Part II: Introduction and First Impressions
The opinions expressed here are wholly my own.
I just completed 28 days in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which is the longest visa that any foreigner can normally get. For purposes of this series I will use both names interchangeably. Visiting Burma is in many ways like stepping back 40 years into the past. For a month I mostly never had internet. When I did, the bandwidth was so squeezed that I was lucky to be able to check for email, especially since the government censors the internet and routinely denies access to many sites such as Facebook and Gmail.
I kept a detailed journal and shot thousands of photographs, some were probably not allowed, but ignorance can be bliss they say. So why is this post Part 2 you may ask? During my second day in Yangon (Rangoon), I “sneaked” into the fancy British Trader’s Hotel. There I ordered a beer which I nursed for three hours while I plied their lightening speed wifi. This was such a cultural and physical anomaly that I am still lost for an explanation. Anyway I did put together one photo essay of my visit to Shwedagon Paya, the only post I was able to publish during my four weeks in Myanmar. Now that I am in Thailand, the truth can be told.
Now that I am in Thailand, the truth can be told.
I love the people of Myanmar. The military regime is seriously f**ked up though. Their abuse of peoples’ human rights is legendary. They routinely confiscate large tracts of land turning them into military bases and forced-labor factories. This is nothing new, it has been going on for 40 years. Did I mention shooting monks in the streets just a few years ago? Actually, you will not see much military presence unless you really look as they keep it fairly invisible, especially in the big four tourist venues.
Another item that will probably not make your news feed and you certainly will hear nothing of it in official channels while in Burma is that currently there are three localized civil wars going on. Oh don’t worry, these areas are restricted to foreigners. Two months ago another blogger visited the Sitwe area and beaches on the Bay of Bengal. When I tried to book transportation there I was told that area was now closed, “fighting there.”
Okay, I don’t want to scare you but let’s be real. The people of Myanmar are some of the warmest most open-hearted people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. They crave contact with the west; they have been isolated for so long. The government wants you to come too, they really want the hard currency. Myanmar is changing, in some ways rapidly. The real change is much slower, yet most experts agree that it has reached a tipping point to where it will not go back but will slowly evolve into a more open society.
Yes, Myanmar is changing fast as well. People are much more willing to speak up about the past and their “feelings” about the army. Don’t push them on this! If they are at ease with you, they will start the topic. You can also help by being a responsible tourist or traveler. Try not to stay in the government owned hotels where all your money goes to the regime. Some will end up there no matter what you do but you can put some of those dollars where they can do some real good helping regular folks to improve their lives and those of their children. Go on a trek if you are physically able (I did two) and visit the hill tribes. Sleep in their homes and eat with them. You will never forget it and neither will they.
Personally, I can’t wait to revisit Myanmar. There is much of the country I would still like to see. Sadly, after writing this post, I may never be allowed another visa at some future date. However, I would disservice you by only writing a one -sided tourist piece.
I suggest you visit Myanmar and visit soon. Tourism is booming. Room rates have doubled in the last six months and reservations are difficult in the big four tourist areas (Yangon, Mandalay, Began and Lake Inle) where a construction boom is underway. It seems everybody wants to go to Myanmar. Of course visit these areas. But also get off the beaten path where you can get a room for $7 and hang out with the local families. Try some of the cheap and tasty street food too.
Over the next several episodes in this series, I will go into more detail of my wonderful adventures in Myanmar.
One more thing, I have never felt safer anywhere I have traveled. Myanmar is the only country where I have had no hesitation in leaving a daypack or laptop sitting at a table while I used the toilet. Folks are incredibly honest and devoutly Buddhist. I hope this aspect does not change in the future.