Burma isn’t exactly the country on everyone’s hit list for a trip to South East Asia. It’s the wild, menacing space on the map next to Thailand, the country where Rambo scored his last kill and where ‘Gap Yah’ guy wound up in jail. It’s a nightmarish realisation of Orwell’s 1984 – a land lost in time where corrupt dictators move the capital on the whims of soothsayers whilst jailing journalists and beating monks. It’s a nation better known for its human rights abuses than its tourist attractions, notorious for being an integral part of the ‘Golden Triangle’ drug trafficking route and reviled for shamelessly stealing humanitarian aid when Cyclone Nargis ravaged the populace in 2008.
Compared to neighbouring Thailand, Burma sees few tourists. The country has no free press and little news crosses the border. Opposition leader Aung Saan Suu Kyi, the country’s ‘First Lady’, has been under house arrest since the fraudulent elections of the 1990s that followed the bloody protests of 1988. In 2007 the world was rocked by scenes of Burmese troops beating and shooting peaceful monks and protesters. Not a great advertisement to the outside world, with Aung Saan Suu Kyi herself promoting a tourism boycott.
Last April however, I found myself on a flight to Rangoon (recently renamed Yangon), Burma’s biggest city. Intrigued by a battered copy of Lonely Planet’s Burma (Myanmar) travel guide I had found on Khao San Road in Bangkok when overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists and ranks of harassing tuk-tuks, I decided to head off the beaten track. I wanted to see this lost land for myself, for good or for bad and to meet its people, those who had protested, and those who were oppressed and hear their side of the story, not their governments.
Arriving at my guest house in Rangoon I was met by a warm, smiling family. The kids laughed and ran over as I clambered off the battered door-less bus with a few other intrepid travellers, while the men on the streets beamed as they smoked huge ‘cheroot’ cigars, still wearing traditional longyis. Old colonial buildings stood tall next to dark, derelict flats whilst rickshaws carefully pedalled down pot-holed roads, and women fried samosas on the streets. Hidden in the shadows however, were the soldiers. Striding through the markets amidst the spicy aromas of Indian cooking and traditional curries were gun wielding policemen, many of whom you didn’t know were undercover. They stayed out of the way for the most part, but their presence was penetrating, piercing the seeming bliss of everyday life. In the safety of dark tea shops, the locals told me their country’s story, their hopes and their woes. I was staggered. The men would descend into hushed whispers and would never talk for more than a few minutes before moving on, but their intentions were undeniable. They were glad to see tourists, not just for the money, but because we were a symbol that the outside world hadn’t forgotten them. We had to tell the world what they said.
One of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences was the water festival celebrating Burmese New Year. The streets were filled with dancing, screaming and drinking locals. Even the soldiers joined in, trading M16s for super soakers and I found myself in the back of a truck, beer in one hand, water pistol in the other racing downtown through all the mayhem.
Arriving back in Bangkok, however, I learned that on that very day a bomb had exploded in Rangoon, killing and wounding innocent people who were trying to enjoy the New Year. With ‘elections’ approaching, the government blamed it on the opposition, impressing on me how all is not as it seems in Burma. You never quite know what is going on.
A trip to Burma isn’t to be taken lightly. Many areas are off limits and transport links can be precarious and dangerous. Then there is the moral question as to whether or not you are condoning an illegitimate regime by visiting the country. The tourism boycott here could be considered outdated; many locals want you there, as the government are less likely to commit abuses with foreigners present. At the same time you also contribute to their economy and, most importantly, give them hope and a voice. Of course, some of your cash may end up in the Generals’ hands, but by eating locally and using family guesthouses you can limit the money you contribute to the military junta. It will take time for Burma to see change, but with outside support it can happen. It is truly, as Kipling discovered, “quite unlike any land you know about.”