history and how it has changed, in new and different ways to the learning you can do outside its borders.
Of course, it is all too easy to avoid learning anything about Burmese history while in Burma, I was surprised (although, on reflection, not that surprised) at how hard it was to elicit any discussion from the Burmese people I met about what life used to be like under the junta- responses from text books and newspapers that I could read at home about things that were different now were the norm but I didn’t really get to discuss any serious issues while over there and if you travel there now, unless you try to go somewhere that is banned for tourists, you would have no idea that any human rights abuses were occurring. It would be very easy to go, walk through beautiful scenery, take selfies in front of temples, eat your weight in deep fried food, and remain ignorant of Burma’s past, present or tenuous future.
I personally don’t think this is solely a reason to avoid the country- every nation- my own included- has human rights abuse in its past (and sadly, often present) which it doesn’t talk about. I think one must decide for themselves if they are to travel to “problematic” countries, and how they will do so in the most ethical and mindful way possible, if that is a concern to them (which I think it should be for everyone).
To provide you with a decision re: travel to Burma is not the purpose of this blog, I just wanted to preface my recollections with the reasons behind my choice. At the end, I’ll briefly detail what I did to ensure I felt at peace with my travel decisions and some helpful blogs.
Burma was always with me when I was in Thailand- in the news, in my work, in my interactions with students, colleagues, friends… it loomed large in my mind and its presence dominated my thoughts.
I knew I was going to be travelling there after I finished my time at Free Bird Café and I was filled with anticipation. I kind of assumed it would just be like Thailand- Chiang Mai, but maybe a bit poorer. The place I came to know was not that of my assumptions- it was vastly foreign and eerily… old. Burma felt like the plane I had flown over in was actually a TARDIS- taking me just outside of my time stream into one which had some bits of the world I’m familiar with- thrust over with no explanation or infrastructure- but still retained the old world of Orwell, military rule, thanaka in equal measures.
When I exited the tiny Yangon airport, I was immediately taken aback by the fact that every taxi driver I saw was wearing the traditional longyi- old, young, some in uniform, some privately owned companies… this wasn’t unique to the airport. 90% of men I saw were in longyis… and looked incredible. Beau, one of the Belgians on my tour, worked in fashion and fell in love with the style- I have to admit, I did too. It was classy and comfortable- able to be easily customised, easy to move and work in, easy to dress up or down. It was fabulous. The women also wore traditional dress more often than not- beautifully tailored in silks, lotus, cotton longyis and strictly structured shirts which elongated and beautified their every move.
I arrived around lunch time and as usual when arriving in a new city, walked aimlessly around the streets. I knew the river was at one end of my street so I walked down it; pass tea shops, betel nut sellers, books strewn over tarps ranging in subject from fiction to high school chemistry text books, to cookbooks in both Myanmar and English. I may have picked up a Burmese cookbook on day one. I really do have a problem. As I passed through these streets, I never felt unsafe, but I never felt as welcome or comfortable as I do in Chiang Mai. The stench of colonialism is still present in Yangon and the tourists are few and far between. But the stares I received were not hostile, they were curious- if anything. The areas I was walking- first down back streets of the city and then along the river, a seemingly quasi residential spot, were hardly the glittering pagodas and well manicured parks that I was shown on my walking tour the next day. I was seeing the city proper, and I’m glad I did. From the rattan ball bouncing off the skilful feet of young and old men to the cool tamarind juice which quenched my thirst, even to the fight I witnessed as I walked past the ferry to the village not ten minutes away from the modern hustle and bustle I was living amongst- this was a different reality to that which I was used to.
That night, I went to a restaurant which was training young, disenfranchised Burmese people in hospitality skills. The food was delicious, the location hidden away up a flight of steep, steep stairs, and the waiters and waitresses were pleasant, eager to please and eager to learn.
The next day I went across on the ferry to the island village across the river. Again, the boat ride was a portal to the past and the poor- the poverty was shocking and striking when held up against the neighbouring city. The longyis were tattered and the faces were grubby, the children’s hands outstretched, the rickshaw riders and tuk tuk drivers more insistent and intrusive than I’ve ever experienced. I walked for a while along dusty streets before I realised this was one place that I not knowing where I was going was probably a bit of an issue. I hailed down a rickshaw rider (poor lad. Must lose rice fat) and he biked me around the island to the temples- a patch on the pagodas on the mainland- fishing communities, rice growing communities… conversing in few words “picture?”, “you buy?” before taking me back to the ferry where I hid from the touts and the fruit, pickle, betel nut sellers- staring out across the murky water which separated the two pieces of land in so many ways.
That night I met my Stray crew- 3 other travellers and our guide. The whole tour was Belgian and all extremely lovely. We shared BBQ together, trying new and strange things, and at the end of the night I walked back to my hotel with a bag of watermelon and a cup of sugarcane juice, content and excited for the 10 days to come.
Woops. Burma is not Thailand and one can probably not quite trust the watermelon that one sees on the street. Or maybe it was ice. Regardless, I did not feel well the next day and as we walked around one of the biggest pagodas in Burma, snapping photos of gold and jewels, each other and other people taking photos of us- locals amazed by our pale skin and the height of my Belgian companions, I began to feel worse and worse. Luckily, the afternoon was ours to do with what we will- I collapsed onto a bed- praying and messaging prayerful friends to ask them to pray I would feel better by that evening when we were travelling by bus on unknown roads.
By evening, the rest, prayer and lack of food paid off- I was feeling marginally better, ate a few mouthfuls of plain rice and some Burmese yakult, and slept through the evening despite the horrendous roads. Miracle.
That morning we arrived in time for our first Bagan sunrise and high tailed it to an ancient temple to watch the first rays of light break. Even though it was cloudy, it was magical and upon the crumbling chedi I reflected on how blessed and lucky I am to be here. The sky was changing fast and we drove to a few other temples- some more intact than others- before settling down for breakfast where I felt well enough for some toast. The rest of the day we spent scooting around on electronic scooters, checking out the dusty plains of Bagan- temples scattered everywhere and the history nerd in me just wanted to walk into their walls- see those who worshipped, lived amongst and revered these temples, before they were victims of time, war and tourism. I didn’t think about it at the time but if I went again, I’m not sure I would climb the chedis. While they were clearly meant to be climbed, originally, I’m not sure how damaging my footprints were.
I also went walking in this town- exploring the river and the roads- experiencing much more of Bagan than I was intending when I got completely lost with no data, wifi or physical map. It’s not that big of a city and I quickly found a vaguely familiar road, but I discovered a few more backstreets with their cows, goats and children washing in creeks, in amongst the temples I was used to. Sunset saw us back amongst the old temples and it was just as beautiful (more so…) than the rising sun.
Day 2 of Bagan was another sunrise, this time with balloons punctuating the unsure sky. The pictures speak for themselves and a thousand words were spawned in my poets mind, some spewing onto paper- or Instagram caption. We got bikes again, scooting to surrounding villages which specialised in different handicrafts. Our guide knew the families we visited well and set aside my worries of going to “model” villages. These people were craftsmen of the highest quality and it was a pleasure to see them work. After riding through the villages, I suggested a boat ride down the Irrewaddy which took us to another temple, a fisherman’s house on the banks, and allowed us to settle in for a spectacular sunrise over the water- different to anything we’d seen so far.
The next day was a long bus ride- hair raising for many reasons, the bends, break neck speeds, blind over taking, average food at the pit stop… but it took us to Kalaw where it was chilly, rural and most importantly, the starting point for our two day trek which would take us to Inle Lake- the thing I was most looking forward to on my journey through Old Burma…